From the outset the deaths had come in flurries, often at night when the house was hushed, and so it was no surprise last May that when Bill died Hector followed on his heels, and then Harvey, and then Jack. The news was posted in the office, but word had a way of getting around before it was official. Hard to misread the meaning of an ambulance out front at four in the morning, or the crackle of walkie-talkies in the hallway when the cops arrived. And then there was often the grim bit of business when the stretcher crew had to shoehorn the body into the cramped elevator, tipping the gurney up on its end. It was just a short ride down to the lobby where the clock said Tempus Fugit, and then out the front door the way you’d come in, another night in Greenwich Village, after-hours traffic waiting on the light at Christopher and West.
It used to be in the morning after a death that residents coming up for breakfast would find a candle burning in the hall on six. Six was where meals were served. People could play cards and dominoes and bingo on six; they could just sit by the windows with the million-dollar view of the Hudson. Seeing the candle, though, a lot of them who didn’t weigh enough to skip breakfast would head back to bed. In time the funerary candle was abandoned. In time no one at Bailey House had any heart for individual memorials either. It was up to Father Peter now to periodically organize a service whenever he had a quorum of dead to commemorate. And so word was passed that Bill and Hector and Harvey and Jack, whose deaths had raised the toll at Bailey House to 230 in four and a half years, would be remembered the last week in June.
What you don’t expect at Bailey House are the odd moments of affirmation—irony, insouciance, laughter. There are children’s voices. Sex forges on. There’s a basket of condoms on the front desk. Whenever O-69 comes up during Sunday night bingo, everybody goes “Oooooh!” and waggles their eyebrows like Groucho Marx. The Bailey House administrator wants to start a softball team called the Dead. To inspire the short-of-breath when the elevator conks out, there’s a history of staircases taped to the stairwell. And the institutional memory teems with comic frictions, misadventures, tributes to incorrigibility, pettiness, bravery, suffering, and grace. Time passing has made some episodes easier to recount: the night Hugh, the Vietnam vet, kicked down the kitchen door, crazy for some tuna fish; or the time when Howard, being wheeled out on a gurney, was accosted by a resident he owed money to, who accused him of deliberately hospitalizing himself in order to beat the debt.
“People who haven’t worked in an environment like this think it’s terribly grueling,” Judy Wayne told me one afternoon in the dining room at Bailey House, the nation’s first residence for people with AIDS who are homeless. “They don’t understand the beauty of working with people who are dying—people who are more emotionally available because they know their time is limited.”
Judy had hired on when the privately operated, city-funded facility opened in December 1986. My visits to Bailey House over the course of six weeks last spring were prompted by something more than professional curiosity—a need, I suppose it was, for a long-forestalled reckoning with the face of AIDS. The forty-four rooms of Bailey House were filled with people who, regardless of the personal choices they’d made, were in situations that did not reflect well on our society or its response to AIDS. Their lives had often been difficult and extreme, and their suffering now was almost unimaginable, but as visitors quickly learned—as you were not allowed to forget—the accent at Bailey House is on living. Horrors of the illness withstanding, the awakenings and transformations and moments of euphoria at Bailey House raised the not-altogether-crazy idea that these people on the brink of death might in some ways actually be more alive than the uninfected legions outside, who often seem disabled by prejudice or straitened by fear or deadened by the inability to feel compassion.
A home with a bed is the one thing anyone wants when they’re sick, but by the early Eighties it was apparent that many people with AIDS had no place to live.
All the same, for the outsider there’s a tension that never really goes away. No matter how thoroughly you have been briefed on the ways of the HIV virus, you wonder: Should I shake hands? Borrow that chewed-on pen? Sometimes when residents with family go home, relatives spread newspaper on the sofa. One mother caressed her dead son’s face through a Kleenex. Even longtime staff members still dream of coming down with AIDS.
“How’s the soup?’ JoAnne Staats, the first nurse-practitioner at Bailey House, once asked a resident. “It’s great, try some,” he said. She froze at the proffered spoon.
