Penny Bernstein- A Life And Death All Alone

I posted a poem last year called Weird Cousin. It was about my estranged cousin Penny who lived in New York. She’d left Scotland in the early 1960’s and never returned, making her home in the Big Apple and somehow, despite her inability to be congenial to the majority of the people she met, managed to carve out a living as a movie producer. She made a movie, “Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang”, which won several Emmy’s and really set her up to live a modestly comfortable lifestyle in a rent controlled apartment just off 7th Ave in Greenwich Village. As I mentioned before, Penny was probably the most abrupt person anyone could ever wish to meet. She argued with everyone, whether it be me, my father, her niece’s and nephew’s and even her sister and brother, never shirking away from an opinion that ALWAYS made her right. She would fight with Taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and anyone she could find who held a position of authority. I know, because I witnessed it first hand for years when I visited her regularly in NY. If she didn’t like you or what you were telling her, she let you know it, and she did it with a certain gusto that could be both intimidating and rude to the point that you either wanter to hit her, or just walk away shaking your head and saying, “what a fucking stupid bitch.” I fell out with her, as most people did, in early 1999. It was a stupid argument, all one way, her way of course, which ended in my telling her she could find another executor for her will and her telling me never to contact her again. I conformed with that wish until 9/11, when I decided to pick up the phone and make sure she was OK. She was very grateful to hear from me, but not grateful enough to ever call me back.

Penny taught me a lot. She was a role model on how NOT to live your life and how NOT to treat people. She was also a loner. My father, who was her first cousin, thought that Penny was the most supercilious person he’d ever met, and he should know because he grew up with her. And so when that call came, early one morning about 6 months ago informing me that Penny had died, living alone in that rat infested apartment surrounded by mountains of junk that she’s hoarded over her years of self-inflicted solitude, my emotions were quite mixed. On the one hand, I was sorry we’d not spoken for so many years, but on the other hand, it had been all her doing so why should I show anything else other than casual remorse and a shake of the head while thinking “she could have had so much more than just loneliness?”

Anyway, it was after this call that the whole situation became quite bizarre, garishly exposing the sadness of a life lived alone. You see Penny was discovered beneath that pile of crap that she’d collected over 45 years by a NYPD detective, called to her apartment because no one had seen or heard from her for weeks. This in itself wasn’t unusual, but the odor that reeked from underneath her front door into that drab dreary stairwell she called home was so over baring that the only explanation, as the Detective painstakingly explained to me later, was that a death had occurred and not recently! They took her to the morgue where she lay awaiting identification. By now, her niece and nephew in Toronto, and her sister in the UK had been informed and between all 4 of us, we were involved in what would eventually become an overly elongated process to have her released for burial. You see, Penny’s remains were so putrified that only dental records would account for her ID and nothing else. She had not too much left of her fingers or face after the rats took their feast and without any other way of ID’ing her, dental seemed the best way forward. Well, it tuned out that Penny hadn’t been to the dentist in 40 years, nor had she ever had any Xray’s taken at any hospital in NY and to cap it all off, she’d never been to the Police, called the Police or been arrested by the Police in all the time she’d lived in the USA. The detective told me this was certainly a ‘one of a kind’ situation, backing up his comments with the caveat of “normally homeless people are the only people we have this criteria with, not respectable citizens who live in their own apartment and are self-sufficient for so many years.” That didn’t help. Penny was in the morgue without any hope of being released until a positive ID could be made. No one, well at least the relatives and I, believed this would take more that a few days, after all, with the advent of DNA and all the other great innovations we watch on TV shows every night, there must be some way to have this process expedited and concluded within a reasonable timeframe in order that Penny’s remains be buried with some dignity? Think again!

It took 5 months, three DNA tests and a lot of grief for Penny to be finally released and buried last Friday. A nightmare scenario if you take into consideration the number of calls my cousin Raymond placed to the coroner, the number of calls he placed to the detective, the number of calls to the burial society and finally, the number of calls he and I had with attorney’s and between each other over this same 5 month period. What would have been a routine situation had Penny been a routine human being, was anything but routine. It dug up old family wounds, it prompted various discussions between people who unfortunately didn’t give a hoot on what happened to Penny and eventually led to a complete breakdown in communication and a possible never-ending family feud between her niece and nephew. So unfortunate and so unbelievable.

Penny is now at peace, which is more that I can say for the family that remains, all of whom cannot find a way to come together and resolve their differences in an amicable format. I pity those who live alone, I pity those who end up alone, but most of all I pity those who have the opportunity not to be alone yet choose a path that leads to eternal loneliness a loneliness exaggerated by their inability to accept that it’s so much more desirable to be at peace and to have some friends than it is to be argumentative and have nothing.



Weird Cousin


I had a weird cousin once, second hand

She lived in 10024, Manhattan for short

Her persona was west of the nineteen sixties

Dressing up as a retired hippie

Nor knowing what shampoo was, nor toothpaste

Reminding everyone that nuclear bombs kill, surprise!


She lived in a room, yes just one

Cheap, made it hip, acceptable

Cleaning never took place, except facially

Lost, in books and second hand Lena Horn disks

Traveling in a lesser class than cattle class

Spending money, well she never spent she sponged


Argumentative being her middle name, confrontational, her first

Lost in people management skills, there were none

Rubbing more people wrongly than she was rubbed herself

Between bee pollen shakes, she would splutter through brown teeth

Never wrong, always articulate, loud mouthed but correct

Telling her otherwise was a waste of energy


She could be lovable through her eccentricities

Spending much time caring for those who bought dinner

Twenty years my senior, far junior in behavior

A coming together of disagreements ending the volatility

Seven years since my blood pressure returned to normal

No calls and no visits, she must be a lonely soul.


© Alan Zoltie April 04

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