Sunday, December 13, 2015

210. Dying Alone

     Dying is by nature solitary, yet we want someone there to see us out.  When Sarah Bernhardt died, the person who mattered most was at her side – not any of her numerous lovers, but her son, who was with her to the end.  And when André Gide died, he too had the person who mattered most to him at hand: the young man, now married and with a family, who had been his lover as a boy, and who came to him in spite of his familial obligations.  Many such stories can be told.

     These people were lucky.  But in the city there are many who live alone, die alone, and sometimes the body isn’t discovered for days.  If no one claims it, it is shipped off to Hart Island, a small, forbidden island in Long Island Sound near City Island in the Bronx, where the anonymous, the indigent, and the forgotten are buried in plain pine coffins stacked three deep in a common grave dug by inmates from Riker’s Island.  Why is this island forbidden?  Because it is covered with the crumbling remains of abandoned buildings used by facilities long since gone, dilapidated structures that one risks one’s life in visiting.  (See post #49 for more on Hart Island.)  To die alone in the city and be buried on Hart Island is a thought to haunt us all: the saddest end conceivable.  And Hart Island, open as a final resting place since 1869, holds 800,000 such coffins, with more arriving daily.

File:A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890 by Jacob Riis.jpg
Digging graves at Hart Island, 1890.

     Sometimes someone who is by no means indigent or forgotten ends up on Hart Island.  I recall a squib in a New York newspaper from the 1870s reporting that a man just off the boat from one of the British Caribbean islands had exhibited erratic behavior, including hallucinations, and died.  His fellow passengers reported similar behavior on the boat, symptoms typical of delirium tremens and the last, fatal stage of alcoholism.  When no one claimed the body, it was sent off to Hart Island and buried there.  Soon after, relatives looking for him arrived from the Caribbean, and from descriptions were able to identify him and take possession of the body for burial at home.  He was a wealthy planter, but hopelessly given to drink.  His body was reclaimed, but most of those buried then and now on Hart Island, though numbered carefully, will never be identified.

     Recently the New York Times surprised its readers by running on the front page of its Sunday edition an article by N.R. Kleinfield entitled “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” recounting in detail precisely the kind of death so many city residents dread.  I will recount it in summary here, but urge interested viewers to read the entire article (see the source note following).

     A neighbor in the Jackson Heights apartment building in Queens detected a fetid odor from the apartment and dialed 911.  The tenant hadn’t been seen for several days, and his car, parked on the wrong side of the street, had been ticketed.  The firemen came, jimmied the door open, entered.  The police followed, found an apartment crammed with things, a jumble of possessions strewn on the furniture and floor, heaps of litter, trash: the den of a hoarder.  And collapsed on the living room floor was a puffy body, decomposed, unrecognizable.  They assumed it was George Bell, the resident, though no one knew for sure.   

     Now began the complicated routine of a complex of city agencies.  An investigator from the medical examiner’s office was summoned to see if a crime had been committed, and he quickly concluded that there was no sign of a forced entry, no bullet wounds or blood on the body, therefore no evidence of crime.  A Fire Department medic formally declared that the man was dead, and the body, zipped into a human remains pouch, was taken to the morgue at Queens Hospital Center, where it was placed in a refrigerated drawer. 

File:A Scene in the New York Morgue.jpg
Identifying the dead in New York City's first morgue, on the grounds of
Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, 1866.

    Next came the attempt to locate next of kin, but neighbors didn’t know of any.  Finding some names and phone numbers in the apartment, detectives called them but got nowhere, for the man presumed to be George Bell evidently had no wife or siblings.  Meanwhile fingerprints were taken at the morgue – not easy, given the condition of the body – and sent to city, state, and federal data bases, but without results. 

     After nine days with no contact with next of kin, the medical examiner reported the death to the Queens County public administrator, an obscure official whose office manages estates when there is no one else to do so, usually in the absence of a will or known heirs.  Twelve days after the body was discovered, two investigators from the administrator’s office clad in ample white hazmat suits, whole-body garments worn as protective gear against hazardous materials, entered the cluttered apartment to search for clues that might identify the deceased occupant and his heirs.  Bad as this apartment was, they had seen worse: an apartment so cluttered that when the resident died, she died standing up, unable to fall to the floor, and another where the investigators were driven out by swarms of flies. 

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Workers in hazmat suits, dismantling a pier.

     The inspectors inspected the bed, a lumpy fold-out couch in the living room, and a soiled shopping list discovered in the kitchen, where the faucet didn’t work and the stove, being without knobs, was unusable.  A table and some drawers yielded $241 in bills and $187.45 cents in coins, all duly noted.  A bear’s head and steer horns were mounted on the wall, plus some pictures of planes and warships, and photos showing a parachutist coming in for a landing, with a certificate recording George Bell’s first jump in 1963.  Chinese food cartons and pizza boxes were everywhere, showing how the deceased had eaten.  In the clutter were six unopened ironing board covers, packages of unused Christmas lights, and four new tire-pressure gauges, evidence of a hoarder’s blind urge to accumulate.  The investigators left but returned twice more, finding more papers and cash, but no cellphone, computer, or credit cards that might yield useful information.  Said one of them, chastened by his work here and elsewhere, “I don’t want to die alone.”

