New York celebrates beauty and vigor; beauty salons, cosmeticians and health clubs (not to mention plastic surgeons) do a thriving business by playing on the fear of growing old. Baby boomers are in the vanguard, determined to beat back the encroachments of time by any means possible, regardless of expense. In New York it can be difficult to grow old gracefully. It becomes even more difficult if you lack resources, family or close friends. Yes, there are social services available and Meals-on-Wheels which provides food to the homebound. But for tens of thousands of aged people in New York survival is contingent on rent regulations. Because many of them are living in the same apartment that they’ve occupied for many years their rents are virtually frozen at rates that prevailed decades before. Once they die – and apart from retirement in Florida that’s the only way they’re likely to leave – their apartments will revert to market rents. Needless to say, many landlords eagerly await that eventuality, a situation that may call to mind the macabre image of vultures waiting to pounce. What strikes such terror in the young is seeing their future in the faces of the old. It is one thing to endure the vicissitudes of the city when you’re in your twenties or thirties, it’s quite another to do so when you’re in your seventies, confronting mortality alone in the same one-bedroom apartment you’ve lived in for years.
No one wants to grow old alone, of course, but inevitably it happens. Illness steals away a spouse or partner; a grown child moves away and rarely calls. Friends die or leave for warmer climes.
But like most New Yorkers who manage to stick it out in the city for many years, the aged who live here are a tough breed, their steely resolve often belying the frailty of their bodies. Of course, that resolve can also come across as sheer stubbornness. And because the city doesn’t allow the luxury of segregation the generations are frequently thrown together.
Several years ago I moved into an apartment on West 20th Street in Chelsea, at a time before the district was considered chic or desirable. The newly renovated apartment offered enough space for my needs but it also offered a dispiriting view of an ugly courtyard hidden from the sun by surrounding buildings. As a result it was necessary to keep the lights on throughout the day.
There were only two apartments on each floor. I met my neighbor as I was moving in. A thin, shrunken woman who looked to be in her seventies opened the door of 3F and called out a cheerful greeting. I must come over for a drink as soon as I was finished moving in, she said. Her name was Shirley Sanko.
Her invitation to join her for a drink after I’d moved in was only the first of many. She drank scotch but felt guilty enough about her habit to keep the booze hidden. (Hidden from whom it was hard to say since she seldom had visitors.) But if she could coax me to join her she would happily bring it out. It wasn't my company she sought so much as it was a pretext to have a drink herself.
It was obvious that she was eager for company. Because of a debilitating stroke that had left her with a pronounced limp she stayed put in her apartment, leaving only when she had a doctor’s appointment. Her husband, Leo, a painter, had died six years before. She’d never gotten over his loss. He’d keeled over of a heart attack one winter day. She blamed his death on the landlord because he’d failed to provide enough heat. They’d had no children. She occupied herself watching television. Mrs. Sanko had no books, there weren’t even any magazines. The only reading material in evidence was a copy of TV Guide.
A home attendant contracted by the city would come around in the mornings to help out. These home attendants never stayed long because Mrs. Sanko was constantly accusing them of taking her money or of being so stupid that they couldn't even find a simple item like an ice cream pop at the A&P. She suffered from a bad ulcer as well as residual complications from the stroke which accounted for her obsession with ice cream pops. She had little appetite and when she did eat she preferred pizza, roast beef sandwiches or ribs from the Chinese takeout place on 21st Street. She barely touched the wholesome dishes Meals on Wheels brought her. She didn’t care that pizza and ribs might be detrimental to her health.
Sometimes you were her 'pal' or her best friend. Sometimes, if you hadn't been attentive enough – because you’d failed to call her every day, for instance -- you were 'one of them.' "I won't call you anymore, I don't want to bother you," she'd say, making no effort to conceal her irritation. Then the next morning she’d call as if nothing had happened. She smoked fiendishly in defiance of her doctor’s advice, ordering a couple of packs of Kent 100's at a time. "I'm a smoker!" she would declare. She would also say, almost boasting, "I'm a cripple!" That was what she’d shout down to a caller on the street who refused to walk up the two flights to see her.
Mrs. Sanko was incredibly suspicious. She kept her door bolted and double-locked. She was often on the phone to her state assemblyman to complain about noise. She routinely harassed the managing agent Melinda, complaining of problems in the apartment for which she was paying seventy dollars a month. (But this was an old tenement and her bathroom was located in the corridor.) The lock on her window didn't work; there was a leak in the ceiling from upstairs; there were bugs; there was a smell of gas. For months she fought to have a buzzer installed. When it finally was put in, she insisted that it didn't work and rather than use it she continued to shout downstairs to find out the identity of her visitor.
