Work, Drama, Love and Struggle: A Day in the Life of the Aging Bronx

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Aaron Mayorga

For the past 22 and 35 years, respectively, Rachel Ballard and Emma Lewis have called Morrison Avenue home. But they don't know how much longer that will last.

Pushing an air conditioner up a hill and getting it installed – that was foremost in one man’s mind. Several people were looking for other ways to avoid the sun and heat. Others talked about their financial woes and health problems in old age. Some talked about leaving the Bronx and New York and America now that they were retired.

Roughly one in eight of the nearly 1.5 million people living in the Bronx are age 65 or older. City Limits reporters fanned out across the Bronx on a warm recent weekday to talk to older residents where they live or work or relax, and ask them about what they are doing, how they are doing, and what is on their minds.

Some people over 65 are longtime residents, some are newcomers. Some work, some are retired, some are in between. Some take care of others, and some need to be taken care of. In many ways, they are like any other Bronx residents, with the same concerns and problems, the same priorities: Faith, family, fun.


He Never Learned to Read, But He Learned to Work
By Jeff Arak

Sammy Reyes, 61, pushed a large portable – barely portable – air conditioning unit into a yellow handcart. Up the hill Reyes and the machine labored, toward Webster Avenue.

Puerto Rican and American flags snapped and waved atop the machine, and a small tape player blared attached to the hand truck blared Christian bachata.

Reyes nodded toward the AC unit, his burden now and, he hoped, his relief later. “A brother from church sold it to me for $70,” he said. “It was a good deal.”

Reyes has lived in the Bronx for 60 years. He used to go home to Puerto Rico when he was younger, but doesn’t make the trip much anymore. He dropped out of Roosevelt High School and never learned to read.

“I learned to work, though,” he said, with still a mile to go pushing the air conditioner.

He paused when he reached Grand Concourse, looking around. He lived here for a time, on the streets. Eventually he was taken in by a woman from church; he helps around the house in exchange for his room.

Resuming his journey, he stopped again when the tape player stopped. He banged it a few times in his hands. He mostly plays songs he hears in church; that’s where he lost the “bad attitude” that plagued his early life.

“Some people have an attitude when they are young,” he said. “They grow up and still have attitude. I’m glad I lost mine.”

Getting his life right was like a puzzle, he said: “You’ve got to put back your life, what’s missing. If you argue, forgive. If you don’t forgive, God will never forgive. We all make mistakes.”

Rounding the corner at 183rd Street, he said his building was just a block further. He pulled out a bottle of water and said he planned to install the air conditioner in his room as soon as he could cut a piece of wood to make the unit fit snugly his window. Then he was going to sit down and watch TV.


In Kingsbridge, Made in the Shade
By Megan Conn

Kids were out splashing and shrieking in fountains and pools and the spray from fire hydrants. In Kingsbridge, older folks were relaxing on shady stoops and porches, reminiscing on times, and people, gone by.

Luca Monferato, 71, smiled out at the street from the steps of his mid-rise apartment building, on the same block where he was born. He said he misses going to church. Monferato, a Vietnam veteran and a former high-school religion teacher with a personal letter from the pope to prove it, used to attend Our Lady of Angels Church, but stopped after he could no longer drive. He doesn’t want to walk the half-mile home, especially after dark.

Since his younger sister died two years ago, Monferato said, he no longer has any living family. Monferato credited his own health to his long practice of jujitsu and a lifetime of clean habits – no smoking, drinking, or drugs, ever. “Most of the smokers I knew are gone now,” he said.

Outside the nearby University Avenue Assisted Living apartments, Enid Spruell, 80, was enjoying an afternoon cigarette, talking about how she and her late husband ran two Manhattan restaurants – and about her mother.

“When he died I found myself a little more lonely,” she said, “but when my mother died last year – she was 104 – I lost my best friend. I used to talk to her every day.”

Spruell said her two sons are usually too busy to visit, and her grandson has stopped coming to see her. “Now it’s just me and the good Lord here,” she said. “I still talk to my mother every day. Just today, I told her ‘Why’d you leave me, Mama?'”

Still, Spruell said she isn’t one to complain – another of her mother’s teachings. She said she likes the apartment staff and the activities, especially playing cards and Connect Four. “I didn’t say I was happy,” she said, “but I am content with my life.”


