(Anticipating teaching a course on finding characters for fiction, I was thinking about the origin of a poem of mine.)
In the 1960s, while at college in New York City, I lived for a year in an SRO near Broadway. An SRO was a Single Room Occupancy hotel. Your small room was part of a suite with a shared bathroom and kitchen, from the latter of which your food and beer were frequently stolen.
In the room next to mine was Mrs. Mifflin (not her actual name). She seemed ancient, and she may have been around 80. The only time she left her room for the outdoors was a monthly trip to get her arthritis shot.
Before major Christian holidays she would receive a visit from a great-niece and the great-niece’s little boy. One of the residents of our suite would pick up groceries for her. Those, plus the weekly visit from the super collecting rent, were her only human contacts.
Except for me.
I tried to be quiet when unlocking my door, but she would be listening. She would open her door and talk to me for as long as it took me to find a polite excuse to go inside my room and close my door. Most of her conversation was about the terrors of life in the city, as witnessed from her room.
Her chief pleasure was listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. One week the opera was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. I’d seen it at the Met; it was a masterful, grueling production that brought out all the opera’s 20th century agony. As you’d expect, Mrs. Mifflin was horrified by the music and turned it off during the first scene.
Some years later I published the following in the New York Times. The quoted dialog is very much as I remembered it. The reference to the Uris Brothers was kind of a joke: true, they were major developers of the era, but I had also known one of the family.
MRS. MIFFLIN’S FLOATING MANHATTAN
The pile drivers are pounding things into the ground outside.
Mrs. Mifflin sighs, says she hasn’t slept two nights—
“And what are they doing? Putting up more office buildings!
Don’t they know New York is an island?
Some day with all these buildings, it’ll break off
and float out to China.”
For Mrs. Mifflin then,
Uris Brothers and all your constructive brotherhood,
for then we’ll all go sailing
on our enchanted heap of stones and glass,
under Verrazano Bridge, slowly across currents and plateaus,
into the sunrise forever.
The fantasy of escape was my own—imagining a way to evade the state of mind described below.
Mrs. Mifflin would often tell me—sometimes at length, sometimes in bits and pieces—how she’d ended up at the Club van Cortlandt (its actual name, although the building was far from grand, and in fact was full of roaches and rats). She was the daughter of a judge in a Pennsylvania town and was widowed at a young age.
A young woman invited her to move to New York with her. Then the young woman abandoned her—I think to get married—and Mrs. Mifflin ended up on her own in that room. I assumed this had happened in the 1950s or maybe earlier in the 60s.
Two years after moving out of the Club van Cortlandt (it never occurred to me, in my busy routine, to return for a visit), I was working on a research project that involved collecting data from the NYC Department of Welfare about elderly clients. I would spend a week or two at each welfare center, recording information for a database used in research for what was eventually established as Medicare.
At the center that served the Club van Cortlandt’s neighborhood—and unethically, since her name wasn’t in the random group I was supposed to research—I decided to see if Mrs. Mifflin was in the records. Nothing had been computerized; there were entries in ink on a card for each client.
Her record was there. The case was opened the year that Home Relief began, in the early 1930s. Her address at the time—never updated—was the address of the Club van Cortlandt.
She had been in that room for over 30 years!
I know now that people can stay in even worse circumstances for longer than 30 years. But I was 20 then. Having already lived in many different places, I anticipated engaging with many more places, activities, and people in the decades ahead.
In those decades, I struggled often with episodes of depression. Sometimes I kept myself going by remembering the SRO and my neighbor, and how important it is to stay out of rooms like that.