Heat, stairs extra burden for woman's heavy load

April 13, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

GERALDINE BAILEY, a sweet soul in a difficult season of her life, trudges up the stairs to her Dundalk apartment, where a blustery wind blows window curtains into her living room.

The morning is raw but the window is wide open. Bailey keeps it that way. The alternative is an apartment resembling a steam bath.

Bailey is 64 years old and suffers from arthritis and high blood pressure. Sometimes she can't bend her knees.

She walks the stairs slowly and enters an apartment where reminders of better times crowd every wall: photographs of Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, for whom she once did volunteer political work; a collector's plate from John Kennedy's inauguration; a blow-up photo of Bailey laughing happily with Muhammad Ali.

"Oh, that was a night," she remembers, sinking into a chair. "I was with Ted Venetoulis and Lou Karpouzie" - Venetoulis, the former Baltimore County executive, and Karpouzie, the Pied Piper of amateur sports in East Baltimore - "and Muhammad Ali said, `Come over here, baby, and sit with me.' Oh, my."

The effect of so much memorabilia is to crowd an already packed room, and to distract you momentarily from the thing that ultimately takes your breath away: the hot, stifling air, the sense of claustrophobia even as gusts of wind blow into the room, and a gentle woman in her difficult years wondering why things can't be a little bit better than they are.

"How long has the heat been like this?" you ask.

"Couple of years," she says. "Some days you just bake in here. My grandchildren come over and they just want to go to sleep from the heat."

After years as a private-duty nurse, Bailey lives in this government-subsidized housing on her Social Security disability pay. It is $564 a month.

She leaves the apartment to shop for food and do her laundry. She has no car.

She lost a son, LeRoy, 36, who drowned several years ago. She has four other children, struggling with their own lives. There are photos of all of them on the walls.

She has asked to be moved to some other apartment, with regulated heat and no steps to climb, and she has gotten nowhere.

Now comes a son, Anthony, 45, who kisses his mother hello.

Sometimes he stays here. He walks past his mother to sit by the open window and cool off on this cold morning in this sweltering living room.

"He'll call me up and say, `Mama, I'm just so tired. I need a rest. Can I come home?" Bailey says. She nods toward her son. "He's schizophrenic."

"Is that right?"

"That's what the doctors say," says Anthony.

"He hears voices," says his mother, fanning herself with a piece of paper.

"I ain't the only one who hears 'em, I know that," Anthony says softly. "I hear people on the street. I heard two guys sitting on a bench. They were saying, `We ought to get that girl.' But I can read between the lines, see? I knew they were talking about me."

He looks at his mother, who looks back at him and seems exhausted. They have had these conversations before, where Anthony talks openly about his demons, and his mother guides him as gently as she can past the rough parts.

"I hear voices, it's the truth," says Anthony. "I don't be acting stupid, I'm not that schizo. Sometimes I've worked." He names a couple of private security agencies who have employed him. "But I do hear voices, and sometimes I have to fight for that respect thing. And I stay here when I have no place else."

"Where do you sleep?"

"On the floor, sometimes," he says. "Or maybe on that couch."

The couch is by the window. The cold air blowing in cools the room, but not enough.

Geraldine Bailey points to a nearby radiator: cold to the touch. The heat has been turned off. But nearby pipes, connecting to a basement boiler, are hot.

Residents of the 44 apartments in the building - a nondescript structure on the side of a strip mall - have no control over the heat.

"Believe me," says Bailey, "if you wasn't here, I wouldn't be walking around with these clothes on."

She has tried to move elsewhere, requesting that Baltimore County shift her to an apartment with regulated heat and no steps to climb for her arthritis.

Yesterday, the county housing official assigned to her case did not return calls about Bailey. But Susan Shaffer, site manager for the real estate company that owns Bailey's building, did.

"It's very hard when you control the heat for the whole building," Shaffer acknowledges. Soon, it will be turned off for the warm months.

As for moving Bailey to a different apartment, "We've told her, `Give us a note from your doctor, and the county will move you.'"

To which Bailey responds: "I've given them a note from my doctor. And I've given the county housing department notes from my doctor. Now, you tell me what happened to the notes."

She says the words softly, but she is insistent. Her son sits a few feet away, cooling himself on this chilly morning.

The son hears voices, and another was lost to a drowning. Bailey's knees ache, and her blood pressure is too high, and a cold wind blusters into the room, barely noticeable.

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