Other, subtler kinds of tension come from living at an edge where you are always braced for loss, afraid of being drawn too deeply into friendships. It’s hard for those who live and work at Bailey House to reconcile the high drama of daily life with the preoccupations of the world beyond the door, where sometimes too much seems to hang on what Ivana Trump is wearing at the spring collections. At other times you can be lulled by the routine, an eerie pretense of normality, and forget what Bailey House is about. Then it hits you again—not that everyone here is dying, but that the margin of health is so thin. The man at the table stirring sugar into his coffee: No unaided eye could tell the difference between your blood and his.
A home with a bed is the one thing anyone wants when they’re sick, but by the early Eighties it was apparent that many people with AIDS had no place to live. Whether homelessness was the byproduct of AIDS, as was often the case in the gay community, or part of the pattern of a disenfranchised life, as was often the case among people who got sick from using intravenous drugs, lives were being abridged because of it. Having no home for some people meant having no place to die, apart from subway tunnels or city sidewalks.
“These people were being ostracized,” said Elinor Polansky, a former professor of social work at the State University of New York whose job it was to screen potential residents at Bailey House. “It was appalling. They would come in as walking skeletons—they were too weak to stand in food lines, so they didn’t eat. Their families were terrified of taking them home. They weren’t getting care. Nursing homes wouldn’t take them. They were living in laundromats and empty buildings. One woman was living in an abandoned car. There was a fashion hairdresser who was sleeping in a barbershop chair.”
Bailey House is still the nation’s largest group residence for homeless people with AIDS. In the five years since it opened, it has served as a model of supportive AIDS housing for more than one hundred community organizations around the country working to develop smaller such facilities. AIDS patients often prefer to die at home; secure housing, along with family and community support, and emotional counseling are now widely recognized as vital to prolonging lives. And still the need for housing continues to far outstrip supply. In New York City alone, where estimates put the number of homeless people with AIDS as high as 13,000, there are fewer than 500 rooms earmarked expressly for people with AIDS. Hospitals in the city are barred from discharging people with AIDS into homeless shelters, but aside from Bailey House, some 400 city-funded individual apartments, and a handful of city-sponsored single-room occupancy hotels, there isn’t anyplace for homeless people with AIDS to go. The situation is no better in other cities around the country. And as the AIDS epidemic moves deeper into poorer and poorer segments of society, the housing problem will get worse.
Bailey House was started by the private nonprofit AIDS Resource Center, which was founded in 1983 by the Reverend Lee Hancock of the Judson Memorial Baptist Church and a group of Greenwich Village activists and artists. (One of the early board members was a gay porn star.) Housing for people with AIDS was so scarce, and the city government so reluctant to do anything about it, that board members had offered their own apartments to people with AIDS. Rev. Meade Bailey, a board member, came up with the idea of a group residence, and Hancock asked Doug Dornan, who was then training people to run church-based shelters for the homeless in New York, to create it.
The search for bricks brought Dornan to an old hotel at the end of Christopher Street in the West Village. The ironies of the location were inescapable. The River Hotel had once housed a gay disco called the Cock Ring (some early residents of Bailey House could recall turning tricks inside), and the sixth floor commanded a ringside view of the dilapidated Hudson River piers, a famous trysting spot now considered one of the major petri dishes of the virus.
“I learned to ask for help. Accept help. And ask again.”
But Dornan refused to entertain such ironies. Over the opposition of local businesses that feared an AIDS facility would wreck neighborhood property values, the board of directors of the AIDS Resource Center persuaded the city to acquire the building and let the center run it. Renovations began. All the rooms would be singles, with private bath, a bed, dresser, refrigerator, telephone, and television. To Dornan, Bailey House was a symbol of rebirth, not a cautionary monument to the dead. It promised a safe, secure environment where homeless people with AIDS would have their own keys and could come and go as they pleased. With funds from the city (about 60 percent of the current budget), along with state and federal grants, and money raised privately, Bailey House began to offer a program of nursing support, counseling, even recreation.
