Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Right Way

Morris S. is a watchmaker who had a tiny shop in Downtown Brooklyn. His customers were office workers, people from the neighborhood and even some judges from Family Court. He worked alone in a tiny shop and his work was meticulous and precise. He liked things done the  right way.

His own life was sober and regular: into his shop by eight o’clock, out by five thirty, then on to his apartment to make a simple supper. Eggs, usually, and the occasional veal chop. He said that  he liked to watch “high-type” programs on television, programs his wife said meant “screechy songs and clog dancing.”

He used to tell his children that he didn’t like time-wasters or nudnicks and was resigned to the fact that it hadn’t made much of an impression. But what did they know? His wife used to say that he was always looking for an argument. But what did she know? Nothing against her, she made a good brisket, and she was dead now anyway. He lived alone and liked it. His good life was upended in his late seventies when he had an eye operation and could no longer work or live alone. He went into assisted living but had no plan to mix and mingle there.

He was laying  out a solitaire hand in the living room when a nudnick named Benny said , “Moish, can you teach me black-on-black?  My wife used to play red-on-black.”

“ The name is Morris. Do I look like a social director to you?”

“No, a card shark.”

“Very nice. Very nice. And you want a favor? Well, sit down if you’re gonna sit down. Sit down and shuffle.”

Benny made two piles.

“Why are you futzing with them? You need to make them even”

“You don’t need that for Solitaire,” Benny retorted. “ They get all mixed together anyway.”

“Who told you that?”

“Me. Me, myself and I asked me.”

“What kind of an answer is that?”

“What is this? You like to start a fight just to start a fight?”

“I like to do things the right way.”

“Oh no! You had it in for me all along.”

“I never laid eyes on you before.”

“I just got here from Brooklyn, you dummy.”

“Who are you calling a dummy?”

“You see anyone else here?”

“Mind your manners and I’ll teach you.”

Morris reshuffled the cards.

“Hooray for you. What changed your mind?”

“You’re from Brooklyn too and we’re both old.”

Morris continued as he dealt out the cards.

“What part?”

“Borough Park.”

“Too bad you’re not from Brownsville.”

“Okay, okay, we can fight about that from now on. In the meantime I’m dying for some coffee.”

“I’m not a coffee drinker.”

“You wouldn’t be!”

“But— I’ll go with you to the café.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Is this a federal case? I just wanted a little action. You could die of boredom here.”

Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?


Manny’s Issue

Jerry Rogoff, the young psychologist who comes to our assisted living residence, has high hopes of involving the group of oldsters who come to hear him. He hands out a sheet of paper with several  topics on it: family matters, aging  well, inheritance, dealing with illness, resolving old issues with your children, new experiences in old age, exercise for couch potatoes, intergenerational connection…

Manny speaks up.  “Here’s an issue if you want an issue. I have a nice two-family house for many years in Queens. My downstairs tenants were with me for seventeen years. You couldn’t ask for a better couple. Older, to begin with—fifties to start—and no children. Pets I don’t allow so that never came up. Didn’t play the radio loud, TV’s low too, went to bed early. Had their own washer-dryer so they weren’t looking to use ours. Even when it broke down, they went to the laundromat.  Worked long hours so they’re never home, not that they were any bother when they were. They were a different religion but I thought about it and couldn’t fault it. ‘Live and let live,’  I told myself. ‘Each to his own.’

“Now, they’re retirement age and going south. When I moved here to The Hallmark, I gave my apartment to Gussie, my single daughter. I never asked her for it but she  pays rent regular, like she’s not family. Now, that the downstairs Clarks are going, Georgie, my older boy wants to move in. He’d pay rent he says. That’ll be the day!”

“So what’s the problem already?” someone said.

“He’s like a rolling stone. Always following the money, not that he ever catches up with it. Insurance adjuster, rancher out west.  What was that gas company, Texas, ‘Kenny-boy’, ten, fifteen  years ago?”


“Belly up.”

“His sister moved in upstairs when I came here. They never got along.”

“Let it go. You’ll kill yourself with worry.”

“My opinion, sell the house. At your age, you don’t need the aggravation.”

“Hold the phone a minute,” Jerry the psychologist said. “Manny’s still owns the house. Manny has power.”

