Staying in the City He Loves


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  • Photos by Heather Clayton Colangelo









I don’t know if I’ll ever be back there. I used to think I’d go up there for lunch. Now I don’t. It’s too much of a bother. I have to deal with what is.

-- Hank Blum on visiting his old office

Hank Blum’s children have been charmed by the space and pace of suburbia, dispersing to Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and Florida. But as he sits in the living room of his apartment, in the middle of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he says he has never been tempted.

“I would never want to leave the city. Period,” he says.

Hank has called New York City home for the majority of his life. He was born in Newark, N.J., and he spent his teenage years in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He only left the city after that to attend Sampson College upstate. For 62 years he was an optometrist, mostly working on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.

Hank says the best thing about the city is the diversity (“it opens up your perspective”), the abundance of things available to do, and the ease of doing them.

“New York has so much to offer beyond belief. South Street Seaport is fabulous. Central Park is fabulous. Coney Island is fabulous.”

Recently he saw “Kinky Boots” on Broadway and loved it. Up next is “Wicked.” He is fortunate that he is able to afford to enjoy New York the way he wants to. He takes advantage of the city’s restaurants daily. Hank even relishes the harsh winters and enjoys the change in seasons.

Patti, Hank’s wife of 41 years and a native New Yorker, says her children have tried to convince them to leave over the years.

“The kids want me to move to Connecticut but (NYC) is easier as you get older. I don’t drive.” Besides she says, “they have their own lives.”

Hank agrees. “I became old. They’re young. I don’t want to interfere with their lives.”

He worries Patti would feel isolated in Connecticut, dependent on someone else to drive her around. He used to have a car but gave it up five years ago. The extensive public transportation system and abundant taxis in New York give them independence.

“Accessibility. It’s just there, says Hank. “When you walk out the building, there’s the bus.”

Accessibility has become even more important to Hank as he’s aged. He suffers from Stage 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Atrial Fibrillation (Afib) and has good days and bad days.

Yesterday was a bad day. Not only was he not feeling the best, but Patti had been sick all weekend with a bacterial infection. Instead of their usual trip to Connecticut to see their daughter and grandkids, they had to visit the doctor. It upset them both to miss out.

But today is a new day and a good day. Hank says his breathing is “not too bad.” Which is good, because he has a lot on his schedule.

Last week Hank had an MRI to figure out the source of his recent neck pain. Today he’s going to pick up the results and run a few neighborhood errands. Later he is meeting his son to walk him through a Lasik consultation at a local surgeon’s office.

Before leaving, Hank feeds his new puppy Ethel and increases the air conditioner temperature. It’s a hot day, Patti is out with her friends, and with his list of errands, he’s not sure how long he will be out.

Hank exits the apartment and walks the 10 or so feet to the elevator bank on his floor. Hank is grateful for the convenience. Back when he was much younger, he lived in a walk up.

“I can’t walk up steps anymore. I wouldn’t be able to breath,” he says.

The elevator descends and the doors open to reveal the pristine tiled lobby. An elegantly dressed older woman using a walker, and a younger one donning denim shorts and a T-shirt, cross paths with Hank, an example of the generations of people who live in the building and nearby. Hank exchanges a few pleasantries with his doorman and walks out onto E. 79th Street.

It’s a gorgeous day and Hank is walking to his destination, but he feels fortunate that if he wanted to, he could wait for the bus right outside his building.

As he takes a right onto Third Avenue, heading uptown, he reminisces about his journey into retirement. For 15 years, Hank tried to retire on four separate occasions. It never stuck until now, his fifth attempt.

“I retired because I was ready,” he says. “Some men have issues with being retired. I do not. I love what I do now — nothing.”

He can’t quite believe it’s been 66 days since he had dinner with his boss and broke the news that he was done.

“I’m surprised how quickly the days go,” he says.

Hank only has to walk half an avenue and one and a half blocks — a little over a tenth of a mile -- to get to his doctor’s office. He says he’s grateful that he lives in a city where medical doctors and hospitals are in such abundant and convenient proximity.

“I think you have the best damn doctors in the world in New York City.”

Hank pulls open the door to the Medical Arts Building, pushes the button for the fifth floor and exits into the office of Dr. Ilisa Wallach, his internist and cardiologist.

Recently Hank has been experiencing neck pain. He had an MRI done last week to hopefully find the source of the pain. It’s another annoying ailment to add to a growing list as he ages.

He chats with the receptionist, Joan, while he waits to get the results of his test. He is known here, although it’s not one of his favorite places to be.

“You are better off going to a restaurant where they know you then going to a pharmacy or doctor where they know you,” he jokes.

Four other patients wait in the austere room. Joan hands Hank some folded up sheets of paper and Hank opens them and begins to read at the window, before heading over to sit in one of the beige waiting room seats.

