By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Max S. Gerber
As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.
-Shakespeare, King Lear
In the blazing midafternoon sun, a few months before American bombs and missiles would rain down on Iraq, about a thousand people gather on the western edge of MacArthur Park. Paddle-boats trickle across the lake behind them. The crowd focuses on a truck-bed platform stationed in the middle of Park View Street that is adorned with banners for radio station KPFK, the Coalition for World Peace, Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice, and a massive paper fresco of a white dove soaring over a blue-green planet.
As Aztec dancers with iridescent plumage cavort in front of the platform, a dozen bored LAPD officers lean lazily against their patrol cars across the street, casually watching the tan-and-white Sunset Hall van pull up to the curb next to the crowd. The driver leaps out, rolls the side door open, releases a fold-down ramp and assists in the tentative emergence of five octogenarian women — three by their own power, one with the help of a walker, and their leader, Irja Lloyd, in a wheelchair. On Irja’s lap rests a small stack of placards that they created from poster board. Irja’s displays the words: “Speak Your Peace.”
The crowd parts for the procession of elders ambling to a shady spot beneath a pepper tree. The driver unstacks four plastic garden chairs and distributes bottled water. Press photographers snap the quintet. These women, probably the oldest living career protesters in the city, make up the public face of Sunset Hall, an assisted-care facility for aging lefties that’s located near Hoover Street at 2830 Francis Ave., just two blocks from the park.
The glare of the slowly setting sun starts tormenting the crowd. Betty Weiss, Sunset Hall’s newest resident, shields her eyes with a copy of the communist newspaper The People’s World Weekly and stares at Ed Asner on the podium.Phil Way (foreground) with staff
“My God, my God, even Henry Kissinger is against this war!” Asner barks.
A crescendo of laughter and applause erupts from the crowd, but the oldsters sit quietly — the eye of the storm. Betty fans herself with her newspaper while a folk singer croons “Stop Killing in Our Name” — the singer’s substitute for “We Shall Overcome.”
Later, on the corner of Park View and Wilshire, somebody tugs on my arm. It’s Betty, staring up at me with imploring blue eyes that are starting to well with tears: “Can you take me home?”
“I’m all dizzy. I don’t know where I am,” she says in a panic.
“You’re at a peace rally.”
“How did I get here?! I’m all dizzy!”
“It’s all right; we’ll get you home.”
“Is it far from here?” Betty asks.
“Oh my God. Oh my God . . . How did I get to this place?”Left to right: Luba, Betty and Pauline
If the jagged splinters of the progressive movement have any glue holding them together, it might be described as the historic attempt to stand up for people on the margins of power. This rally is flush with that sentiment. It’s a noble one that has littered history with quixotic and ultimately tragic quests, from the Paris Commune to the Zapatistas. It’s also the one that has fueled the journey of many a Sunset Hall resident.
A couple of decades after marching on behalf of garment workers in 1930s New York and Chicago, defying union-busting Pinkerton police, some Sunset Hall residents were hounded west by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunts, which reduced their lives to shambles. (Irja was, in fact, jailed during an anti-McCarthy protest.) Since the ’60s — when they marched with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. and joined in the protests that helped bring about the end of the Vietnam War — many of Sunset Hall’s residents have felt the force of their political convictions erode with the nation’s rightward drift.
As recently as two years ago, apart from trying to free Mumia, Sunset Hall’s oldsters were conducting get-out-the-vote campaigns in a futile attempt to halt the Bush ascendancy. A smattering of the still able-bodied was being driven to rallies on behalf of L.A.’s impoverished bus riders, janitors and a new generation of immigrant garment workers — generally joined by crowds in the dozens or, on a good day, in the low hundreds.
“A few honk their endorsement, but mostly they just go on about their business — they don’t seem to care,” reflected Irja, then 81, during a van ride back to Sunset Hall after the rally.
But what a difference two years of Bush and a war make. In the protest-filled weeks leading up to the war, Sunset Hall’s residents once more found themselves in massive street demonstrations aligned against the sort of imperious capitalism they have long fought. To be in such a crowd is among the rare delights of old age for career radicals whom time almost forgot. But it comes at a time when they are in serious danger — from age and institutional decay — of fading away. In fact, Sunset Hall provides a view to a passing era that is more sad, goofy, noble and complicated than any caricature of an old commie still beating the drum for labor unions and social justice.
Like Eli Burns. Back at Sunset Hall after the rally, big Eli sits on a couch in the lobby, his walker propped in front of him. He has streaks of silver hair, and he speaks in a high-pitched Brooklyn dialect.
“How long have you been here?” I ask.
“I been here about two years.”
“You like it?”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“What was your work?”
