Chapter one (cont’d)
[Building 22 had been built in 1900 and its first elevator was installed in 1925 then reinstalled in 1955 with a (zibbit*) . In 19_5 when the Landlord first acquired the building as a young man new in the country, he installed a (zibbit*) elevator upgrades at great personal expense. But when the inspectors saw this elevator in January,1989 they didn’t like it at all. In fact, they condemned his entire operation at once and ordered a complete upgrade. They insisted he install what amounted to a brand new elevator.]
The Landlord balked. He didn’t tell the Inspectors this. Instead he decided to petition the City and get a waiver to redesignate Building 22 as strictly for a non-disabled population.
The petition claimed that he was unable to afford the construction of new elevator without increasing the rent on his tenants and unless he tripled their present rents, he could not afford them. But non-disabled tenants not only could afford the higher rents he needed, they would not need an elevator! Voila, the problem would now be solved via the stroke of a city official’s pen.
It might have happened that way, even in America, in 1989. The City is not a terribly corrupt place, but money has its perks and certainly it has a voice in places of power, as it does everywhere on earth. So had the Landlord decided to use his considerable power and money to back his petition, either somewhat legally or in a less than legal fashion, it is possible that he might have had his way. We have no way of knowing what might have happened. We only know what did happen. Which was that Silent Stashu Weissmann, Building 22, apartment3A, got wind of this plot and in his outrage shed his silence like a cloud releasing a torrent. He informed Bryony, the fourth floor tenant with cerebral palsy who had been immured in her apartment for weeks, dependent as she was upon an electric wheel chair and thus on the elevator to get her downstairs. Bryony was one of the few tenants who despite her disability had a regular job outside the building and needed to get to work on a regular basis. If she lost more than a month’s worth of time due to the lack of an elevator, she was threatened with the loss of her job, a job she cherished, even if at 20 she had held it for only a couple of years.
Worse, there was the possibility that without the income from her job, she might not be able to pay her rent and could be evicted, This, she observed to Stashu, was the height of twisted. Especially since it was the Landlord’s fault entirely that she was unable to get to her job.
“Ve do something about that,” promised Stashu. “If you cannot go vork, ve get vork come to you.”
“Yeah sure, that’s really likely.” Bryony shook her head.
Stashu agreed that since the War – nothing could be compared to Poland in WWII—but he hadn’t faced a worse situation since then, that this one beggared belief. Twisted was putting it mildly. The Landlord’s behavior was an abomination. And that meant a lot, coming from him.
Bryony nodded in appreciation.
“Ve write a letter, but not just any letter. A Letter to the Editor of the newspaper. They print, and people read and come to assist us. A new elevator, it will be grant us and they build it just for you. Trust me.”
Bryony had no reason to believe any of this, but she liked the idea of being asked only to trust this not unattractive older man with a Polish accent who said he wanted to write a letter to the newspaper in order to get her an elevator.
“Okay, let’s do it. We’ll write a letter. But what do we say? You talk it out loud and I’ll type.”
Stashu formerly and formally known as Stanley Weissmann had been 15 when Bergen Belsen was liberated after WWII. Though he had lost much of his extended family during the war, he himself had never been a camp resident. A student at boarding school in the late 1930s, he had been lucky enough to be hidden by a family of intellectuals who took him in and, when it was safe enough, fled with him first to France and then to the United States in 1939. Nevertheless, Stashu had seen plenty of brutality and read obsessively during his years in relative safety. Then the news and newsreels about Bergen Belsen came out. He absorbed everything he could about the camps and the treatment of the prisoners there. He could not learn enough, he felt, and such learning was not just of facts but was in its very nature penitential. He, Stashu, was not among the dead. He should have been. Therefore it behooved him to learn all that he could, all that there was to learn, and to never fail to pass on what he knew so that the world would never forget what happened. He did this so that the millions of people, killed during those years would forgive him, Stashu Weissmann, for surviving.
The western New England City was not a big place, only about 15,000 people from the inner core to the outlying suburbs, and if the truth were told it was insular, even parochial. Many of the people who lived there were at least third generation Americans and a large percentage traced their roots back to the 1800s. By the 1980s it is at least likely that many could have gone their entire lives without meeting a single WWII survivor from Poland. Most would never have known such survivors resided in their City but for the reporter who wanted to tell Stanley Weissmann’s story. Stashu at first refused, remonstrating that he had no particular story to tell. He had lived in Poland during the war, had managed to escape, and now he studied the Camps so as to expiate his guilt. And so he could tell the world about them, and the world could learn and would never forget. His personal story was nothing; the only story worth telling was that of the camps… So, okay, said the youngish reporter with a little laugh, tell me about the camps then. I want to hear those stories.
