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.

The decay continues. Solange and Cosmo say they recently waited 11 days for the sink in their room to be fixed—in the meantime, they brushed their teeth and drank water from the bathtub. The ceiling of their bathroom has fallen in from water damage several times. And the food, Solange says, "is really bad. A lot of times it makes me like physically nauseous."

"It ain't the best," Cosmo agrees. "I just hate to go into that dining room and eat sometimes." Solange and another resident, Frankie, both say separately that the food they've had in homeless shelters and hospitals was preferable to Surf Manor's. (Owner Lichtschein has been battling health problems, but his son Rafael says, "It's 600 meals a day. People have different wants and needs. It's very hard to make every single person happy." He adds that "everybody enjoyed" Surf Manor's Memorial Day barbecue. In general, Rafael says of his father's operation of Surf Manor, "That's his life—to help out people of different wants, different needs.")

"Sometimes it's like hell in here," a resident named Joseph adds. "But sometimes it ain't that bad."

Emily Berl
Love in bloom: Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno
Emily Berl
Love in bloom: Solange Lambert and Cosmo Salerno

And sometimes, it's just strange. Like Surf Manor's owners, its resident population is also substantially Jewish, according to Norman Bloomfield, president of the Residents' Council. But he adds that most residents aren't particularly observant and don't keep kosher, which can lead to some friction with the home management. "The number who observe dietary laws—it's maybe four or five, possibly less." He also says the kosher issue becomes especially heated during Passover. "There's an epidemic of constipation here," he says bluntly. "It's one of the main topics of conversation, talking to residents. They blame the matzoh, so much matzoh every day. Residents are being forced to observe these dietary laws, and the majority aren't even religious." He pauses for a long moment. "The whole thing is weird," he says finally.

Orthodox and Unorthodox

On a cold, bright Sunday in early spring, Solange stands smoking outside Surf Manor, adorned with mint-green eye shadow and a long black coat that she pulls close around her to block the wind. Joanne, a resident a little older than Solange, walks by, dressed in a dirt-spotted black hoodie, her brown hair pulled back unevenly with a large white plastic clip. "Pretty makeup," she calls to Solange, who smiles politely. She watches Joanne make her way inside. "Sometimes she loves me and sometimes she hates me," she says in a low voice, turning to make sure the other woman doesn't hear her. "She'll think I'm somebody named Jackie, and she'll yell at me. Then she remembers I'm not, and she tells me how pretty I am."

A lack of friends, she says, has been one of the hardest things about Surf Manor. "I have not one female friend here," she says regretfully. Friendships at an adult home are complicated. "Some people here, they change every day. You'll be talking to them and they're your friend, and then the next day they're like, 'Get away, I hate you.' Or you'll be talking, like a normal conversation, and then it'll just flip, like to outer space or very strange things. It's not their fault, and I feel sorry for them, but you can't have a regular friendship with someone who you don't know one day to the next what they're going to be like."

Solange watches until Joanne is out of sight, then stubs her cigarette out and turns to walk back into the lobby. A Purim party is happening in the rec room, and she doesn't want to be late. She isn't Jewish, but any break from the routine is welcome.

By the time she gets inside, the party is already under way, though it doesn't feel exactly festive. Two very young Chabad Lubavitch men are visiting from Crown Heights; Norman Bloomfield is there and frowns at them. He has been planning his own party and talent show for later, and is a little put out that it is being hijacked by interlopers. "I haven't seen these guys before," he says, although because of Surf Manor's management, Orthodox visitors are a fairly common sight around the home, especially on holidays. The two introduce themselves as Shalom and Yaakov and quickly unroll a megillah, the scroll containing the Book of Esther, which tells the Purim story.

They are surrounded by a semicircle of about 15 residents, mostly elderly, paying varying degrees of attention. One man hears a Hebrew word that sounds like "Australia" to him. "I was in Australia once," he yells toward the visitors. Yaakov looks up, startled. "Sit down and enjoy," Shalom suggests smoothly, raising his voice to make himself heard over a man shouting into a pay phone at the other end of the room. It is just after St. Patrick's Day, and paper shamrocks hang from the ceiling. Coloring-book pages with drawings of leprechauns are taped to the windows, along with a slightly battered-looking paper cutout of a menorah.

Yaakov chants quickly in Hebrew, with Shalom stopping him every few minutes to provide a meandering summary in English. As Yaakov reads, a kind of calm steals over the room. Being read to seems to have an almost narcotizing effect—a few people's eyes start to slide shut. The guy on the pay phone hangs up and quietly takes a seat. A tall young man in a kippah rushes in late, wearing thick, smeared glasses and two backpacks. His tzitzit dangles from under his shirt, and he leads a thin, young man with a high Afro and a long white cane by the hand. They sit down and listen raptly. When the reading ends, Shalom makes a beeline for the young man in the kippah, kneeling down beside his chair. "Are your Jewish needs being taken care of here?" he asks. The young man looks at him hesitantly. "Kind of?" he says.

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