Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bless the Children

Ah, April. The dogwoods and cherry trees are in bloom; winds are minimal, air is clear, first real T-shirt day; sunset is archivally perfect, moon is near-full; in New York City this is as good as it gets. Taxes are filed, Wall Street closed on an up-day, Jews are getting ready to think about their history, ask the four questions, cut back on bagels and pasta. Foreclosures are not on the minds of the young families with the $600 strollers in Central Park today. We read earlier in the week about the Hedge Fund masterminds still collecting their billion-dollar paychecks, not worrying about the price of facials, spas, spring-break airfare.

A friend of mine—a psychiatrist, called me with a story. He’s being paid to tour state-run nursing homes. Not the nicer-ones in uptown Manhattan, but the ones in the Southeast Bronx, in the neighborhoods we only read about as backdrop to crime statistics. The neighborhoods where foreclosures are irrelevant. No one here is buying a house or an apartment. They are figuring out a way to get through the weekend.

Despite the population density of New York City and the fact that most of us have rarely if ever seen a truly deserted Manhattan street even at 4 AM, here in early evening some of the streets are near-empty. Buildings are low and burned out and windows are boarded up. Warehouses alternate with residences. Asphalt, concrete, refuse bins line the sidewalks. Meters are damaged and ignored. Some of the parked cars have been here for weeks. They don’t even run. Some are stripped, damaged; gasoline has been siphoned out. Gangs meet in these warehouses, just one block from one of those newly-designated department-store-type high-schools that no one can tell me the name of.

Anyway, for three months the psych has been assigned to report undercover on the state of this residential facility. What he finds? Forget the tragic nursing home tales of abuse, neglect-- the unsanitary, the inhumane, the disempowered voiceless strapped to their cage of a bed like animals in a pound. This is status quo, minus the few and sparsely sprinkled angels who care tenderly and relentlessly for aged infants until death removes their chart from the active files.

But the true horror? There are young people in these nursing homes. Twenty-somethings who have somehow fallen through the system cracks—who have exceeded the age of pediatric benefits and sympathy and are non-functioning— the disabled, the morbidly obese, unable to rise from their beds. Being kept, tended like sheep--- nourished just enough to keep their vitals going—a task of maintenance.

Reading through the charts of these lost children, he finds—in every single young patient—a case-history not just of neglect, of abandonment—but of abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, psychological. Children burned with cigarettes, forced to submit to sex-acts with not just strangers but relatives—neighbors—sometimes to provide money for their parents’ drug-habits—able to cope in no other way than to isolate, feed themselves…twinkie after cupcake, bag after bag of chips, doughnuts, fries--until they are too big to move, too big to sit up. They’re taken in by Pediatrics at city hospitals, turned over at 18 to these nursing homes where they vegetate—diabetic, cardiac-diseased, damaged children.

I met a woman at my gym who campaigns for adorable dogs in shelters abandoned by their owners, victims of foreclosures, too…or just puppies who grew into dogs whose needs were no longer cute and manageable. Huskies, pitbull mixes. Rich people send money, feel sorry for animals, but no one is adopting the nursing-home residents. They are the flip-side of the Dorian Gray portrait that is New York—the city of Fashion Week, Art Week, nightclubs and society events. Endless benefits for the young-of-face and the slim-and-trim well-dressed, while the hidden portrait of the poor and neglected grows more hideous by the day: child-murders, incest, incinerated infants and the clinically obese survivors of horror — like undecorated veterans in a welfare cage.

I hope the Pope prays for these children. I hope he sees beyond the marble and limestone face of Fifth Avenue and the beauty of St. Patrick’s into the eyes of the portrait of the miserable and helpless. Here in the 21st Century, in fabulous New York City. Remember the children.

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