By Nathania Zevi
Jeff and Ben have no money, but they live in a castle and love to joke about it.
“Would you like some caviar when you come back from hunting?” Jeff asks.
“I’d rather have a cup of tea with Danish biscuits with all this rain coming down on the mansion,” replies Ben.
The castle is the Bedford Atlantic Armory, at the corner of Bedford and Atlantic avenues in Crown Heights. It is a vast red brick building that once housed a jail and now serves as a shelter for some 350 homeless men from across the city, among them Jeff and Ben. People call it the “Grayskull Castle” after the cartoon “Masters of the Universe” which appeared on television in 1987.
But to walk around the “castle” is to see how inglorious it is. Police officers patrol the building to keep people from sleeping on the sidewalks. “There is a metal detector in the entrance because, one employee says, “people have this bad habit of inviting guests without permission.” There are signs everywhere warning against loitering.
“As if one would really enjoy loitering with this weather,” says Jeff as he rubs his hair. It is a cold and rainy day. He holds a cigarette, one of one too many that have stained his teeth and nails yellow.
For those lucky enough to have a bed in the shelter loitering is indeed the main activity.
“This place really became a jail after they decided to close the prison, take the bars out and put us here,” adds Ben. “There is no such difference between a penitentiary and this shelter.” He is 30 years old, tall and skinny. He has an ex-wife and a child living “someplace else.”
“I am the lord of the Atlantic Armory,” he says, mocking himself. “I work almost every day as a painter or for a construction company. Thank God I have good friends in here otherwise I would be robbed every day while I am at work.” Every morning the shelter’s residents put on their cleanest clothes before going outside and looking for what work they can find, explains another man living in the Armory.
In the meantime another man is sleeping in the entrance hall of the shelter. “Man you gotta wake up,” says a police officer. “You got a fucking bed upstairs. And you stink.”