She had to call on the police to expel a home attendant she didn't like. (Why the attendant didn't leave on her own is something she never explained.) She'd smell something burning and became convinced that the building was on fire. Strange people would knock on her door or present an unnamed threat. The fire escape was falling in, the building itself was crumbling. (There was some truth to this, too.) Often things happened at times when no one else was around to witness them.
She didn’t have many friends. For the few friends she did have she was an endless source of frustration. They were unable to convince her to get out more. "People want to fix me up with men,” she’d say derisively. There was a local social club where she could meet others her age, especially of the opposite sex. She was having none of it. “I'm afraid of AIDS,” she’d say. “Anyway I had my man and he's gone."
Often she'd station herself by the window and watch people go by on the street. If she spied me trying to slip out the front door she'd call out, "What happened to you?" Then she’d ask me to get her some pizza or cigarettes. "I'm the mayor of 20th Street," she would say. Famous people -- Mayor LaGuardia, various actors and actresses -- used to stop by. Nowadays things were changing too rapidly. People were moving in and out of the building and she had no idea who they were. She lived in constant fear. The fear was not always unwarranted. Once she let two men in who claimed that the managing agent had sent them to install new windows. One man kept talking to her in the kitchen while his companion pretended to be measuring the windows. When they left she found that two hundred dollars was missing from a drawer. She was suspicious of everybody but the people she should have been. She said she wanted to move. She said she might like to go into a nursing home. She would call and plead for people to keep in touch. Everybody she knew -- relatives, friends, acquaintances -- suffered bad luck. They all seemed to have lost something: their leg, their memory, their life. Disaster always seemed to strike her. She'd adopted the persona of the old, helpless, dependent woman. Her life had stopped with Leo’s death.
One day very early in December, the latest home attendant was unable to gain entry to Mrs. Sanko's apartment. Evidently she waited a day before notifying the managing agent. Melinda summoned the police at ten the following morning. Two youthful-looking officers from the 13th Precinct a block away responded: one with a red moustache named Cooper and the other a pretty, dark-haired Italian named Diane. Unable to elicit any response and finding the door locked, they went out on the fire escape and broke in, kicking in one pane. They found Mrs. Sanko dead on the floor of the bedroom, dressed in pajamas and a red robe. She seemed to have been trying to grasp hold of the bed to pull herself up when her heart gave out. Someone from EMS was summoned to confirm the death, a formality. Two detectives appeared. They took in the scene but saw nothing that would cause them to think that the death was due to anything other than natural causes, and quickly left. Then two representatives of the Medical Examiner's Office came by. The one who seemed to be in charge was a diminutive Chinese man who spoke with heavily accented English and asked if she'd been taking any medication. No one knew. Cooper and Diane began to search for names and numbers of relatives. They’d been informed that Mrs. Sanko had two nephews in Brooklyn. Address books were found, with lots of names in both, but there was no telling who these people were or what relationship they might have had with the deceased. A wagon -- as the M.E. mortuary vans are called -- was ordered.
After a while a sergeant appeared. He asked me to act as a witness while Cooper and Diane searched the apartment for valuables, credit cards, bank books, stock certificates and cash, which would be vouchered and turned over to the precinct house. "This is the worst part of our job," Cooper said, referring to the distasteful task of rummaging through a person's past.
Mrs. Sanko kept a lot of papers. Cooper turned up a divorce agreement between her and her first husband, Kalinsky, whom few people knew that she had, as well as fifty dollars in cash, some gold and tarnished silver rings, and a couple of necklaces.
Eventually the sergeant left. So did Cooper, leaving Diane to wait until the wagon arrived. Once it did, she had instructions to seal the apartment so that the owner or manager or anybody else couldn't slip in and make off with any possessions, not that there would have been much to take. Even several hours after her death, no family members had been located although the police had made several calls trying to find the nephews listed in her address books. In any case, it wasn't up to the officers on the scene to call the relatives. That was up to the detectives.
As we waited, Diane told me a little about her life. She hadn’t always wanted to be a cop, she said. She used to work as an art director for an ad agency but had grown tired of it. A friend suggested she try out for the police. She didn't take the suggestion seriously. On the day of the police exam she got on the train to Manhattan as she did every day, to go to work at the ad agency. But before she reached her stop she decided that she had nothing to lose, switched trains and went back to Brooklyn where the exam was being given. She took it and to her surprise was admitted. Her parents didn't know she'd become a cop until six months had gone by and even then they only found out accidentally because a friend called them, trying to locate her. "I went to see them late in the evening when I knew they were tired so it would be easier." Her parents have grown to accept what she was doing so long as they were assured she was safe.
