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Toward a New Understanding of Privilege

We passed by her, and it was almost a comical sight. It really looked like someone had set her out just as a casual means to be rid of her. Like maybe she was the mother-in-law, and the husband had promised his wife he would take dear old mother out for a walk, in 90+ degree weather. But it was night, and it was dark, so it was cool enough for her to get out of the house, right? We drove by and as we did, the image didn’t seem so funny. She sat alone, about 20 feet from the corner of the block in Park Slope, hunched over in one of those seat-walkers with wheels. I thought about me and my crew parking our minivan and tromping into our house just ten minutes away. I asked my partner to turn back. When I got out and approached her, I thought for sure the old lady would tell us her kids were just around the corner, or had run in to drop something off in the building across the street. She waved in the direction of the grocery store and mumbled something about “over there.” It wasn’t long that I was able to figure out that there was nothing waiting at the bodega for her but a carton of milk and some paper towels. Teresa was alone. She had gotten herself to the corner but couldn’t go any further. I asked her if she wanted water and she said yes. All I had in the van was a mostly empty plastic cup of water with lid and straw that I had gotten earlier in the day from the Green Fig. Most people would turn up their nose at drinking after another person they’d just met. Teresa sipped it gratefully and without hesitation. When I made the trek down the block to the bodega, I learned from the clerk and his young friend that she goes there daily, stocks up on groceries, often several bags full, and carries them on the stubby arms of her little push chair. The clerk noted that lately she wheels herself around the grocery store and then stops and rests a few minutes before heading back out. But she didn’t use to do that.

About an hour or so later, Teresa and I had made it from where I met her, about three buildings down. It took her three stops and starts to make it that far. At one point, she started telling me about how she worked for the hospital for twenty years. I didn’t ask any questions. She pushed the loose wispy strands of silver white hair from her face, and looked into my eyes as she talked to me with a voice thick from age or accent. Even though I knew she was making an effort to strike up a conversation, I had my family, including a two-year old long past her bedtime, waiting in the car, and I didn’t want Teresa to use her energy sharing life stories with a person she’d never see again. I think there was something, too, about it that vaguely reminded me of when my grandfather was 90 years old, and dying, and recounting to me what he had done with his life. I wasn’t ready to be the repository again. Instead, I encouraged Teresa on, telling her she was doing a good job. Even though I didn’t want to, I reminded her to take it easy and rest if she wanted. I wanted to lift her up and swoop her straight to her door. I wanted to throw her in the back of the minivan and drive 30 seconds to get to her house. I wanted her to have roller blades and whisk herself off into the darkness of night. I wanted to not be reminded of the fragility of life.

She wore battered brown hush puppies that scuffled along the sidewalk. A neighbor came down the street with her own young son, apparently afflicted by MS or some other disease, and Teresa encouraged me to scoot closer to her, to let them pass. The woman looked at me curiously. I thought maybe she knew Teresa, and would offer to take care of them both. I was hoping that someone we would pass would know Teresa, and would thank me for the time, and get her safely home to a nice, clean apartment where she had top-notch A/C, and someone to take off all the heavy layers of clothes she wore, and tuck her deformed body into a comfy cool bed. No one stopped. In the breaks, I learned that she had a fan but no A/C, and that she hadn’t been feeling well lately. I got the impression she had no real friends or family around. I learned she is fiercely independent. She tried to pay me for the milk and paper towels. By now my older daughter, “A,” 22 and recently graduated from college, was out on the street with us while my partner waited patiently with the younger one in the car. When we got to Teresa’s door, A motioned to me to get the keys from her. They were hooked onto a safety pin that was in the pocket of her nurse’s jacket. I offered to help but, to my amazement, Teresa was able to unhook them and hand them to me. Neither of the two keys opened the front door. I buzzed all three buzzer, and wondered if what I would say would make any sense to the inhabitants. I barely had the words out of my mouth when I was able to push the door open. A young, good-looking man came down the stairs in t-shirt and shorts and began helping us get Teresa and her little push-wheeler up the three stairs to the hall of the building.

As she struggled against those steps and crossed the threshold of the building, she said, “I think this is my last time out.” I immediately tried to brush away the implications, and told her yes it would be smart to stay inside for a few days, it was expected to be very hot out, and maybe she should wait a few days. We both knew better.