“I was a mechanical engineer . . . I helped with the landing gear of the first planes that ever went up . . . When my wife died, this seemed like a convenient place to live.”
“What do you most look forward to?”
“I watch TV mostly.”
“Were you ever political?”
“Yeah, I was political — well, I think I was a communist.”
“Did you go to meetings and rallies?”
“No, I didn’t go to meetings — just in sympathy.”
“Are you still communist?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“What about President Bush?” I continue.
Eli shrugs: “He isn’t much of a president.”
“Who’s your hero?”
“Do you ever go with the women to demonstrations?”
“Demonstrations? I don’t go.”
“I can’t walk that well.”
Sunset Hall is a two-story apartment building with a community library, dining hall, kitchen, and 36 fairly breezy rooms, including two-bedroom apartments, suites and guest rooms, all wrapped around a central brick courtyard with a stone fishpond.
In the library, located on the second floor directly above the reception area, are hardback tomes about Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. intermingled with Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s novels. The retirement home’s leftist ä credentials have remained largely intact over the decades because of its links to the progressive and largely secular Unitarian Church; however, there are no ideological restrictions to being a resident of Sunset Hall. A story circulates about the subtle means of maintaining a core of what the mission statement calls “like-minded elders.” Because of its mostly Jewish constituents, Sunset Hall has an abundance of rye bread. The joke has it that one conservative Republican resident left of her own accord due to the shortage of white bread.
Until six months ago, the library prominently displayed a framed and autographed photo of the great African-American basso profundo and friend of the Soviets, Paul Robeson, next to a ceramic bust of Lenin. Curiously, some might say scandalously, Lenin has disappeared. Residents have searched every cupboard and drawer, and he’s nowhere to be found.Big Eli
The question of what happened to Lenin has a metaphoric resonance not lost on this crew, and there’s a prevailing conspiracy theory that he was removed by a board member in order to protect the institution from the perception of being too extreme for visitors considering residing there.
Activities director Priscilla Yablon points out that there is no bingo at Sunset Hall, for that would be regarded as an activity far too frivolous for people still occupied with the unfinished business of saving the world. You will never see sports or soap operas on the television in the common living room. It broadcasts only news programs.
Yablon oversees a calendar that includes Sunday-morning sojourns to the local Unitarian church; a monthly visit by folk singer Roger Nolan, who, slashing at his acoustic guitar, croons a hearty recital of Celtic, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger standards; monthly field trips to places like LACMA, the Fairfax district’s Farmers Market and the Hollywood Bowl; calisthenics four mornings a week; Wednesday morning tai chi sessions in the courtyard (most exercise while sitting); biweekly shopping outings; and a weekly visit from USC graduate gerontology students, who lead a group discussion called “Free Thinkers” — renamed “Free Stinkers” by one cantankerous resident.
During a recent “Free Thinkers” session, two female students plunge headfirst into a generation gap. Rather than discuss current events, they suggest treating the forum as a therapy session. First, the students ask each of the participants to talk about their personal memories of anti-Semitism, or other forms of exclusion.
The proposal is met with stony silence. Irja fingers the L.A. Timescity pages she’d been boning up on, anticipating a lively discussion of the news of the day. The women want debate, not therapy. Finally, wavy-, silver-haired Pauline Manpearl takes the floor.
“I was with the Communist Youth League!” Pauline boasts. The others shift impatiently in their seats. They’ve heard this one before. It is a stock speech that Pauline repeats verbatim at almost every gathering: “At one of our meetings, this fellow came to heckle us, so we said, we’ll listen to you, then you listen to us. So we heard him out, then he heard us out. After only half an hour, he said we were right.”
Luba Perlin, a former dancer and student of choreographer Lester Horton, starts whistling, as is her habit, and is swiftly hushed. Luba’s whistling is a perennial issue for fellow residents, who once tried to get her to sign a written pledge that she would stop whistling in the dining hall. In the tradition of civil disobedience, Luba sat defiantly with her arms crossed and refused to sign.
For all the services offered by Sunset Hall, participation in them is spotty, and those involved in group activities are almost entirely female. The women outnumber the men 3-to-1 for the obvious reason that women outlive men. Of course, there are exceptions: German émigré theater director Martin Magner was a resident at Sunset Hall. He could be seen rocking back and forth in his wheelchair in the courtyard, smoking his pipe while reading a newspaper, lucid until the day he died — a year and a half ago at the age of 101.
Sunset Hall was originally incorporated in 1923 by the Women’s Alliance of the nearby First Unitarian church as a haven for progressive elders. It opened its doors in 1935 in one, and then two buildings on South Manhattan Place, until the current, custom-built facility on Francis Avenue started operating in 1965. In the years that followed, Sunset Hall enjoyed the luxury of a waiting list. But that was in an era when retirees entered such homes when they were in their 60s and early 70s and still relatively fit. Now, even with supporters like Barbra Streisand, Pete Seeger and Ed Asner, the trend toward prolonged home care, rising costs and a decline in the neighborhood has left Sunset Hall only half occupied and with a considerably older population.