“You call it power. I call it aggravation,” Leona said.

“Well, he sure has got a problem. Is it all right with you if we discuss it, Manny?”

“Discuss it till the moon turns blue for all I care. I gotta give the boy the place, that schmegeggy. My wife spoiled him rotten, now I gotta continue the tradition. She should rest in peace.”

‘I get you,”Myrna said, “but what would you do if you had a choice?”

“What choice? She’d holler me crazy from the grave if I didn’t.

“I see, “ Jerry said. “You wife, though she’s dead, still has the power.”

“You got that right,” Manny replied. “And in some ways that’s not bad. I miss the old battle ax.”

A Physician’s Recovery

Dr. Paul S. came to medicine the hard way. He started life in a small Minnesota town, the third of four sons of a factory worker. He was the only one of them to go to college, working his way through. Two of his brothers owned a launderette in town. A third became a factory worker like his father. Paul worked hard, often two jobs, to get through the University of Minnesota. He did well and was given a scholarship that helped pay for medical school. He married a fellow student. and after a long residency in cardiology, worked for a prominent New York City hospital and for himself in private practice.

He and his wife had three children, one of whom, the only girl, was an adventurous traveler. After she finished college, she left for England and settled there. This was a great loss for Paul and his wife because Eleanor refused to come home. After a while, for mysterious reasons she could not explain, she cut off from the family.

Their boys did well, but the couple could not recover from this baffling loss of a child. Dr. S. continued to work stoically in his chosen field, but his wife grew gradually more depressed and reclusive. She died at a young age—58. Paul, a heart surgeon, who knew better than most people  how to take care of himself, began to overeat as he neared retirement. When he retired from the hospital he was fifty pounds overweight and could not stop from binging. He moved sluggishly and had a heart attack in his early seventies. He came into assisted living in his late seventies, badly wheezing.

He is pleasant and attentive to his fellow residents and well-liked by them. When they ask him medical questions, he replies fully and well. At the same time he seems indifferent to his own  health. Both of his sons visit often.

When he had been in assisted living for about three months, he had another heart attack—a mild one. He was treated at his old hospital.

Toward the end of his stay there, as part of his cure, he walked up and down his corridor each day. At the sunlit end of the hall, near the Pediatrics Department, he noticed a playroom and went inside one day to look at the books provided for children these days. On the shelves were several his own children had enjoyed.  Babar especially had delighted them, and there was one worn and  bedraggled copy of The Story of Babar, the elephant book. It gave him an idea. He arranged to buy the whole series for the hospital.

Since his recovery, he regularly goes to the hospital for meetings and to see old friends, always returning to the children’s playroom.  Gradually, he’s became its patron. He’s had it renovated, repainted and stocked with many cloth picture books and two small tricycles. He enjoys looking in on it. He enjoys the fact that it’s there for the children to find.

His depression has lifted.

Sybil, an Ageless Role Model

Sybil is an ageless role model. Although she is 97, she rarely thinks about age. She has arthritis in her wrists and cannot pick up small objects, but considers herself lucky. She just gets up and gets going. “It’s common in the old that this, that, and the other parts don’t work too well, and I am very old and just can’t flip my wrist—my left one at that. I have no reason to complain.”

She’s still energetic, does her own personal laundry, entertains members of her large family in two’s and three’s, though during the holidays she reserves the private dining room in the residence for seven guests and is active in choosing a menu.

She knows that there is a good shoemaker on Hudson Street, three long blocks over.

“Sybil! How do you know that?”

“I was looking for a birthday present for my great-granddaughter.”

“At the shoemaker?”

“No. He was resoling my good walking shoes. He told me about the toy store.”

“Do you ever take a taxi, Sybil, or Access-A-Ride?”

“Of course I do. My doctor is uptown at 57th and Third.”


“Well, once Access-A-Ride was twenty minutes late and I hate to keep anyone waiting.”

“Aha, you’re going to tell me that you jumped into a taxi!”

“I would have, but it was raining. None around.”


“I found my way to the subway.”

“Sybil, Sybil, you’re a poster child for old age!”

“Not really. I took a cab back.”

Billie G Tips Her Hand

It was very hard for Billie G., aged 81, to go into assisted living. At first she went for what she warned Ros, her daughter,  would only be a short stay. “A very short stay. And remember that you promised.

