Volunteers of America

by

12/05/2001

church st & white st, new york, ny 10013

Neighborhood: Tribeca

My buzzer rang. It was 4:30 in the afternoon on one of those eerie perfect blue sky 60 degree days–eerie partly because it was late January, and partly because in my neighborhood, Tribeca, those kind of days, for obvious reasons, never fail to trigger a deep foreboding.

“Who is it?” I yelled into the intercom. I wasn’t expecting anyone.

“The Red Cross,” came the reply, “We’re here to help you.”

“It’s ok,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“We want to help you,” came the voice.

“Really, it’s ok. I’m fine.”

“We want to help you,” came the sing-song refrain. This went on for a few more rounds and then they said, “Why don’t you come down and talk to us?”

Half-thinking it was a hoax, half-thinking it would be easier to get rid of them in person, I went down.

Two women stood in the shabby lobby of my building, a crumbling structure largely inhabited by veteran tenants paying rents so low it’s a miracle none of us have been lynched. The women had small suitcases on wheels and bore an uncanny resemblance to ‘The Golden Girls.’ Now I was certain it was a hoax. But there were official-looking Red Cross badges pasted across their chests. Greeting me with other-worldly smiles, they continued to chant, Moonie-like, “We can help you.”

I continued to protest. That is, until one of them uttered the magic phrase, “We want to give you money.”

Instantly, my avaricious instincts kicked in, accelerating at an alarmingly rapid pace, soon surpassing my survivors guilt, liberal guilt, or whatever garden variety guilt you want to call it. I invited them upstairs. I figured if it was a hoax and they were indeed hardened criminals, there was nothing to steal anyway.

Hustling them as fast as possible through the loft (filled with the kind of art Pre-Saint Giuliani would have had me incarcerated for) we sat down in the less-offensive living room. I explained that I had not suffered any material or financial damage, I was self-employed and worked mostly at home, my phone and electricity had held up, I’d hadn’t had to relocate, and that yes, while there were psychological side effects, who hadn’t suffered those? What about those people who have the real problems?

Unfazed, they explained that I was owed three months of rent. My resolve crumpled further. They began filling in forms. I reiterated (albeit half-heartedly) that I’d been lucky, I was fine. They interrupted, “You’re also owed a three months food and transportation allowance.” The avaricious instincts returned unbidden. We began chatting amiably.

“We’ve been all over the neighborhood,” they told me.

“To places like N. Moore St.?” I asked, moral indignation rising. I visualized the neighborhood Millionaire’s Row one street away where deluxe coop-lofts have been sprouting like wildflowers for the last five years.

“Oh yes,” they said, with the beatific smiles. “Every apartment below Canal St.”

“You’re giving three months rent or maintenance to people who pay $10,000 dollars a month?”

Yes, they said, adding, you can also be reimbursed for three months of utilities. “Do you have any receipts?”

Moral indignation fade out, craven instincts fade in.

Twenty minutes later, mission accomplished, the women stood up to leave, raving about about how much they loved NY and all the interesting wonderful New Yorkers they’d met, even commenting on the wonderful art on my walls.

Since then, I’ve run into incredulous neighbors, all of whom confessed to cashing in, all of whom had their story. Stories like mine, and more legitimate ones too, such as the man upstairs who runs his business from home and had lost thousands of dollars, to the woman down the street who had lost her primary income (months of rent from fleeing tenants). Or, more atypically, the woman who had already donated money to the Red Cross and was going to donate her windfall back to another cause.

As for me, I had settled in for a long waiting period. The other day, a check arrived.

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