It’s nearly dark in the cafeteria. Only a faint ring of lights on the ceiling illuminate the floor, which is packed with humanity.
Young families with children as young as 2 weeks old, homeless men with freshly-provided clothing, retirees sprawled on makeshift bedding on the floor, marooned Florida Atlantic University foreign students evacuated from their dorms, and a few well-off barrier-island residents who waited too long to make other arrangements.
We’re all here, more than 1,600 of us, roughing it as best we can at Boca Raton High School, which has been converted into a refuge of last resort from Hurricane Irma.
“It’s a good experience to see people are kind to each other and very supportive in a crisis,” says Tamar Wald, 71, who didn’t want to ride out the storm alone in her suburban Boca Raton apartment.
As it gets close to midnight, she’s sitting on a cafeteria stool reading her romance novel, “Beyond Summer,” by the dim overhead light and feeling better about humanity.
For some of the older people, the choice is to spend the night trying to sleep in one of the chairs in the school’s auditorium, or opt to lie down on the floor on the cafeteria or gym, meaning that it will take assistance from a stranger in order to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
And there’s always someone ready to help.
As we speak quietly, a woman in the room is experiencing a psychotic crisis. She begins shouting “Out! Out! Out!” to everybody in the cafeteria.
Her shouts are loud enough to wake the sleeping and to elicit a chorus of people trying to shush her. But she won’t be shushed.
Within moments, a small circle of young volunteers arrive to calm the woman who is claiming erroneously that some woman there is her sister.
Wald watches the scene and marvels at how gentle the young people are with the woman.
“This hasn’t been easy,” Wald says about her time in the shelter. “But it was worth the investment of the discomfort.”
The woman creating the disturbance will carry on for another several minutes, but eventually she will allow herself to be moved to an empty classroom for her night’s shelter, with two volunteers looking after her all night long.
Nobody gets turned out into the storm here.
And she won’t be the only one among us here who need special care, for one reason or another, to make it through the weekend.
I’m getting to know my neighbors, Herb and George. We’re sharing adjoining pieces of real estate on the floor of the cafeteria.
“You play gin rummy?” Herb says.
He’s wearing an NYPD sweat shirt and complaining about the excessive air conditioning in the cafeteria, where we are living this weekend.
Herb Silverstein, 85, and George Ehrnstein, 67, are buddies at Century Village, where they bonded over shooting pool.
“I got three daughters,” Herb said, “and two of them called and said, ‘Dad, go to a shelter.’”
Herb would have preferred to go to the shelter with his girlfriend, but they’re on the outs.
“He wrote her a poison-pen letter,” George explains. “He sent me to try to make up with her, but it didn’t work.”
So now George is tagging along with his lovelorn 85-year-old friend, sharing a blanket on the floor of the hurricane shelter and being a buddy.
But Herb’s still thinking about his girlfriend riding out the storm in Century Village.
“I love this woman,” Herb tells me. “We’ve broken up six or seven times already. Write it in the paper, ‘Carol Rosenberger, I made a big mistake.’ ”
OK, Carol Rosenberger: You’ve been informed.
The shelter population has been divided among three school locations: the cafeteria, the auditorium and the gym.
Each has its own character.
The cafeteria is cold and old.
The auditorium has the most comfortable seats, but hardly any floor space. If you look into the auditorium from the back of the room, it might appear that the room is mostly empty.
But when you walk down the aisles, you see all the people who are stretched out on the floor between the rows of seats.
Then there’s the gymnasium, a big, empty floor better suited for basketball games than for hardwood floor sleepovers.
That’s where “the kids” are, I am told as soon as I arrive.
And it’s true. There are about 75 students from FAU living there. Many of them are foreign students who were forced to leave their dorms on campus.
I drop in on a Monopoly game played by five guys sitting on the gym’s floor. They’re all FAU students. A South Korean, a Nigerian, a Pakistani and two brothers from Ukraine.
Many of the students decided that as long as they were here, they might as well volunteer.
They are people like Suraj Mehta, 21, who came to the U.S. three months ago from Mumbai, India, to get a master’s degree in business at FAU.
“I have family in Boynton Beach, but my friends are all here,” he says.
When I spoke to Mehta, it was 5 a.m. Sunday morning, and he hadn’t been to sleep yet that night, because there were elderly people who needed assistance getting to the bathroom.
“I had to take care of an old man who can’t walk and needed to clean his diapers,” Mehta said.
Does he regret getting involved? Not at all.
“It’s been a good opportunity to make friends,” he said.
Or to take existing relationships to a new level.
Take Judy Barrett and Leonora Turner. They slept together on the gym floor, sharing a mattress top.
Barrett’s daughter married Turner’s son. They’re mothers-in-law who are bonding in new ways never imagined.
“This is our first shelter,” Turner said.
“It’s lovely,” Barrett said.
It’s also not lovely. The food is institutional. There are no TVs. And it’s not all kumbaya among everybody here.
There are people who are perfectly willing to take more than their share of food. The bathrooms smell awful, and some people are more interested in establishing their territory than anything else.
It’s also heartbreaking. The infirmaries of aging bodies and damaged brains are on full display.
Somebody’s cellphone disappears. People are urged to keep a close eye on their belongings.
When I wake up Sunday morning, I pull out a small box of dry cereal that I brought with me.
As I eat it, a man walks up and tells me he hasn’t eaten in two weeks.
So I offer him my other box of cereal.
An hour later, I’m volunteering on the breakfast line. My job is to make sure that the shelter guests take only one of three breakfast entree offerings: either a piece of bread with egg and sausage on it; a strawberry Pop Tart with a cheese stick, or a small box of Frosted Flakes or Cinammon Chex cereal with milk and raisins.
The man who ate my cereal comes up to the line and takes all three entrees. I explain that he has to choose one of them so everybody else will have enough to eat.
“I haven’t eaten in two weeks,” he tells me.
“You ate an hour ago,” I tell him.
That’s what his nametag says. And you can’t make it into the front door of this hurricane shelter without getting a big smile from Vince Morse, 60, who makes prescription orthotics during better weather.
“I thought it would be important to be a helper, instead of the helped this time,” Morse says.
Morse stayed at a hurricane shelter last year during Hurricane Matthew.
So this time, Morse has fashioned a job for himself, being the equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter. He’s got a bag of goodies in one arm and a hand for anybody who needs help carrying their things inside.
And when it’s too nasty to stay outside, he wanders the shelter asking everybody how they’re doing.
“I would have just stayed home for this storm, but after last year I really wanted to volunteer,” he said.
It’s Saturday night.
My cafeteria neighbor, George, has big news.
“There’s a guy with a harmonica over there. He’s really good,” George says. “I heard him walking around and playing.”
He’s pointing to Don Klein, a 77-year-old guy from Boca Raton in camo pants.
What’s the chance that he’s a real harmonica player, a guy with a chromatic harmonica who plays in the style of Dutch virtuoso Toots Thielemans?
Fat chance. But I did bring my accordion with me. It has been sitting under my cot. Just in case. You never know.
So I walk up to Don. We compare music tastes, and within a few minutes, we’re doing a breezy, gypsy jazz version of “Autumn Leaves” right there in one corner of the cafeteria.
We’re playing softly, and I imagine that some people may be irked by the noise. But instead a crowd starts to gather.
We’re taking requests.
Then a guy named Carlos, who is staying in the gym, comes over with his acoustic guitar.
And before you know it, we have dancers and singers and a crowd ready for anything.
And then Carlos breaks out “La Bamba” and we’ve got a genuine musical event in the hurricane shelter.
Even the older people in their makeshift beds don’t complain.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” I say. “We’ll be here all night.”