Sunday, August 15, 2010

Aging is Non-Discriminitory--- We Are All Approaching 80--- If We Are Lucky

Amazingly our somewhere around 92 year old neighbor, "Elle," has Alzheimer's dementia, and she is quite seriously on her own. It is not so very surprising that she is alone in life, no spouse, no relatives, no friends, it happens. What is shocking is that in the state she is clearly in, in the State of California, there is no help for her! Here are the facts: she is a veteran of WWII. She has lived in this building of 18 units for the past 40 years. she was fired from her job of many years as resident manager for some bizarre behavior (a result of beginnings of Alzheimer's) three years ago. She and I had been previously friendly, but after I was hired by the old old landlord to do the job she had held, she became verbally abusive whenever she saw me. Once when the smoke alarms in the building went off, house filled with smoke everywhere, I called the Fire Department, warned everyone, and when I knocked on her door she was scathing in her criticism of the responsibility I had taken, calling what turned out to be her pyrotechnics "just a small kitchen fire." I tried to remain friendly and helpful for a while, but decided it was best all around if I steered clear.
Another neighbor helped her out with several things for a few years. He was her only friend here, although everyone was courteous and friendly. One day about a year ago, in the middle of the night she banged on the door of the young couple living in the unit below her to complain of "loud music and noise." They assured me the next morning they had not been making noise, which I knew to be true. Elle had engaged in a struggle over their door, which had been opened slightly to her by the young man. He got it closed, and she banged so hard on it with something in her hands that she actually broke part of the moulding on the door. Soon after the couple moved out.
Once I heard a loud noise from the second floor where she lives, so I knocked on her door to see if she was OK, thinking she may have fallen. She yelled at me as if I had flung at her the worst insult imaginable.
Meanwhile, her helping neighbor had reported to the property owner that he had grown wary of Elle, her behavior was growing increasingly bizarre, he was no longer in a position to be of help to her. The landlord asked me to call social services to see what help could be offered to a lady of such advanced age, a veteran of WWII, on Medicare and Medi-Cal. Shockingly, Adult Protective Services could offer nothing beyond, "call the police to 52/50 her. The landlord must evict her." Not one to give up easily, I began a campaign of information gathering, to little avail.
A few weeks ago I ignored it this time when again I heard quite a loud noise somewhere in the building. One of the other neighbors, a young man knocked on my door to tell me Elle had fallen on the top of the carpeted stairs, that she had hit her head, he and another neighbor were attending to her. I called 911, asked them to send an ambulance. She spent a couple of days in the hospital. Meanwhile, I got on the phone to APS again, believing for all the world that this crises would galvanize them to action. I was told that unless she makes the decision to get help for herself, no one may step in to help her, not even if she is in a state of dementia rendering her a danger to herself and others. Help could not be given to her unless she herself sought it, even though Alzheimer's is a medical condition, causing deterioration of the brain. The property owner was given no other choice by Adult Protective Services than to evict, the prospect of which is loathsome to him, understandably enough.
I was told a few days ago by a first floor neighbor, that one night several months ago she had been awakened in the middle of the night by Elle banging hard on the door of two other very nice neighbors, yelling at them to "turn off that music!" Clutching hard at her sheets, the downstairs neighbor had grabbed her phone in panic, ready to call 911. People are not used to calling the cops on a 92 year old lady. Soon after the neighbors of the early AM door-banging moved out. The landlord and I never even knew the reason why, at the time.

A friend of Elle's visiting her for the first time in years called the paramedics to come pick her up in an ambulance. She had some kind of "shortness of breath." Back on the phone to report this to APS, I met with what seemed to me cold callousness, or ineptitude, no help, once again.

Elle back again the next day from the hospital, I returned around midnight two nights ago to the stink of chemicals and several messages telling me the police had been called, Elle had been hauled off again to Summit Hospital. She had been pouring bleach and Raid all over her apartment and the stairs because "the snakes were now everywhere, had been biting" her all over her body. I was told she had been threatening to murder the neighbor who had previously cared for her. She had become paranoid that he was stealing her money, taking her prescriptions.
The police took her again, without her keys.

I am the keeper of the keys, and I am "out of town." At least for a few more days.We all need some breathing room here, and she needs proper assessment.