From the beginning there were people too frightened to set foot in the place. Lawsuits had to be threatened to get the house wired for cable television. Roto-Rooter refused to clear out the pipes. Garbagemen didn’t want to haul the trash. The staff had to go down the street to photocopy paperwork because nobody from Minolta would service the copy machine. But AIDS officials came from as far as Sweden, France, and Japan to see how the unprecedented experiment was working. Given the volatile mix of cultures, no one knew if it would work. There were the early conflicts, for example, between people who wanted to play boom boxes at breakfast and those who wanted to eat in silence. One resident proposed that gay men and intravenous drug users be segregated by floor.
Dornan’s biggest hope for Bailey House was that it might help break the spell of fatalism and doom surrounding AIDS—a tall order, considering that, at the time, the level of AIDS hysteria had so paralyzed the public that people were even terrified of touching literature about the disease. (Wearing a HELP STOP AIDS button then was a good way to make sure nobody hassled you on the subway late at nights.) If homeless people with AIDS could not be redeemed in the eyes of a society that reacted to them with fear and abhorrence, perhaps at Bailey House they might be redeemed in their own.
Not long after the latest casualties were posted, Kathi Iazzetta stopped by the residence manager’s office. Her glands were swollen, her throat was sore, and her voice was reduced to a whisper.
“I hear 311 is vacant,” she said.
“My God, he only died this morning!” said Dave Johnson, sitting behind the desk. On the wall was a chart with the names of every Bailey House resident lettered in erasable ink. Larry Conklin walked by and waved. He usually went out each morning and bought a paper and cigarettes for Leslie, who was restricted to a wheelchair. Larry was forty-two; AIDS had impaired his hearing, and he wore a hearing aid in both ears.
“They call him the Mayor,” Kathi said. “He’s been here the longest.”
“Three years,” said Dave Johnson.
When Bailey House first opened, residents seldom lived more than three or four months; now, with better treatment and earlier diagnosis, they were living twice as long.
Kathi had moved in last February. To qualify you had to be drug-free, homeless, able to walk, and officially diagnosed with AIDS. New residents usually ended up on the dark side of the building, with a shadowy view of a fire escape where the residents of the neighboring welfare hotel often left food to rot. When a room opened up—about once a week—quarters were often shuffled. Kathi got permission to move across the hall from 303 to the good light and river view of 311.
“I thought I could move myself, but I did the AIDS walk on Sunday and it tired me out,” she said.
“Rasheed will give you a hand,” Dave Johnson said.
“Thanks a lot,” said Kathi.
“Nice whispering with you.”
Rasheed Hamidullah worked as the Bailey House porter; one of his jobs was packing up the room after a resident died. The residents’ belongings often reflected the adolescence many never had: stuffed animals and Madonna posters. Taking down their snapshots from the wall, Rasheed was sometimes amazed to see the before and after effects of AIDS. It wasn’t fun steam-cleaning vomit out of carpets, but the money wasn’t bad, and over the years he’d grown to love Bailey House. He’d met his wife there. She’d come to visit her brother, who was a resident. Over the years Rasheed learned to accept the provisional quality of life at the house. Still, you never knew when something would affect you. A few months earlier, he’d been vacuuming Rodney’s room. Rodney was lying on his bed. Suddenly he called out, “Help me, man, I’m dying! Help me!” There was nothing Rasheed, or anyone, could do.
“I fear the unknown, the things I’ll catch, but there’s no sense in me acting like a mopey old lady. The Bible says we’re born to die.”
“I thought I was used to it,” Rasheed said quietly. Kathi came in with her prayer plant and her blue checkerboard pill tray, which parceled out a month’s worth of medication—ulcer pills, vitamin K, AZT, antidepressants. She tried the set, and suddenly there was Gary Coleman, an image of health in a sumptuous sitcom house.
“Thanks, Rasheed,” said Kathi.
She sank onto the bed of her new quarters. She was trying not to dwell on her condition. She lived day by day. She was delighted to be gaining weight. During her last hospital stay her weight dropped to eighty-seven pounds. She showed me the picture; it still scared her to look at it. In July she would be thirty-nine. A white cruise ship was gliding down the river, bound for the Caribbean.
