Visiting New York was a long-overdue treat. After spending the last six months in a day-to-day situation of high risk, in my apartment in Oakland, California, I could now breathe in the air of relative relief.
The situation began longer than six months ago but that was the amount of time when circumstances culminated into a specific dilemma. The root of the problem flower was my birth family. If I had not been born to the underage Eliza Goldman but, instead, to the more stable Kauffmans whom I considered my real family, none of what I am reporting would have come to pass. However, the complicated situation had developed from a more concise essence.
Simply, the last six months had been spent with me helping my blood cousin, Janet Goldman, by letting her live in my apartment with me. I would not have done a similar deed if I had to do so for any of the other Goldmans.
Janet was the one relative whom I considered not only a real family member but also a great friend. She had her problems – and no member of the Goldmans was without many – but she also had the intelligence to assess her situation. She was obese but she did not pretend that three hundred and fifty pounds was not overweight. She did not know how to cook her own meals but she knew how to order food from a local restaurant when her father did not return home to cook. She knew that smoking cigarettes could wreck havoc on one’s health and cause the smoke detector to beep constantly. Other members of the family were not aware of those things. Everything from feces on the living room floor and walking around nude when guests visited to running out in the middle of heavy traffic and getting hit by a car to boasts about sexual conquests with other family members, they had first-hand knowledge of it. I did not grow up with them, in a household where hygiene and etiquette and sanity were totally dismissed. My cousin became caught in a predicament that resulted in what happened during the last six months.
The Goldman siblings consisted of Paul, who was married to Lily – both parents to Janet – and my mother Eliza and their sister Veronica. Their parents, Ernest and Mimi, died long ago so I knew them from stories only, told mostly by Paul. I had been in the health care system, living with Michael and Amy Kauffman, and their children Hal and Georgette, because Ernest and Mimi would not allow me to be a part of their family unless Eliza allowed them to adopt me and she would be my sister. Eliza figured that the best course of action would be to put me in foster care.
If not for a friend of mine, Howard Houston, I may never had resolved contacting the Goldmans. However, he made a good point when he said, “The root of all things spiritual, according to any religious doctrine, starts with the mother.”
I replied, “But Amy Kauffman is my mother.”
Howard told me that my life would become happier if I gave Eliza Goldman the benefit of the doubt, even if the stories I heard about her family were true. I would bring some joy back in her life by meeting her again. He gave me several hundred dollars as incentive, some of which was for transportation costs, so I relented.
Howard and I searched in various ways for information on where she was located. Finally, after a couple of phone calls and arrangements made, my seeing her felt less like gold and more like tar, the nicotine kind. Aside from her constant cigarette smoking, her dishes were piled up from what seemed like years and her television set was always on in her living room, though she spent most of her time sleeping in her bedroom.
Paul and his family lived a block away from her. As to how his daughter and him could fit in the same room together was a wonder but Paul’s wife, Lily, managed to stay slim. She did not eat as much as Paul or Janet, probably because Paul usually cooked dinner right after using the restroom and forgetting to wash his hands. I noticed he would drop a steak on the floor before picking it up, apologizing and cooking it. I would not be surprised if half of his body weight was due to dirt stored instead of fat.
Veronica was a clean freak. She was not as slim as Lily but neither was she as heavy as Paul and Janet. She was approximately the size of Eliza, with some curve to the belly but still looking healthy enough. Of the times I visited either Eliza or Paul’s family, Veronica stayed away except for once when she visited my mother and I happened to be there. She was supposed to be the mean one, giving insults and usually forgetting to take her medication, so I figured I was not missing much if I saw less of her.
Even if there were times during my visits when I was irritated at Paul’s asking constantly for glasses of water when he had a full glass on a table right by his arm or Eliza’s wanting me to go to the smoke shop so I could buy her a carton of cigarettes, I felt a sense of reconciliation with them. I never did feel totally like I was a part of the family again but that was because I chose to regard the Kauffmans as my family but I was not displeased with the Goldman’s assessment that the last piece of the family puzzle had been found.
