Ginette, December 2019
November 2019…..Ginette in her apartment on Avenue A, in the East Village of New York City. Ginette has lived in the same apartment for forty-six years. The apartment exists in a state of suspended animation, as it has no modern fixtures and is typical of many rent controlled apartments in older walk-up buildings. Old pipes, dysfunctional heating, poorly maintained plumbing and rodent, cockroach and bedbug infestation characterizes the experience of day to day life in Ginette’s apartment. She has been collecting odd bits of other people’s lives from the streets and at times the garbage, filling her space, each bit of detritus meaningful and weighted by memory and association. I used to come upon her at night, with her little dog Vanille, as she carefully picked through neighborhood trash, gathering discarded food for Vanille, and cast off treasures for her apartment which has become a museum of her life.
One of my first pic of Ginette and Vanille on Avenue A, September 2017. Vanille died suddenly in early 2019.
December 2019….Severe pain sets an insurmountable hurdle, limiting Ginette’s ability to participate in life outside her apartment. Chronic pancreatitis, arthritis, lifelong hip deformity and degenerative spinal disorder have made free and natural movement impossible. On this morning, a film crew focusing on my work with Ginette was in the apartment, and she graciously allowed us to work to document her experience. Her plan to go make her way downstairs to sit on a bench outside her building to watch the parade of life in the East Village had to be postponed because she was unable to get on her feet.
Morning brings bright light, a signal that it’s time to begin the arduous process of getting out of bed, and time to weigh the prospects of perhaps making her way down two steep flights of stairs to break into the daily stream of the neighborhood below her window.
December 2019….When Ginette was able to cook for herself she used a hot plate on top of her ancient refrigerator, always afraid of the potential the rudimentary plate had to overheat and start a fire. Frozen green beans and hotdogs will slowly warm up while Ginette sits in a little chair nearby. Ginette’s refrigerator is in very poor condition, full of mold and bugs, and barely able to preserve food. She has insisted on keeping it and has refused offers from her landlord to replace it.
December 2019…contemplating descent, moving slowly but purposefully to reach the stairwell. Once Ginette is dressed she is not easily deterred from reaching the street below. The memory of people and sound and the potential interactions she will have galvanize and energize her. Simple neighborly exchanges on the days she is able summon her body’s resolve to bull her way to the outside light up her face and animate her expression.
December 2019…..Ginette sits outside a cafe for dogs and people on the street below her apartment. The ability to do some shopping without help allows her to preserve her memories of independence and self sufficiency.
Ginette sparkles once outside her apartment, and greets every passerby with intense happiness.
Ginette slowly makes her way down 12th street to a medical appointment a few blocks from her apartment. She has insisted on complete independence, refusing offers of help from passerby who are startled by the sight of her cane and bare feet on a frigid morning. She removed her shoes because she was having heart palpitations, and she thought that the rough shock of the frozen pavement beneath her feet would distract her from the discomfort of the palpitations.
Memories stored in an old address book. Everything touched in Ginette’s apartment seems pressed and softened by handling. Paper is worn and smoothed from being held many hundreds of times, kept in spots that haven’t been cleaned in many years. Pictures of Ginette at her seventieth birthday party, snaps taken as she rifled through the contents of a garbage can, pictures with dogs that accompanied her on her journeys throughout the East Village over the years but who passed away long ago.
Ginette at forty-nine years with Charlie in 1986.
November 2019….Ginette holds a picture of herself taken when she was in her late forties.
November 2020…. Big changes in the year 2020 as Ginette’s health has significantly deteriorated. After a summer spent in a nursing home, and intervention by Adult Protection Services, she clings to her life inside her apartment, desperate to avoid a court order that will remove her. After workmen partially destroyed her collection and personal possessions, she struggles to care for herself physically. Because of haphazardly done repairs to the ceiling in her apartment, an onslaught of bugs—cockroaches and bedbugs—infested her apartment after years of being held in check. Dust and ancient pieces of crumbled ceiling plaster, some of it pulverized into a fine particulate, covered almost everything in a filthy, powdered grime.
November 2020, a few days before her apartment was partially destroyed by workmen.
A workman stands in Ginette’s apartment, after painting over the area that was repaired.