Between getting her from the record heat outside into the stifling and oppressive heat inside, A and I learned that the neighbor had helped her outside that night, that she used to own the building but had sold it to someone and in exchange was living there rent free. That she had no family that he knew of. That the landlord/super/new owner (?) would sometimes check in on her and take care of her. That she had said earlier that she wasn’t feeling well and someone might need to take her to the hospital.

The apartment was the opposite of what I had hoped to see. Her keys dangled from the door. A cockroach greeted us as soon as we stepped in. There were boxes of food on the counter, a small lamp with broken lampshade and just an exposed light bulb as the sole source of light. The fan wasn’t plugged in, and I didn’t know how Teresa could possibly have bent down to turn it on. I plugged it in, and helped her into her chair. She pulled off three layers of shirts, one a long-sleeved dirty sweatshirt, until she was sitting in a loose t-shirt the bright fuchsia color of the new rose on my front porch.

In the process, the fan stopped working. A pointed this out to me, and I jiggled it till it worked again. I asked Teresa if I could open the windows more but she wanted me to close them all the way (I didn’t tell her that I wouldn’t do that but of course I didn’t). We exchanged numbers with the neighbor after learning that he had called the super, who wasn’t coming. Teresa said all the super cared about was money. I tried to ask if she had any family we could contact but she said they were all in Brazil. After about ten minutes of lingering, I finally said good-night to Teresa and left as she sat in her chair by herself, her silver hair swooping out from the loose bun at the nape of her neck, in the shadow of a the large hump that is her back.

I we got a text message from the neighbor about an hour later saying that she was feeling better. I couldn’t get the image of the dirty kitchen and filthy refrigerator out of my head. Worse was the image of Teresa alone in the nearly dark room, silent except for the struggling hum of the tiny fan. She seemed so familiar to me. I still can’t shake the feeling that I know her from somewhere. Maybe she is the universal embodiment of all that I fear of loneliness and old age. Maybe, too, that the scene showed me how much we all rely on each other, and the fragility of that.

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3 responses to “Toward a New Understanding of Privilege

  1. Ralph ⋅

    Reading this reminded me of something I heard some time ago. Cell phones were not yet around and people weren’t ‘online’ 7×24. Basically it said almost everyone was just one step away from being similar to a homeless person. All it took was loosing your wallet with money, credit cards, and cash when you were away from home. Today, misplacing your cell phone is probably worse than loosing a wallet since most people rely on their phones for almost everything. How often do you use your phone compared to your wallet?

    It’s a shame how some old people end up having to live. Many, having worked for decades end up eating cat food later in life while much younger healthy people sit home collecting govt handouts complaining their 60 inch flat screen is too small. Of cause that’s far from always the case, but it is true too often.

    • Revel

      Agreed. I wish there were more of a safety net for the elderly. I was talking with a friend today about the vulnerability, particularly financial, of older folks. It’s truly heartbreaking. I was proud of Mickey Rooney for standing up and stating publicly that he had been the victim of elder abuse. Although there are going to be a lot of challenges ahead of us with the increasing number of elderly, hopefully it will bring about a revolution in how we care for them. My sister is in the process of opening up the first assisted living facility in her community (in Beloit, Wisconsin) specifically designed as affordable living for the elderly. http://www.cherrytreeaffordableassistedliving.org/ I remember reading about some other groundbreaking locales that have set up communal living for the elderly that encourages autonomy and activities that combat physical and mental degeneration. The problem with those is not many folks can afford them, and also they are few and far between.

      As a postscript to that post about Teresa, I checked in on her the next night. I spoke to all the members of the house and told them about the various calls I made the next day, looking for what resources might be available. I said that one of the places I spoke to said it sounded like this was more of an adult protective services intervention situation. After being reassured that Teresa had been out and about the next day and looking and feeling much healthier, and that it was in the works to get her an air conditioner, I decided not to take that route. I was relieved for the reassurance (that she was being adequately taken care of) because it was also apparent to me that one of the only things she really had left and treasured was her autonomy.

  2. Ralph ⋅

    It looks like Cherrytree is providing care for older people with special needs. As mentioned, for those that can still get around and do things for themselves it is important they be allowed to continue within their limits. That not only keeps them active and healthier, but leaves space and resources for others who need more attention. Some societies look at their elderly as a source of wisdom and knowledge to be respected and cared for. On that front we still have a lot of catching up to do.

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