Columns

Gimme Shelter: The isolated man

I used to refer to him as the hermit, but these days, working from home now for two weeks and rarely going out, I think of him as “the isolated man.”

I met him, if you can call it that, many years ago, when I was in high school and scored a job as a bookstore clerk in the Old Town section of Chicago. I thought it would be a dream job, and it turned out that way, but it was actual work, not just getting paid to bookworm in the stacks.

The shop was a thriving business — those were the days — and I didn’t have much time to read. It was just Ben, the owner, and me, dealing with customers, working the cash register, taking deliveries of books off trucks, stacking shelves, packing up books to send and keeping the place clean.

One morning about two weeks after I started, in the hour before we opened, I was working a broom near the half-price bin, watching Ben wrapping a stack of books in thick brown paper and tying it with string. He was a German immigrant, a kind, jaunty middle-aged man.

“You’ll take this to the address,” he pointed at a label on the package. “You’ll ring the bell and he’ll buzz you in. Leave the books on the dining room table. You’ll take an envelope with the check. You might see him,” he smiled. “You might not.”

It was an old brownstone a few blocks away. I was buzzed in and walked into a hall with two wide rooms on either side. Classical music was playing. In one room stood a tall, slim man in a sports coat, slacks and a white shirt, motionless near a door beyond the dining room table, the farthest spot. I could just make out his face.

“Good morning,” he said, with the same accent as Ben. It’s the only time in my life I’ve felt a distant physical presence creating a barrier. It was clear, without saying, that I shouldn’t approach.

“There is the check,” he pointed at an envelope with a $10 bill on top.

As I was going down the steps, a guy was coming up with dry cleaning. “You the new book guy?” he asked.

“I suppose so. What’s his story? Is he sick?”

The guy pushed the buzzer, turned to me and with his free hand twirled a finger at his temple.

I handed Ben the check and he told me to keep the $10. When I looked at him without saying anything, he said, “He’s not crazy.” Which answered the first question I had, and his look told me not to ask another.

Every two weeks I’d make the delivery and it was always the same — standing down the room, the classical music playing, the check, my tip. Once I came up the stairs to hear a clear, low, sultry woman’s voice. Ah-ha! I thought.

But as I set the package on the table the woman began giving the call letters for the classical station. He wasn’t there that day, at his post on the far side of the room. It seemed now that every other time I went he would be absent.

One blazingly hot evening a few weeks later, Ben closed the shop and took me to eat in a little German restaurant. Over a cheeseburger (me) and pot roast (Ben), he told me the isolated man’s story.

His name was David, and Ben’s oldest friend since their boyhoods in Munich. In 1938, when they were 18, with the plague of Nazism infecting Germany, Ben’s father sent him to Chicago to a distant relative. He never saw any of his family again. “All murdered,” Ben said. “All.”

David was sent to the Netherlands, where a Jewish charity placed him at a camp in a farming community to train young people in agriculture before emigrating to Palestine.

“David, a farmer,” Ben said with a slow smile.

After the invasion of the low countries, the Germans rounded up all the Jews outside Amsterdam, and “just dumped them in the city. All had to register, wear the star, all of it.”

Through underground contacts, David and a girl named Judith, whom he had fallen in love with at the camp, found a suburban Dutch family who took them in and allowed them to live in their attic.

“Anne Frank,” I said.

“Not so bad, but they never went out, the neighbors never knew. Years without going out. When Holland was liberated, they were, too.”

They came to Chicago and found Ben (“Chicago was a small place after the war,” he smiled) and went to work in the garment district. In 10 years they had their own company.

“They were always together, never had children,” he said, over coffee and pie. “She was his life, he was hers.”

When Judith died a few years ago, something froze inside David, Ben said. He retired, saw friends, but “he wasn’t there, really. And one day he went home and never came back out.”

Ben saw him once a month, when they would share a meal in the townhouse. “He’s become quite the cook. He reads. Listens to music.”

But he saw no one else, wouldn’t go out the door, and insisted on keeping a literal distance from everyone.

Outside on the still steaming streets, as he walked me to the El, Ben said, “David told me once that, without Judith, he was afraid to go out. When they were in that attic they lived in a safe place and outside was where they would be found, and killed. Now, staying alone inside, seeing no one, nothing can get him, he has her again, and they are safe together with no one else.”