Consider the Alternative

Irene Marcuse June, 2002
Chapter One

It has its moments, being out of a job. Regardless of whether you’ve quit, been laid off, or gotten fired, if you can manage to set aside the financial worries for a few minutes – no small feat – you notice a kind of elation lurking in your breast. The rest of the world is tied to the clock, busy doing things they’d rather not, while you’ve got an unplanned day stretching ahead of you. Free time!

Of course, it’s a lot simpler when you’re young and unattached. I spent my twenties picking up and discarding waitress jobs while I nurtured the hope that someday I’d make a living painting watercolors. Uh-huh. As my mother says, you live long enough, you get smart. I finally woke up to the realization that it was one thing to be waiting tables at thirty, but I sure didn’t want to be doing it at forty.

So I moved across the continent from California to New York City, where I nursed my grandmother through her final year. After she died, I put the small inheritance she left me to use and got a master’s degree in social work. Since then, I’ve also acquired a husband and a foster daughter whose adoption we have every reason to think might actually be on the eve of finalization.

Until six weeks ago, I’d had a good job, working with the elderly population of my Upper West Side neighborhood. On September 1, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine pulled the plug on funding for my agency, Senior Services. Call me optimistic; I was confident that social work jobs with good benefits, in walking distance of where I live, with hours that could flex enough to allow for the demands of a family, would not be hard to locate or land.

By the middle of October, I was getting nervous about money. My husband, Benno, is a self-employed cabinet-maker, which means we carry the major overhead of a woodworking shop whether he’s busy or not. Our health insurance disappeared with my job, and our monthly premium as private payers is $18.42 less than a month’s maintenance payment on our apartment.

Not that I hadn’t managed to occupy my time. I filled two photo albums, bringing our family history up to Clea’s sixth birthday – only three years to go. With any luck, the sweater I was knitting would still fit her by the time I got it finished. Not to mention washing all seven windows in our apartment, repotting my grandmother’s collection of African violets, and cooking dinners that actually required recipes.

Nevertheless, the joys of unemployment were beginning to tarnish.

While the New York Jets were well on their way to a winning season, I became a devotee of the ‘Help Wanted’ section of Sunday’s Times. Monday mornings were occupied with composing hopeful cover letters to accompany my resume. In an average week, I applied for a dozen jobs that all sounded more appealing in their advertisements than at the handful of interviews I’d landed.

New York – it’s who you know, and the connections work in ways mysterious and strange. The best of my job prospects came through Benno, one of those six-degrees kinds of things. For years, he’s been easing the stress on his lower back with a monthly shiatsu session. As he got to know the masseuse, Katsu Kajiwara, it emerged that he’d trained as a woodworker before turning to the less strenuous art of massage. When Benno needed an occasional hand on a large project, he’d hire Katsu to work with him.

In one of those odd coincidences New York throws at its residents, Katsu’s wife was also a social worker at a small non-profit agency serving the elderly in Morningside Heights. Benno told me that at the moment of realization, he’d joked to Katsu that maybe they were married to the same woman.

Susan Wu and I had actually met, in a professional way, before our husbands did. Susan was the executive director of NAN, Neighbors Aiding Neighbors, and Senior Services had done money management for several of her clients. NAN’s second social worker had quit abruptly two weeks ago. The connection through our husbands meant that I knew about the opening before it was advertised, and Susan had expedited my application and interview. I was more than qualified; I knew the age group, their needs, and the services available to them. Career-wise, it would be a lateral move for me – walking ten blocks further north was the main difference in what I’d be doing.

We’d discussed salary, schedule, job title, responsibilities. The upshot was that, pending approval of NAN’s board of directors, I was hired. They’d met last night, and I expected a formal offer this morning.

Which meant this was my last Saturday of freedom. Walking through the flurry of yellow leaves from the trees in Sakura Park at ten am, I was feeling virtuous and full of hope: I’d volunteered the morning to my new job.

It helped that lending some muscle to schlep boxes for NAN’s fall flea market meant that I’d have a chance to check out the donated treasures.

I know, this is a lot of explanation, but be patient. I’m telling a story, a story about death. Not a topic you can just jump into.

I work with people who are near the end of their natural lifespans, so I get to see death up close. It can come quickly, or as a drawn-out misery. I’ve learned that a lingering death is not always a bad thing, nor a fast death a mercy.

There’s comfort in simply sitting with a person on the threshold. I know; when it came time for my grandmother, I wanted her with me as long as possible. Maybe it would have been different if she’d been in pain, but she wasn’t.

Some people never recover from a sudden loss. Unfinished business is the greater part of grief, according to my mother, and it’s regret that salts the tears. Death without warning steals more than the future; it also takes away any chance of reconciling the past.

Morbid thoughts for a sunlit morning.

October is the month that makes winter worthwhile, that won me over to seasons. Benno has his mother’s Mediterranean climate in his blood and summer is his season. He’d do well in my hometown, Berkeley, where the Pacific air is mild all year long. Me, I relish the days when summer’s humid pall has evaporated and the leaves turn from their oppressive, omnipresent green to blaze gold and red against a sky as close as the east coast ever gets to the crisp blue of northern California.

The seasons actually change later in the city than the rest of the state. The concrete holds the heat, and leaves linger longer on their trees. Mid-October, the piles were deep enough to shuffle under my feet. Going down the steps from Convent Avenue, the Virginia creeper that clung to the high brick retaining wall was a splatter painting of scarlet and green. It felt good to be up and out in the world.

