It is 9 a.m. Monday morning. As I arrive for work at the Roosevelt residence, old people are sitting on benches in front of the building. From behind picture windows eyes peer out. A few people wave.
Through the lobby, a hundred elderly people continuously parade. People on walkers and in electric wheelchairs, people moving in slow motion, people stumbling.
The Roosevelt, a stately eight-story brick building on 16th Street NW between V and W, was one of the city's grand hotels for many years after its construction in 1919. Teddy Roosevelt and his family lived across the street. Guests dined under glass chandeliers and danced in ornate ballrooms. There was an air of wealth and well-being.
But in 1963, as its fortunes waned, the hotel was converted to a residence for 365 senior citizens. Now layers of paint fade on the walls. The ballroom is divided into a series of recreation rooms, and the sounds of walkers and canes pound against marble floors.
The staff feels it and the residents know it: The Roosevelt has become a place of progressive loss. It is a gray world between normal life and nursing home charge. To many, the luxuries of served meals and housekeeping performed by maids offer cruel reminders of the families now gone -- spouses, friends and children. The ultimate loss at the Roosevelt can be anticlimatic: the loss of one's very life.
Some sit staring in the halls. Leroy Mitchell strolls into the snack bar for a sherry. At 75 cents a glass, he can drink for hours. Barbara Henley and William Brubaker rush downtown for lunch. In the lounge Sally Ranor and Emma Tucker fight over last night's bingo game.
The Roosevelt is a cruise ship that travels the fine line between dependence and independence.
The independent residents participate in activities. Zelda dances with the Third Age Dancers. She performs at elementary schools showing the children that "the old fogies can still move." Martha participates in the writing class. Lelia goes on the shopping trips to Prince George's Plaza every Friday at 10 a.m. She boards the Red Cross bus dressed in a turquoise chiffon dress, a pink straw hat, white gloves and yellow shoes. Her face is made up in different shades of red. At the shopping mall she heads straight to Murphy's to eat the coffee shop special. Last week she had a hot fudge sundae.
Less independent residents, those who have become frail and incapacitated, struggle to remain at the Roosevelt. Each day they get noticeably older. Like infants becoming toddlers, the changes occur quickly. Someone starts to forget. Someone falls and breaks a hip. Someone with a cane needs a walker. Someone with a walker needs a wheelchair. On the average the Roosevelt loses eight residents a month to the hospital, to a nursing home, to death.
As I unlock the door to my office, Clara Kerstein, who has lived in the hotel longer than anyone else, greets me. "It's not the same here anymore. When I came in 1963 it was clean and neat. There was red carpet on the floor. Now there are walkers and wheelchairs and you can't have carpeting. Can't you get all the sick and poor people out of here?
I ask Mrs. Kerstein what happened this weekend. She says she's tired of having people take books from the library and not return them. She stamps the inside of each book with the hotel's stamp. It does not deter the culprits. Books disappear.
I promise to put a threatening note in the weekly bulletin.
I walk down the hall to the kitchen for a morning cup of coffee before the day's problems begin to surface. Families will need advice, residents will need counseling, and residents arguing will need a referee. Mrs. Crandall and Mrs. Brown will have their daily fight. They compete for the attention of an 89-year-old man who is having affairs with both of them. Mrs. Locke is walking slowly. Her daughter died last night. She stops me.
"I always thought my children would bury me," she says. "Now there is no one." She hurries away before she starts to cry.
Mr. Savory bids me good morning. He hasn't moved since last Friday. He is sitting in a corner of the lobby. His head leans against the wall, leaving spots from his hair on the blue paint. Sam Stein is fixing the bulletin board and Barbara Simon chatters at people who don't listen.
"Don't ever have children," she calls to me. "They don't take care of you when you're old."
I pass Mrs. Baldwin, the former manager of the hotel. She worked and lived at the Roosevelt for nine years before retiring to Richmond to live with her sister. But she can't stay away from the hotel. It is in her blood. She comes for extended visits and continues to rule with an iron hand. Some of the old-timers call her Momma.
As I head towards the kitchen I hear her instructing the houseman on the proper way to clean floors. Her voice carries. "You're not doing it right," she says. "When Josie was here,the floors were perfect. I'll show you how to do it."
She grabs the mop, moving it in circular motions. The houseman watches intently. She hands him the mop and pats him on the back. As she moves down the hall, he continues to clean in his usual fashion.
Mrs. Simon trails after me. She is bent over, holding onto a cane. Make-up dots her face as if she had spent hours in the dark getting ready for breakfast. Her dress is meticulous, and she talks in a thick English accent.