The MRI showed a bulging disk and the doctor has recommended that Hank see a neurologist. He adds that appointment to his increasing medical to-do list. He says he will refuse surgery if recommended.

“I’m aware of it every minute of every waking hour. (But) it’s tolerable.”

He is more worried about the potential complications that could arise in surgery and the effect it could have given his Afib and COPD.

“If someone said go in for surgery for new lungs, I’d go in in a heartbeat,” he says. But he knows and accepts that’s not an option at age 85.

“It wouldn’t be fair if they gave it to me. How much more am I going to live?” he says. “I’m too old for new lungs.”

Finished at the doctor’s office, he walks a block away to his bank.

He opens the door, crosses the lobby and walks up to the windows. He cocks his head as he looks for his favorite teller, Greg, but doesn’t see him. Another teller, Maxima, notices him. She tells him that Greg is on his lunch break, and they chat for a few minutes. Although Hank doesn’t mind using the ATM, he generally uses the tellers because he likes the social interaction.

“They know me here. They are so pleasant that I don’t mind giving them my money,” Hank jokes. Maxima laughs.

Back on the street Hank walks just half a block when he spots Greg walking towards the bank. They greet with a hearty handshake, and chat for a few minutes before Greg has to return to work. The doggy bag Greg clutches in his hand is a reminder to Hank that it’s time for lunch.

After saying goodbye, Hank continues up Third Avenue but soon reduces his pace.

“There’s a hill. I’ve got to go slow,” he says.

He’s relieved when the traffic light at 84th Street turns red. The pause gives him extra time to catch his breath.

When the light turns green, Hank continues up the sidewalk.

Hank decides that he will head to one of his regular spots, the Highlands Cafe Restaurant, a diner at Third Avenue and 85th Street, for lunch. He and Patti have been coming here multiple times a week since they lived in their old apartment, steps away.

Neither Hank nor Patti cook (“Cook? What is that? We don’t cook,” he says. “The stove is pristine.”)

Hank crosses 85th street, the restaurant in sight, when he recognizes one of his usual waiters, Alex, outside during his break. They hug hello and Hank says he’ll see him inside. He heads to a table by the window and settles in.

When Alex returns, he mentions that he just saw Patti here for breakfast this morning. He offers Hank a menu but Hank waves it away. He orders the Greek Salad — “extra anchovies.” He’s watching his weight on advice of his doctor. His pulmonologist, Dr. David Posner, suggested that his difficulty breathing might be eased if he lost some weight. Hank even deviated from his usual order at his favorite frozen yogurt shop, 40 Carrots inside Bloomingdales, recently and ordered a small yogurt with fruit on the side instead of his usual large bowl.

“No soup?” says Alex.

“Not today” says Hank.

Hank is feeling good, which means no soup.

“I’m breathing. When I eat soup it’s for medicinal purposes. That’s why it has to be very hot.”

Hank orders it so frequently that all of his regular waiters at his regular hangouts expect he’ll order a cup and know to make it extra hot without him asking.

After a few minutes, Alex, returns with his salad — minus an important ingredient. Hank immediately notices the absent anchovies.

“A Greek salad with no anchovies makes no sense at all,” exclaims Hank.

Alex quickly hurries away and minutes later comes back with a small bowl filled with the fish. Hank happily dumps it on his salad and digs in.

Alex is in his 70s and is, like Hank until recently, working past the age when most people retire. When he’s not waiting tables at the diner, he works at Yankee stadium. The standing is taxing, but he continues to work in order to be able to afford to live in the city. He dreams of retiring from both jobs and moving to Long Island. Hank tells Alex that he finally, officially, retired.

“You can’t quit work,” says Alex.

“I already did,” say Hank.

“I don’t believe you. You’ll be back in the office,” says Alex.

“No way,” says Hank.

Hank is adamant that he is done this time. He once thought he would make monthly trips back to his former office to visit but has come to terms with this new stage of his life.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be back there. I used to think I’d go up there for lunch. Now I don’t. It’s too much of a bother. I have to deal with what is.”

Lunch done, Hank has to make a quick stop at nearby Rite Aid before he meets his son. He enters the familiar drugstore, walks straight to the supplement aisle and picks up two bottles of magnesium — “it keeps the rhythm of my heart” — before he hears a man call out his name. Hank greets his pharmacist, Ari, who’s responsible for doling out the many pills and inhalers Hank takes every day to keep his conditions in check.

Hank looks down at his watch. It’s well past 3 p.m. and he has to leave if he wants to make it to meet his son in time. Marc is considering Lasik surgery and wants Hank to accompany him to his appointment with a local eye surgeon on E. 70th Street. He may be retired but Hank still relishes being called upon for his professional advice.

Hank pays the cashier, exits the store and hurries back into the bustling streets of the city he loves.

This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.n


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