We could hear the man yelling while we were in the elevator riding up from the first floor. He was loud and mad, fierce. We stopped at the second floor, my husband and I, and, as it works with old elevators in old buildings, we hung there, suspended, fearing that we were stuck.
It was a valid worry. The building was run down, the wallpaper on the first floor in tatters, the plastic baseboard peeling away from the wood. The elevator button was cloudy and the inside of the elevator grimy like it hadn’t seen a mop in at last ten years. But the elevator was the only way up. We couldn’t find the stairs.
So, we got on and pushed the button to the second floor. Now we were waiting for the doors to open, worried that we would be walking right into the yelling.
We got off the elevator in a room, instead of the hallway we were expecting. A woman was shouting, “You can’t fucking talk to me like that! I’m writing your ass up!” A man walked in front of us, an older guy with white hair and a white goatee, he murmured, “I’m leaving.” Another man across the room slammed his coffee cup on a table while two or three other people watched the TV bolted to the wall at the far end of the room.
I heard just part of that, mostly because I am hard of hearing but also because it was the smell that caught me, the smell of people who had been homeless the day before, the smell they have before they get clean clothes, the smell from the blankets in their rooms, and the smell from toilets used in a place where the windows are never opened. The smell was real. I could touch it. It was heavy and thick, smoky.
While I could feel the smell all around me, the yelling had melted together into noise. This happens a lot to me, when there is too much being said, the words are like an orchestra tuning up, no melody to follow, only chaos, notes and plucks flying about. Nothing is discernible. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. There are a lot of things I don’t hear.
We were carrying bags of donations. I’d gotten an email that the place was in need, so I asked my husband to come with me to make a delivery like others we had made through the years. Usually, people have big smiles when they see the bags, but not this time.
“Are you Barbara?” I asked the woman who had been shouting.
“How do you know my name?” she snapped. I wondered why she wondered, her puzzlement seemed odd and accusatory like I had come to the wrong place, invaded her privacy. I told her that her supervisor had requested supplies and to ask for Barbara when I got there. After I told her this, she froze, looking startled and unsettled in the hardest way. But because I hadn’t heard exactly what she’d yelled, I had no idea why she was so shaken. After a while, after I’d looked up her supervisor’s email on my phone and showed it to her, she shook my hand and thanked me. She even smiled.
“Do you want a donation receipt?” she asked. We shook our heads no and headed to the elevator to go back to the ragged first floor and out the clouded over glass doors to our truck.
“You didn’t hear what all she was yelling, did you?” My husband started to back the truck out of the circle driveway, veering too far left and going into a snow drift.
“Go right,” I told him, but he didn’t listen, riding up high on the snow, eventually curling back into the street. “No, not really.”
He repeated all he had heard, word for word. It was awful. It made me glad, in that moment, to be hearing impaired, protected. I don’t have to hear all the anger in the world all the time. But part of me, a small part, a smaller part than usual, said I should complain. After all, I know the people who run the program. I could message them that moment. I could tell them their staff person was yelling at a resident, threatening him, swearing at him. It was wrong, deeply wrong.
But it would have to be wrong without me. I just wanted to bring the supplies and be done. Just do that one thing and not all the things. And so, we drove away and talked about how we hoped we didn’t have to go back there for a long while. It seemed a shame to let it all go but I did, as if it didn’t concern me, as if I hadn’t heard a thing.