Just as I got to Broadway, a northbound train came screeching out of its underground lair for the brief stretch where the subway soars over the valley of 125th Street. Caught by the Don’t Walk light, I had to wait under the stone arch supporting the track while the ultimate sound of the city clanked above my head. Back to reality.

The brakes squealed into the station. The light changed. I crossed over to Monument Estates, home of NAN.

The office was located in one of the ten buildings that make up the Estates complex. The brick high-rises, erected in the 1950s by a consortium of area educational institutions including Columbia University, Union and Jewish Theological Seminaries, and Manhattan School of Music, served as a bulwark against the encroachments of Harlem. Since it provided subsidized middle-income housing, the Estates also became a haven for an integrated population of mid-level professionals.

As I walked up the steps, a bass drone of movie-actor voices seeped through the crack between open office windows and drawn Venetian blinds. NAN sponsored a Saturday video program, and Susan had warned me that a volunteer might be in early to pre-screen the movie. It sounded like she was right.

I rang the bell four times before the soundtrack went silent. An elderly white woman with hair sparse as dandelion fluff opened the door.

"You’re early. The movie doesn’t start until two."

"I know." I smiled into her unwelcoming face and told her I was meeting Susan Wu.

"I don’t know anything about that. Maybe she’s in her office." The woman jerked her head at a closed door behind and to her left. "Well, you’d better come in. I’m Addie Collins."

It was grudging, but I’d take it. "Anita Servi." I offered her a hand, which she looked at like it was an unacceptable piece of meat at the butcher’s, and didn’t take.

"I’ve been her for half an hour. I suppose she – " another jerk toward the door – "came in earlier. At least she hasn’t come out to bother me. I don’t expect anyone to be here Saturday morning. I like to watch the movie straight through without interruptions. I’m the one who lets people in, you know, and I have to open the door and take the money. We say two o’clock sharp on the signs but people always come late, and then they take their time getting settled. With all that going on, I can’t concentrate on the show."

"I won’t keep you, then." I’d almost forgotten how it was, working with the elderly – you got the whole story whether you wanted it or not.

Addie wasn’t ready to let me go. She gave the inner door two sharp raps with a backhanded fist. "Susan! Your friend is here!"

There was no response.

"Where is she?" Addie knocked again. "I thought that darn alarm wasn’t set when I let myself in, but this door was closed so I didn’t worry about the alarm. I assumed Susan was in her office."

"Maybe." I tried a knock myself, and then the knob. It didn’t turn.

"I suppose she could have slipped out and I wouldn’t have noticed. This ‘Henry the Eighth’ is rather loud." Addie considered me. "Would you like to watch it with me while you wait?"

At the other end of the short hall were two open doors, one to the bathroom, the other to a second office.

"No thanks, I don’t want to intrude," I told Addie. "I’ll wait in the other room."

"Suit yourself." Addie shrugged and went back to the movie.

NAN’s home is actually a converted two-bedroom apartment. The wall between kitchen and living room had been removed to make a single open space for group events like the videos, shown on a large-screen TV. The former bedrooms serve as functional if cramped offices. Susan had the larger; the other, now packed with flea market donations, would be mine.

I pushed open the door and flipped on the overhead light. The floor area, except for a small space in front of a pair of file cabinets, was piled with boxes. The desk and both chairs held an assortment of plastic shopping bags which spewed yarn, stuffed animals, baskets, a painted metal tray, empty picture frames. A toaster oven wearing two straw hats occupied the windowsill. It was obvious why Susan needed help carting it all down to the storage unit in the basement.

An orange tiger perched on a shopping cart loaded with jigsaw puzzle boxes glared at me with a baleful glass eye. I stepped cautiously past him to open the blinds. I thought a little real daylight might help me figure out what I could do while I waited for Susan. I surveyed the jumble, trying to organize it mentally. The one cart was already full; any box that could be closed was, and stacked chest-high against the wall.

I kicked myself for not stopping at the Bread Shop to pick up coffee on my way in. Well, maybe that was where Susan had gone. I reached for the tiger, intending to turn him around so he’d stop staring at me, when I realized the cart stood in front of a connecting door between the two offices.

I figured what the hell, and gave it a knock. Still no answer; no surprise there. I tried that knob, too. At least in Susan's office there’d be room to sit while I waited.

It didn’t turn. Nor was there a slot for a key. So if Susan wasn’t in there, how did the doors get locked?

Right, they were bedroom doors. The knobs were probably equipped with the kind of turning mechanism that locked automatically when the door was closed. The soundtrack from the living room provided the kind of menacing, atmospheric music that signals the approach of a bad guy.

I knocked again, louder. The thin walls were perfect for the conduction of noise. If she was there, no way Susan didn’t hear me. And if she wasn’t, how did she plan to get back in?

I rattled the knob, frustrated.

It took me a minute. If the lock had inadvertently been turned when Susan, not realizing it, closed the door behind her as she left, she’d have locked herself out. Maybe she’d gone to find someone from maintenance to help her get back in?

Anything’s possible.

I knew an easier way to get past these flimsy locks. I opened my wallet. VISA was everywhere I wanted to be. I used the stiff plastic card to hold the latch back while I pushed the door open.

Thin bars of sun angled through the drawn blinds and fell on a gawky figure in the client’s chair beside the desk.