Two Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno can't wait to take their love outside the walls of an adult home on Coney Island. But for now, they have to wait.

Cosmo and Solange say that they know they're lucky to have each other, but that lately they are both struggling to keep their spirits up. "I've been putting my hopes on this so much," Solange says of the lawsuit. "Anytime me and him get depressed, I always tell him, 'We're going to be out of here soon.' " She tries to keep Cosmo occupied by writing him elaborate stories on the library computers about an imaginary place called Upper Bear Land, where two little bears named Solange Poo Bear and Cozzy Bear live together. Upper Bear Land is a tale she returns to frequently. "I tell Cosmo, and it cheers him up," she says. But when she talks about the lawsuit, she reaches for a different literary metaphor. "You know what it reminds me of?" she says, laughing ruefully. "You ever read Charles Dickens? You ever read the book Bleak House? It's about a hearing that took like a hundred years and they're all still waiting. I'm calling this Surf Manor Bleak House."

Hard Lives

When Solange arrived at surf manor at 25, she had never even heard of an adult home. "I had no idea what that was before I moved in," she says. For her, Surf Manor was the latest stop in a sad, tangled family history, one that she says included childhood sexual abuse by both her grandfather and stepfather and at least five suicide attempts between the ages of 14 and 22. (Solange and Cosmo trace their own pasts in this article; their social worker, Jason Chernikoff, and doctors were either unavailable or couldn't talk about their life histories.)

"I've had a very hard life," Solange says matter-of-factly, adding that sometimes she would try to kill herself by overdosing on a mixture of the medications (including Seroquel, Lithium, Lamictal, and Celexa) that she takes for her bipolar disorder, and other times by slashing her wrists. Before coming to Surf Manor, she says, she had already spent a lot of time in institutions: a year at a residential program for emotionally disturbed teenagers in Orefield, Pennsylvania, called KidsPeace, and four years in Allentown State Hospital. Her last overdose was in 2006, when her grandmother, with whom she'd been living, passed away. This overdose, she says, landed her in a coma; when she recovered, the hospital recommended that she move into Surf Manor.

When Solange moved in, Cosmo was 53 and had been living at the home since 1999, when he suffered a breakdown following the death of his mother. "I always had a normal life," he says sadly, of his years before Surf Manor. "No trouble I was." He says he was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety after his mother's death, which, six months on, became unbearable. Near Christmastime of the year she died, Cosmo says, he stabbed himself twice in the stomach with a bread knife. "I heard Christmas songs, and I was drinking and making a sandwich," he remembers. "I just broke down, being in the apartment all alone." He was hospitalized for the wounds, which weren't life-threatening; when he got out, he was referred to Surf Manor, which is right across Surf Avenue from the Bernard Haber Houses, the city housing project where he'd been living previously. He'd already been through two other relationships at the home by the time Solange arrived. "The second one, she was just all about money," he says. "Solange, she's not like that."

Surf Manor: Haven, hospital, hotel.
Emily Berl
Surf Manor: Haven, hospital, hotel.
Residents' Council President Norman Bloomfield
Emily Berl
Residents' Council President Norman Bloomfield

Solange wasn't especially interested in dating anyone when she got to the home. "I remember a lot of the disgusting old men were following me around when I first came here," she says. "One of them grabbed my boobs one time. One of them grabbed my butt. I complained about it, and nothing was done. I used to sit by myself outside a lot of times, because I was lonely."

Cosmo sat outside, too, and soon they began talking. "I realized he was a really nice person," Solange says, grinning at Cosmo. "I didn't want to go out with anybody because in all my other relationships I got abused. The age difference, I thought that wouldn't work. But he's, like, the sweetest guy. I like that he's older. He knows how to treat a lady nice, you know?"

Solange and Cosmo have the same social worker and psychiatrist, both of whom they see once a week. It was the social worker, Jason Chernikoff, who granted the pair permission to move into the same room, Solange says. Then, she adds, he sat her down for an embarrassed chat. "I need to know," she remembers him saying, "are you and Cosmo protecting yourselves?" She reassured him that they were using condoms. "It was kinda awkward," she says, grinning.

But what was awkward for Solange represents for some adult-home supporters a level of familiarity and concern that they argue would be missing from residents' lives if they moved into supportive housing, where they would be much more on their own. In July 2010, 40 families of adult-home residents urged the appellate court to overturn the decision that favored supportive housing, saying in part, "The families respectfully ask this court to consider the disastrous consequences that the lack of an adult home system would have for them and their loved one."

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