“Isn’t this great?” she said.
The color collage on the wall of the residence manager’s office was made by David Gage, an artist who’d been living in San Francisco when he was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma—a signal AIDS illness, marked by purplish bruises on the skin. He sold all his possessions and came to New York. He was thirty-two years old. He’d been raised a Mormon. He was planning to kill himself. He ended up in Bailey House instead. He was the sixth person accepted at Bailey House, and the first to die there.
Dying people often held on for a significant event. David held on for the Memorial Day picnic on the roof. Excruciating lesions on the soles of his feet prevented him from walking; he crawled on his hands and knees up the spiral stairs to the barbecue. As the hour of his death drew near, Gary Donatelli, now a night residence manager, made notes in the Bailey House log:
8 June 1987, 11 P.M.: Folks seem to know David is sick and dying. Marilyn stayed till around 8 P.M. and briefed David’s night home attendant. Janet said she’d try to come in early tomorrow. I didn’t change his dressing because Marilyn did so before she left and it would have been an ordeal for David, though he might not have even noticed. By 10:30 he wasn’t responding to my voice. Cold hands and shallow breathing. He had one cigarette between 8:30 and 9:30 … David said good-night as I was leaving. What a heartbreak. I hope this doesn’t go on too long. Dave Johnson had sat with him by his bed toward the end. “What have you learned from this whole experience?” he asked. “I learned to ask for help. Accept help. And ask again,” said David.
9 June 1987, 3:19 P.M.: David died. Deo Gratias. His home attendant, Janet, was with him; Judy and I arrived shortly thereafter. A lot of the staff then showed up … We cried, laughed, told a few stories, and generally celebrated and mourned and comforted. Sadly, gladly, beautifully. When the cops arrived, though they were pleasant enough, they wore plastic gloves to collect David’s “valuables.” They took some money, paper and silver, leaving the pennies behind, and his watch they took. Folks gradually left the room to wait for the medical examiner downstairs. Janet and I straightened up a bit, lowered the bed and tidied the sheets, and then we sat and waited. A beautiful and peaceful time. It was around five or so, and with a house full of folks needing my attention much more than David, now having his first taste of his eternal lifestyle, I felt I had to take my leave …
For Carole Myers, David’s death was a kind of initiation into the true nature of the work at Bailey House, where professional experiences are not easily separated from one’s own personal journey. A thin woman in her early forties with short brown hair and empathic eyes, she arrived a few weeks after Bailey House opened and today is in charge of social work at the house. “It scares me to say this, but I feel less afraid of death now,” she told me one morning. “The sun has a magic that it never did before. The most ordinary things—going for a walk in the park when the sun is shining, what more could anybody want? If I had a million dollars, how could my life be better?”
“Oh boy, there’s something wrong with me, I’m in an awfully good mood today,” said Elise Henry. She had moved into 510 a month ago, after seven weeks in the hospital. When she toured the house for the first time, her face was shining. “This is where I’m gonna die,” she said. She had a phone, and sometimes Aunt Hattie called. Aunt Hattie was the only one of her relatives who wanted anything to do with her now. Elise had gained weight since she’d been at Bailey House, her appetite had come back, her spirits were up. She’d won a pair of slippers playing bingo—so amazed to hear herself shouting “Bingo!” she didn’t know whose voice it was.
Elise was not going to have an easy time of it, though. Her feet were swollen. Her ulcerating legs had to be bandaged every day. A history of chronic drug abuse was written in the tracks on her neck, her stomach, her arms, her legs. “There isn’t a vein I didn’t shoot,” she said. She’d been raped, shot twice, had done time in jail; she’d survived a fall out of a sixth-floor window. A gum disease took her teeth when she was thirteen. And yet there was a startling incongruity between the wreckage of her body and the vitality of her spirit. “I wouldn’t change my life for the world. God meant me to go through this. I don’t know who the hell He is, but I feel Him inside; I know something is over me.”