“I promised nothing,” replied Rose tartly. She had learned her own feistiness at her mother’s knee.

“It’s all baby food and ‘nice old lady.”

“It may be pablum, but it will never be ‘nice old lady’ for you, Mom, my mother who loves to find fault”.

The reason for this conversation was that Billie was recovering from a hip operation and had learned to her chagrin that she could no longer take care of herself in her apartment. Rose  had flown in from Augusta, Georgia to New York  help make a change. She had also arranged for her mother to go into assisted living in New York, where she lived.

Billie G. outlined what she would hate when she moved.

“I’m going to hate the food.”

“I’ll send CARE packages.”

“There’s no place to do the laundry.”

“There are two machines on your floor. They change the sheets.”

“I don’t want their sheets.”

“Then bring your own sheets. They’ll still change them.”

“I won’t like the doddering old people.”

“Doddering? Why, you’re 81 yourself and still causing plenty of mischief. All the people you meet
should be as “doddering’ as you.”

“They won’t play Hold ‘Em.”

“Don’t borrow trouble. We’ll see.”

Rose spoke to her mother on the phone several times during her “short stay”, but Billie didn’t say anything about leaving.

She did say, “This old duffer here says pinochle is better.”

“Is that a ‘yes’ or  a ’no’ about signing on?”

“I was right about the food, but I’m teaching this old geezer my kind of poker.”

Revered Actress Resident of Nursing Home

Judith Malina, 87, the director of The Living Theater, a longtime fixture of The Lower East Side in New York City, lost the lease on her theater and the apartment above it and moved to the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, an assisted living  facility for entertainment professioals. Ms Malina, a maverick theatrical director, highly respected for her devotion to non-commercial theater and internationally known by theater buffs, confesses that she didn’t go willingly.

“I was crying, screaming about leaving the neighborhood.”

The neighborhood will miss her too, for The Living Theater provided serious theater by Berthold  Brecht, Jean Cocteau, William Carlos Williams and other avant-garde writers. She and her husband, Julian Beck, were known for their vision and foresight. For a small theater group, barely self-supporting, The Living Theater still has a national reputation and is also known for being in the vanguard of  theater worldwide.

I remember seeing The Connection, Jack Gelber’s play about drug addiction, when the subject was still taboo, and thinking, “How daring to put on a play that asks you to sympathize with these outcasts.”

Even though she is barely settled in The Actors Home, Ms Malina, a constant trouper, is already hard at work on her next play!

Fancy Meeting You Here!

“Marty Rifkind and Faye Rifkind Dretz  have been divorced for 30 years, and wouldn’t you know it”,  my friend Marion tells me, “they find themselves at the same assisted living home. And a small residence at that!”

“They must come from a small town.”

“Not so small. They both lived in Huntington, Long Island and never laid eyes on each other since the divorce, until they found themselves at The Cameron, near Monticello. Funny thing is that their  adult children are in the hotel business there, but neither of them—not Sonya or Harley—told them that they’d find the other one there.”

“Sounds like a plot to get them together.”

“I never thought of that. Maybe it was. Thing is that The Cameron, despite its fancy name, is a small place with beautiful grounds, not too far from the children’s business.”

“Maybe Sonya and Harley knew what they were doing.”

The plot thickens.

“Come to think of it, I’ve heard Bea, the wife, say that to this day their kids can’t get used to their divorce.”

“There you go. They set it up!”

“Maybe, maybe not. Although it is true that Sonya and Harley both live near their business.”

“Proof positive! So how are their folks taking it?”

“First they were mad as hell that their kids played a trick on them. So they decided to write them a letter together.”

“Together? Together?

“Right. So far it’s dinner every Thursday, to spell out their gripes in this famous letter.”

“Do you think they’ll remarry?”

“Well, they’ll definitely become an Item. That I will say. Page Six.”

“Canny children!”

“You bet!”

Bella’s Hardscrabble Life

One night I was seated with Bella at dinner.She is tall and thin, with piercing blue eyes. She does not have many friends at the residence. Having dinner with her is unlike having dinner with anyone else at The Hallmark because there are no social amenities. She launches into her story before the first course arrives and holds you with her “glittering eye”, like The Ancient Mariner, so there is no escape.

