My young daughter called him the Sweeping Man, because often when we would walk by the house at 235 West 11th Street, he would be tidying the sidewalk out front with a well-used yellow broom, sweeping up fallen leaves and dirt. He was a fixture of the neighborhood, a familiar touchstone for many of the neighboring residents; an ancient, wiry, bandy-legged presence in his shorts (which he wore well into the first cold of winter) and fleece-lined sweat jacket. Those who ventured to interrupt his sweeping reverie were invariably rewarded with a smile and a gruff-voiced greeting.
Increasingly, over the past couple of years, he was confined to a wheelchair, unable to keep up his grounds-keeping activities. My daughter would ask me, “Why doesn’t he sweep anymore?” and I would tell her, “I guess he just isn’t up to it any longer.” “Is he going to die soon?” she asked. “I hope not,” I replied. “But after all he is quite old.” I had no idea what an understatement that was.
Then on a recent day, walking by the house on our way home from her school, we discovered a makeshift memorial had been erected inside the metal gates of the small front yard that lies between the sidewalk and the recessed façade of the brownstone, and with it came the sad revelation that the man my daughter and I had come to think of as the Sweeping Man had died at the remarkable age of 104.
His real name, we learned, was Frank Wolff. On a tray table in the garden outside his house was a placard with the dates 1908-2012 written in pen, a copy of one of Freud’s works and a business card for Frank Wolff Ph.D with an old Watkins exchange telephone number. There was a picture of him as a handsome young man and also one of him scaling a ladder on the backside of the house. His plaid wheelchair was draped with his fleece-lined sweat jacket, a tweed newsboy cap and a brown-and-blue tie. His suede moccasins rested on the wheelchair’s footrests.
According to his grandson Matt, who created the memorial, the secret to his longevity, apart from good genes (his older brother worked as a lawyer until the day he died at 99 years of age), was the fact that he lived a relatively simple life. “He liked routine,” his grandson says. “He liked to fix things around the house and see his patients.”
Born in 1908 in Montreal, Canada, to German parents, the second of three sons, Frank moved with his family back to Berlin before he was a year old, then came to the States on his eighteenth birthday to work as a clerk for his uncle. He later enrolled in college, but dropped out after a year and went to work on a farm in Virginia. Eventually, he moved back to New York and obtained a degree in economics, making a small fortune investing in stocks like General Electric. When World War II began, he tried to enlist, but was unsuccessful, either because he was considered too old or because of his German heritage. However, as the war went on, he was ultimately drafted and sent to England to work in Intelligence because of his fluency in German.
After the war, he attended Columbia University on the G.I. Bill and met a beautiful young violinist nearly 20 years his junior, Lucille Gardner. They were married in 1952, and Frank received his Ph.D in psychology in 1955, at the age of 47. Lucille had been living on Bleecker Street when they met and in 1960, they eventually bought the house on West 11th Street for $67,000. They raised three kids in the house, which is now occupied by his daughter Virginia and her son Matt.
Like many who lived through the Great Depression, Frank developed a frugal approach to money. As Virginia recalls, the family ate out only once each year (always a pasta dinner at Casa du Pre). The fare at home was similarly basic: eggs, bacon, hamburgers, potatoes and vegetables.
“Diet certainly wasn’t his secret elixir,” says Virginia. “I really just think it was his mindset, that he never thought of himself as old. I mean he didn’t begin practicing psychotherapy until he was almost fifty and he kept seeing patients until he was a hundred years old. Many of them were more like friends by then. But still. He was always busy and active. Even until his late nineties he’d put a ladder up the side of the house and climb up and fix things.”
As part of the memorial, his grandson hung a notebook on the fence outside with a pen attached for people to jot down whatever memories or condolences they might have. Many children signed it.
“I think it was a comforting thing,” says Virginia, “to kids especially, to see someone like my father out front of his house, taking care of the sidewalk, saying hello. It’s kind of a vanishing way of life, particularly in this neighborhood where everyone hires other people to do these things for them. I don’t think he understood that mentality at all. He liked doing chores himself.”