Abby Mendelson’s new story collection, “Reunion: Americans in Exile,” chronicles the lives of Americans torn from their places and pasts.
The 16 stories feature military men, missing persons, foreign service officers and fashion models. The plots are timeless and easily could have occurred during the past year as many Americans lives were torn apart by COVID-19.
Like so many others watching as neighbors lost jobs and community members suffered food and housing insecurities, Mendelson, who was in a high-risk group for catching the virus, found himself asking, “What can I do?”
“I couldn’t work the frontlines,” he said. “I didn’t have medical training; I can’t even put on a band aid.”
The answer came to the writer through his craft. Once completed, he decided to publish “Reunion” himself and donate the proceeds to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
“It’s not a Jewish book, but [the characters are] involved in tikkun olam. So, I said to myself, ‘What can I do that everyone can get behind?,’” he asked. “Lisa Scales (Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank President and CEO) is an old friend of mine. I’ve never heard anyone say one bad word about the food bank. Let them have the money. They need the money.”
The book isn’t a COVID-19 project, Mendelson said. He’s been working on the stories for the last 11 years, but turned his full attention to the project two years ago, after completing the text of the tabletop book “Spirit to Spirit: A Portrait of Pittsburgh Jazz in the New Century.”
Mendelson likened his work to a submarine with various rooms. The ship, he explained, has a writing room and a creation room, and then there’s the “what are you going to do with it, now?” room.
The more he observed the continuing effects of the pandemic, his concern grew, he said, for those whose stories never make it into the media.
The Squirrel Hill resident said the plight of some people living below the radar were highlighted in “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, which investigated the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and its impact on the working poor. He said his family experienced a similar situation, as immigrants, two generations ago.
“Look at the border now,” Mendelson said. “We have something like 10 or 20 million people in this country who are undocumented, who are underinsured and underserved and are making sure we don’t pay $7 for tomatoes.”
Mendelson is quick to note that the people using services like food banks aren’t looking for a handout.
“One of my theories about being a human being — no one wants a handout,” he said. “People want to earn; this is what we are hardwired to do.”
Scales said the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank was excited to learn of Mendelson’s donation.
“When I got the call from Abby, just out of the blue, I was just thrilled that he wanted to support the food bank in that way,” she said. “And it’s such a significant way, right? I mean, 100% of the proceeds!”
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has a network of more than 600 community partners, including food pantries, soup kitchens, after school programs and senior centers.
Scales said the food bank has received calls from additional nonprofits because of the pandemic, noting that food insecurity has increased 31% since the onset of COVID-19 and that there will be an increased demand on agencies like the food bank for several more years while society returns to normal and people get back to work.
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank holds 11 drive-up food distributions each month, sometimes serving as many as 1,000 households at a time.
For Mendelson, the how and why of helping were easy. He hopes his efforts will serve as inspiration for others.
“I’m an artist,” he said. “Writers write. If I were a carpenter, I’d go to Habitat for Humanity. That’s what we do. As a small challenge to other artists, I would say, do something and dedicate it to a worthwhile charity like this because, God knows, they are in desperate need.”
“Reunion: Americans in Exile” is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.