She was awaiting a new set of dentures. A little dog named Perky had run off with one set of teeth. (“He was probably thinking, I’m gonna get that bitch for pulling my ears,” she said.) The blue tray by her bed was filled with pills; she took twenty a day to retard the virus, and fight lung infections, and kill pain, and neutralize stomach acid, and correct excess water retention, and relieve throat sores and leg ulcers. A black fungus was spreading under her fingernails.
“I fear the unknown, the things I’ll catch,” she said. “Sometimes I get depressed, but there’s no sense in me acting like a mopey old lady. The Bible says we’re born to die.”
A stuffed lion sat on her radio because she was a Leo, born in August 1947. She grew up in Harlem, the oldest girl in a family of four. “I don’t remember no childhood,” she said. She was around eleven when she fired a gun for the first time, next to a pigeon coop on a tenement roof. It wasn’t a long step from panhandling to stealing typewriters and robbing fellow addicts. “I did everything the men did. They liked to take me on a stickup because I wouldn’t shoot somebody to hurt them, only if the situation called for it. I never did anything to normal people. I just took from crooked people.”
Along the way she gave birth to a daughter.
Five years ago she pulled up winded jumping rope with her sister’s kids. She couldn’t jump and run like she used to. AIDS symptoms appeared two years ago—PCP (pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), the wasting syndrome, and tuberculosis. Three weeks after she got out of the hospital last spring she was admitted to Bailey House.
“What I have learned and gone through is my life. I just turned out to be one of those rough hard-core bitches, never used good sense and direction. It took getting sick to bring me to my senses. I want my daughter to have it easier. I would like to show her the marks on my body. The only thing that would teach her not to use drugs are the hard-core facts.”
She yawned. “You know, they call me the Vampire. I sleep all day and as soon as night comes my eyes pop open. People see me in the day now, they say, Oh my God, you out in the daytime! I have a good solitude with myself up here. I’m at peace. I don’t know how I got it. I stay up here and let it all bustle around me. At first they were really worried about how much I stayed up in my room. It’s not because I’m ashamed of the AIDS. It’s because it’s nothing but a bunch of riffraff out there.” She pointed to the street out her window. “I’ll stay home, at peace.”
The phone rang.
“How are you feeling, Aunt Hattie?” Elise said. She nodded, and then her face began to shine the way it had the day she first looked over her new home. “No, Aunt Hattie,” she laughed, “I ain’t gonna jump no rope today.”
A week after Kathi Iazzetta moved into her new room, Vann Ribblett, the recreation coordinator, took a group of residents to a sculpture garden upstate. They were chattering. “Shut up and listen,” he said. “To what?” they said. There was no traffic, no sirens, no boom-box asphalt din. Nothing but the wind in the trees.
“That’s the idea,” Vann said. He found he had to be a little stern sometimes, set limits. And sure enough, on the ride back everybody was talking about how nice it was to hear the wind in the trees. “I don’t look at this as a job,” Vann said. “I come here to be with my family.”
Never more so than with Joe, who came to Bailey House in 1988. Joe and Vann soon took to each other, though they could not have been more different. Joe was thirty-four years old, five foot ten; Vann was sixty, and six foot six—tall enough to tack the crepe paper on the dining-room ceiling when Bailey House threw a dance. The refinement of Vann’s life contrasted utterly with the hardship of Joe’s. Vann had worked for fifteen years as the maître d’ at the celebrated New York restaurant Maxwell’s Plum. During the day he painted. (As he walks home up Christopher Street now, his tutored eye travels helplessly to the mark of AIDS in strangers, a tell-tale spongy swelling high on their cheeks.)
“Joe had lived the most poverty-stricken life,” Vann said one afternoon, sitting in his office. “Everything that wasn’t pure existence had a connotation of luxury; he’d never known anything that wasn’t hand to mouth. He had no training or trade. He’d been on Riker’s Island. He was relatively uneducated, but like many street people he had a great deal of innate natural intelligence. His family had disowned him. He had an uncle he was close to, and he had a daughter, but they were estranged.”