And so he had talked, and talked at great length about the concentration camps. He told her about how when American soldiers liberated Bergen Belsen, and found living skeletons wandering the grounds, dazed and barely human, they showered them with Hershey bars to assuage their hunger, knowing nothing about refeeding syndrome. To the soldiers’ horror, within hours many of these survivors lay either dead or writhing in agony near death, killed by the very chocolate that was supposed to save them. He spoke about the Warsaw Ghetto, about the bruising poverty and brutality of everyday life inside, and about the Uprising, the heroism and the ultimate crushing defeat. He talked and talked and when he was through, he thought the reporter would ask him a little about his own life, but instead she only thanked him for his time and left.
When the story came out in the paper, Stashu was horrified to read that the title of the piece made him out to be himself a survivor of Bergen Belsen. Not only that but in every instance, the stories that he told about what others had endured in the camps and ghetto, the reporter simply attributed to his intimate personal experience. He felt like the scum on a pond. What had he said to her that she should have assumed he lived through all that he talked about? Surely he never said anything that would lead her to believe what she wrote!
That newspapers get the story wrong surely happens more often than people know. And paper do not print corrections as often as they ought to. If they did, it seems likely that papers would be often more corrections than news. Whatever is the case, as the story had it, Stashu miraculously survived both the Warsaw Uprising and Bergen Belsen, which made him much more of a heroic survivor than he was. But try as he might, nothing Stanley Weissmann did could get the paper to print a retraction. They insisted that it was the spirit of the piece that was important, not the actual facts. Besides, Stanley was a survivor, was he not? If he did not survive the real Bergen Belsen, well, he spoke eloquently for the few souls who did, and that was a terrific public service, so he should just be quiet about it and leave them alone.
Stashu didn’t see it that way. He saw only that the reporter had told a lie, had made it seem as if Stashu himself had lied about his life, aggrandizing himself in a most improper way. They kept on saying that it didn’t make him bigger, not at all, Before this, nobody even knew who Stashu Weissmann was. So how could they think anything about him at all? He was a nobody. A NOBODY! the man at the paper had actually screamed at him after Stashu explained the truth of the matter and he’d finally – finally—understood that Stanley was not even the “Stanley” their reporter had written about, the apparent saint of the Warsaw ghetto. If Stashu was not that humble amazing human being, a phoenix risen from the ashes living among them in their City, then why not scream at him like a common irritant, a bug, a miscreant that had the temerity to tell the City newspaper-of-note to change what it had written?
“We stand by our reporters!” insisted the nameless man on the other end of the phone at the newspaper, “Furthermore, I am not going to stand here and listen to someone who does not even speak English properly tell me how to run a newspaper. When you have had a proper high school education and go to college and get a graduate degree in English literature, then maybe you can criticize, but not before then. Good day!” Then the phone went dead.
Stashu felt like a fraud, even though he had never intended to deceive the reporter and knew she must have known the truth even as she deliberately distorted the story for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the damage was done and the damage to Stanley was incalculable.
After the story came out, people tried to find out where Stanley lived. The newspaper refused to reveal his whereabouts, saying that the poor man wanted only his privacy, that he had been through too much and would grant no other interviews. But the City was relentless in its drive to cover their not so homegrown hero with accolades and awards. They proposed naming a city park the Stanley Weissmann Heroic Parkland and in an effort to teach youngsters about WWII and about concentration camps, they named a program in such studies in their high school curriculum after him as well. Some of this could have softened the terrible sting of the article, having as it did, some “good blow by” as Giorgio, the former auto mechanic disabled with rheumatoid arthritis and ADHD and OCD in 3A put it.
But to Stashu it was all too little too late. He could barely leave his apartment by this time. Most of the other tenants in Building 22 did not know of the article, had not read the paper and did not know anything about Stashu’s history, either the truth or the fiction. They knew only that the gentleman in Building 22, Third floor, Apartment A had stopped coming out to feed the birds under the spindly maple trees in front of their building. They knew that he was seen rarely and at night, in dark hat and coat, leaving surreptitiously as if in disguise. The nice-looking older man who had once been as free with his bread crumbs as with ascerbic remarks, had now become taciturn. Worse, when spoken to, he responded only in Polish. His neighbors withdrew from him, not understanding. And Stashu retreated into what was left to him: silence.
