Friday, June 17, 2016

The end of an era

When we moved into our condo, 25 years ago, there was an “old timer” living in the building. He’d been there forever, – since the 1950’s  – in a cramped basement apartment, somehow managing to shelter in place (was it rent control?), even after his apartment was condo-ized. This week, that “old timer” turns 99, so 25 years ago, he was “only” in his mid-seventies. Some old timer…

When we moved into our condo, and I met J, I recognized him right away. He was the bartender, and (as it turns out) the owner, of a bar in Cambridge I’d been to a couple of times. I knew him as an old grouch, as that’s what he’d been to me and my colleague Nancy when we made our monthly pilgrimage to the eponymous “J’s” for a grilled cheese sandwich, a diet coke, and an episode of All My Children, a soap that we both followed. There was never anybody else there. The TV was sitting there in the bar, unwatched. We were hardly disturbing anyone’s peace. We were good tippers (nothing like ex-waitresses). Yet the old grouch would slam down our sandwiches, anger-spray our diet cokes, and only grudgingly turn on AMC for us.

And here he was, the old grouch. In my building.

(By the way, “J’s” wasn’t the only bar that the old grouch owned. J had another place, quite well known as a music venue.)

Anyway, Jim and I rarely saw the old grouch. He worked really late at his club, then stayed in bed all day.

On rare occasions, he’d call us and ask – actually demand – that we help him take care of some little problem or other. He couldn’t figure out his answering machine. The light in his hall was out. Maybe he thought we were the live in supers. But we took care of whatever the problem was, telling each other that we were paying it forward, and maybe someone would be nice to us when we were old grouches.

Mostly when J saw us, and we greeted him, he kind of grudgingly acknowledged our existence with some sort of cantankerous hello. The only nice thing he ever said to me was when he told me that he really liked the tulips I planted each year. (J’s windows were on the front garden.)

Who cared that we weren’t best buddies? He was just an old grouch, nothing to do with us.

There was one period, however, when J kinda-sorta pissed us off. He invited a young ex-con to bunk in with him. I really do believe in second chances, but W was pretty hard core: surly, menacing, unpleasant. I was more than happy when W decamped.

J worked well into his eighties. Having had a night owl schedule for so long, he kept it up even after he quit. Most nights, he went out to dinner and then hit the bar scene. We’d see him walking over to his favorite place in Back Bay, and comment that he had the vigor of someone a decade (or two younger).

J still went out every night, but suddenly he started to slow down. He was no longer walking to his favorite place, J was out front flagging a cab. Sometimes I’d jump in and flag one for him.

We’d make sure J knew if something was happening in the building – water off for a couple of hours, or whatever. We’d run an occasional – very occasional – errand for him. Nothing noble, nothing above and beyond, just commonplace whatever. I always made sure that the ice was cleared from the steps that went down to his little basement flat.

Then J hit his mid-nineties, and he wasn’t really going out much anymore. Sometimes, I’d find him sitting on the front steps, taking in the sun. I’d get him a cup of water and tell him not to stay out to long. After a few minutes, I’d go out to check on him, figuring that someday, I wasn’t going to find him, but his body, dead from the heat.

Over the years, J’s landlord, M, could not have been better to him. J’s only child lived on the West Coast. She came East once a year or so, and, when J became house-bound a couple of years ago, she arranged for home aides to take care of him. But M, who had always been very attentive to J’s needs, stayed close to the situation, and made sure that J was getting the care he needed.

Running into them in our common laundry area, I got to know J’s home care aides, mostly middle-aged women from the DR. (One of them is a story for another day.) I made sure that they had my number, and told them they could call me or come by and knock any time if J fell. Or if he died, and they wanted someone to sit with them while waiting for someone to come and “call” it, and for the funeral parlor guys to come and fetch his body. The only call I ever got was when one wanted to know whether there was trash pickup on a holiday.

When my husband was dying, we had to laugh when Jim said, “Christ, I always said that g.d. J would outlive us all. And now it’s happening.”

Once J became housebound, I rarely saw him. He actually had plenty of friends who visited. He didn’t need someone who didn’t know or particularly like him, and whom he didn’t know or particularly like paying a call. But I heard him, moaning and hollering. I asked the home aides, and M, J’s landlord, about it. Just standard old age stuff, they assured me. He was calling for him mother, praying for God to take him.

A few weeks ago, when I was in the laundry room (which has a rear door into J’s apartment) I heard real yelling coming from J. “I’m in pain. I’m in pain.” I knocked on the door, and the aide told me that when she changed J and cleaned him up, it was painful when she touched his sores. Oh. I told her that he had bedsores, and she told me that she’d make sure the visiting nurse knew.

I called M and let him know. I ask him if he wanted me to call J’s daughter, but M said he’d take care of it. Then M jumped into immediate action. He got city elder services involved. He got one of those pressure-relieve mattresses brought in. He stepped up the nurse visits. And elder services made the call that J needed to be in a round-the-clock care setting. And then they made the arrangements.

Yesterday morning, J left for a nursing home. It’s quite a nice one. It’s Catholic, which J will like. (I believe he was in the seminary at one point in his life.) They’ll be able to move him out to get a little sun. They’ll make sure he gets turned regularly. He’ll be well taken care of.

Not that those home aides didn’t take good care of him.

If it means being in physical (bedsores) and/or existential (praying to die) pain, I don’t want to live to be 99. But if I do, I hope that I will have the same sort of kind, strong, good home caregivers that J has had. And a landlord as generous and attentive as M.

I won’t be surprised if J dies tomorrow. But he’s a tough old grouch, so I will be equally unsurprised if he makes it to 100.

Whatever happens with J, it’s the end of an era. And the beginning of a new one. While I’m not the grouchy type, I am now officially the old timer in residence here. Yes, there are a few people in our little building who are a couple of years older, but I’ve been here the longest.

I’m not going to say I’ll miss J. But still…Let’s just leave it that it’s the end of an era.

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