     Back in the public administrator’s office a young caseworker, officially termed a “decedent property agent,” scrutinized the salvaged photographs and papers while wearing rubber gloves.  The photos showed a child with a holster and toy pistols, a man in uniform, men fishing – ordinary scenes that revealed almost nothing useful.  But an unused passport issued in 2007 identified the holder as George Main Bell Jr., born January 15, 1942, and gave the names of his parents.  There were also greeting cards from friends, and some tax returns prepared by H&R Block that gave information about George Bell’s estate, which amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.  So the hoarder was hardly impecunious, which simply heightened the mystery of his hoarding.  Finally, there was a will, dated 1982, dividing his estate evenly among three men and one woman of unknown relation, and specifying that the remains be cremated.  Now at last the investigators had something tangible to work with, and the mystery of who George Bell was began to be resolved.

     Letters went out to the four heirs, but only one responded: a man in upstate New York who had not been in touch with George Bell for some time.  The deceased’s car was sent to an auctioneer, a funeral home was selected, but queries to doctors’ offices and hospitals furnished no results.  The medical examiner filed an unverified death certificate stating the cause of death as hypertensive and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, with obesity a significant factor.  Though city law requires burial or cremation within four days of discovery, an exemption in this case was granted, pending conclusive identification of the remains.  Meanwhile the unplugged refrigerator had to be removed, its rotting food and roaches disposed of, following which it was sent to a recycling center.   Months passed.

     At last, a bit of luck: in response to queries sent out far and wide, a radiologist reported that he had X-rays of George Bell dating from 2004.  Retrieved from a warehouse, they were compared to X-rays taken by the medical examiner’s office, and they proved at last – four months after his death – that the body was indeed that of George Bell.  A rented hearse took the remains to the funeral home, where they were placed in a wooden coffin and sent on to a crematory for cremation, with no mourners, no member of the clergy: the simplest, bleakest disposal conceivable.  The cremation required three hours, and some days later an urn containing the ashes (the “cremains”) was deposited in a storage area.

     George Bell’s car, a Toyota, was auctioned off and sold for $9,500, beating expectations.  His watch fetched three dollars at another auction, and six husky men from a junk removal service broke up George Bell’s furniture and scooped up his cluttered belongings and shoveled them into trash cans and bags.  It took seven hours, and the stuff was taken by trucks to a Bronx dump that paid good rates.  The workers took a few items for themselves: a set of Marilyn Monroe porcelain plates, an unopened package of socks, some model cars, a television.  A worker wearing George Bell’s boots cleaned up his apartment.

File:A dump in Boa Vista, Cape Verde, December 2010.jpg
Where our treasured belongings may one day end up.

     By law, George Bell’s assets could not be distributed for seven months after his death, allowing time for creditors to appear.  Meanwhile the heirs were traced via the Internet; two had died; the others, long out of touch with him, were surprised at being named in his will.  Distant cousins were found and included as heirs; one had never even heard of George Bell.  The apartment, the last asset to dispose of, was sold to a neighbor for $215,000.  The estate was finally tallied at $540,000, which commissions, fees, and other expenses reduced to $264,000.  Fourteen months after the man’s death, checks to the heirs went out. 

     Interviews with people who had known George Bell filled in a few details of his life.  He had been in the moving business and developed a close friendship with one of the heirs; a thickset, brawny man, Bell had been known to his friends as Big George.  One surviving friend told how George had a prankish streak.  Once, when moving the furniture of a financial firm, he slipped notes into the desk drawers: “I’m madly in love with you.  Meet me at the water cooler,” and “There’s a bomb under your chair.  Your next move might be your last.”  Yet no one really knew him, knew what made him tick.  He had almost married, but broke it off when the bride’s mother insisted on a prenuptial agreement; but the intended bride, now deceased,  was named in the will.  In 1996 George Bell had injured his shoulder during a moving job and had retired, getting workers’ compensation and Social Security disability.  His old friends had died or drifted away.  His life became empty, but he had one good friend in the neighborhood with whom he went fishing and talked by the hour.  Even he had no idea that George Bell had become a hoarder; he felt that George had died of sadness.  “I miss him,” he told the interviewer.  “I would like to see George one more time.  He was my friend.  One more time.”  So ends the story, skimpy as it is, of George Bell, who died alone in the city. 

