The Quarantine Blog VI: April, 30, 2020

I needed cat food the other day, which took me out to the Rambla for the first time in at least a week. It is now wearing its leafy arches, but is totally silent except for bird song, and almost totally empty, the shops on the margins shuttered unless they are a pharmacy or tabac. The waves of the pavement stretch away under the trees like a lost, wind-ruffled stream. Even pigeons seem fewer.
Pigeons and various sectors of the population dependent on others for sustenance are in difficulty. Someone bought baguettes and stuffed them into the holes of the monument for Margarita Xirgu, transforming it into a sort of avian buffet.
The Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s nuns with whom I worked for two months in Calcutta, Kolkata, at her hospice for the dying destitute next to the Kalighat Temple, are feeding long lines at the back of Sant Augusti. But there are those who either do not chose to frequent the Sisters or perhaps are not welcomed by them. The Sisters are strict about behavior, talking and prayers. You pray before your meal or you don’t eat. Mumbling, however, is accepted. My two months at Nirmal Hriday did not elevate me to a Mother Teresa enthusiast.
There is a black and white couple that have been camping out and looking desperate in tiny Dr. Fleming Park. He is a black man going grey; she is white and totally out of her mind. While he begs in front of the Dia supermarket on Carme she sits up under a quilt roaring in a hoarse voice in English, American English I believe, about unidentified “bastards” and “assholes”. She retains a faded prettiness along with blond curls going grey. I bought them some cheese and ham. When I did it this week again, she was sipping a beer, looking pleased with life and lucid enough to thank me.
But there seem to be fewer street people than usual. I am supposing many have gone into shelters. What is on the street is exclusively male, decidedly rough, definitely drug and alcohol addicted and living on the salvage edge of the fabric of sanity likely to fray out into madness at any moment. When I walk through the open area behind the Boqueria I do not look at anyone.
Another group, thieves, must also be suffering since their source of income is no longer on the street. Pickpockets have no pockets available and with everyone standing a meter away from each other pickings must be extinct. Unfortunately what may have happened is that the normally nonviolent thieves have taken to violence. A friend walking home one night from shopping had a rope thrown over his head. He was garroted to unconsciousness, robbed of his phone and left. Luckily he survived. This is not the only case I have heard of. Everyone is trying to make a living, however precarious that may be for yourself or those who are your source of income.
I cut over to Universitat on Tallers, zigzagging through narrow streets where there was no one. The plaza before MACBA, my least favorite BCN museum, was silent, without the usual roar of skateboarders gliding at an unnerving pace over the pavement and leaping on and off platforms. Since there are a number of these platforms in the plaza this is a favorite place for practicing this maneuver. It leaves an interesting hiatus in the roar followed by a clunk as the skateboard lands again sometimes with and sometimes without its passenger. I wonder if there are statistics about the number of broken ankles achieved in front of MACBA. I was in an abandoned city, until I heard the traffic on Gran Via.
Once across Gran Via, however, I reentered that abandoned metropolis, silent now in a soft rain that slicked the pavement and pebbled with shiny droplets the parked cars lodged at the sidewalk edge still as chloroformed beetles in a display case. There was nothing particularly sad about these cars packed tightly into their block long cue but the stores, rain dribbling down their fronts, seemed pathetic castaways with their accordion gates looking permanent.
The store, Kiwoko, was new to me, a pet supermarket replete with every variety of food for gerbils to Great Danes and every source of amusement for that species span as well, from exercise wheels for the former to gargantuan rawhide bones for the later. The other customers, there were three, knew what they wanted and darted about loading up their baskets. I wandered in wonder at the infinite varieties of cat foods, cat beds, cat scratching posts, cat towers upholstered in a variety of plush and fake fur, selecting cans of tuna and chicken in a leisurely manner.
It says something about our society that our companion animals eat a plethora of hygienically prepared foods that children in desperate pockets of the world would gobble given the chance. I had a Vietnamese student who said to me once, “When I am reincarnated, I want to return as your cat.” I quite understand his point.
I am about to digress from Barcelona to Calcutta for no better reason than I can. I went to work at Mother Teresa’s, she was dead by that time, partly because having lived in the American culture where attitudes toward death are odd and artificial I thought a dose of reality might be good for me. A friend who had worked there a few years before told me all I had to do was walk into the hospice, pick up a rag and start to work. I would understand what to do by watching others. She suggested I bring boxes of latex gloves and any left over medicines I had.
The hospice is next door to the Kalighat Temple where each morning hundreds of goats have their throats cut as sacrifices to Kali until the gutters run with blood. Kali is usually portrayed in her fierce aspect as a blue or black woman with many arms who sticks out her tongue. She wears an opera length necklace of severed heads and sometimes a skirt of severed human arms. To the Western eye she is at the minimum disturbing and not someone you would be eager to trust, but ask any cab driver in Calcutta and he will tell you, “Kali is a good mother. Bring her a goat and ask her for what you need. She will give it to you.”
She is either sticking out her tongue or biting it in embarrassment because when her “husband” Shiva tried to calm her rage, she twisted in his grip and committed the appalling solecism of stepping on his chest.
This is the neighbor of the Christian hospice of Mother Teresa. Every morning I went to work there, six days a week, I found the contrast between the two religions as bracing as a dip in the Atlantic off the coast of Scotland.
