Touch: The Journal of Healing



Copyright © 2015

Touch: The Journal of Healing

All rights reserved.

Mr. Cincinnati

    by Julia C. Spring

Mr. Cincinnati, a thin man in his early forties, sat facing the Social Security judge.   He was in his best trousers and shirt, both frayed at the cuffs.  On his legs were metal braces, worn because his femurs had been shattered fifteen years earlier when he fell, drunk, from a third story window of the single room occupancy hotel (SRO) where he lived.

I was a law professor supervising students who were working directly with residents of this New York City SRO in the early 1980’s.  The landlord had donated a room to provide legal services to his tenants.  We were all interested in getting government benefits for residents who were eligible:  the tenants needed income to live, the landlord needed the rent paid, and the students needed experience representing clients.

The building was divided into tiny rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens.  It was a little scary in the narrow, dingy corridors with blind corners, but nothing ever happened to any of us.  Most SRO residents we only saw in passing; they were among all the other carefully dressed workers entering and leaving the nearby subway at rush hour.

We went room-to-room introducing ourselves.  Then the students went back in pairs and sought me out when they needed help.  Most of the residents who became clients were elderly and disabled, like Mr. Cincinnati almost hotel-bound because of their physical or mental problems.  Some had lived there for decades, retired cleaning women and maintenance men.   Even those who could read well got overwhelmed by government gobbledygook in letters about their benefits.  They missed appointments, didn’t send paperwork on time, then got cut off.

Mr. Cincinnati was receiving state welfare, though he was unable to work and should have been eligible for federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the very low income elderly and disabled.  Someone had filed his application a year earlier but when it was denied no one appealed the decision.  My students managed to locate his records and reactivate the process.

He was a blustery but shy man who hadn’t left the SRO in years except for doctors’ appointments.  He mostly stayed in his room, holding court there with loud opinions on everything:  “Mayor Koch should move Yankee Stadium to Central Park.”  Other residents bought food and liquor for him and stayed to talk, often also fueled by alcohol.  In the outside world, Mr. Cincinnati was insecure and lost his temper easily.  He had been “fired” by more than one doctor; although he wasn’t violent he threatened and scared other patients and staff.  

The law students talked with him carefully, learning not to trigger his insecurity and anger as they worked for months on his SSI appeal.  They filed the necessary papers and got Mr. Cincinnati to doctors’ appointments for additional documentation of his disabilities.  Finally the hearing was scheduled and transportation arranged.

Then he announced that he wasn’t going: “No way a man in a dress can decide shit about me.”  Mr. Cincinnati was scared of the judge’s authority; if he felt disrespected he might let loose with obscenities and threats, be put out of the room and perhaps denied SSI.

Still, it was important for the judge to see his disabilities and limited social skills.  We came up with an idea.  The brace on his left leg made a loud rasping noise whenever he straightened it.  What if, when Mr. Cincinnati felt angry at the judge, he straightened that leg and kept his mouth shut?  He thought about it and decided to go to the hearing.

In the courtroom none of us knew if this would work.  Several times during the hearing Mr. Cincinnati’s leg rasped loudly:  BRAACH.  The students and I suppressed smiles while we tried to figure out what had set him off.  He was most upset when the judge asked him how he had shattered his legs:  “You mean you were sitting on the window sill while you were drinking?”  His knee objected loudly three times as Mr. Cincinnati answered, “Yes. “

There were high fives all around when he received the judge’s decision:  Mr. Cincinnati got SSI.  Although he still didn’t leave the hotel much, sometime that spring he told the law students that his doctors weren’t firing him anymore, because he just straightened his leg—BRAACH—whenever he wanted to tell them off.  He even thought he might venture outside when the weather got warmer.

© 2015  Julia C. Spring

Julia C. Spring is a lawyer and social worker who has focused on mental health and adult guardianship; she has taught many students in both fields. When her professional writing became more personal, she started composing memoir pieces which have been published in Blood and Thunder and Hospital Drive.