In Riverdale, the Play’s the Thing
By Jazmin Goodwin

Jazmin Goodwin

Riverdale Senior Services' Arts Studio Drama Club meets weekly to do read-throughs of favorite plays.

“Class Is In Session. Please Knock,” was the message on the back of a gray door at Riverdale Senior Services. Inside, scripts of plays were sprawled across a table. The theatrical voices of six older women ebbed and flowed across the room.

The women make up the local Arts Studio Drama Club that meets weekly to do read-throughs of favorite plays.

Jeannie Bowers, 71, the instructor, smiled as the women ran through the lines of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”

“Our aim is to express ourselves honestly and have fun,” Bowers said.

For some of the women in the room, participating in the drama club marked their first experience with acting. Shirley Small, 89, from the East Bronx, was intrigued when she heard of the club; she showed up thinking she was going to see a play.

“I didn’t expect to act in it. I expected to be entertained. Then we got assigned parts. I’m vision impaired so it can be hard to read the scripts, but I work through it,” she said. “I’m falling apart. My eyesight is losing and I’m always in pain, so I try to distract myself with different activities I like.”

Nerida Colon, 71 said she felt rejuvenated after joining. “I loved drama as a child,” she said. “When I joined, I realized this was what I was looking for. It keeps me moving.”

Colon said she often thinks of her mother, who died recently at 102.

“She always told us growing up to keep going and remain motivated. I tell myself to keep going and do the things I enjoy,” Colon said.


Dancin’ to Aretha: “People made their kids on that music”
By Gaspard Le Dem

Niecy Middleton was unruffled despite the sweltering heat outside the Morrisania public library on East 169th Street.

A rotating cast of seniors came in and out of the library, often congregating on the building’s steps and on benches where Middleton was sitting in a small park across the street. Some stopped and chatted with Middleton, a retired schoolteacher who said the library has become a usual hangout for her and her friends, both inside and and outside.

“I get movies,” she said. “It’s nice and cool out here.”

The 65-year-old mother of seven said she and her husband moved to New York City 10 years ago after struggling to find work in her hometown of Charleston, S.C. They moved into public housing in Claremont Village.

Her husband, a demolition specialist, quickly found work by joining Blasters, Drillrunners and Miners Union Local 29 in Queens. He is now retired.

Middleton said she has few complaints about her life in New York City. The garbage trucks are noisy in the morning, and she’s still scared of the subway, but that’s about it.

She likes the bus system. “I’ll ride the bus any day,” Middleton said.

In August, she had a wonderful time at the 6th Annual Senior Citizens Day at the Bronx YMCA in Castle Hill. “All the old people were dancing,” she said. Aretha Franklin recordings, especially, got people up and moving. “Lotta people made their kids on that music,” she said. Middleton said she danced only a little, thanks to an old injury; she needs monthly steroid injections in her leg due to a fracture she suffered while playing basketball in her youth. On the upside, she said, the treatment is entirely covered by Medicare.


A Cool Story on Story Avenue
By Spencer Lee

One of Melida Oliva’s daughters had invited her to go to the beach, but she chose instead to join old friends in the air-conditioned dining hall of the Monroe Senior Center on Story Avenue, which had been opened as a public cooling station.

But no matter how hot it was, Oliva, 69, said that after lunch she was going shopping in Parkchester. “I’m going to Macy’s to buy luggage,” she said. “They have a sale.”

She said the luggage would be for a highly anticipated trip next month to Honduras, the country where she was born and lived until emigrating in 1969. She said she’d go to the beach back home: it’s less humid.

When she wants a good outing in New York the rest of the year, she heads to Manhattan’s Chinatown for the affordable lunches and exotic groceries.

And when she stays home, she said, there’s TV. She’s a fan of Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo, and loves reruns of old crime dramas, such as “Matlock,” “Columbo” and “Perry Mason.”

“Matlock is my boyfriend,” she said.


In the Shade on Morrison Avenue
By Aaron Mayorga

Rachel Ballard, 65, and Emma Lewis, 80, were settled in the shadow of the scaffolding outside their terraced apartment building on Morrison Avenue.

For the past 22 and 35 years, respectively, Ballard and Lewis have called Morrison Avenue home. But they don’t know how much longer that will last.