On my first day I found, as my friend has told me, that all I had to do was walk in and work. Someone showed me where to lock up my things. I put a box of gloves I had bought on the counter, pulled on a pair, grabbed a rag and entered the women´s section– the house is divided into a male and a female section with the kitchen and laundry in between—where skeletal women of unknowable ages were lying on hard beds with plastic under the sheets stained and pooled with yellow diarrhea. Many could neither stand nor walk. Those who were capable of locomotion of any kind, including walking on their knees or hopping went down the center aisle on their own power to the bathing room. One woman walked in a squat; she could not straighten up but she was adamant and angry if offered assistance.
The nuns ran the kitchen and the laundry but the foreigners with a little assistance bathed the women, washed the nightgowns, sheets and blankets in home-made lye soap, wrang them out and carried them upstairs where they were hung out on the roof. From there one could look down on the Kali temple and the lively very un-Christian neighborhood.
Part of the Mother Teresa philosophy is that the hospice should be run at the level of a household in the neighborhood—no washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, modern devices or conveniences. No medicines or doctors to speak of either. A local doctor did turn up once a month. Sometimes, rarely, someone in Calcutta would donate medicine; therefore, the leftover, out of date medicines the foreigners brought were of use. With very rare exceptions the women were of subnormal intelligence due to lives of malnutrition.
It was a place to die in. The nuns received calls from people who noticed that the beggar on their corner was comatose or that someone was lying on the floor of Howrah Station unconscious. Volunteers went and picked these people up.
It was a severe place. The inmates were prayed over but not actively encouraged to become Christians since they understood nothing. There was one Christian patient. She said grace before each meal. The others had no idea what this was but knew you didn’t eat until it was over.
Death was constant, not every day, but every few days, someone would die. I spent time caring for a woman whose main symptom seemed to be infected bed sores which made her moan. She died of them as I sat by her feeling as useless as if I had been trying to cure her with chamomile tea and rice crispies.
Once while I was there two women recovered and left—they had been temporarily saved from malnutrition and starvation—but although they were joyous at leaving the hospice what was ahead of them but more starvation and malnutrition.
The atmosphere was grim, of that variety of Christianity, which in its earnestness seems incapable of imagining even small pleasures or a space in which laughter or beauty might breathe for a moment. Sorrow and sadomasochistic sainthood are its themes. I met the Mother Superior, a woman dedicated to Mother Teresa’s principals, without imagination, and rule bound.
Some years later I returned to Calcutta where I was joining a group of friends to do a trek in Sikkim. Arriving a day early I decided I would go over and do a day at Mother Teresa’s. The very air seemed different when I walked in. I was astonished to see in the arches above the women’s beds cages with birds singing and aquariums in which bright fish darted amount colored rocks.
There was a new Mother Superior. She asked me to help with changing the bandages of patient who had been severely burned when her nylon sari went up in flames as she bent over her cooking fire.
“Hold her hands and talk to her while we change her bandages,” the Mother told me. “She thinks foreigners are a sort of television.” I took the woman’s hands, looked into her dark brown eyes and said, ”Let me tell you if our places were exchanged, I would be screaming this place down to its foundations. You aren’t making a sound, not a moan. How do you do that? I couldn’t.”
When they had re-bandaged her, they asked her, to my amazement, what side she wanted to lie on—back, front, left, right. They didn’t approve of her choice but they put her on that side. I was amazed. The nuns under the earlier management, treated patients as objects, they were never asked anything, and if a patient protested, or cried out under treatment they were scolded.
Then the Mother told me that the woman was eating very little and was likely to die. Some one had donated some sweets—Indian sweets have a decibel level of sweetness that can only be heard by saccharine bats—which they wanted me to feed her since sugar was the one thing she ate. I spoon-fed her the entire hyper-sugar desert while she stared at me.
I asked the Mother Superior what happened to the women who never recovered enough to go out of the hospice but did not die. They are sent to an institution in the country she told me.
“We have tried to teach them things but their brains are so damaged by starvation and malnourishment that you cannot even teach them to peel garlic.”
I told her I thought the birds and fish were an exceptional idea. She became a little flustered and said defensively, “But we don’t take care of them or buy them. The foreigners buy them, feed them and clean the cages and aquariums.”
No Mother Teresa would not have approved of birds trilling in the hospice. But what a difference a thinking person can make in an institution.
To return to Barcelona the line for the Sisters of Charity soup kitchen at the side of Sant Augusti is now enormous, following the side of the church and then snaking in front of the church and spilling across the Plaza de Sant Augusti.
And to return to a Barcelonan convent, one morning this week I heard the rushing sound of debris hurtling down a chute. They are gutting the convent next door. My upstairs neighbor tells me the convent is being reorganized as a halfway house for abused women. Nuns will run it. However, I don’t suppose the nuns I knew will return. The gardening nun’s garden also went down the chute. But if she does return I am going to La Rambla and investing in a garden for her. I would love to do that.
The swifts have returned but they do not come to the back of my building. I think this is because the French pilot has turned his huge terrace into a sort of spa cum Coney Island. There are hammocks, canvas beach chairs, tables, a wadding pool, cushions, planters full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini. And he has ordered more things from Amazon. I don’t think the swifts approve.
And the court of the Hospital is now open. At the moment the homeless have not moved in so that it is a quiet, enchanting place to walk through smelling the single white roses and looking up at the last of the oranges clinging to the branches overhead.

2 thoughts on “The Quarantine Blog VI: April, 30, 2020

  1. “zigzagging through narrow streets where there was no one”
    I learned my lesson the hard way – twice – not to do that!


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