In October 1989 it was obvious Joe was dying. “He weighed eighty-five pounds and he couldn’t eat,” Vann said. “The medical staff knew it. I knew it. You’re around people with AIDS long enough, you can tell when someone is dying. He had the wasting syndrome. He’d been in St. Vincent’s for a few weeks and he’d opted to come back and die in Bailey House. He wasn’t hysterical or angry. It was just quiet acceptance. I asked him, ‘Is there anything in your life that you never got a chance to do!’ He said, ‘I always wanted to see a Broadway musical.’”
“There’s a certain sense that God lives at Bailey House—that this is a holy place.”
Claude Winfield, a residence manager, persuaded a producer of the show Black and Blue to donate tickets. “I told Lauren, Joe’s caseworker, to tell Joe that he had two tickets,” Vann said. “Lauren asked him, ‘Is there anyone special you want to go with you?’ and Joe said, ‘My man Vann.’ So we made the arrangements. I knew what a weakened condition he was in. He couldn’t come down for meals—he couldn’t even stand up unaided. I said, ‘You’ll dress of course—do you have a jacket and slacks?’ He said, ‘Nothing that fits.’ I found him stuff in the basement. I told him to be downstairs at 7:15. He didn’t get down till twenty-five to eight, he was so weak. It was all over the house—everyone knew that Joe was going to die. A lot of residents were out front with cameras. Claude knew the owner of a limousine company and had gotten him to donate a limo for the night. It was a custom stretch limo, white, immaculate, with a liveried chauffeur and a bottle of champagne. It stretched all the way in front of Bailey House. Joe walked out, flash bulbs were going off. And then he saw the limo ….”
Vann sighed. There were pictures of Joe up on his bulletin board. His thin neck filled half of the collar of the shirt he had worn that night.
“Anyway, when we pulled up in front of the theater, I left him in the limo while I went to get the tickets at the box office. Well, a crowd began to gather. People wanted to see who was the celebrity whose flunky was going in to get the tickets. It was almost worth the whole thing, all the people trying to figure out who was this famous emaciated black man.
“Joe said he was going to be sick, and we went around the side of the theater and he vomited in the driveway. I had asked for last-row orchestra seats on the aisle, and we got in and sat down. The show had just started, and he was enjoying it, but as time passed I could see him slouching more and more. It was painful for him to sit—he had no fanny—and finally he said, ‘I don’t think I can stay, I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Don’t be silly, the evening’s for you.’ When I got him back into the limo, he closed his eyes and lay back on the headrest. We hadn’t had a chance to open the champagne. I asked him if he wanted some, and he said, ‘That would be great,’ but he never opened his eyes. Then I asked him where he would like to go, thinking he’d say Central Park West or Fifth Avenue, and he said, ‘145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.’ He wanted his uncle to see him in that limo. So we drove to that address. It was in the heart of Harlem, and when Joe got out, the driver said, ‘Please don’t be long, the car’s only a week old.’
“Joe’s uncle answered the door in his underwear. We went in, and for about forty-five minutes we made small talk. They talked mostly about Joe’s family, his sister. And then we left. We came back down Park Avenue. I think I said, ‘Joe, this evening comes from Bailey House with love,’ and he said,’However much love it comes with, it’s accepted with as much.’ He said, ‘I wanted my Bailey House family to meet my real family.’ He was totally exhausted at that point, wrung-out—he’d gotten up, dressed, gone to the theater, visited his uncle, and had a sip of champagne. He’d never had champagne before. I asked him if he wanted some more and he said, ‘No, I’m too tired.’”
Vann took a sip of coffee and went on.
“It sounds almost Pollyannaish, but on the way back there was a sense of completion, a sense of finality, a total sense of poignancy. It was sad. It was very close—we were… It was like being in a time capsule, and that particular evening riding back would be forever. Joe knew he was dying, and I knew he was dying, and we had completed our thing. The business was finished.
“When we got back to Bailey House he got out of the car, and I helped him up to his room. We embraced and kissed as two men would kiss. I didn’t see him again.”
A week later Joe died.