She needs proper help. This is beyond the call of duty or the capabilities of the landlord, or anyone living in this building. We are not doctors, nurses, social workers, the police or a hospital. We are not her friends or relatives. Most importantly we do not have power of attorney.
My advice to everyone of any age, especially those more or less on their own, is to make a living will, and set up a good friend or pay someone to have power of attorney, just in case. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. Alzheimer's, or any dementia can spiral out of control at what can seem like a moments notice. We are not a society practicing the control of population at one end or the other. We do not limit the birth rate, we keep people alive long after in earlier times they would have been dead. Since 1960 the world population has doubled. This trend continues exponentially. The state of California is in a fiscal mess beyond reckoning. Californians have voted in a state constitution by which laws cannot be changed or made except by vote of the people, who are largely short-sited, want only not to be taxed. 2/3rds majority legislative vote and Proposition 13 limiting property taxes have nearly broken the system. In the seventies it was decided in an election by the people of California, that they did not wish to have extended care coverage as part of Medicare, which could have been paid for by individuals who wanted it, seven or eight bucks a month. Elle has Medicare and Medical, a nursing home will be paid for, if only the professionals will take some responsibility. in part their hands are tied by legislation enacted at the behest of both liberals and civil-libertarians of the sixties, horrified at the state of our mental health institutions, the cause taken up by Reagan Republicans, who for financial reasons tore down the entire system. The baby was thrown out with the bath-water.
So, whats it gonna be my fellow humans who are aging, going inexorably toward what lies ahead for half of us if we are lucky enough to make it to eighty, namely Alzheimer's or other Dementia? Do we want a safety net for Elle? Do we want a safety net for ourselves? Do we want to be put in the position of caring ineffectually for neighbors and friends, doing work that is beyond our capacity? Do we want to see buildings burn, neighbors threatened with or actually murdered, poison dumped in the hallways where we live? Do we really want to see our oldest and most frail turned out into the street, or having to face an eviction judge in their (our) eighties? Nineties? More than 100s?
After Elle was once more sent to the hospital for starvation and sitting all day in the sun on the front stairs in her underwear (she had locked herself out of her apartment and no one at home had an extra key to let her in; I was not home. The landlord could not be reached), I received a call from APS. They wanted to be sure her door would be open, they wanted to dump her off yet again.
I spelled it out for them what could happen to this most vulnerable lady, if they brought her back again. I left no rock of detail in place, exposing in the harshest terms what I felt they would be responsible for, should further harm come to Elle, due to their negligence.
It seems this time they heard me; possibly even they felt they could not turn a blind eye to Elle's predicament. She has not been back in several weeks. The landlord informed me the other day that Elle will not return, she is now being cared for in a nursing home.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Written For an Exhibit at Deep Roots in Oakland Where my Work Was Shown Alongside That of My Friend Pedro Moreno in 2005 and an Update

