Sunday, February 26, 2017

282. A Rockaway Mystery: Death, Theft, a Pauper's Grave

         The author's copies of Bill Hope: His Story have arrived and are available.  Here is the publisher's announcement of the book.

Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017): is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be sent immediately.  And now on to the Rockaways.

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         Rockaway, also known as the Rockaways (a corruption of the Lenape name for the site), is a skinny peninsula in the borough of Queens that faces the ocean and as a result has been a recreational area – first for the rich and later for everyone – but also a site exposed to the rigors of the sea.  Unique though it is by virtue of its location, like many New York neighborhoods it has experienced the ups and downs of development, crime, economic decline, renewal, and gentrification, and in October 2012 it was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.


         I first knew the Rockaways in the 1950s when I made the long trip by subway and bus from Manhattan to Riis Park beach, one end of which was a gay section that the authorities were well aware of and tolerated … up to a point.  Most of the sunbathers were well-behaved, though I do remember once hearing a young kid emerge from the sea exclaiming joyously, “I just had wild sex out on the sandbar!”  The distant sandbar indeed had a naughty reputation, though I never ventured that far out.  On another occasion I saw the police lecturing two very young boys whose bikinis were deemed a bit too skimpy.  And once I saw three teen-age gay boys talking to two wide-eyed teen-age girls who were sitting on the sand next to them.  “We don’t need you!” one of the boys exclaimed, less with hostility than affirmation.  For the girls it was a lesson in life not taught in the public schools.
         But my most memorable experience on the gay beach at Riis Park is of an exhibitionist giving a performance – just a witty spiel, nothing more -- that drew too much of a crowd.  When the police arrived, he said to them, “Just a few more minutes, please,” and they obliged, allowing him, when a plane zoomed overhead, to finish his impromptu act by staring skyward, arms outstretched, and yelling, “Come back, Dave, come back -- all is forgiven!”  With the crowd convulsed with laughter, he then let himself be led off by the minions of order, to what fate I do not know.

         My one other experience of the Rockaways came years later when, enticed by reports of migrating shore birds in the area, I went out there to Fort Tilden, whose abandoned military installations once guarded that part of New York.  Traipsing along the beach and through the sand dunes, I saw not one migrating shore bird, but a great many graffiti-covered batteries and magazines, relics from World War I originally installed to fend off any aggressive designs that Kaiser Wilhelm might have toward the unoffending borough of Queens.  But graffiti-covered batteries weren’t what I had come for, so I departed therefrom and by bus and subway accessed the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where birds of all kinds abounded.  So ends this prelude about my scant knowledge of the Rockaways, where recently a strange and disturbing tale has unfolded.

File:Rockaway Beach Queens.JPG
Rockaway beach

         In July 2013 Donata Rea, a resident of the Rockaways acting with power of attorney for the Karen M. Connors Living Trust, applied for Build It Back funds, the city’s program to help homeowners with reconstruction of property damaged by Hurricane Sandy.  Ms. Rea received $60,000 in payments for repairs to the Trust’s two houses on Beach 120th Street, where she herself lived, and turned one of them into an apartment house with three units and leased them to tenants.  When tenants moved in, they were told that Karen Connors was the landlady, yet they never saw her.  Neighbors said that they had seen Karen Connors carried off in an ambulance two years before, and that she had never returned; though puzzled, the tenants continued to write their monthly rent checks to Ms. Rea.    

File:SW edge of burnt district Breezy Sandy jeh.jpg
The Rockaways after Sandy

         That all was not on the up and up on Beach 120th Street became apparent in 2015, when investigators received a tip in that Ms. Rea had sold two condominiums in Florida belonging to Karen Connors for $146,000,had collected $50,000 in rent from the three apartments, and had signed a contract to sell the house to a buyer for $800,000.

         It turned out that Karen Connors was dead.  The county public administrator’s office learned now that the late Karen Connors had an estate that included not just the two houses on Beach 120th Street, but also two condominiums in southern Florida, and quickly brought action against Donata Rea to recover the property.  Ms. Rea had created the Karen M. Connors Living Trust in a document that, bearing the forged signature of the deceased Karen Connors, gave Ms. Rea not just the two Rockaways houses, but also the dead woman’s jewelry and furniture, and a bank account of more than $32,000.  And shortly after that, again with a forged signature, she had obtained power of attorney over Ms. Connors.  Confronted with these facts, Ms. Rea surrendered the property to the public administrator and was then arrested, charged with grand larceny, and released on her own recognizance.  Ms. Rea’s lawyer insists that his client, unaware of Ms. Connors’ death, had acted in good faith after Sandy hit, trying to help her friend and neighbor restore her damaged property – a matter that will be settled in court.  But it does appear that Donata Rea was a woman of a very enterprising nature.

         The story does not end there.  What had become of Karen Mary Connors?  Age 63, she had died of cancer and a heart attack at Peninsula Hospital Center on November 18, 2011.  When she died, her body was released to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which normally notifies the county public administrator of the death of anyone with no known next of kin, so that office can oversee the estate.  But for some reason that did not happen in this case, so the authorities were completely unaware of her estate.  Result: she was mistaken for a pauper and buried in a mass grave on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field at the western end of Long Island Sound, where the coffins of the unknown, unclaimed, and unwanted are stacked up by convicts from Riker’s Island and buried deep.  Covered with the crumbling ruins of abandoned facilities of another era, the island today is a forbidden zone, accessible only to grave-digging convicts and the unknown dead.

         So who was this woman who, dying, suffered the double indignity of a pauper’s grave and the alleged theft of her estate by a neighbor?  The only child of a New York City firefighter turned lawyer, she had attended St. Leo College in Florida, graduating in 1972 with a degree in philosophy and theater.  Photographs show an attractive young woman with long blond hair who engaged in many activities at college.  How she spent the years that followed is unknown.  Her father died in 1966 and her mother in 1976, and sometime after that, having never married, she returned to the family’s two-story summer home on the Rockaways, where neighbors described her as a recluse in her later years, more apt to complain about noisy children than engage in conversation: one of those solitary figures, so common in the city, who live and die obscurely.

         What now?  The public administrator will auction off her homes in March, the proceeds going to any cousins who can be located.  Her remains will be disinterred from Hart Island and buried, not in the Long Island cemetery where her parents are buried, since it is full, but in a Catholic cemetery nearby.   And Ms. Rea?  When a reporter knocked on her door, down the street from the Connors houses, a woman inside announced, “She’s not here.”  And who provided the tip that led to the discovery of Ms. Rea’s activities?   A suspicious neighbor?  The authorities haven’t said.

         I love New York, but lost in its feverish intensity are quiet lives that no one notices until they obscurely die, if even then.  What happens after their death depends upon whether or not there are friends or relatives to identify the body, see to its disposal and then administer the will, if there is one, or otherwise claim, and then divide the estate.  Karen Mary Connors was one such person, and her passing would hardly have attracted attention, had it not been for Ms. Rea’s intervention.  May she rest in peace.

         For more on Hart, the forbidden island, see post #233, “Hart Island.”  For more on dying alone in the city, and all that can follow, see post #210, “Dying Alone.”

         Source note:  For the story of Karen Connors and her estate, I am indebted to an article in the New York Times of February 20, 2017.

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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  Maybe a post on Doctors from Hell and Their Opposites.  Reports from the medical battlefield, with defeats and victories.

         ©   2017   Clifford Browder