Attracting residents is a big enough problem, but keeping them there is just as hard. The operating license, granted by the California Department of Social Services, allows for assisted care — help with dressing, eating, bathing, transportation and even doling out prescription medicines — but no medical procedures. Sunset Hall is not licensed as a clinic. As the youngest residents, like Irja, are mostly in their 80s, the clock is ticking on how long they have at Sunset Hall before they need to be transferred to medical facilities. And many residents use Sunset Hall as a place to convalesce after surgeries, before returning to their normal lives.
The hall was almost shuttered during a residents’ coup in 1989 over the struggle to find occupants. At that time, the board, which is elected by a membership that includes residents, voted to sell the building to a developer and disperse funds from the sale among various Unitarian churches. After the sale was announced, occupancy plummeted to nine, with each remaining oldster facing the prospect of being left out in the cold. When the remaining residents threatened to fire board members who had voted for the sale, 10 of the 12 board members resigned. And though the prospective buyer sued Sunset Hall for reneging on its agreement to sell, a judge ordered an injunction of the sale pending a trial. The developer, however, dropped his demand to buy, as well as his suit, after the residents agreed to withdraw their demand of legal costs, resulting in a highly publicized victory for the old underdogs.
But the financial crisis has returned once more. Only last month, Sunset Hall’s census had slipped to 17. With so few residents, even monthly rents starting at about $1,800 don’t bring in sufficient income to meet costs. With the renewed fiscal challenge has come a disturbingly familiar pattern of secrecy on the part of the board.
At a meeting last month, residents and family were stunned to learn that the board had replaced Phil Way, the beloved executive director, with Sandra Solis, the only candidate presented to the board by its search committee. (Solis was recruited from the Molokan Home for the Aged, in Boyle Heights.) None of the residents was consulted before the new hire was made — a mere six days after the job was posted. This fast hire happened even though Sunset Hall’s mission statement appears to oblige the board to include residents in the process (“. . . residents, supporters and volunteers share in its governance . . .”) and even though the executive director is the person responsible for the day-to-day treatment of the residents by the staff.
The haste and secrecy of such an important hire does “not look right,” ä says Pete Manzo, spokesperson for the Los Angeles–based Center for Non-Profit Management. “Hiring an executive director provides the opportunity for reflection upon the institution’s mission and on long-term strategy planning,” Manzo explains. “Unless that person is from the inside, a quick hire of such an important position without open discussion could be seen as shortsighted, or maybe even reckless.”
Board member Kathryn Black denies there is a crisis (“These situations are part of Sunset Hall’s history,” she remarks), but fellow board member Ernie Pipes says that Sunset Hall could close within months “if marketing efforts don’t work.” Still, nobody has yet suggested selling Sunset Hall.
The most candid assessment of the reasons for Way’s replacement comes from Way himself, who explains that the board was demanding that he be both a marketer and an administrator/caregiver — an impossible task, says Way, considering that the administrative and caregiving responsibilities for the residents are all-consuming.
Last February, Way suggested to the board that it set aside $50,000 of a $230,000 bequest to Sunset Hall to hire a marketing manager to attract residents. The board rejected Way’s proposal, and when the money started running out, Way refused the board’s offer of a 30 percent pay cut to remain at Sunset Hall without any marketing responsibilities — that is, to continue what he was already doing. Now the board hopes it has found, in Solis, somebody who can market the institution while maintaining Way’s level of devotion to the residents.
“To find one person who can do both would be quite rare,” board member Pipes admits.
At last month’s meeting in the dining hall, family members sitting around the edge of the room testify, one after another, that were it not for Phil Way, they wouldn’t have brought their parents to Sunset Hall. Then Irja, wheezing in a wheelchair from a recent bout with emphysema, plows into the board with the chutzpah of her muckraking days:
“This board is simply blaming Phil for its own shortcomings,” Irja starts. “Phil is on call seven days a week. In four years, he’s never taken a vacation. When the driver is out sick, it’s Phil who takes us shopping. When our toilets clog up, it’s Phil who’s there with a plunger. Where are you? And when did families stop being invited to board meetings? When did all these closed-door executive sessions start? I am disgusted.”
Irja followed up her outburst by meeting with Solis in the library a few days later.
“I blew it,” Irja confesses. “I asked her about her politics, and she said she didn’t have to answer that question. Then I asked her about her philosophy, and she said she didn’t have to answer that question either. I got mad and left. Discussing politics and philosophy is why I came here!”
