Inside the Atlantic City Convention Center, home away from home for hurricane Sandy survivors in NJ, a week after the disaster families were still trickling in...a Father with a missing shoe, a Mother with dried tear tracks on a dirty cheek. Some were hauling garbage bags. All were wearing water marked clothes.
After giving names and former addresses to the uniform city police manning the reception desk, clients were wanded-in. Their eyes squinted in the dim lights scanning the enormity of the concrete floor, their ears accosted by the drone of the backup generator as it growled out a one-note concert behind the thirty foot tall concrete wall.
Around 8:30 in the evening a steady flow of guests scuffled over the the Red Cross table for warm bedding and a hot meal. Some putting on a brave face, but others were unable to control emotions of concern and dread.
Working the four to midnight shift in the second week of rotation as a shelter volunteer, one of thirty Red Cross assigned to this facility, I was way past tears and fast approaching emotional and physical exhaustion. The staff services manager had suggested a day off, but so far I just couldn't, the need was too great.
Then I saw Barbara...stooped a bit, a woman in her mid seventies, gray bun tightly pulled back and glasses slightly bent. She was moving slowly like a shadow across a forlorn planet floor. She didn't look quite the same as everyone else. She had a presence about her...a posture of elegance. Even at first glance she looked like a proud person, a strong person...maybe a product of the storm or maybe the street. She still had faith and purpose to her steps.
I was on my feet. As the self-assigned shelter greeter, cot assembler and hand-holder, I went over to to say hello. There were nearly 400 hundred clients in the shelter on this night and I had personally met them all, so I was pretty sure what the conversation was going to be like. But I was wrong. I didn't know Barbara.
As I walked over to her I could see her eyes looking around trying to adjust lights and find the source of the generator buzzing. She looked a little bit confused. I said “I don't know your name but you came to the right place if you're looking for a dance. Listen, the second set is about to start.”
We both stopped looking up and listened. She didn't miss a beat, perfectly in the groove with the absurdity of our situation. She looked at me in my Red Cross vest and badge and said, “It's Barbara and are if you're asking for a dance? Well... I just happen to be free, but I'm not sure you can keep up with me.” She offered her gloved hand and said in a stage whisper, “if...you don't step on my bunion I'll give you a few turns.”
She dropped her package where she was standing and struck a let's-dance pose. I took her hand and off we went. The dance was a combination of a Texas two step and promenade your partner, me following her and staying off her toes. We danced our way right up the forty foot center island, drawing more than a few glances and even some applause.
We got to where her cot would be and she said, “You're a northern boy aren't you.” I nodded grinning. “We don't dance like that down here, but don't get me wrong you're not half bad... in a storm.” And she winked and smiled.
So we were introduced and over the next several days we were engaged in a weird reversal of roles. I sat down next to her cot several times and we even ate dinner in the shelter dinning area, nothing more than a collection of folding tables and chair arranged in a corral. As she talked she feed me bits and pieces of a patchwork life alone at times, living from place to place. She would often look up and talk about the “glue” she said said kept her going...in times like these.
She asked me what kept me together and why I was there. I gave her some pablum that even I didn't believe and remember her saying, “Before you dance you need to hear the music and don't look down at your feet. Look up. Let Him see you smiling.”
Days passed and eventually the shelter closed. Barbara was one of the lucky ones. She found a room at the Super 8 Motel while her place, another motel, could be rebuilt. The day came for her to leave and when I walked her to the exit door, she said “Thanks for the dance and thanks for helping me.” I said was about to say the exact same thing to her, but instead I muttered “Thanks for the lesson.”
She winked again and finished the last two dance steps on the convention loading dock by herself.
Skip Lockwood, Red Cross Volunteer, Red Sox Relief Pitcher 1980