"She died looking into my eyes"
By the time you read this, we are fifteen days and some hours too late. By the time you read this, Lillian Milán is already dead and buried, victim of the daily little violences carried out by our tax-funded bureaucratic neglect.
We arrive more than half-way into the story because, even though there's a mother and wife missing, the bureaucratic violence that killed Ms. Milan is still going strong.
You don't need to go to New Orleans to witness the havoc and devastation of our government's willful neglect.
I actually come into the story by accident. On Thursday I was supposed to be at the museum looking at dinosaur bones with my kids, but work kept me away from walking out the door.
So when I got the phone call to follow this story, I was taken by surprise. Especially since it is not every day I have Errol Louis on the line.
I mean, Errol ... shit. The day I met him, poor man, I went all fangirl on him. To me The Daily News is, not only the paper of record when it comes to New York City news. It has been the soapbox for some of the best opinion columnists in the nation : E. R. Schipp, Jimmy Breslin, Mike McAlary, Juan Gonzalez, Stanley Crouch.
Errol came to The Daily News around the time E. R. Schipp was controversially fired and even though nobody can fill E. R.'s stilletoes, Errol has been trying his darnest. If you need any proof, check out "It's a dog and pony show." That is a fine example of one of those "I wish I had written that" pieces. 'Nough said.
So when Errol said, "I know this is a long shot, but are you available?", I didn't even blink an "I'm so there".
I packed my camera, batteries and iPod. I kissed the kids and babysitter good bye and high-tailed it on the L-Train to the Bushwick Houses in Brooklyn with an address and a few notes : Tracey, a reader whom Errol had helped to relocate to the Bushwick Houses had contacted him about Lillian Milan. We were to meet her at the entrance to the building and walk with her the 10 stories to the apartment of where Ms. Milan had lived and died in her husband's arms. We were going to interview the widower, Larry Gonzalez, and I was there to serve as interpreter and translator.
I made sure I wore comfortable shoes and clothes. In my mind and since my days teaching at the now defunct Eastern District High School, Bushwick was a cauldron --dry, hot, muggy. I always joked it felt like it was the armpit of New York City with all its smells, clammy heat and general discomfort.
As I am on the train I try to remember the last time I had visited the area and reckon it must have been over 15 years ago. Which is why, when I get off at Montrose Avenue, I am surprised by what I see. There's white hipsters getting off the subway and disappearing into the neighborhood --a sight you may have been pressed to witness 15 years before. I also stumbled upon a used bycicle shop that disappeared from a few blocks away from me in Manhattan. It was one of a row of shops, a not-yet-turned-into-cafe coffee shop and a couple of family restaurants. Even the drug dealers looked deceivingly nice.
As I came out of the Montrose station and saw how the area was cleaning up with the inevitable signs of gentrification, I had to squint to find the signs of urban blight. For a minute and from afar "The Houses" looked like prime real estate.
It was as fast that the horror of that thought hit me : From a distance, New York City's public housing is becoming prime real estate where poor and destitute people live.
Up front a personal it is a completely different story.
No sooner had I gotten to the front of the building that despair ripped into me with complete aural violence.
The alarm of the broken-down elevator had been going strong since 6:45 that morning and showed no sign of stopping. This was no regular alarm. This was the kind of alarm you have in a minimum security prison or a school.
It was either NYCHA and the FDNYs job to shut the thing down but since the elevator would break down 5 out of 7 times a week anyway, the former had gotten use to taking their time while the latter just ignored the calls completely.
Not that they would ever consider the physical consequences of this aural pollution. After all, they don't have to spend hours trapped by disability in those apartments and forced to go insane with the noise.
From the violence of the noise we were thrown into the putrescent bowels of the building (otherwise known as the staircase). There are no words to describe how the combination of rat, cockroach and human feces, along with the mold, made the air unbreathable.
Yet those are the same staircases Larry Gonzalez used to take his wife up to their home after she had spent 5 hours waiting in vain for anybody from the New York City Housing Authority to come and fix the elevator. That's 5 hours with little food and water, with no access to her oxygen tank and further battered by the heat.
Those are the staircases that basically took Lillian Milan's life and with her, Larry Gonzalez' world.
He told us about how he followed her here to the United States after his un-unionized job at a hotel in Puerto Rico was dissolved by a new management company. He told us about how his inlaws, Lillian and their family had they lived and loved in that apartment for more than 30 years. He told us of his years working with NYCHA and how the people over at that place treated tenants in his building as subhuman.
Yet he mostly told us about how he tried to save his wife's life and how she was still alive when he asked their daughter to call 911.
"I kept telling her, mami please don't go, hold on to my arm and don't let go. And she kept on holding but her hand was slipping ... and at the end, she had asked me to get close to her like she wanted to tell me something and it was there that she slipped away from me ... She died looking into my eyes".
"I told my daughter not to come into the room, that her mother was sleeping. I didn't want her to see what had happened. I straightened her out, took a clean sheet and tucked her into bed. I turned out the lights and walked out."
Amid the conmotion and confusion, Larry remembers telling the EMS workers they were too late. They anyhow had waltzed into his aparment 56 minutes after the first call, full of attitude and disrespect. "She's dead", he said to them. To which one of them rudely snapped, "How do you know?"
It was at this one moment he exploded with the contempt and resentment he has for the whole system that failed him.
"Not one of them said to me, I'm sorry. My wife has just died and not only do they question what I said, but they don't even say their sorry they came in late."
Tracey, the neighbor who first contacted Errol with this story said the same thing. Nobody from NYCHA has contacted Mr. Gonzalez. Nobody from EMS has said anything about the delay.
The elevators are still broken.
The staircases are still covered in filth.
On the 10th floor of 140 Moore Street lives a man's whose world was taken away by weight of the city agency's willful neglect.
Errol writes, "The indifference of city leaders that allows things to reach this point - in particular City Hall's claim to be increasing New York's supply of affordable housing while scores of Housing Authority buildings are falling apart - is a public scandal."
These are our daily Katrina's, New York City's bureaucratic hell holes. And these are the victims of a system that whittles out the weak and poor, while salivating for prime real estate they can take in whole.