The board’s cloak-and-dagger approach to hiring the new executive director has residents like Irja worried that the board is too willing to sell out Sunset Hall’s ideological traditions, if that’s the quickest route to financial health.
Indeed, despite residents’ concerns, the clandestine maneuvering seems to be continuing as Solis has already transferred six residents from her current employer, the Molokan Home for the Aged, while her staff at Molokan has been directed not to discuss the nature of or reasons for the transfers, or even to disclose her name. Sunset Hall residents worry that the old folk arriving from Molokan have no experience with or affinity for Sunset Hall’s progressive legacy and that the transfers appear to be in direct conflict with policies prohibiting discount rates and double-room occupancy to which Way was strictly bound, but Solis is not. Solis declined to return phone calls from the Weekly, and Sunset Hall board president Larry Abbott had no comment.
Out in the stony courtyard, Irja leads a circle of women in discussion. The women are still feeding off the energy of the previous day’s anti-war rally, gibing the administration, trading anti-war stories. Irja catches every little irony, every wry joke, with a quick laugh. She grew up in Connecticut, Quaker stock, and recalls her father working in an ax factory, where the metal dust was damaging workers’ lungs. He started a union-organizing effort for healthier working conditions. These days, Irja has a computer in her room with a high-speed Internet connection — the better to feed her news-junkie habit. It also allows her to e-mail her son, her only child, now in his 60s, who has a high-tech career in China. Curiously, Irja, who is not Jewish, nudges the mostly Jewish residents to observe the customs of their faith — candles for the Jewish New Year, Manischewitz wine. They usually go along with it, reluctantly, and perplexed by Irja’s obsession with traditions not her own.
Betty shades her eyes and reveals a set of perfect pearl teeth when she smiles:
“I’ve never seen a place where they’re so nice to people — it makes you feel like home — my son brought me here and I just love it — so, so lovely,” Betty gushes. “I lived in the desert, my husband died, and my children wanted me to be closer. My son, Stewart, lives two blocks away, that’s why I wanted to be here. It’s so much nicer being here than being up in Yucca Valley all alone. Here, they make my bed. I’m very happy.”
A short, stocky woman named Myra has a shock of brunette hair and looks 30 years younger than her age, 83. She visits Sunset Hall regularly with the aim of eventually residing here.
“They had a beautiful choir,” Myra remarks about yesterday’s demonstration. “They sang ‘Down by the Riverside.’”
The women spontaneously burst into the song, more or less in tune, while some clap out the beat:
I’m going to lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside, Ain’t gonna study war no more.
Myra interrupts the singing: “Jackie Goldberg was there!”
Adds Irja, “Medea Benjamin was terrific.”
Luba stares up at the courtyard’s jacaranda tree, deep in thought.
“I knew your husband,” Myra says to Luba. He was a union organizer.
“We never know what each other has,” Luba says, reflecting upon the way the aged become marginalized in our society. “And we all have something, and many people don’t appreciate who and what we are, and there’s a tremendous amount of rich experience.”
Says Myra, “My husband was in the Rubber Workers Union in L.A. — Goodrich.”
“Mine was in the Carpenters Union, also in L.A.,” Luba adds.
“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.”
Not that Irja has ever been inclined to let go. Speaking through a ventilator in the intensive care unit while U.S. troops march into Baghdad, Irja’s first words to a visitor are, “How’s the war?”
It’s a quiet dusk on a day off between peace rallies and vigils. Genevieve Barnes, one of Sunset Hall’s two African-American residents, sits in a wheelchair in the garden, puffing on a cigarette. Somebody chides her that if she keeps smoking, she’s not going to live to a ripe old age.
“I’m 95 years old,” Genevieve answers. “What do you want from me?”
Eli creeps along a balcony, occasionally looking down at the view.
Meanwhile, inside, Phil finishes his own concert of folk songs with an old Arlo Guthrie ditty. The sounds of his voice and guitar drift out into the courtyard:
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever had before, I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war. I dreamed I saw a mighty room, and the room was filled with men, And the people in that room agreed they’d never fight again.
On the courtyard’s far side, Betty, Pauline and Luba sit under the jacaranda tree, enjoying the fleeting warmth of the setting sun. With her arms carving the air, Luba whistles an old Yiddish folk song. Betty sits smiling, while Pauline clutches her scalp with both hands, shaking her head with frustration at Luba’s whistling.
A dove circles the jacaranda before soaring up and away — not exactly a white dove of peace, more of a mottled brown-and-gray job, but it’ll do.
For more on Sunset Hall, check out Laura Gabbert and Caroline Libresco’s documentary film,Sunset Story, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in May, at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and slated to air on PBS later this year.