“Every year, more and more, it gets more difficult to stay here,” said Ballard, a self-described “project kid” who grew up in the James Monroe Houses and Sotomayor Houses, two nearby public housing developments.

She blamed the threat on rising rents, but said so far she and her husband, a retired security guard, have been able to stay thanks to rent-freeze programs offered to seniors and those with disabilities, Without those programs, she said, “We would’ve been gone a while ago.”

Ballard said another big change is the neighbors. Many of their longtime friends have died, and everybody moving in seems so much younger.

But she said she has strong relationships with many of the remaining senior citizens, and she appreciates how the older residents are known and respected in the neighborhood.

“We would just sit out—senior citizens sit out—and talk because we’re in this together,” Lewis, a former home care worker, said. “And the people who pass by on the street are sweet. And the stores, they know us.”

Lewis said some people call her Mama.

“They call you Mama?” Ballard responded, laughing.

“In the stores, yes,” Lewis said, trying not to laugh herself. She said people started calling her Mama about 15 years ago, after she retired.

“Woah, it’s been that long?” Ballard exclaimed. “Girl, wow, we really are some antiques up here.”


She’s a Senior – in Life, and in College
By Orla McCaffrey

Eileen Lowe knows she stands out from the students streaming past her at the University Avenue entrance to Bronx Community College. She said no one else is wearing khaki pants and a collared shirt. And no one is as old as she is, by a factor of decades.

Lowe, 65, was making her way across campus to North Hall and Library, where she needed to pick up paperwork after transferring to John Jay College of Criminal Justice last year. She has one semester left before earning her bachelor’s degree.

She gets along fine with her much younger classmates. “We’re all here to do the same thing — further our education,” she said.

Lowe, who works as a mentor at a juvenile facility, thinks her age gives her an advantage in the classroom.

“The younger ones aren’t focused,” she said in a hallway outside social science classrooms. “They think college is like high school.”


In the Shade – and Sun – Near Yankee Stadium
By Modou Nyang

Frank Rivera, 74, sat on a bench near Joyce Kilmer Park between 161st and 162nd streets on the Grand Concourse, cooling off after jogging at the public track next to Yankee Stadium.

Rivera, a retired hospital storeroom manager, said he is worried about rising rents and the Trump administration. “He is like a kid. He does not respect people,” Raymond said. “He will get impeached. Mueller is just doing his thing without talking a lot.”

Nearby, Haruna Ceesay, 62, was sitting on the stairs outside the building where he lives on Anderson Avenue. He had just finished registering his 4-year-old daughter, one of his four children, for kindergarten.

“Am feeling good,” said Ceesay, who came to the United States in 1987 from Senegal. He brought up the Trump administration, too: “This country is made by immigrants. If you want to give hard time for the immigrants, is not good.”

On Jerome Avenue, across the street from Yankee Stadium, Tony Rodriguez, 78, was sitting under the sun – alone. “I like the sun. That’s why I am siting here,” he said.

But Rodriguez insisted he does not like the Yankees. He is a Mets fan. “My friend is a Yankee fan and we fight always,” he said, nodding toward the stadium façade. “I only go there when they play the Mets, Houston and Boston.”


Mom, Dementia and a Sandwich Delivery
By Gabriel Sandoval

Juana Oritz, cell phone in hand, sat patiently at a table in a playground near Pelham Parkway Houses, a public housing complex where her elderly mother lives. She had a sandwich for her mother, and was waiting for her mother, who has dementia, to call and say it was okay to bring it up.

Ortiz, 58, who lives in Mott Haven, had called her mother that morning and said she’d be swinging by to deliver the sandwich. But her mother, Francisca, 81, told her daughter that she didn’t want any visitors.

That didn’t deter Ortiz. She came and waited in the playground, turkey and Swiss in hand. And waited. And sweated. “The weather’s too hot,” she said. “I can’t wait for winter to come.”

What made the waiting worse – she knew her mother had air conditioning in her apartment upstairs. With a couple of small fans. But Ortiz wasn’t sure anything would be turned on in the apartment – that was part of why she was checking on her mom.

Ortiz said it’s been difficult watching her mother’s health decline in the last few years. And even though she feels her mother often doesn’t appreciate the support, Ortiz does it anyway.