It was Stashu’s letter to the editor that Premjit saw the morning after in the paper. Sitting with a cup of coffee at the breakfast table alone he read it casually the first time, not quite getting what it was all about. Then he read it again having taken in the signatures. Finally, trembling, he read it a third time, very slowly, registering the weight of each word, his face growing warm. When he was done, he took a pair of scissors and snipped the letter free from the larger sheet of newsprint and slipped the clipping into his pocket. Then he rose, ready to leave. He hesitated. Suddenly he had no wish to do whatever he had planned for the day. The luncheon, the games, the reading or planned events, they all seemed vapid and of little interest. He sat back down.
Taking out the clipping, he read it a fourth time., This time he nodded vigorously like a man charged with a mission. Indeed, Premjit was charged and changed. From this moment on, Building 22 would become his – his what? Call it a mission if you will. Call it his purpose in life. Call Building 22 whatever it is that gives a life meaning and direction. Whatever you call it, Building 22 and all its twelve tenants from that moment on, with and without an elevator, became the central focus of Premjit’s life.
When he rose again from the breakfast table, Prem had scarcely touched his meal, but he was filled nevertheless, filled with nourishing things like purpose and determination and a burning drive to help others. He was also filled with rage and bitterness, both of which eat at the soul. This created a stew of emotions that does not serve anyone completely well but in the young is especially problematic. Sometimes rage motivates young people to greatness. Certainly, they feel it does. At least it is true that they are prone to great wraths and to great deeds and who is to say that the latter can be accomplished without the former. It can only be said in Prem’s case that his enormous resentment towards and anger with his father, with regard to his treatment of the Tenants in Building 22, felt to him both motivating and liberating. Before he read Stashu’s and Bryony’s letter, Prem had felt at odds with his life, at odds with any future his father presented him. He hadn’t felt equal to any professional career, not even one that he could have rebelled into, say that of an actor (how his father would have detested that!) or an architect, had he any talent in those directions. But he had felt no strong negative emotions either. Since childhood his inclination had been to follow, well, the inclines and declinations that his life simply rolled into by chance, as if into a groove in the pavement or a runnel down the slope of a hill. His philosophy was that life should find the path of least resistance, for such was its proper path.
Up to the age of 23, until 1989, this “do nothing to resist life” policy had served him well, since he had had a successful school life and was poised on the cusp of adulthood with everything he needed for success there as well. But beneath the smooth exterior, Prem was discontented and in emotional disarray ever since college graduation in the Big City. He had come home to live in his childhood home with his father until he figured out what to do with his life but he was beginning to think the move had been a terrible mistake. The Landlord was not a bad father. In fact, he had been patient and even forbearing on the subject of Prem’s future, assuring Premjit that he himself had gone through similar struggles upon reaching the shores of this great country, yes even he, who arrived with family money and the burden of a green card and went straight to work acquiring Building 22. Finding life’s direction was easier in the old country, his father said. One’s family often directed where one worked and what one did and whom one married and where one lived. In India your surname could determine your professional status and of course there was the huge question of caste, which was not supposed to affect people these days to the same degree, but you knew it still did. So life was in that sense easier back in India, easier to figure out who you were at any rate, if sometimes harder to adjust to if you found yourself in a bad fit.
Prem knew this was supposed to be of comfort, but none of it reassured him. He could not see himself fitting into a Landlord’s shoes at his age. He shuddered to think of ever fitting them. It was far too much responsibility and worse than that, the daily ins and outs of managing real estate simply bored him. He couldn’t imagine anything more uninteresting! He watched his father poring over the papers and tables that he used to manage his holdings, and felt actual pity for the emptiness of his life. How little there was to hold an intellect in all those papers! Prem wanted something more. But what? What could he do that would stay rich and juicy through a lifetime and yet still yield an income his father would be proud of? What would pay, have professional standing and status and yet remain intellectually satisfying? No matter what he thought about, no matter what career he considered, nothing fit completely, nothing that is that Prem was both capable of, inclined towards, and prepared to do.
Like many educated and intelligent young men rootless and without a clear career goal one year out of university, he convinced himself he wanted to become a doctor. He looked into how to go to medical school, become an anesthesiologist. He had the MCAT applications stashed in his bookbag and summer school curricula for premed courses, too, when Stashu and Bryony’s letter suckered itself to his consciousness like a relentless hagfish and wouldn’t let go.
*Zibbit is the NanoWriMo word for “place holder” when you cannot do the research or cannot find the words for a concept and just write without them…you can do the proper writing later…