Several years later, the first fatal tragedy came. Veronica died after a slow battle with cancer even though she had switched from eating conventional store-bought products to organic. The other Goldmans were in favor of canned raviolis and cheap soda and no salads. They were afraid that organic food would result in their fatalities. Six months later, Paul’s wife, Lily, died from a heart aneurysm. Paul freaked out and decided he would live with Eliza and bring Janet with him. Eliza did not say no, especially after she had lived at his house years ago when she was at her most manic, but she was less than happy about it.
She lived in subsidized housing and the rules stipulated she could have guests as long as the word guest was not a euphemism for housemate. In other words, if the manager of the building noticed an unfamiliar person sneaking often in an apartment late at night, there was a problem. Cousin Janet preferred staying indoors and watching movies so her situation was easy enough for Eliza to handle. Paul could not sit down for any length of time. He was afraid he would die if he was not constantly on the move. He went in and out of Eliza’s apartment as much as five times an hour and he was not too careful of closing her door quietly. She received eventually a written notice of warning from the manager. One day before she was going to make him leave for good, a friend of Paul’s arrived at her door and said that Paul got hit by a truck and was being rushed to the hospital.
Paul suffered brain injury from the accident. Eliza realized she had the opportunity to make Paul a ward of the state. She was not quite as concerned about Janet’s situation yet but Eliza knew Janet would need to leave eventually. There was the possibility that something could happen to Eliza.
Janet was under the impression the city of Antioch would find a low-income apartment for Paul and her. She was not aware that Paul had not paid the lot fee for his space where his mobile home was in the trailer park. He skipped six or seven payments before he had impulsively decided to stay with Eliza. He had used the excuse he was grief-stricken from his wife’s passing and needed to be around family but there was a possibility he received notice to vacate the premises. He was never exactly forthcoming with whole truths about anything financial.
He stayed in the hospital for one month before he died from an operation on his stomach which was an independent problem from what happened during the accident. The list of complications concerning his body were too long to list. In my opinion, he knew he was not going back to Eliza’s apartment and his wife was not coming back to life so he allowed himself to let the breaking down process begin. He had probably wandered out in traffic that day so he could let fate take its course.
Even if his actions were often irrational and he caused more problems than solutions, he had a sense of what he considered goals to achieve. My mother never strove to do anything other than leave on the television and smoke.
One day, while I was at home in Oakland, I received a phone call from Eliza. She said she needed my help getting her apartment in top-notch condition for the housing inspectors. She had one week in which the place had to be totally clean. When Veronica was alive, she would visit Eliza and she insisted the two of them clean the apartment. After Veronica died, Eliza made no effort whatsoever to do any type of cleaning. I had not visited her shortly after Paul died because she smoked even more cigarettes than usual and smoke was thicker than blood; too thick.
I agreed to help but I attributed my choice to do so on temporary insanity. I knew she had a messy place but, when I arrived to assess the mess, the place looked overwhelmingly bad, I knew there was no way I could get it even one-tenth clean but I said I would see what I could do. Eliza would be no help. Janet could have done some cleaning if she wanted to do so but she told me she hoped Eliza would fail. She blamed my mother for telling Paul he had to leave, which caused him to have the accident. If the only way she could get revenge was to sit quietly and watch Eliza panic over the condition of her place, she would gladly do that.
The plan was for me to stay over for the week, do some work, watch television at night, perhaps buy a pizza or fried chicken as incentive to stay and work. That happened for two days. During that time, Janet and I could not stop coughing and I was feeling especially weak. I cleaned the basic garbage from the rooms and did the tons of dishes in her kitchen but that was all I could do. My energy was completely sapped. Add the Antioch heat, the not-so-great food choices and the interest level of conversation with my mother which was not at all, I had to leave. I asked Janet if she wanted to stay for a while at my apartment and she said yes.
When I told Eliza that Janet and I were leaving, she smiled and said, “Okay, honey. Thank you for coming over. Take care.”
I was puzzled by her reaction but not unhappy about it. Then, I figured she had been more concerned about the manager discovering Janet was staying there than if cockroaches were staying there. I had voluntarily taken care of a bigger problem.
The rules at my place concerning guests were stricter than at Eliza’s. I was allowed five overnight guests a month and anything beyond that would entail a fee. I was not about to pay any fee and I was not certain how long she would stay. I figured maybe a full week or two. Janet needed to be in a smoke free environment for the moment. Since she was comfortable staying indoors anyway, the manager would not guess she was there.