Now, Ortiz said, she herself is facing an uncertain old age. She worked for 23 years in retail and food service jobs, but is currently unemployed. She said she would soon be forced to apply for welfare. She’s living with her uncle, but hopes to move in with her mother.

Ortiz said she would like more contact with her relatives. “I have two phones, but nobody calls me,” she said.


In NYCHA Housing, Criticism for NYCHA
By Lukas Southard

Lukas Southard

Crispin Lebront and his friend, Philipe Paul Rivera, Jr., both frequent a NYCHA senior center, and have a lot to say about the way the authority has been run.

The senior community center in the basement at Marble Hill Houses was a cool haven from the outside heat.

Crispin Lebront, 81, said he doesn’t live in the Marble Hill Houses, but he calls the senior center his second home. He is here five days a week playing his congas, his Nintendo Wii or a game of chess with his friend, Philipe Paul Rivera, Jr.

As it often does, their conversation turned to the shortcomings of NYCHA, the city housing authority that oversees Marble Hill Houses and other public housing across the city.

“They cut off our gas for four months,” said Rivera, who lives upstairs at Marble Hill. “You just cut someone’s services that is included in our rent so don’t say you gonna charge us the same fee.”

Daniel Schmidt, director of the senior center since 1987, lamented the lack of funding for affordable housing. He cited water leaks in his halls and garbage everywhere as examples of deferred maintenance.

“You have to pick the battles that you want to fight with NYCHA,” Schmidt said. “For whatever reason the system is broken.”


Chicken Salad, Email, Tai Chi and More
By Daniel Whateley

It was lunchtime at the Hope of Israel Senior Center on Gerard Avenue. Visitors were sitting down to chicken salad, tangy green beans and, most importantly for some, air conditioning.

“I have two fans at home but it’s a lot cooler here,” said Obie Hunt, 68, who has been visiting the senior day center for three years. Hunt said he enjoys the center’s meditation and Tai Chi for Arthritis classes, and spends a lot of time in the computer room. He doesn’t own a computer and comes to Hope of Israel to send emails and pay bills online.

Sitting next to Hunt, Gloria Vega, who said she is 82 but feels 50, said she likes the meditation classes, the weekly walking club and the day trips. She’s taken the group day trips to museums, the Bronx Zoo and an Atlantic City casino.

One table over, Ophelia Ledeatte, a long-time center visitor who just turned 88, said she isn’t one of the visitors concerned about the hot weather outside.

“What can I do about it?” she said. “Nothing. The heat doesn’t bother me. I just don’t walk in the sun.”


Combining Benefits, Son and Mother Scrape By
By Shantal Riley

Shantal Riley

Richard Young and his mother, who are both senior citizens, must combine their benefits to survive.

After leaving his apartment at Co-op City early to beat the heat, Richard Young was perusing the frozen meat section at Stop & Shop. Coupons in hand, shopping for groceries for himself and his mother, he was in a bit of a hurry to get home.

“If I don’t fix breakfast, she doesn’t eat,” said Young, 63, the full-time caretaker for his 90-year-old mother in the three-bedroom apartment they share.

Young said he and his mother are on tight, fixed incomes, including Social Security and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Pooling their benefits, he said, they manage to scrape by.

“If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t be able to afford it here,” he said, slinging a jumbo pack of frozen chicken into his shopping cart.

Seniors such as Young and his mother represent the majority of the 40,000 residents of Co-op City, a housing cooperative made up of 35 high-rise buildings. “Co-op City is mostly seniors who have aged in place,” said Community District 10 Manager Matthew Cruz. “They may have purchased their homes in the 1970s and stayed there since.”

He said that Co-op City has been designated a “Naturally-Occurring Retirement Community.” Under New York City Department of Aging rules, that means residents can receive on-site services that support “successful aging in place.”

3 thoughts on “Work, Drama, Love and Struggle: A Day in the Life of the Aging Bronx

  1. Pingback: Bronx Seniors Talk About Life - This Is The Bronx

  2. Pingback: Living in the Bronx Through the Eyes of its Seniors - Welcome2TheBronx™

  3. Nerida at RSS, you go girl! And they should have put in one of your fabulous poems, They capture the beauty and love of Puerto Rico and its people. Great article. Congratulations to all!

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