      Should the Times have pried into the life of this lonely man who in his last years kept to himself and concealed his hoarding?  In spite of its length – 8,000 words – over three million people have read it either in print or online.  Many readers wrote to the Times’s Public Editor with praise, one calling it the best thing he had ever read in the Times, while another said that it deserved a Pulitzer Prize; a few raised the issue of privacy, questioning the Times’s showing photos of the cluttered apartment and mentioning old love letters and medical records.  But when the author consulted Bell's closest surviving friend and his heirs, they all were in favor of the story being published, and Mr. Kleinfeld himself said that George Bell “was a stand-in for all the people who die these lonely deaths.”  Among the Letters to the Editor that the Times printed, one called the article a “lyrical novella,” another saw it as eloquently describing the reality of hoarding in the city, and one declared it a “callous violation of George Bell’s privacy.”  I understand all these views, but personally I think the article was justified; it reports on a sad fact of living in the city: the lonely deaths of people who live alone.

     George Bell’s story reminds me of a 1911 novel by the French author Jules Romains, Mort de quelqu’un (The Death of Someone), which tells the story of a childless widower, a man so ordinary that when he dies, only his aged parents remember him for any length of time.  When they die, the memory of him likewise dies, and it’s as if he had never existed on this earth.  Though I read it long ago, it haunts me to this day.

     Whether we die alone or with loved ones on hand, do any of us have a right to be remembered?  It’s a chancy business.  Catullus, a major Roman poet, is known today because a single manuscript of his survived the Middle Ages and was discovered crammed between a wine vat and a wall in a monastery.  And of the works of the Greek poet Sappho, renowned in ancient times, we have only one complete poem, quoted in its entirety by a later author; of all the rest, only fragments, likewise quoted, remain. 

     And what about those of us who lack the talent – and perhaps the luck – of Catullus?  Do we have a right to be remembered at all?  The answer depends on our belief system, or lack of one.  Some might say no.  Others might insist that our every thought, word, and deed exists in the mind of God and therefore has eternal life.  This last, though wonderfully consoling, requires a spiritual commitment.  Maybe it’s true … and maybe not.  But if George Bell’s death haunts us, it’s because he is us, or may be, and his lonely death is the very death that we all fear, especially in the city.

     Does it have to be this way?  No, not in a caring community.  One such community is Monhegan, the small island off midcoast Maine where Bob and I used to vacation.  One of the most colorful of the year-round residents was an artist named Lynne Drexler, with whom we were slightly acquainted.  She came off as one tough cookie, bossy and sharp-tongued, with a voice like dark molasses, speaking her mind with utter indifference to what other people thought: a free spirit if there ever was one.  At midday, when the island dock was crowded with islanders and visitors awaiting the arrival of the daily mail boat from the mainland, I often saw her walk the length of the dock, greeting no one and looking neither to neither left nor right, while others babbled all around her.  What the point of this silent promenade was I never fathomed.

     Lynne’s paintings, bold splotches of color as assertive as herself, sold well to summer visitors and fetch high prices today.  For all her off-putting ways, she did have friends among the islanders and would receive them in her house, sitting on a couch in white sneakers, a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  Bob and I and some others were invited there once, not for whiskey but for tea.  Instead of inviting her guests to partake of the goodies spread out on a table, she slouched down out of sight and voiced barbed opinions on a variety of subjects, her  voice projected from some hidden nook at the other end of the room.  Finally we realized that it was up to us to help ourselves, and when I went to the table to do so, I discovered her at last, sprawled on the floor in a corner, cigarette in hand.  It was the strangest affair I’ve ever been invited to, a Mad Hatter’s tea party where none of the usual rules held fast.

     Why am I mentioning Lynne Drexler now?  Because of what happened when she learned she had terminal cancer with only six months to live.  “Well, I guess I’m going to croak,” she announced, without a trace of self-pity, but with an edge of defiance.  She wanted to die on the island, where there was no doctor, no nurse, and just one paramedic, so her neighbors  formed a volunteer hospice group of eight who, as her condition worsened, took turns staying with her round the clock.  She lasted a year, and when she died, all eight of the group were with her, one holding one hand and another the other, while they played her recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which she loved.  After she died, one of them leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, knowing full well that, living, she would have hated it.  She is buried on the island in the little hillside cemetery that I have often visited, sometimes to look at old gravestones, sometimes to hunt rare wildflowers, and once in vain hopes of witnessing the weird mating ritual of the male woodcock, performed only in springtime at dusk.

Lynne Drexler's grave, with her white house in the background.
Barbara Hitchcock

Barbara Hitchcock

     When we go, will we be as lucky as Lynne Drexler and have loving friends around us, or as unlucky as George Bell, who died alone and collapsed amid the clutter he had secretly amassed?  A thought to haunt us all.

     Coming soon:  Cemeteries: Green-Wood and Woodlawn fight for our remains.  In the offing: Con men, cheats, and thieves. 

     The book:  Once again, many thanks to all those who bought my collection of posts.  Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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