By Arthur Z. Schwartz
Humberto Gonzalez Bernal has lived at 88 Horatio Street, in a 250 square foot studio, since 1957, shortly after, at the age of 26, he arrived in the US from Cuba, a country then living under the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. He always harbored a dream of returning to Cuba, and kept a big photo of Ernesto Che Guevara on his wall. But he never got it together to go back, even when his mother took ill and then died. A dozen or more years ago the building went condo, and someone bought his occupied, rent controlled apartment. Because of his age he could not be evicted. But the landlord did nothing for him. The apartment hadn’t been painted since 1957, plaster hangs off the wall, the floors have holes, through which mice visit. No exterminator ever came by. The apartment had a moldy/mildew smell which permeated everything.
I met Humberto in 2016, when, getting my name through WestView, Humberto contacted me about a Notice to Cure that he had received from his landlord. The notice accused Humberto of storing garbage in his apartment, which was not true (he was, however, an avid recycler). I contacted his landlord’s attorney, and sent photos of the apartment, which, while cluttered, had no garbage.
Over the last few years, I visited Humberto, usually when he had a problem. He had no gas on his stove (long running repair by building) and had bought a hot plate. He left it on one day and it started smoking, causing his landlord’s lawyer (who reads WestView) to call. So I got him a hotplate with an automatic cutoff switch. He got notices from his landlord about window guards and fire plan, which were incomprehensible, so I translated.
Humberto is well known on Horatio Street. But more and more of his friends died or moved out, and his local hangouts closed (like the deli on Washington and Horatio). Luckily for him, he had a good friend named Judy Twena, who lives in Brooklyn, many years his younger, who watched out for him. Back in early June she got a call from Humberto. He was very sick. Judy rushed over and saw that his leg was infected and swollen. She called 911, which took him to the hospital. He was given some IV antibiotics, and a prescription to take home. Judy got him home but was worried. She came back the next morning and Humbert was worse. An ambulance came again, which took him to Beth Israel. Judy insisted at the ER that he be admitted, and he was. They found an abscess, and after minor surgery and lots of antibiotics, they recommended release to a rehab facility. Judy got him into Village Care on West Houston Street and called me about how to proceed. She felt that if Humberto went back to his apartment he would get sick again. So we developed a plan to demand that his landlord paint and plaster, and fix the walls, ceilings and the lighting. We would arrange for a total clean-up, and a new bed, new linens, etc, and a visiting nurse, so that when Humberto went home he would be more healthy.
But the nursing home declared Humberto ready to go faster than expected. Judy offered to pay for a short-term rental, so that the plan could unfold. So with a little research we found a 30-day rental at 105 Duane Street. I gathered all of Humberto’s clothes at his apartment, and his important papers, and on July 6, met Judy and Humberto and a home health aide at 105 Duane. Humberto’s temporary home was in a luxury building, a one-bedroom on the 35th floor. A great place to rehab.
The plan in place, we began to arrange to make 88 Horatio more liveable. The apartment was cleaned, and, under Humberto’s supervision, lots of old “stuff” was thrown out. As WestView goes to press the landlord is commencing repairs, hopefully, completed in a few days. Judy will supervise the purchase of a new bed and linens, and Humberto will return to his home, with a visiting nurse checking in each day.
Judy is an amazing hero. Without her, Humberto Bernal would probably be deceased, one more fixture of the old Village, gone. The story points up the complicated situation that many older Villagers face, especially those without children. Landlords pushing them out, a health care system which is hard to navigate, and a world which moves faster than anything they have known. Our government must do more to locate and help folks like Humberto. Old age should not be a time relegated to a choice between a nursing home (not a great place to be without family or friends) and dying alone.
Arthur Z. Schwartz is the Democratic District Leader for Greenwich Village.