By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“And my mother and my stepfather were also union organizers,” continues Myra.
For all the pro-union esprit among the residents, Sunset Hall’s staff is not unionized — primarily because there are not enough employees to qualify for a union shop. African-American and Latino, Filipino and Ethiopian, they work at an hourly rate ranging from $7 to $10 per hour, some part-time and on-call, with no health insurance or retirement plan. The residents are keenly aware of what one calls this “blazing irony.”
After a long pause, Luba starts whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
“Do you have to do that right now?” complains Pauline, who, until now, has been listening quietly to the conversation.
Eli stares out at us from a dining-hall window, leaning against his aluminum walker.
“I’ve looked at many residences,” says Myra, referring to her future domicile. “They’re all lavish, with ornate linen and silver. You have to dress up when you come to eat, but they’re not my people — here’s my people,”
“Oh, yes!” Pauline adds. “Lenin is one of my heroes too!” ä
The chilling effects of loneliness and physical disability, sometimes peppered with dementia, are among the most pervasive challenges of life at Sunset Hall.
Over a lunch of meat loaf, green beans, a salad bar and coffee, 93-year-old Marion Reidel picks at her food and looks down a lot. Sometimes she makes eye contact.
“So how did you hear about Sunset Hall?” I ask her.
“My son, he’s a doctor, he found out about it. He thought it would be a good place for me.”
“And is it?”
“How do you spend your time?”
“I watch TV.”
“What do you think about the politics of this place?”
[Staring up over her fork.] “I didn’t know there was politics here.”
“What did you do in your life?”
“I’m not sure.” [After deep thought:] “Retail . . . I think I was in sales.”
“What do you most look forward to?”
“When my kids call. Sometimes they call in the morning. And then I get dressed. That takes a long time. And then I have lunch . . . I watch TV . . . And that’s pretty much the end of the day.”
In the past 24 months, the federal budget surplus crashed into what is estimated to be a deficit in the trillions of dollars, the U.S. dollar slid against the Euro, the gap between the rich and everyone else continued to yawn, fed by the administration’s wealth-favoring tax cuts. We’ve waged a war, as part of a doctrine of might makes right that’s aroused consternation in most of the world and in much of America.
The reaction to all this at Sunset Hall is a curious mix of outrage and resignation. Pauline shruggingly points out that this is all pretty much the shape of world capitalism that young Karl Marx predicted would eventually come to pass. Despite the predictability of such a frame around world events, and despite the assaults of old age, a few of Sunset Hall’s residents remain in the mix.
During the second day of the Iraq attack, several hundred clergymen and students, and hordes of press photographers and videographers, walk west along Temple Avenue’s south side for a morning vigil sponsored by Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice. As the procession winds along a narrow pedestrian partition, a sweet-natured, petite Sunset Hall resident named Edith struggles to push Irja’s wheelchair up the incline. Irja clutches her “Speak Your Peace” placard. Phil keeps an eye on Betty, who has a tendency to wander away and get lost. An L.A. Timesphotographer jumps in and asks Pauline to verify the spelling of her name for a photo he just shot. Pauline beams with satisfaction before launching into her Communist Youth League story.
A dozen LAPD riot police, clad in black with plastic shields, keep everyone away from the Federal Building’s central steps. But that doesn’t stop Luba, who rests on the steps near the boots of a burly officer standing over her, leaving her be. She leans back on her elbows at a 45-degree angle, whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown.” A large cardboard sign splayed across her chest reads: “Reverence for Life.”
Caroline Libresco has been studying Sunset Hall and Irja for over three years as part of Sunset Story, a documentary film she’s making with producer-director Laura Gabbert on the retirement home and its most vocal resident. Though Irja has a years-old heart condition, which brought on her recent battles with emphysema, that never prevented her from speaking her mind or taking to the streets. Still, her hospital stays have grown exponentially longer and more frequent since the board fired Way. “She has no family here, so she placed her entire identity in Sunset Hall, and the care and humanity it stands for,” Libresco explains, “and Phil embodies that. Something happened after Phil was asked to leave.”
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