Death 2

This month, August 2020, marks fifty years since my father died. That number is overwhelming and has caused a deluge of tears.  I’ve written about his funeral and bits and pieces about his life and illness, but not enough.

I remember dad’s obituary in the New York Times.  It was about two and a half or three inches.  I was so disappointed that it was so short.  I knew even then, at twenty, that he deserved more.

He didn’t die at 222, he died at Mount Sinai Hospital, but he battled and suffered in 9E.  I can picture him sitting at the table eating through a straw as the throat cancer had swollen significantly and limited his swallowing.  He had been in the hospital for some time until they figured out what was wrong.

I traveled back and forth in his earlier hospitalization as well as the final one.  Getting to 98th Street and 5th Avenue from 83rd Street and Broadway involved two buses or the 86th Street Crosstown and a long walk up 5th Avenue to 98th Street.  Coming from school meant the number one train to 86th Street and then proceeding.

When dad went back to the hospital, the picture was gloomy and my final visit found him with tubes everywhere.  As I left he waved and we both understood that it was a final goodbye.  He died later that evening, leaving me with that image of the final wave.

It was a sad end to a life that, from 1942 to 1970 had been lived on West 83rd Street.  He had been the Civil Defense Warden with a key to the light box on West 82nd Street for turning off the lights along Amsterdam during air raid drills.  Here he had been based when he wrote for the Air Force and the Navy and the War Bonds program.  Here he lived while for 25 years he had been a staff writer for ABC after years at the Blue Network.  Here was the jumping off point for “Meet the Professor” and ABC public affairs show for which he traveled the country developing and telling the stories of remarkable educators.

Good Times

West 83rd Street had been his home when he wrote, produced and directed films for the FDNY, featuring me in a cameo appearance in the film F.D.N.Y. (see link below)  222 was the base from which he flew out the door to the Red Cross building on Amsterdam Avenue in the 60s to get out the canteen for the Third Alarm Association to provide coffee, soup and sandwiches to firefighters (then called firemen) at large fires.

This was the home from which he walked to PS9 to direct Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore for my sister’s 6th grade class and the Mikado for my class years later (my sister and I being a bit more than five and half years apart).  I don’t know if she had a part in her year but I played KoKo, The Lord High Executioner, with my little list.

In 1963, seven years before his death, we sat in the living room of apartment 9E and listened to the ABC network music, programmed by my dad, on that horrible weekend of the Kennedy assassination.  Here we sat to watch the funeral with the horse with the empty boots turned backward and the little John Jr. saluting his father’s casket.

In the late sixties, when the drinking won and dad lost his job at ABC he struggled and found a job with the NYC welfare department as a case worker.  He didn’t have to go far most days because the bulk of his caseload was in the Endicott Hotel which was converted in 1981 into what are now million dollar condos.  It was in this brief period of his life that I picked him up off the floor and bandaged his head wound.  Something I’ll never forget.

It was not until my adulthood that I began to understand the roots of his drinking.

My father’s childhood had been far from easy.  My grandmother died in childbirth and grandad ran off leaving little Ira to be raised by his maiden aunt, Betty.  He lost an eye to disease and wore a glass replacement for the rest of his life.  He had back surgery, I don’t know when, which because of an anterior entry and the rearrangement of intestines left him with a pot belly which he filled with beer (Miller High Life or Rheingold) as an adult drinker.  That of course was for lighter times, Teacher’s Scotch was his drink of choice.

It was the drinking and the three packs of chesterfield kings a day that were his undoing.  I was never much of a drinker, understandably, but I did smoke as both my parents did.

Years later a cousin said to me “we tolerated your father’s arrogance because of his brilliance.”  Did he feel himself, down deep, an unloved, less than perfect man?

Fifty years after his death there is a mixture of memories good and bad, like anyone else I guess.  As I grow older I see more and more of him in the mirror and in myself.

(email me at ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com for the dropbox link)

Death

Death came to 222 more than once during my lifetime.  After all, it was a building of over 100 apartments divided into two sides.  There were two apartments on the ground floor, entered from the lobby; both of these were on the east side of the building.  I only remember one passing clearly.

