A Place in the Crowd

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At the Barth, tenants rise at dawn, straggle down to the lobby and begin their daily routine of medicine time, meal time, activity time and visiting time with volunteers, who help out with legal papers and errands.

For much of the day, tenants are free to come and go. They sign out at the front desk and wander to McDonald's for a cheeseburger, McCormick's for a glass of beer and El Chapultepec for a little jazz. But mostly they wander to the benches outside, where they sit back and watch the world pass by.

Sometimes, the world watches back. Pedestrians raise their eyebrows at the wheelchairs on the sidewalk, occasionally stick their heads in the door. Nearby merchants complain about tenants bumming cigarettes from customers. Tourists call the front desk: "Can we reserve the banquet room?" "How much is the penthouse?" The Barth's residents get a kick out of that.

Friday morning is entertainment time at the Barth. Precisely at 9 a.m., Jack Eads and his partner, Joann Bankston, take their seats in the front of the lobby. With him on the accordion, her at the organ, and a one and a two and a three, they perform a blistering rendition of "Roll Out the Barrel."

Jack and Joann are blind. They've been playing here for over a dozen years. Some days, the lobby is packed. Other days, like this day, there's only a scattering of people: two men sit stiffly in the back, staring out the window. Two other men, one with a red baseball cap, the other with a cordless phone, sit at a table near the front desk.

"Hey," says Jack O'Brien, the man in the cap. "Wanna dance?"
"Get out of here," says Larry Rodriguez, the man with the phone. "Can't you find a woman do dance with you?"

"There aren't any women," O'Brien says.
"What was that?" Joann barks.

Rodriguez is the resident manager. He's been at the Barth thirteen years. He and O'Brien had been talking about the construction of a new office complex next door.

"In 1986, we still had cheap places to go," Rodriguez says, picking up where they'd left off. "Now they surrounded us with high-priced restaurants and hotels. You used to be able to get a beer across the street and it would cost you a buck, maybe a buck and a half. And you could get a burger for maybe two bucks. Not anymore."

"Yeah," O'Brien says. "The other day I asked a bartender for a Bud and he said, 'That will be $2.75.' And I said, 'What else comes with it?' And he said, 'Nothing. Just me.' And I said, 'But I don't want you. I want a Bud.' He said, 'That will be $2.75.'"

Rodriguez laughs. With his thick mustache and frizzy hair, he looks like Freddy Fender. In fact, back home in Pueblo, most people don't know his real name. They call him Freddy.

"We're elderly and handicapped around here," he continues. "Most people are on Social Security. Those who are on assisted living only have fifty bucks to spend for the whole month. A lot of them would like to go to a ballgame, but they can't afford it. And even when tickets are donated, a lot of them don't want to go because once you get inside you like a soda or hot dog, but they don't have the money."

"The food here is not that great," O'Brien adds. "But it's passable. We have spaghetti, pork chops, a full menu."

Jack and Joann play a polka.
"When they started the construction next door, a lot of people here were afraid they'd have to move," Rodriguez continues. "When they see everything going on around here, and they see that it's all new, they worry they'll tear down this building and make it a hotel. I know the director has had offers. But if it does close, 62 people will have nowhere else to go."

The two men sit in silence.
"Hey," O'Brien grins. "You wanna dance?"
Outside, the construction crews churn away in the hot morning sun. In the lobby, Jack and Joann play "America the Beautiful."

Gaskins: "I've been here off and on since 1985. I was on a passenger train from Miami to Seattle and the conductor said we had a half an hour, so I looked around and ran into this place. When I'm traveling, they keep a room for me. Because I pay for it."

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Harrison Fletcher

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