Ginette sits after returning to her apartment after a day spent downstairs on a bench outside her building as she waited for workmen to replace a piece of the ceiling that was collapsing. Without proper protection for her living space, they left the apartment in an untenable state. Some items were missing and presumably discarded, others were destroyed during the repair. Pictures hung crookedly, papers were torn and deeply damaged by soot and dust and plaster as well as decades old detritus that had built up in the walls, detritus from rodents and bugs and years of neglect.
Television and phone were damaged and left on the floor. The apartment was left with no phone or cable service, the floor covered with pieces of the ceiling.
Devastated by the condition that workmen left her apartment in and without electricity, except for one working bulb left dangling from the ceiling.
In a state of disarray after returning home, Ginette is mute as she sits on the edge of her bed. To outside observers, her apartment has always been a mess, but in fact it had been very deliberately arranged in the manner of a finely tuned hoarder, each object bearing witness to an important moment in life, and held with patient reverence.
Ginette and Leo….Leo has lived in the building in a tiny, dilapidated ground floor apartment for over thirty years. Ginette’s phone is a lifeline to Leo, who will come upstairs at any hour to assist her. It wasn’t always this way….they haven’t always been friends, moody and silent interludes lasting for years have pockmarked their friendship. Leo understands well the need to forgive and truly forget meaningless trivia, but Ginette sometimes gets mired in past misunderstanding and recollection, making it difficult for Leo to help her.
Leo helps Ginette lower herself into a chair he has placed in the sun for her to sit in just outside their building.
Helping hands assist after leaving an appointment. Ginette cancels most of her medical appointments because her lack of mobility and pain can be too much for her to face when the calendar says it’s time for her to get dressed and make preparations to visit the doctor. Once dressed and out of bed, small distractions can interrupt any resolve and momentum present and cause her to suddenly give up and forfeit another opportunity for medical care.
Leo physically supports Ginette as she rises from a seated position in the chair outside and readies herself for the climb back up the two steep flights of stairs to her bed.
Portrait of Leo in November 2020
Aging in the era of COVID-19 in general isolation and poverty has presented intense stress and despair.
September 2020….Ginette shortly after her return from a nursing home she had been involuntarily placed in for the duration of the summer. A social worker found her to be unable to care for herself and the temporary placement was ordered. She improved physically despite being upset by the upheaval, and once a little bit better, she was discharged and returned home. Finding herself without any follow up care or in-home support, and unable to perform basic, unassisted self care such as bathing, Ginette finds that her lack of mobility on her own presents serious obstacles obstructing independence.
Painkillers and alcohol sometimes mix to clear Ginette’s chronic pain, a deadly combination that force the few who care about her welfare to contemplate creative ways to hinder her, such as hiding the bottles or pouring the contents into the drain while she sleeps.
December 2020….Besides a rudimentary shower located in the living area, the only source of water in the apartment is an antiquated faucet and sink. Its slow trickle of tepid water is used for basic grooming and bathing, and dish washing and storage.
Ginette’s apartment is entirely unrenovated and is exactly as it was when she moved in over forty-six years ago. The rudimentary shower is located in the living area and is set two feet above the floor. The water flows weakly, and is lukewarm and erratic. Ginette manages to shower once a month because the effort required to climb up and into the stall is too great. She feels most at ease showering when someone is present and within earshot should she fall or otherwise become incapacitated.
Ginette is a prolific writer and storyteller, and loves to read aloud her exploits as an adult and her feelings regarding her past life and childhood with an abusive parent. Her writing is characterized by her penchant for relating traumatic events with an irreverent and humorous irony, without euphemism or apology.
January 2021….Lost in memory one night after finding an old journal.
Determined to exit her apartment one temperate winter day, Ginette rises from the walker she uses as a chair to struggle into her jacket. She will make her way slowly to the door, picking her way through papers and objects and boxes placed haphazardly on the floor. She is full of laughter and anticipation on the days that she’s able to exit.
November 2020….Refusing help, precariously and stubbornly navigating the stairwell alone, and seeking the air of the city, alive with the smells of New York and any interactive experiences she can provoke outside.
December 2020….Every day is a miracle.
Once outside, Ginette’s running commentary includes all, from young children and their mothers walking little dogs to elderly people from the neighborhood….any and all who pass by her roost on the street.
Life indoors, forgotten.