‘What a drag it is getting old,” I hear Mick Jagger croon distantly in the back of my head as I exit the R train at 67th Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens. Stepping out of the dank subway air, I look across Queens Boulevard and wonder whether I will ever return to this block again — not exactly one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the city. I still feel a vague sense of nostalgia as I take in the remaining landmarks that harken back to working-middle class Jewish New York. Knish Nosh is still there. So is the bagel place on the corner of 66th Road.
But there are also signs of change. The bowling alley sign is now in Korean. Storefronts beckoning customers to wire money to India and Colombia have replaced florists and dry cleaners. Even the Jews are different — darker-skinned Bukharan Jews from the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan and Georgia have started replacing the second- or third-generation Jews who have either died off or migrated to Long Island, Florida or Arizona.
All my grandparents are from the World War II generation: Both grandfathers served as distinguished officers in the war with Purple Hearts and honors; both had children quickly after the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While my grandparents were progenitors of the so-called “baby boom,” their generation now appears to be part of another mass movement, one of synchronized ailments and shrinking muscle tissue.
Usually fascinated by urban transitions, I instead find myself feeling slightly nauseous as I realize that the underlying purpose of my visit was directly in tandem with the overall demographic shift playing itself out in front of me. I am headed to a public hospital where my 83-year-old step-grandmother, Hermine, lies dying — alone, and broke.
I couldn’t even escape the neighborhood transition in the hospital. Upon entering the lobby doors, it was impossible not to notice the working hierarchy: Indian and Asian doctors; Latin and Soviet Jewish nurses; Jamaican and Haitian orderlies. “Wow,” I chuckled to myself, “My people aren’t even running the show anymore.”
I got into the elevator and walked out on the fifth floor. After getting directions from the hospital ward secretary, I made my way to Hermine’s room. I tried to prepare mentally for what awaited me, telling myself that if I showed any sign of discomfort, Hermine would take note of it and despair even more. Subsisting alone in a small apartment and living on Social Security since the death of my grandfather, Myron, three years earlier, Hermine was terribly lonely and rarely left her nook more than once a week. Though depressed for several years, she lived independently and had actually looked quite good for her age. One week before my trip to New York to co-organize a music industry conference, neighbors on Hermine’s floor noticed several days’ worth of newspapers outside her apartment. They called the building superintendent and had the door opened. Inside, they found Hermine on the floor, conscious but with a broken hip. Upon further testing at the hospital, we learned that Hermine also had a stroke — and leukemia.
While I braced myself for the worst, I still could not have anticipated what greeted me in the dreary hospital room. I did not even recognize her: Hermine was a fragment of the person I had seen just six months earlier. Her voice was not even a whisper, and at first I could not understand what she was saying. After asking her to repeat herself several times, I was relieved that she was at least coherent and not offering random mumblings.
“Can a person really fade this fast?” I found myself wondering nearly aloud. It was heartbreaking that this barely recognizable person could still be intellectually cognizant while physically unable to control even her bowel movements. “Tell the nurse that the black orderly is too rough when she turns me over,” Hermine whispered in her trademark raspy voice. I told the nurse that the orderly is too rough when she turns Hermine over. After about half an hour, Hermine was tired. I held her hand and told her that I knew she would at least get well enough to soon move up to a nursing home in Albany near my parents. As the words left my lips, I wondered if Hermine would ever actually recover sufficiently to be moved to the upstate hinterlands.
The next day, I accompanied my maternal grandmother, Linda, to Sloan-Kettering, where they diagnosed her with cancer in the right lung. My paternal grandparents, Madeline and Joseph, are also fading fast.
As I walk to the subway platform that will deliver me back to Manhattan, another classic rock song comes into my head, and it isn’t delivered by my iPod. Echoes of Roger Daltry exhorting “Hope I die before I get old” resound as the subway door closes. Half an hour later, I remember that a friend has invited me to see The Who at the Hollywood Bowl next month. I crack a brief smile at the notion of seeing a 65-year-old man shout such a line, and exit the train.
Josh Norek is vice president of business affairs for Nacional Records. To Forward readers, he is better known as “Josué Noriega”, frontman of Latino-Jewish rappers Hip Hop Hoodíos.