When the end came for Jorge Gabriel, his body lay unclaimed in a Fairfax County nursing home.
Then came the calls and the dead ends — routine in the search for relatives of people who die homeless, incapacitated or alone.
The nursing home wasn’t set up to store Gabriel’s body after he died May 31. He was 75. Workers called a court-appointed guardian, who tried to contact one of Gabriel’s friends. But they didn’t connect. So the guardian decided that Gabriel would be cremated, and arranged for Fairfax officials to cover the cost.
The county pays a contractor $1,775 for the task.
Now the ashes are sitting in a law office in Alexandria.
For more than two decades, Gabriel was a fixture in Annandale, where he ran Anna ‘N Dale’s Newsstand from a shabby two-story cottage on busy Columbia Pike.
As newspaper and magazine sales sank, the Filipino immigrant tried to scrape by selling esoteric titles including the Russian and German versions of Maxim. There was a musical dancing Santa Claus, and a stream of Gabriel’s off-color and consciously incorrect jokes – which he insisted on delivering before handing over purchases, even to those who were clearly in a hurry.
Gabriel lived on the second floor, and friends begged him to give up the shop and find a peaceful place to retire. His answer: “What, stay in an old people’s home and then die?” recalled Ramoncito Albotra. Gabriel would add: “There are a lot of people who smile every time they see me.”
It was Gabriel’s second act in America.
He spent his first recruiting and leading engineering teams to help open nuclear plants across the United States.
As his last nuclear job was unexpectedly winding down near Oswego, N.Y., Gabriel was rudderless, depressed and living in the bone-chilling cold off Lake Ontario. A friend from the Washington area, Angel Alonso, suggested that he move down.
“He was looking for a family,” Alonso said.
Alonso and Albotra had been students of Gabriel’s at San Sebastian College in Manila in the 1960s. Alonso suggested that Gabriel teach science at a community college in Annandale, but Gabriel took over one of Alonso’s newsstands instead.
When Albotra offered to help him connect with relatives in the Philippines, Gabriel told him, “I don’t know them anymore.”
During the better years, Gabriel burned through cash. “I don’t have any family, I don’t have any kids, I don’t have any wife. I’m alone. I’m good at it. I enjoyed it,’ ” he told Albotra.
Gabriel’s friends found him collapsed on the second floor of the newsstand in April. He had been there for days, dehydrated and disoriented. He was hospitalized with congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
Weeks later, he was dead.
Gabriel’s ashes have been sitting in a black plastic box in the office of Gabriel’s guardian, Kenneth Labowitz, an Alexandria attorney who handles many such cases.
Gabriel’s friends have been searching for his relatives, and last week found a nephew in California. But the nephew decided not to take the ashes. Labowitz said he will find a dignified place to bury them.
“We loved him,” Albotra said. “Why will it end this way?”