One week after she was at my apartment, the manager of Eliza’s hotel called me to say that Eliza died. The inspector found her body lying in bed, as if in a position to watch television but instead watching the spirit world. Her body seemed to be at peace; When I heard the news, I was more concerned about Janet’s situation than anything else.
After the phone call was over, I told her the news. She said, “That’s too bad. She could have stopped smoking.”
I said, “There was a lingering energy of death that I felt even while we were there when I tried to clean her place.”
“You did all that you could do. Nobody could have gotten that place clean. I hate to say it, Patrick, but I’m sort of glad she died. She wasn’t very nice to me when I stayed with her.”
“How did she treat you?”
“I felt like a slave. She had me go to the store for her because she always ran out of cigarettes. I’d go but, when I came back, she had me go again to get matches. I asked her why she waited until I came back and why didn’t she mention the matches the first time and she said she didn’t know. She was stupid.”
I nodded. “She did the same thing to me a few times.”
“Also, when she asked me to paint the walls of her living room and I said I didn’t want to do that, she told me that I was lazy and a fat jerk.”
“Wow. That’s a shame. Why did she want you to paint her living room?”
“I have no idea, Patrick. She had cans of green paint which she stored in her closet. She said she had that paint in there since the Nineteen Sixties and it was time to open the cans and put the paint to use.”
“That is even stranger than her usual strangeness. She didn’t live there in the Nineteen Sixties. She moved in that place around eight years ago.”
“Even if there was any reason for you to paint her place, there’s no way to do it with all the junk in it.”
“She wanted me to put everything – the junk, the furniture, everything – outside on her little porch while I painted.”
“That porch is just big enough for two people to stand on without squeezing together. There’s no way anyone could put her stuff out there.”
“Also, why green?”
“She said green was the color of broccoli.”
“She never ate any vegetables. Why would she talk about the color of broccoli? That is beyond any normality.”
She shook her head. “Patrick, I’m just glad I don’t have to stay there with her and that craziness any longer.”
“I don’t blame you. Did any of them think about teaching you about survival skills? Did they think you’d be at home forever?”
“My dad said he was looking for another place for us to live because he was tired of paying the rent at the trailer park. I asked him if he was going to sell the mobile home and he said he would give it to a friend of his, Christopher.”
“He was just going to give it away? I mean, I can understand not wanting to pay those fees but he owned that home. He could have sold it and used that money to rent a regular apartment.”
“He wasn’t thinking right. Mom had died and he just wanted out of there. He said someone else could handle cleaning up the place and dealing with the manager.”
“So, he figured a man named Christopher was the answer? Who was he?”
“Christopher was a patient at my dad’s dialysis center. He told my dad he owned a lot of real estate. Whenever I saw him, his jeans were dirty and his shirt looked like a snot rag.”
“Sounds like he obtained all that property by people giving it to him.”
“I know. I miss my dad but he was crazy.”
“Well, I need to get some Vodka and cool my engines and think about all this. I hope you won’t mind.”
“No. Go ahead.”
For the next six months, she stayed at my apartment with me. She received government disability payments and she was very willing to put that money towards rent and food. I was able to pay for good meals in restaurants. We both liked sushi and we both figured we needed to get healthy after our stay at Eliza’s House of Death. We continued coughing and feeling drained for two whole months until finally we were feeling better.
The situation was working relatively well. I made sure that Janet went outside at least once a week on a neighborhood walk with me so she was not always indoors. The time slipped by until I had eventually received a notice from my manager informing me I was breaking the rules of the lease agreement by having a boarder. I could have explained the situation and how Janet was just a long-term temporary guest but, instead, I asked my sister for help.
My sister, Georgette Kauffman, lived in New York. Our brother Hal died two years ago and our parents, the Kauffmans, had died fifteen years ago. Georgette was able to find a group home for Janet. I breathed a sigh of relief when the situation was over. Georgette arranged for me to visit her and her husband, my brother-in-law William Kennedy, for two weeks. The trip was meant as a reward for my having gone beyond the normal call of duty for a family member. As far as I was concerned, I felt more like I had won a contest.