Dying Alone

This New York Times piece on the lonely death of George Bell is one of the most interesting and poignant pieces I’ve read lately.  Interesting, because it dives deeply into the machinery of public administration and the sleuthing process followed when a person dies alone, and poignant, because George Bell died without family or friends.

Bell lived alone in his apartment in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.  He died there in 2014 at age 72.  The authorities aren’t sure exactly when he died, because his body was found only after a neighbor noticed a rank smell and called the police.  When the police arrived, in the middle of July, they found a body that had been decomposing for days in an apartment crammed with the kinds of possessions and mystifying mountains of garbage and other stuff that hoarders inevitably accumulate.  The condition of the body was such that they couldn’t initially confirm it was Bell — which required some of the sleuthing described in the story — and he had no wife, or family, or friends to identify his remains.

The Times piece is a long one.  It carefully traces the steps that are followed when a person is found dead, alone, in New York City, and in so doing it also tells some of the back story of George Bell.  He was an only child.  He worked for a time for his father, served in the U.S. Army Reserves, and began working in the moving business.  After his father died and his mother became crippled by arthritis, he took care of her.  He drank, and was known to some friends as “Big George.”  He never married, although he came close.  He was a diabetic.  He was injured at work in 1996 and began living on disability payments and a union pension — and one by one, he began to snip away his connections to the world.  After thirty years of growing isolation, his last regular acquaintance was a person he had met at his regular bar.

I’ve always thought the most terrifying part of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t the appearance of Marley’s ghost, or Scrooge’s visit to his gravesite, but the scene at his deathbed, where Scrooge lies, dead, alone, and unmourned, while his belongings are looted by people who felt no pity for him.  In that respect, George Bell was like a modern-day Scrooge, dying without leaving much of a mark on the world around him.

It’s a sad story, but also a compelling one.  One of the workers whose job is to ferret through the apartments of lonely people like George Bell, looking for evidence of relatives, has drawn upon his macabre job to consciously try to build his circle of friends and his connections to the world.  “I don’t want to die alone,” he says.

The Family Garage Sale

When we cleaned out Mom’s condo, we were left with a bunch of stuff that she doesn’t need and no one really wants.  What to do with it?

IMG_0226Yesterday we put it before the general public in a subdivision-wide garage sale at my sister Margaret’s neighborhood in Hilliard.  Cups, clothing, plates, books, pots, Christmas decorations, golf clubs, CDs, children’s games . . . all of it got assigned a price and put on card tables.  And then we waited for the browsers.

My guess is that most people who sell things in garage sales overestimate how much the sales will bring.  They think their stuff is nice and should fetch a good price from grateful visitors.  The reality, unfortunately, is that nothing looks particularly valuable or enticing when it is crammed with other bric-a-brac on the top of a card table or displayed in a cardboard box on a driveway.  When you see stuff laid out in such a fashion, you immediately begin to recalibrate your pricing down to nickel and dime territory.  Our niece Amy led the mark-down brigade.

IMG_0227Garage sale patrons seem to fall into categories:  those who are looking for a particular item they are collecting, those who are hoping to find a bargain to supplement their wardrobe or home decorations, and hoarders.  The people in the first category come early in the morning and zip in and zip out, the second category visit throughout the day and take their time, and by the end of the day you’re just hoping for the hoarders to come and take away whatever they want.  We had an end-of-the-day hoarder and were happy to load up her car and bid her adieu.

At the end of the day, we made $223.95 for hours of work, met some nice people who were happy with their purchases, had some laughs, and sold about two-thirds of what we offered for sale.  The remainder got boxed up and delivered to AmVets.