Diane spoke in phrases and fragments, rarely in complete sentences, the words tumbling out at breakneck speed. "I get used to answering people who call out 'Yo!' to me." She realized that she was often speaking too fast or using too many big words for people to understand her -- and that included other cops. She regarded her gun as a 'charm.' She had drawn it only when obliged to enter apartments where she suspected a burglar was hiding. "I'd be stupid not to." But she'd never fired her gun and hoped never to have to. Even so, she was often in dangerous situations. Just the other day, she told me, an eleven-year-old emotionally disturbed girl had pulled a butcher knife on her and said, "I come from another galaxy and my mission on this planet is to kill you and your partner." Diane succeeded in calming the girl and persuading her to put the knife away. Diane told the girl that if she hadn't obeyed she wouldn't have hesitated to shoot her even if she was only eleven. When the father appeared on the scene he acknowledged that his daughter had been having some problems as if this wasn’t already quite apparent. Told that the girl had threatened two officers with a butcher knife, he was unfazed. "She did that to me too," he said. He explained that he'd had six children and that all of them had suffered mental problems. Two were institutionalized. Another two, he said, had 'grown out of it,' presumably meaning their insanity.
As the afternoon wore on, Diane mused about the woman lying on the floor. She admitted that she wasn't married, but she said that seeing something like this -- a lonely old woman dying this way -- made her think that maybe she should. "Who have you got if you don't have your family?"
The wagon still hadn’t come. It was now after four in the afternoon. Diane told another story.
Not long ago, she said, she’d answered a complaint at an apartment where a woman in her eighties was living with her son who was in his forties. Both mother and son were mentally retarded. What really struck Diane was how filthy the apartment was. It didn't appear as if either mother or son had ventured outside in many years. The walls were crawling with roaches but they didn't seem to notice or care. "You don't know how lucky you are sometimes," Diane said.
The whole while Mrs. Sanklo’s door, so long shut and bolted against the world, stood open. Suddenly we looked up to find a man of about forty-five, wearing glasses and an expensive gray winter coat, standing in the doorway. "What's going on here?" he asked in bewilderment. Diane explained. He looked shaken but managed to retain his composure.
It turned out that the man was one of the missing nephews. He was an executive at a printing company located a few blocks away. He said that he was the only relation who was usually in the city and so it was up to him to check up on his aunt. The last time he’d spoke to her was two days ago. They’d had an argument. It wasn’t surprising; in my brief acquaintance with her she argued with everyone she knew. "I nearly lost my voice shouting," he admitted. The argument was over her treatment of the home attendants. "If you keep on firing them," he’d told her, "they won't have any one left to send you." He'd stopped by to give money to her for the weekend. He was dismayed to learn that he couldn't take control of the apartment or its effects. "I just paid the rent for December."
Nonetheless, procedures have to be followed. He began to leaf through the Yellow Pages looking for a funeral home. He said that his aunt had expressed a desire to be cremated like her late husband Leo. As he went into the bedroom to call the funeral home and to cancel the wagon (since the funeral home would handle the disposition of the body), his eyes teared up and his voice quavered. "I don't know why," he said, as if apologizing for the tears. It was hard to say whether he was embarrassed about displaying his sorrow or was simply astonished that his aunt’s death had touched him so much. Understandably, he was a little rattled by the proximity of Shirley’s body lying on the floor. "She had her good points," he said, "but the worst thing was her mouth." All the money she had, aside from what he contributed, came from Social Security payments. She used to be an excellent typist, he went on, but that ended with her marriage. The painters union that Leo had belonged to was corrupt, riddled with organized crime influence. So she never received any pension from them. "They gave her a few hundred dollars for his funeral, that's all."
Diane announced that her shift was finished. I was sorry to see her go. I would, of course, never see her again. She was relieved by a young Hispanic cop. By this time the wagon had been called off. The nephew said that someone from the funeral home was checking with the M.E.'s Office to make sure that it was all right to come for the body. He wanted no autopsy.
Asked his aunt's age, the nephew said that he couldn't be exactly certain but he believed she must have been in her mid-sixties. I was astonished. She looked decades older. The stroke might have had aged her, but in some way I suspected that after Leo’s death she’d given up and become old without bothering to wait for years to pass.
About an hour later representatives of the funeral home showed up and at last removed Shirley Sanko’s body. The police placed a seal on the door: “These Premises Have Been Sealed By The N.Y.C. Police Dept. Pursuant To Section 435, Administrative Code. All Persons Are Forbidden To Enter Unless Authorized By The Police Dept. Or Public Administrator.”
I remembered that on those few occasions when Mrs. Sanko had a few people over on the same day -- a workman repairing a door, a visitor slipping her a bottle of scotch, a home attendant she'd end up berating for incompetence -- she'd say, "I had a full house today." On this particular Friday she had the fullest house she had ever had.