Inspiration for this Show and a History

I moved to the Dutch boy Paint Factory Art Complex in 1987. This dilapidated patchwork of buildings in the heart of the industrial neighborhood of the Fruitvale District of East Oakland is considered by most to be the first artist's live/work studios created from an old factory or warehouse in the East Bay. At the time I moved in, while mostly artists lived and worked in the complex, I was told by my neighbors that the heyday for artists in these particular lofts had already past. Many were moving, had moved, planned to move. These circumstances, I was told, were due to two major factors: after artists had made their places habitable (without reimbursement from the landlord), rents had steadily climbed, pricing most artists out of the market, the other factor being the general unwillingness or slowness of our scofflaw slumlord to fix anything that might be in need of attention in our units. He was (is) an absentee landlord, who from the beginning took advantage of the poverty and need of artists for cheap space and lots of it, to use as residence, studio, gallery space, and storage. He cunningly made use of the inventiveness and creativity of people who were capable of making raw, formerly undesirable space into something quite attractive, while they simultaneously drew people to what had been and remains a remote, forbidding terrain. While I noticed that artists were indeed moving out, other artists would move in to take their place. More often people who were not artists moved in, attracted to the allure of a place that had built its reputation on the hopes and pioneering enthusiasm of artists. Also attractive were the high ceilings, large spaces, and again, perhaps the hope that something of what it is to be truly creative might rub off in some way, be contagious.
Jump cut a decade or more into the future, it is 1995. A baby has been born, is living where we were all assured from the time we moved in that all toxic materials had been removed from the days when our homes had been a factory. The baby is found at a local clinic to have dangerously toxic levels of lead throughout his system. The clinic by law must report this alarming news to the proper authorities at Housing Code Violations.
I date the beginning of the time when all hell broke lose in this place for all tenants from that child's personal calamity, which became the process of eviction for us all. To placate his alarmed tenants, who already saw the writing on the wall, the landlord initiated several meetings, where nothing was accomplished. Nothing was meant to actually happen. Soon after, the evictions began.
Understand that soon after 1978 when my landlord began to do live/work loft business, all tenants were given thirty page leases carefully delineating the demands of our landlord and the regulations governing our residencies on the property; fundamentally, our own rights were signed away. Understand that his agents instructed us with a wink- nudge- nod, that although we were to live here as others had and would, we must keep that knowledge carefully hidden from City Officials and Inspectors. Understand that this landlord was a notorious scofflaw, with or without City sanction and knowledge- the man was doing business without regard to official demands of building code, or permit processes. Understand too, that twenty-six years after he began assuring tenants the clean-up had been done, during which time he had rented to several people who lived here with children, including his own employees, toxic clean-up began. Nine years after the city busted him, forced to enforce by the finding of an infant with lead coursing through his blood stream, toxic clean up finally began.
In the fall of the year 2004 our numbers were down to about 20% of our former population, interestingly almost all artists again. Twelve trees were cut down on the property. Mountains of dirt that had been brought in from the Oakland hills the year previous would soon be put to use. Other mountains of toxic dirt heavily laced with lead and arsenic were trucked out. Under the ground where seven trees in giant wooden tubs had been removed from the parking lot, were seven underground vats containing 94,000 gallons of linseed oil, 12,000 gallons each. A caravan of 48 toxic clean up trucks removed the linseed oil. Next Eighty-seven cement mixer trucks came through to fill the underground tanks with concrete. What had taken the landlord twenty-six years to get around to, finally had been accomplished in roughly three weeks. The kicker is that he had the very cheapest concrete mixed. The stuff exposed at ground level still can be seen to be merely sand under foot at the above ground entrance to each tank. We live above a parking lot filled with sand.
Meanwhile, ongoing construction in the spaces of tenants evicted over the ten year period continues. Essentially the majority of the large spaces are being gutted and divided, most often into thirds, each of which the landlord plans to charge as much for as the previous entire space. It is unknown whether he will again allow tenants to live in the spaces, he has taken out bathrooms, is not building new ones. Sheer wall goes up, windows get covered, and the remaining windows of antique frosted chicken wire glass are relentlessly replaced by the thousands with clear panes. Aside from privacy issues, aside from the obvious earthquake safety of chicken wire glass, aside from aesthetic issues, most of these windows face southeast. On the hottest days of the year the sun comes blasting in. Imagine seeking refuge in your home from 95-degree weather to an indoor area 10 to 15 degrees hotter. I can only imagine this state of affairs when the relative protection offered by frosted glass is removed.
The man who had built a career on lying to the tenants he had built a fortune on, the man who had lied to and evaded city officials always, was finally cleaning up and making his buildings stronger. The man, who appeared to be doing the right thing for once, was once again doing it on the backs of his tenants.
Pedro Moreno became my art student, and very soon my friend, in the summer of 2000. Once a week he visited my studio for the sake of art and learning, in all day sessions that continued for three years. In this time we became the very best of friends. When a loft mate moved out two years ago, Pedro told me he would like to move in to the upstairs studio and bedroom across the larger downstairs studio from my upstairs living quarters. Although at first I felt the need to deliberate long and hard over this decision for many reasons, I gave him the go ahead, and feel now for many more reasons, that it is the best decision I ever made. We are friends, and we are companions in battle against the landlord.
The landlord has been trying to evict Pedro and me since my last ten-year lease ended in January of 2004. On September 1st, the same day of the opening of this collaborative exhibition commemorating our art and our valiant stance, the last evicted tenant will have moved from our building. Pedro and I will be living together, alone in a huge three-story structure that has become a vast wasteland of sporadic construction activity. Our busily productive live/work studio is the last of its kind here, for now. It is, and we are, endangered species.
Our legal battle for now takes place at the City Of Oakland Rent Adjustment Program. Our primary aim as of this moment in time is to both assert and establish our rights as residential tenants, under the law. From the time my last lease ended and the landlord began to try to evict us from our home, it has been one year and nine months. Thus far, we prevail.
Chandra Garsson, 2005

Pedro and I are the best of buddies. We have the kind of friendship that is steel both strong and flexible as can be the case when friendship is subjected to the fire of mutual suffering, the only way I can characterize the eviction of artists.
I landed in a tiny apartment by a lake to live in, my studio of four years is in an old Bank of America Building (a step up I suppose from an old paint factory---at least it is not on toxic ground).
The place was given to me by a dear friend and collector of many years. Very sadly, she died. Her son inherited the building and me. Now he is evicting me. He tells me on the official eviction notice all tenants received:

"Chandra---You don't have to move on the same schedule as rest of folks. Also---I have a space for you that I think will work well. Love, David (happy face drawing :) )"

The move was heavy and long. Much was sold cheap and much else was trashed. Much was fixed after being damaged in the move. Some was left behind by movers disgruntled by a bigger project than they had bargained for. Much was retrieved, including my sanity, after four years of allowing myself to do only that which I choose.
I have tried in vain for a week and a half to arrange a time to see the studio or at least the complex which he thinks I will find suitable, to see if indeed this is the case. I have left several unanswered messages. For now, my only plan is to wait. When he sees fit to show me the other space, then I shall begin the steps necessary toward vacating my studio once again, again to haul, and to begin to build again in a new place.