(click to enlarge panorama)
Although Infinite Jest calls the Pine Street Inn the “biggest and foulest” homeless shelter in the Boston area, anecdotal evidence presented repeatedly throughout the novel would suggest it’s actually the Shattuck Shelter which truly deserves this designation—at least the “foulest” part.
We accumulate plenty of incriminating details as we follow Ennet House live-in staffer Don Gately, who spends “five A.M.s a week” cleaning the “Shattuck Shelter For Homeless Males down in bombed-out Jamaica Plain.” We also learn—with seemingly no detail spared—what the job of janitor at a homeless shelter entails:
The relative cleanliness of the Shattuck’s toilets might seem surprising until you head into the shower area, with your equipment and face-mask. Half the guys in the Shattuck are always incontinent. There’s human waste in the showers on a daily fucking basis. Stavros lets him attach an industrial hose to a nozzle and spray the worst of the shit away from a distance before Gately has to go in there with his mop and brushes and solvents, and his mask.
And yet there is redemption to be found here, in the “very grossest corner[s] of the Shattuck Shelter,” as Gately finds to his surprise and discomfort:
Near the end of his Ennet residency, at like eight months clean and more or less free of any chemical compulsion, going to the Shattuck every A.M. and working the Steps and getting Active and pounding out meetings like a madman, Don Gately suddenly started to remember things he would just as soon not have. Remembered. Actually remembered’s probably not the best word. It was more like he started to almost reexperience things that he’d barely even been there to experience, in terms of emotionally, in the first place.
During my research process, I was surprised to learn that this vividly depicted setting was in fact a real place. On the final day of my Boston trip, I paid a taxi driver handsomely to drive me around to what must have seemed like the strangest, least photogenic parts of Boston: a seemingly random skyscraper, unremarkable city streets and parking lots, not one but two homeless shelters.
The second of these was the Shattuck Shelter, and near the critical point of the endless drive around Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain—seriously, you could fit like ten Boston Commons in there—it became apparent the Google Maps pin drop was not precisely accurate (another issue I encountered repeatedly during my research). I basically had one chance to redirect the cab at a roundabout before I’d just have to move on.
Luckily, I made the right guess, and we found it: not on the road where I’d expected to, but one over, tucked into a plot of land hidden by a patch of woods just west of the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. I felt as much an intruder snapping a photograph at this place as any (let alone the above panorama) likely because of what I’d read about what goes on inside. At least from the exterior, it was serene, unbusy—sober, if you will—and then I was off again, leaving the Shattuck Shelter to its improbable tranquility.