She tells the story of her mean but hard-working mother who beat her until “my little butt turned purple, like two ripe plums.” Then she seems to forgive her. “My father never gave us a dime so my mother worked all the time to support me and my brother. No wonder she had a temper. She  was frazzled. And another thing about her: she was a raving beauty with big black eyes, and I  mean big.” And here she pressed her own eyes down to make them larger. “But that still don’t make it, “ she said. “She was a raving beauty, and boyfriends? Don’t even ask! They were waiting at the door when she got home from work and she worked two jobs! So think how long they had to wait! And there’s my brother and me, cowering in the kitchen, hungry, waiting for dinner, and she and the boyfriends start making plans. They have to tell her to feed the kids first.”

“But she went right out anyway?”

“No, she did not She put food on the table. Watch yourself lady. We’re talking about my mother here!”

“I’m confused, Bella. I better go.”
“Wait a second, honey, There’s more about this place. This place here.”

Did she mean the milk-and-water Hallmark?

“Well they didn’t help. After my husband died, everything we had, furniture, clothes, jewelry was taken from me and I couldn’t get it back. I lost the case in court. Why? Search me. They said my  husband owed them but can they prove that? Maybe the judge was on the take. It could happen.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“I’m seeing a psychiatrist but he don’t talk much.”

“Oh that is so good!”, burst out of me.

“Damn right. I figure he can help me get my real apartment back.”

“Yeah,” she said a moment later. “First I went to him just to humor Artie (the director). Now I see this psychiatrist can help me get my apartment back if I play my cards right.”

“ Bella, Bella, that’s quite a story.”

“Well thanks for listening. Just talking to you gave me this great idea.”

“What idea?” I asked, baffled.

”That I can get something out of this psychiatrist. He can make them give me back  my stuff .”

Housing for Elderly Gays

There is at least one homosexual couple at The Hallmark, They’re well-liked and active in and out of the building.

It hadn’t occurred to me that elderly gay couples elsewhere might have trouble until I read about Spirit on Lake in Minnesota, an affordable 46-unit housing complex marketed to older members  of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. This is only the second building of its kind in the United States. More are either under construction or planned for in Chicago, Philadelphia or San Francisco. Spirit on Lake’s backers say it fills a growing need for a generation of openly gay people now reaching their senior years.

Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, a New York based group, estimates that there are 1.5 million openly gay elderly people in the U.S., a number expected to double by 2030. Many of them came of age when young people who were not heterosexual were often  rejected by their families. As a consequence they are less likely to have younger family members available who are willing to assure them of a comfortable old age with them or help them find safe haven elsewhere.

This solution prompts other thoughts: On the one hand it is heartening to know that 1.5 million elders (soon to be three million) will have a comfortable place to live out their years. On the other,
hand, we can hope that there are many more senior facilities that do not need to make a distinction based on sexual preference. Simply: an elderly person is often a person in need of  special care. They don’t need to be identified in any other way except by age.

Food Thieves (Part Two)

Charlie, the cook with a college education, has all kinds of theories about residents stealing food.

He talks freely about it because he’s only marking time here until a sous chef’s job in a new restaurant comes through. “You take these old people. They’re very old and going to die but their troubles still go on with their kids and grandkids. They have a son in his fifties, let’s say, who they gave the family business to and he’s running it into the ground. Or the old grandmothers they park here. They’ve got a favorite grandchild they want to leave everything to, but they’re afraid to put it in the will. One I knew myself—she’s dead now. She started shtupping her favorite with money, his brothers found out and there was hell to pay. I didn’t go to her funeral myself, but Jerry said there were so few people attending that they moved the family to a smaller parlor so it wouldn’t look so bad.

“My point is, they steal food or make bitchy remarks about how the maid put the duvet on the bed upside down, and like that, because they’ve got too much time on their hands and nothing to do. But the big thing that’s bothering them is that they’re waiting for their number to come up and at the same time, they can’t really believe it, even though they’re in a place where dying is on the menu. So they’re fuming about the service or why their daughter’s husband walked out on her, or why their grandson may be retarded—and what-all—yet they’re powerless.”

“Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner,” said Lucien, a new resident who was intrigued by Charlie’s analysis.

Personally, I’m not that forgiving.