And it was the toll of loss after loss that finally convinced JoAnne Staats to quit her job as the Bailey House nurse-practitioner. “I stopped counting the number of people I’d seen die after fifty,” she said. “I stopped trying to figure out what it all means. What happens here is, you become much more intimately involved. You see the residents every day. They live in your back pocket. That intimacy makes them harder to lose. Nancy’s death last December was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I thought, That’s it, I’ve had it. I knew I had to get out. The day after I left I felt like I had lost my family. But I’ve been very surprised at the relief I’ve felt. I wish I had done it sooner.”
It helped to get away. When I last saw him, residence manager Claude Winfield had recently returned from a long vacation. He was showing a new resident named Luis his room: “This is your bathroom,” he said. “This is your telephone, your night stand, here’s your closet. The highboy you can use as a desk. This button you push on the door so nobody can come in. The fire extinguisher is over there. The lounge is down the hallway. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Luis.
“The dining room is on the sixth floor.” Luis nodded. Claude handed him a key.
“Welcome to Bailey House.”
Late one one afternoon, the last week in June, Father Peter lowered the blinds at the back of the dining room and took a seat on the piano bench. A crucifix stood on a table by a vase of red ginger flowers and a white candle. There were many more copies of the program than mourners. The dead were not widely known, and only Carole and Fernando, a caseworker, and Hugh, a volunteer, had come up for the service.
“Let us start our service in the presence of God where there is no yesterday and no tomorrow,” said Father Peter. Father Peter was a Catholic priest from Eritrea. He was never without the silver canister that contained the oil he used during last rites. He had prayed beside the beds of Bailey House residents; he had fed their cats and fetched copies of TV Guide for them. He once took down the letter to God Nancy had dictated on her deathbed. “She said, ‘I want to say I’m ready. I’m sorry for the times I have disregarded your presence. I want to empty myself.’ As I wrote I held my left hand on her cheek. I felt a grinding of the teeth, and then it stopped. I put that letter in her coffin.”
As Father Peter read from the Book of John, I remembered something Gordon Hough, the Bailey House administrator, had said one afternoon a few weeks earlier. “I have to accommodate myself to the fact that the system stinks,” he said, “and to the fact that the residents will die sooner or later, and to the staff and their headaches, and to the sorrow of life. But when I get out of bed in the morning I don’t have to ask whether I’m going to do something worthwhile. There’s a certain sense that God lives at Bailey House—that this is a holy place.”
Now the meager congregation joined in to recite the Forty-second Psalm. And then they strained to say something personal about the men they were gathered in memory of. “Harvey was a very lonely person, I would say,” said Fernando, plucking a withered leaf from a palm in the corner. “I was always telling him, Harvey, you have to socialize more, but he never came to the sixth floor, and then when he was in the hospital he said, ‘Why does no one visit me?’”
Just then, Elise Henry padded in on swollen feet. She wanted to pay her respects to Hector, whom she’d last seen in the hospital. She had been shocked at how bad he’d looked at the time, but still she wasn’t prepared for this. “He left me his red candle,” she said. “Hector’s red candle ….”
“The glory of God is a person fully in their life,” said Father Peter, starting a tape of gospel music. Supper smells drifted through the room. “Let us remember in our prayers the residents of Bailey House who have returned to the house of the Father.”
Was it the presence of the dead that made the living seem like apparitions, no more substantial than fire on a wick? Few could stand in the dining room at Bailey House and not hear voices, not see ghosts, not wound themselves on the knife-edge of memory: of Camille confiding the story of the time she was nearly murdered by a trick in the Hilton Hotel; of blind Graylin with three months to live stepping out in a cape for his last Halloween; of Carlos, strength mostly gone but macho chivalry intact, carrying a twenty-five-pound bag of rice into the kitchen for Ellie, the cook; of Beverly in Gypsy getup inflating a condom for a crystal ball; of Carmen confessing she was glad her penknife was hard to open; otherwise she would have slashed her wrists; of David and Nancy and Bill and Hector and Harvey and Jack and all the dead who once gazed out the windows of this place by the river, watching the gulls soar as they were soaring now, and the tugs pressing upstream, and the water alive with light.
[Photo Credit: Bags]