"I do love those bran muffins, dear. Do you eat them? We should have more roughage in our diet. I only eat vegetables. I'm a vegetarian. Are you, dear?" She wanders over to the front desk without waiting for my reply.
Molly Hammer visits. She waits for me every day, nodding her head, assuming I know her secret messages. I nod back. Today she wears a white button-down sweater and a black straight skirt. She stands in the doorway, nodding her head, talking in riddles.
In the lobby there is a scream. Irma Smith has spotted an old friend.
"For Christ's sake," Sall Ranor says. "Why do they have to shout?"
Irma pays no attention. She wraps herself in her Navy coat. She hasn't taken it off since last July. It makes everyone sweat to see her, and rumors pass around the hotel that she sleeps in hat, coat and gloves.
"Is that you, Elsie?" she says to a squat woman passing by with bundles of newspaper and trash of various kinds. The woman turns to Irma. "Why, Irma Smith. I don't believe that's really you."
Irma laughs. "Elsie . . . Elsie Little." She turns to a resident sitting close by. "Elsie and I lived at the Hawthorne Hotel."
Elsie whispers, "My, but Irma has aged."
The switchboard operator pages me. There was a death last night. Mrs. Baldwin forgot to tell me. The police have arrived. Mrs. Baldwin and I accompany them upstairs.
Mrs. Weinter's death is routine. "Easy street," the policeman tells me. He roams around the room waiting for someone from the city morgue to arrive. He and Mrs. Baldwin chat like best friends.
"We're old friends," the policeman informs me. "I came here on my first death call. She taught me everything I know."
Their talk drifts to the subject of past deaths. Remember when this one died . . . . remember when that one died. Mrs. Baldwin boasts of having seen a dozen suicides and a half-dozen fires.
They glance at me. "Is this your first death?" the policeman asks.
"No," I tell him.
Mrs. Baldwin pats me on the hand. "It gets easier each time. It won't bother you so much after a while."
I smile politely. We've had this conversation before, when the occupant in room 644 died, and then the occupant in room 892. She wasn't there when the man in 712 died in his wheelchair on Christmas or when Miss Luhmax dropped dead in the lobby after breakfast.
The man from the morgue arrives. He is short, middle-aged. Wrinkles are embedded in his forehead, and a tatoo of a woman rests comfortably on his upper arm. His pea green shirt matches the carpet and casts a yellowish tint on his skin. He hums country and western tunes.
The dead Mrs. Weinter gives him a hard time. He can't get her gold ring off her finger. He grunts. "Damn," he says, breathing heavily. "I'm not as young as I used to be."
Finally, Mrs. Weinter is wrapped and ready to ride down on the freight elevator The man from the morgue and I ride with her to the trash room in the back of the building.
"Hey," the mans says. "Are you married?"
"Yes," I reply.
"Do you want to play around on the side?" he inquires.
"No, thank you," I say politely.
He winks. "Well, you know where to find me if you change your mind."
In the lobby Mrs. Baldwin speaks on the phone. "It's for the best," I hear her say. No doubt she is talking to Mrs. Weinterhs family.
It is 11:45 a.m., lunchtime at the Roosevelt. In the dining room there is a pause from the normal gossip about Mr. White sleeping with Fanny and Ida. Everyone knows that Fanny's diabetes was caused by her affair with Mr. White. That's ancient history. Today, the conversation is about who died, and why.
In the midst of the talk about death, Mrs. Green finds her way to table 32. This is her first meal at the hotel. Mr. Topper sits across from her. He eats his soft-boiled egg in silence. He looks blind. She can't tell for sure. She starts to say hello and gives up. He has hearing aids in both ears.
"No sense trying to talk to a deaf man," she says to herself. To her right is a man in a wheelchair. He doesn't have any legs. She glances at him and feels sick.
I pass Miss Hammer on the way to the front desk. She stops me. "I don't mind getting older as long as the wrinkles are in the right place," she says. I nod.
The telephones are ringing. The dance group is rehearsing and the writing class is about to begin. Mrs. "(word illegible)" is signing up to see "Kramer vs. Kramer," and Emma Little drops her bag of trash in the lounge.
As the last resident strolls out of the dining room, a few staff members get ready for lunch. We sit in the corner of the chandeliered room looking out the windows. I tell them about Mrs. Weinter's death and they tell me about their encounters.
"I don't want to send Mrs. Diggins to a nursing home," the staff assistant says. "She used to sit in my office and talk to me about politics. Now she wanders around the building knocking on doors at all hours of the night."
"Hold out until you have no other choice," I tell her.