Heidi Schreck on Grand Concourse
When I was in middle school, a family friend—I’ll call him Mr. Hornby—asked my parents if he could borrow a thousand dollars. Mr. Hornby had divorced his wife and lost his job and he needed the money to get his car fixed. A thousand bucks was a lot to us—this was the 1980s and my parents were public school teachers saving to send two kids to college—but they scraped it together and gave it to Mr. Hornby, who was genuinely grateful. Then Mr. Hornby got in his Buick, which was not actually broken, and drove eleven hundred miles from our little town in Washington state to Las Vegas, where he lost the money at a blackjack table.
It was an agonizing night around the dinner table. My parents bickered about how they were going to pay the mortgage and whose stupid idea had it been to loan Mr. Hornby money in the first place. I got the same tight feeling in my stomach that afflicts me to this day when money is discussed in serious tones. I was young enough to believe that our family was doomed. And yet, later that evening when Mr. Hornby called to ask my parents for $500 more so he could drive home from Las Vegas, there was no discussion. My parents drove down to the Western Union and wired it to him.
And though I was angry with Mr. Hornby for running away with “my” money, I was also secretly thrilled by my parents’ reckless generosity. It made the world feel just a tiny bit gentler. Plus, Mr. Hornby did come home, and even though he never paid my parents back, I made it to college anyway, where I learned about the great Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who said: “The gospel has taken away our right forever to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
I am not a Catholic. I am a Presbyterian-raised agnostic, but discovering Dorothy Day was a watershed moment for me and led me to study (and revere) a number of other great Catholic women, among them Flannery O’Connor, Hildegard von Bingen, Sister Mary Corita Kent, and Juliana of Norwich. This play owes a debt to all of these women, and the character of Shelley—a progressive nun in the spirit of the Nuns on the Bus—has, in many ways, modeled her life after Day’s.
Grand Concourse is set in a soup kitchen in part because of Day, who started the Catholic Worker, and also in homage to my parents, who ran a home for displaced kids and devoted their lives to service in both big and small ways. Having worked in soup kitchens and for social justice organizations both in my hometown and here in the city, I was interested in writing about the provisional families that spring up in places where people gather explicitly to care for one another—to help and to seek help. There is a great deal of affection and humor and... well, love in these situations, which also means that so much can go horribly wrong. Emma, Oscar, Frog, and Shelley become a weird little family during the course of this play, and, like any real family, they have the power to both heal and harm one another.
The problem of forgiveness was also on my mind as the play started to take shape—or at least my problem with forgiveness. I realized that I wasn’t sure I understood it, at least not in a practical, real-life way. I respect it as a concept and have certainly been in need of giving and receiving it—I’ve been a Mr. Hornby in certain situations—but I wasn’t sure I actually knew how to do either, not without a certain amount of pretending. And so the thorny relationship that forms between Shelley and Emma became my way to work that out, to test out the possibilities, and hopefully begin to navigate a kind of path toward grace.