I was probably around ten.  It was awful, the smell.  The person who died I did not know; a part of apartment life in New York City. I remember coming down in the elevator and being confronted by what I would later learn was the odor of a lonely death.

When you entered the lobby from the street there were staircases on either side by the facing wall that went up.  On the west side of the building, my side (apartments E,F,G, and H) there was a large fan standing on the top visible step.  It was blowing the smell from the second floor into the lobby, and, I guess out the front door.  I would have put the fan in the apartment doorway and opened all the windows, particularly if there was one to the rear courtyard.  

The doormen and elevator operators knew everyone of course and could have shared information, but probably not with us kids.

The smell lasted for several days; a nauseating reminder of the event.  I was too young, I think, to get the picture.  I never knew my grandparents, who all died before I was aware of them or before I was born;  so, I never experienced what might have been the typical gateway to understanding this stage of life.  

I had a similar experience of not knowing the neighbor who died in my suburban life many years later.

Janet Place in North Woodmere was very different from 222 on West 83rd Street, houses not apartments, a block of maybe fifteen, big trees. In total we lived there about 25 years.  I remember only two deaths on the block. One was our next door neighbor.  The other was two houses down from us.

We saw the ambulance and the police cars. It happened just two doors down, and we didn’t even know a name to use to offer our condolences. After more than five years on the street, our neighbor was anonymous.

That was a Long Island-style tragedy. The death of a neighbor and you don’t even know his name. People came and went all week. We all knew the address, but not the name.

It was a street where privacy was treasured. We knew the people on either side, and the ones across the street and the ones with kids who played in the yard (a little), but the others were virtually invisible. An occasional “good morning” was possible, a nod or a smile, perhaps a wave as we drove by, but never more than those perfunctory greetings.

The reaction of one of our children was truly frightening: seeing the police cars and the ambulance, she, age 3, said, “Somebody died.” Just like that. She didn’t know the name either, but I bet she knew the neighbor’s smile. All the neighbors were pleasant with the children, a little less distant than from the adults. We allowed the children to intrude on our privacy.

Hurricane Gloria brought darkness to one side of the street, but not the other. We shared our freezer space with the ones we knew, but didn’t see anyone else to whom the offer could be made. They were invisible, as they chose to be.

When we first moved here, I thought winter was the cause. Everyone was indoors most of the time, but even in the spring there was a shade drawn between neighbors who should know one another better, if for no other reason than protection from a hostile world where little children speak of death.

We were not unfriendly or unneighborly, and I’m sure they were not either, just invisible. It was a Long Island syndrome. Perhaps the anonymity of the city is contagious, or was it brought here when the first city folk moved east to the suburbs?

It was shameful. I had not realized the shame of it until that person died, two doors down the street. I  lived on for almost seven years, and we didn’t know his name.

He had recently stopped and asked if I wanted a lawn tool that would otherwise go to the garbage men. I took it, gratefully, from his garage, but never knew his name. Another neighbor was no help, didn’t even know there had been a death; knew the family’s last name but nothing more.

I cannot speak for, or about, all of my neighbors, and certainly not for Long Islanders (no one person can), but it is a shame and an embarrassment that this situation persisted.

At 222 the anonymity was a result of sheer numbers. I knew all the kids, we went to the same school, and their parents too. I knew the neighbors on our floor. Together these two groups added up to nine families. 

Only a few less than on that Long Island street. When I think back, I realize that when people died in that building, unless they were part of one of those families, I never knew.

My wife and children canvassed for the American Cancer Society on our street. It is a very interesting experience, asking neighbors you don’t know for donations. After the exchange of receipt for cash, invisibility takes over again.

I am saved just a little from embarrassment of all this by learning that we were not at all unique. A friend told me she asked her husband about the residents of the house three doors down from her, only to find out that they had sold the house and moved, 18 months earlier.

But this was Long Island, suburbia, where my kids learned to live peacefully, without fear, among friends. The same Long Island where someone can die two doors down, and you don’t even know his name.

And I don’t suppose West 83rd Street has changed much.  There’s a bigger building across the street with more potential for not knowing your neighbors.  Lots of missed opportunities in elevators I am sure. Would be nice if the world changed.

*Silhouette credit to Creazilla.