A Roosevelt Island Story

About Martin: His Story Should Never Have Happened on Roosevelt Island

Updated 46 weeks ago David Stone
Martin goes to sleep every night next to a wall full of mold.
Martin goes to sleep every night next to a wall full of mold.

After age 13, severely weakened by polio, my father navigated daily physical challenges in the years before barrier free designs were common or required by law. He still managed a career while parenting five of us as the only single dad of whom any of us had ever heard. Roosevelt Island's firm commitment to making people with disabilities feel welcomed meant a lot to me personally. Martin's story is one I thought couldn't happen here. But it did. It still is.

Entering Martin's apartment in Roosevelt Landings, in a building once set aside for elderly and physically challenged, the first thing you're likely to notice is mold, vast black colonies strung out across the walls as if from the brush of an abstract painting.

Splashes in meaningless patterns mark where opportunistic fungus found life most agreeable - that is, just about everywhere.

Martin can see it. He knows exactly what it is. But he can't do anything about it.

Martin - not his real name for privacy reasons - rolls his wheelchair through through these rooms, every day. There's also a bedbug infestation. That's kept even his closest friends from visiting.

Because a major stroke nearly killed him, twenty years ago, his options about where to live are limited. He can't just tell his landlord to go to hell and move on. Both are trapped in a bureaucratic system that never lets anything go easy.

He's marshaled help wherever he can find it, but while advocates stepped up and his rent's always paid, he's fighting to stay in his home. His landlord wants him out. If they're successful in evicting him, his most likely next home is in the City's homeless shelter system.

Living area scarred by floor to ceiling mold.
Living area scarred by floor to ceiling mold.

It's a story that needs to be told because circumstances like Martin's make no sense in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, one that prides itself in a progressive tradition, or in a neighborhood designed for inclusiveness.

We should have the resources we need as well as the ability to use them proactively.

One morning, my wife got a panicked phone call.

It was Martin.

Somehow, he'd become stranded in a Brooklyn subway station that had no elevator, unable to find a way out and afraid to board a train heading deeper into Brooklyn, a borough with which he's unfamiliar. So anxious he was unable to identify the station he was in, he called her from a pay phone, hoping she'd know how to help him get out.

Martin was eventually rescued with nothing more serious than exhaustion from stressing out, but as we got to know him better, it stood out in contrast with the sophisticated life he once led.

He carries with him a picture of himself before his stroke. A man with an entertainment business career, he loved to travel. That's some of what brought him and my wife together, sharing favorite places, eager to see them again.

In that photo, you can see the soft swagger that made him popular with women, a warm confident smile, charm as casual as combing his brown hair back from his forehead.

Visible ceiling leak makes floors slippery and feeds mold creeping down the wall.
Visible ceiling leak makes floors slippery and feeds mold creeping down the wall.

He lost all that in a few catastrophic minutes that altered his brain and, hence, his life permanently. He was about as prepared for a devastating stroke as the rest of us are.

Strokes are more appropriately called "cerebrovascular accidents."

And accidents they are. Out of the blue, for most people. And devastating. To some extent, lives can never be the same.

Will Too Survive

By the time we met him, Martin had gone through years of therapy. In fact, when he got stuck in Brooklyn, he was on his way back to Roosevelt Island from a rehab session.

He refused to give up the idea of regaining some of the skills that made his previous lifestyle possible. His optimism was not all that unrealistic. He'd become strong enough to get out of his motorized wheelchair, stand for a few minutes (grinning like a kid), even take a few steps.

Progress meant a few more steps, building more muscle, then, who knows? Maybe, a trip to Paris, like the old days...

His taste in music didn't change. Headphones blasted assertive 70s and 80s rock and also kept the frustrations of the world at bay. On Facebook, he posted videos and posters of favorite bands. Some I enjoyed, but also as a courtesy, I held my nose and "liked" Led Zep and Jethro Tull.

An admirable Facebook habit he practiced was in sharing quotes from Eastern mysticism. The Hindu philosopher Pantanjali was a favorite, filled with love for and acceptance of life as we find it when our senses and minds are open.

In spite of everything, Martin was irrepressible, the kind of spirit that gets lost, loses its power, in the bureaucratic shuffle. 

It's hard to pinpoint precisely, but things changed for Martin when he was hit by a car while crossing Main Street.

Maybe some of his optimism, his sense of invincibility got knocked out of him, but now, you were as likely to see him in a sour mood as his once consistent cheerfulness.

In the shower, a wall collapsing inward goes without repairs.
In the shower, a wall collapsing inward goes without repairs.

To better protect himself, he had to lose the headphones in public. We never saw him stand again after the accident. When his wheelchair failed, he was forced to go all manual for months until getting a replacement, sadness etched on his face.

His hopes for returning to a normal life dimmed.

One day recently I ran into him and, again, he showed me the photo, the pre-stroke Martin.

"We're all getting older," I told him.

We shared a little laugh over our long gone youth. His sense of humor is still within reach.

But things were not going well in private.

His apartment's become barely habitable, and there's little he can do about it. In his shower, a partially collapsed wall narrows the space available.

Aides assigned to help with personal hygiene either can't or won't help. As another friend noticed, Martin lets the aide do his laundry but can't guarantee he'll put on the cleaned clothes.

In a building notorious for mold, water leaks into his apartment, making floors slippery. Mold dominates every wall, every ceiling. 

A brace meant to help him stand at his bathroom sink is propped up with folded cardboard.

This is not how anyone should live in America, especially not an individual limited by severe disabilities for whom tens of thousands are spent in public funds that should guarantee basic healthful services and practical living conditions.

Supporters are quick to point the finger of blame at his landlord, Urban American.

A spokesperson for Urban American disagrees vehemently, and a reality check shows that they are far from solely responsible.

Friends and supporters concede that Martin, for all his gifts, can be difficult, obstinate to a fault. And that's complicated by speech difficulties that followed his stroke.

You have this bright man, smarter than most of us, who can't share his thoughts. The harder he tries, the more stressed he becomes, the more muddy and halting his sentences. Partial knowledge is the best we have about his likes and dislikes, his hopes, fears and anxieties.

We don't know why he accepts some but not all help or how much he's contributed to the deterioration in his living conditions, conditions that Urban American believes threaten his neighbors. 

Much is locked inside his body where thoughts circulate but don't always become words and whole sentences.

Martin visits the Senior Center regularly but will not eat lunches offered there. It would not cost him a dime.

Again, why?

The result is deplorable living conditions that led his landlord to want him evicted, reportedly for not living up to the standards for Section 8 subsidized housing. The conditions in his apartment, especially the bedbugs, create intolerable conditions for any residential building.

But who's to blame? 

That's hard to say, but we're going to try finding out. 

Adult Protective Services, a City department, is working with him to arrange a deep cleaning to get his place back into tolerable shape. But the future's uncertain. It would not be fair to Martin, his landlord or his neighbors to let things fall back into anything like the current mess.

Who can stop it and how did things get like this in the first place? There are plenty of opinions and not much agreement.


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