Up In The Old Hotel

What will one elderly Woodstock resident do with the insurance windfall from a Times Square construction accident? Buy a hot plate.

The first thing you notice about Edward Meinecke's apartment is that it's completely dark, even on a brilliant spring morning. The curtains are drawn, the cigarette smoke suffocating, the tv deafening. "Switch on the light! It's right there!" he croaks as you enter his one-room home at West 43rd Street's Woodstock Hotel. Meinecke comes into focus: a tall, unshaven figure with curling yellowed fingernails and a toothless face reminiscent of Popeye's.

Meinecke, nearly 78, has been blinded by cataracts for five years, so the lack of light doesn't bother him. Nor does the lack of a clear picture on his blaring tabletop TV, the absence of any knickknacks or plants, or the small amount of space. This single room with the refrigerator next to the bed has been home for 10 years. He has its layout memorized. But he had to leave it last summer and fall, after a fatal construction accident at the Condé Nast tower across the street wreaked havoc on his residence and all of Times Square. The move caused Meinecke incalculable suffering.

"I don't know if it was subconscious or what, but I had the runs for weeks afterward," Meinecke says bluntly. "As soon as I got back here I felt good. I'm home. I belong here."

How do you compensate a man who, frankly, has nothing? Until settlements were reached in recent weeks, that was the legal and financial dilemma facing the developers of the new office building at 4 Times Square. Contractors there had erected a giant scaffolding and construction elevator that collapsed and landed on top of the Woodstock Hotel. The July 21 catastrophe crushed 85-year-old Thereza Feliconio, a lively woman who lived on the Woodstock's top floor, and forced the evacuation of 270 remaining residents. Meinecke, who at first wondered whether the hotel's shaking and rumbling was from an earthquake, was carried down eight flights of flooding stairs in his pajamas. Between the chaos of the accident scene, the lack of paperwork, and the victims' own terror and confusion, it took days to replace essentials like eyeglasses and prescriptions. It was many weeks before Meinecke and his neighbors could start returning home from a diaspora of SROs.

They were the most desperate of victims, there in the shadow of a steadily rising skyscraper, and also among the hardest to really help: The Woodstock, a federally subsidized residential hotel where the rent is a third of one's monthly income, houses mostly elderly men and women with few resources and a host of medical problems. Meinecke, for example, is not only blind and hard of hearing but has emphysema, varicose veins, trouble walking, a hernia he describes as "big as a grapefruit," and a distrust of doctors that only complicates his other problems. Many, but not all, Woodstock tenants are also alcoholics and substance abusers who had already lost any jobs, assets, and relationships they may have once had. In the end, the developers' underwriters did the moral thing— and the practical thing, given the Woodstock tenants' potential for sympathy from a jury. TIG Insurance Co., the umbrella insurer for the Durst Organization, Tishman Construction, and Universal Builders, just settled its last of about 250 Woodstock residents' claims for a total of $4.5 million.

"I think they understood a jury would have compensated these individuals and that there was also the threat of punitive damages as well because of negligence," says lawyer Stephen Jacobson, whose firm, Barasch & McGarry, represented the majority of the tenants. "The bigger picture," he adds, "is the enormous buildings taking shape in that neighborhood, and there's a whole segment of that population in need of affordable housing."

The plaintiffs were also old, and the court system very slow, adds Stephen Jacobs, the lawyer for TIG Insurance. "We made a very sincere effort to resolve these things as promptly as possible. . . . It would seem unfair to them and just not the right thing to do to stretch things out."

The out-of-court agreements set individual payments ranging from $18,000 to $35,000, modest windfalls unlikely to change life at the Woodstock in any dramatic way. Still, the money could pay for luxuries like having a home health aide make regular visits or a new winter coat. Meinecke, who won $25,000 and received $17,000 after legal fees, says he plans to buy a new hot plate. His old one, apparently looted in the aftermath of the accident, was what he always used to make himself instant coffee. (He's been drinking the coffee crystals mixed with warm tap water ever since.) He also plans to buy another toaster, a blanket, and a coffee mug. "Oh, and I might go to camp this summer," he adds, in reference to a Catholic mission­run retreat by a lake, where he'd like to fish. "I gotta find out if they will take somebody blind."

Meinecke is a gambler, too, and, though he rarely ventures from his room, he keeps in touch with his bookie by phone. He tells tales of having spent a fortune partying his way around the world— not once but twice— until he returned to New York an old man with less than $5000 in the bank and not a single relative he cared to see. He had been a horse breeder, if you believe his self-history, whose wife was killed in a car accident along with three of their nine children. He says he hasn't talked to his surviving six children since the battle over his wife's estate. (A Catholic volunteer who used to care for Meinecke regularly says he told her it was the children's decision to put his wife in a nursing home that actually caused the rift.) "How long do you think it would take to spend $17 million?" Meinecke asks. "It took me four years, and I didn't buy nothing. I was just drunk all the time and having a good time."

To protect Meinecke and his neighbors from their own spending habits, as well as predators, the proceeds from the lawsuit have been placed in a pooled trust that is only the third of its kind in the state, according to attorney Michael Barasch. Anytime a member of the fund wants to make a withdrawal, the expenditure has to be approved by the Woodstock's managing agency, Project FIND. (The nonprofit group has become so adamant about protecting Woodstock residents from exploitation in the wake of the construction accident that its executive director, Cynthia Dial, refused to comment at all or make any clients available to talk about their experience.) The trust also benefits its members by keeping the settlement money out of the tenants' personal bank accounts, so they are still eligible for their Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

Settling the cases was actually easy, Barasch remarks, compared to "trying to protect them from the sharks out there." He recalls how the insurance companies had sent "two people at a time up to the rooms saying, 'You'll never get any money, don't sign up with the lawyer,"' and offering the Woodstock tenants $1200 in cash. Liberty Mutual, the developer's primary insurer before its policy ran out, had similarly tried to press Woodstock residents into giving up their rights to sue. In the days following the crane collapse, Liberty Mutual agents offered the stunned evacuees anywhere from $100 to $200 in emergency cash to replace glasses or pills or shoes. As they were handed the money, they were also presented with a legal waiver. More than 20 residents signed the forms before one suspicious tenant contacted Betsy Kane, director of the West Side SRO Law Project. It was Kane who intervened on their behalf, warding off the Boston-based insurance giant with a stern letter and several phone calls. After that, Kane— the tenants' unsung hero— called the bar association, which in turn contacted Barasch & McGarry and Salzman and Salzman of Brooklyn and set up a meeting between those lawyers and the Woodstock tenants. All seemed amazed and gratified by the outcome, "especially when originally they were going to get $100 for a new pair of shoes," Kane says.

Meinecke, an obviously irascible personality, was mildly disappointed to miss his day in court. But he looks forward to drinking hot coffee again and is clearly relieved to be back at the Woodstock, where he spends his days dozing and his nights listening to the radio. The path from his reclining chair to the bathroom to his bed is user-friendly after all these years; his temporary digs at the Times Square Hotel had had even less room to move around in. "When I don't know how to do it," he says, "I'm lost."

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