Catherine: A Poor Old Lady

Our fourteenth anniversary is coming up in a little bit.  Mariellen and I exchanged our vows after the 8:30am Mass in the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Newark, Ohio.  There was a woman there who witnessed the event; an older woman saying a few prayers after Mass.  When our brief ceremony was over, she approached us and said, “Here’s $20.00.  Buy yourselves a drink.”

We went home to our little apartment in Zanesville, all 205 sg. ft. of it and began our life together.  It has been a most unusual one.

For instance, for a while shortly after August 11th, our wedding day, we found ourselves involved in a fight to prevent the destruction by the city of a neighborhood nearby, and the forced relocation of more than 700 people, some of whose families had been living in their home for several generations.  Having watched the destruction of property and lives that is the only result I can see to come from “urban renewal”, and having time on my hands, I figured we were in an excellent position to lend a hand fighting this “neronic” move against folks whose only crime was being poor.  (Neronic is a word I just invented.  It means a violent, stupid and cruel policy implemented by any government or its agents against a defenseless citizenry.  You can probably think of a lot of Neronic things government at every level is doing to you; to everyone.)

It’s a long story, but we did have more than modest success, saved an awful lot of homes and property and did a little bit of good.

But, I’ll tell you something.  It was hard work, and sometimes it was heartbreaking.  Here’s a little story I wrote about a phone call I got from an old lady who lived in Greenwood, the neighborhood about to be executed in the interests of improving the city’s image. Catherine was the woman’s name.  My grandmother’s name was Catherine.  She knew about poverty and landlords and having to move from her home, too.  She was born in Ireland.

I think this thing appeared in the local paper.  Don’t know if anyone read it:

CATHERINE

“I don’t have to do this,” I say to myself listening to the rough voice on my answering machine.  “”This is Catherine L, on Greenwood?  And I’d like to talk to you.  My number is 555-1234, please.”

That’’s all.  A simple message. One of many that will be coming in over the next few weeks I fear.  I listen to it again and wonder at the question in her voice as she tells me she lives on Greenwood. In New York that rising note of question might be replaced by, “”You know!””  A challenge almost.  But this is not New York, and Catherine is no New Yorker.  I think about it a few minutes and pick up the phone.

“”Hello?”” she answers. ““Catherine, I’’m Peter Gallaher,”” I say.  “”You called me?””
“”Yeah,”” she replies, her old and worn voice sounding thick in my ears. I still find it hard understanding some of the people here.  Catherine is one of them.  Not unlike many people she speaks with the muffled sound of the toothless.  Gum disease is a fact of life in Zanesville, and the yellow pages are full of dentists specializing in dentures, here.

Catherine wants to know if I will pick her up and take her to a meeting of the group I have suddenly found myself in charge of,  People for the Greenwood Neighborhood Restoration.  But I was out when she called and she has found a ride in my absence.  Bill Briggs, a retired Presbyterian minister, will carry Catherine to the meeting.

She thanks me and says good bye.  For some reason I don’t want to end the conversation so I ask her just where she lives.  “”You know where I live, in the blue house just up at the other end of Greenwood.””  I ask her how she is feeling, is she well.  “”Oh, I got arthuritis, and lung problems and heart problems, but I’m mostly pretty good.””  She did honest to God say “arthuritis”, something I find endearing among some of the older people here.  Sometimes its ““the arthuritis””.  My  Irish Grandmother had “the arthuritis” also.  My Grandmother’’s name was Catherine.

Catherine tells me that she lives alone since her husband died in her blue house at the other end of Greenwood, at the end which is scheduled to be demolished and replaced with brand new lower income housing for the poor.  Catherine says, “”Say, can you tell me how much them new houses is going to cost?””  ““As far as I know, Catherine, the city says they’ll cost about $100,000.00 each,”” I answer.  ““Can you afford to buy a house for $100,000.00?”” I ask.  ““I can’t afford to buy no house like that.  Will they rent me one?””  ““Well, they plan to let people rent them to own them after 15 years.  Can you afford the rent?””  “”How much is it?”” her old voice asks me.  ““I think the city will charge about $400.00 a month.””  I answer trying to keep scorn and anger from my voice

“”I only get $600.00 a month from the Social Security and I don’t get much in the cheese and the food stamps on top of that,”” Catherine says in a flat voice.  “”How much rent are you paying now?”” I ask..  “”$200.00 with the utilities,”” comes the answer.  “”Well, Catherine, it looks like you won’t be able to live in one of those houses unless you could qualify for some kind of subsidy, and that might help you but only for about three and a half years.””  I ask her how old she is and she answers that she’’s sixty-nine.

Catherine tells me a bit more about herself saying that she’’s right now living in the best place she ever has had in Zanesville.  I know the house, a run down place a few hundred yards from the really squalid places that house people among whom I spend my time on Sundays.  Like many in this neighborhood Catherine has no car; has never owned one.  Her husband died several years ago and she’’s been alone since.  She mentions that she tried to get her widow’’s pension from the Social Security and only got $200.00 a month from them.  That means that he was probably earning next to nothing when he worked.  If he worked.  He was ninety-five when he died.  ““I just started getting sick after he died,”” she comments.  “”And it’’s got to where I can’t do much for myself anymore.””

““I had somebody to drive me into Columbus to see about his Black Lung, but I couldn’’t collect nothing,”” she says forlornly.  “”I don’t need it now.  I can get along,”” she adds.

I bet.  Her friend up the street, one of the few with a car up here, drives her to the store twice a week, and the Senior Center picks her up in a van three mornings a week and takes her over there.  She pays her friend $3.00 for each trip, money she can’’t afford to someone who needs it badly.  It’’s about four percent of her income if my very poor math skills are working.

“”I don’t need the Laundromat no more.  I got me a used washer last year.””  As she says that for some reason the vision of her walking down to the Muskingum River with a load of laundry on her head flashes through my mind.  “”But what’’ll I do if we all get moved?””  “Well,” I think to myself, “there’’s the river.”

Catherine, a sixty-nine year old widow living alone on $600.00 a month in a run down house hasn’’t heard from the city yet.  They have a plan for her though. The fellow who is writing the grant for the thirteen million dollars that the city will use to hire the men who will tear down her home and build a new house has said, “”Private home ownership is  what lifts people out of poverty”” — or something along those lines.  Private homes, boulevards and trees are the center of the plan the city has for this neighborhood of poor people.

He’’s also told me that the city doesn’’t expect more than twenty percent of the people who live in the neighborhood now to be able to live there when the project is finished and they’’ve all been “lifted out of poverty.”

But Catherine may have the last laugh.  She’s sixty-nine you know.  You do the math.  Her age, her health, a three and a half year subsidy?  She and a three year subsidy just might be a perfect match.

January 22, 2001

 

 

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