The Atria Roundtable

by Ira Rubin

The atmosphere in the dining room at the Atria Senior Residence in Forest Hills is usually calm and relaxed as the residents engage in quiet conversations unless they’re loudly complaining about the speed of the service and/or the quality of the food.

For years, this tranquility was disrupted by raucous talk from a table in the middle of the room occupied by two men (Alan and me) and two women (Joan and Cheryl). The whole room could hear us debating vociferously about current events and less portentous issues, such as whether Sara Lee or Entenmann’s make the best pastries. When a topic petered out, we paused to eat our food and mutually insulted each other until we found another topic to debate. This pattern continued until all the other tables had long since emptied and the dining room manager demanded we leave.

Our apparent conflicts with each other fooled no one. Everyone knew it was a conscious game we played to strengthen our bond as a “family”. Each debate was an improvisation in which the actors played the role that best fit them: Cheryl was the “provocateur”, Alan the “true believer”, Joan the “exasperated conciliator”, and I the “buffoonish commentator”.
It was rare for any of us to miss a meal, and when one did the other three would demand that the staff immediately ascertain if the missing person needed assistance. We sometimes went on walks together in the neighborhood.

Even so, we were unlikely partners.

Joan had a serious demeanor and would frown and shake her head at our ceaseless arguments.
Cheryl was a Southerner from Little Rock, Arkansas, with a mischievous attitude who believed she was an expert on healthcare and constantly advocated for using amino acids as a cure-all. Cheryl would entrance us with stories about her quirky family, particularly the eponymous Lottie Dottie, a name Cheryl swore was her real one.

I was the target of ridicule for my intentionally absurd comments on every topic. When the other three scorned me I would laugh it off by saying “and proud of it” or “and so much more.” Eventually they ignored me altogether and I turned to trading insults with my best friend, Alan.
Alan Hevesi was a former Comptroller of New York City and then New York State who had many accomplishments. Unfortunately, he is most remembered for serving time in prison after confessing to improper use of State funds for private purposes: specifically, using a government airplane to transport his terminally ill wife. According to Alan and witnesses, he was coerced into signing the confession by the then-Governor, who feared Alan was a threat to his re-election chances.

Alan delighted in telling hilarious stories about his life in politics. I once asked him in private whether he would share more serious details about his experiences. Alan’s face seemed to get darker, then with a tight smile he said, “No”, and made it clear that was the end of the discussion.

I would love to share some of Alan’s stories which he repeated to me so many times that I was able to complete his thoughts when increasing dementia impaired his memory. Sadly, my memory is fading, too. The only joke I remember was about a man who ended his will with, “Finally, to my cousin Bernie who always swore I would not remember him in my will, let me say, ‘Hello, Bernie’.”

Two months ago, our table disbanded. First, Cheryl moved closer to her family in Vermont. Soon after, Alan’s family transferred him to a memory care facility and has since withheld any information about him. I was never given an explanation, but suspect they believed it might be too disruptive and confusing for him to stay in contact with us as his memory declined. Joan and I stayed at the dining table briefly, but the magic was gone, and we moved to different tables.

The dining table is currently empty, a continuing reminder of my lost Atria family. I wish you well, Joan, Cheryl, and Alan. I miss you more than I can say.

Ira Rubin: Ira Rubin still resides at Atria and continues seven years of active participation in LP².