Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
a Day in My Life
It is the first week of 2015 and 84-year-old Hank Blum is officially retired. He’s said that before.
His wife of 41 years, Patti, has thrown him three retirement parties, one for each of the times he packed away his phoropter, bid his colleagues goodbye and closed the door to his optometry practice, presumably for the last time.
"I didn’t have the nerve to say we were having another retirement party," says Patti.
Hank is OK skipping the fuss, and a touch superstitious anyway.
"I said, don’t make one this time. Maybe it will stick."
Hank has worked for six decades as an optometrist in New York City. For most of those years, he commuted by 5 or 6 train from his Upper East Side apartment to his office in the Bronx. His business, Henry Blum Optometrist and Associates on Southern Boulevard, served tens of thousands of people and was one source of stability in a neighborhood where properties sat vacant for years.
He was president and on the board of directors for city-wide optometric societies. He lobbied in Albany to grant optometrists, previously a drugless profession, the right to use pharmaceuticals to diagnose eye conditions and then later, to treat the eye. Hank was also a part of the pro bono board that gave free eye care to those who couldn’t afford it.
Hank deeply loves his work and particularly enjoyed helping people, "I know there are people out there who can see because of me," he says.
"I never went to work a day in my life."
Retirement, a life stage and societal expectation, hasn’t stuck well for Hank.
The first time Hank retired in 2000, he did so because he thought it was what people did at that age.
"I thought, I was 70 and it was time to retire," he says. "I had money [saved]. Why was I going to work?"
He sold the practice. Patti gave him a surprise retirement party packed with family and friends. Amid the balloons, the cake and the congratulations, he was already wondering if he had made a mistake.
Just weeks later regret and boredom set in. "I said, schmuck what the hell did you do?" he recalls. "I was so bored. I was still very healthy. I was still very viable. I felt like I could pick up the world and put it on my shoulders."
He would pace around the apartment, mindlessly flipping through TV channels and checking the stock market.
"I didn’t know what to do with myself and I missed it." He called up the new owner of his old practice and asked for a job. They welcomed him enthusiastically and he went back to work four days a week, down from his previously full schedule.
Two years later, at the age of 72, he decided he really was done this time. He said his goodbyes, and Patti threw him a second retirement party at DeGrezia Restaurant on 50th Street.
Failing to come up with a post-retirement schedule that gave him any structure or purpose, he was soon again bored sick.
"Two weeks went by. It wasn’t for me," he says. "I was lost." He called up the office, returned to the practice and resumed his work, now clocking in three days a week.
At the age of 76 – six years after his first retirement attempt – Hank’s health was declining from the effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive condition that makes breathing challenging and is a leading cause of death in the U.S.
He retired again, but it was short-lived when the owner talked Hank into coming back to work within weeks. For eight years, he commuted and worked with days off in between to rest. By the end of 2014, he had cut his days down from three to two.
It still wasn’t enough to stave off the exhaustion he would feel at the end of each work-day. Climbing up the stairs at the 77th Street subway stop was becoming increasingly difficult. He would have to sit on the bench outside a supermarket for 15 minutes before going home to catch his breath.
"It’s just not worth it," he says. "It was just getting to be too much."
Hank did not feel up to seeing patients late in the day and it would occasionally lead to arguments with the office staff who booked his schedule. Hank also said he began to forget people’s names, and that he could no longer bend down to pick things up from the floor.
So the end of the holidays and the 2015 New Year marked what Hank believed -- really believed -- was his real end to work.
Hank’s repeated retirement celebrations may be unusual, but uncertainty over when to stop working and what to do afterward is a pressing concern for many New Yorkers, as they live longer and healthier.
Some need to work longer for financial reasons. Others enjoy work and their work lives and want to continue. And still others find that a lack of clear roles in post-retirement life and a lack of structure bring fear and make work seem appealing.
When social security was created in 1935, and Hank was five years old, those who reached the age eligible to retire and receive benefits at the age of 65 were only expected to live seven more years. Now, average life expectancy in New York City is 81.
As an optometrist, Hank was so popular that people would travel to see him after moving away and came in requesting him long after he started tapering his hours.
"The furthest one came from Africa," he said naming a Columbia University professor who would schedule his appointments with Hank - and only Hank - when he was in town.
Hank had a strong and mutually teasing relationship with his staff, as well as his patients. To relax them and make them feel at ease he would often create silly poems and examine eyes in rhyme. He also learned to examine eyes in Spanish even though he doesn’t speak the language.
Humor was his lifeline when he battled Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer which affected the layer of cells covering his heart, when he was in his 40s. He jokes, "When it rains my heart gets wet. It doesn’t have a cover."
Determined to cheat a dire prognosis, he dealt with rounds of chemotherapy, extreme fatigue and intense nausea by watching Johnny Carson, reading funny books and viewing anything that could lift his spirits. "If I was going to laugh, I was going to live," he says.
He worked throughout his cancer treatment, undergoing chemo on Tuesdays, battling sickness on Wednesdays, and examining patients on Thursdays. He would go about the office bald, announcing "I’m doing Yul Brynner’s part in the King and I."
Humor is still his lifeline now that’s he’s dealing with other health issues. Hank’s COPD is in Stage 2 and he has Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). His COPD, diagnosed four years ago, con-stricts his breathing on a daily basis and will inevitably get worse.
He has episodes from the AFib once every two or three months, which are debilitating and leave him stuck in bed. After years of smoking, he now describes himself as "violently anti-smoking." He’s considered a miracle patient by his doctors, and doing well, but is hitting his limits.
"I was such a vital person. I used to run the [Central Park] reservoir. I was able to stay out all night. I had abundant energy. What happened to me?" he asks. He used to love to dance. Now he avoids steps and hills. Even the gradual incline of Second Avenue going north is too much. He’s given up drinking alcohol, coffee and chocolate. He worries about a potential stroke. He says the COPD is worse than cancer.
"You take a breath and nothing is going in. It’s a horror," he says.
To manage his conditions he takes six pills a day and two to three inhalers.
"When the pharmacist sees me he calls his wife. ‘He’s here again, honey. We can go out to dinner," Hank jokes.
With the beginning of the new year, he started a new treatment. His doctor suggested he try inhaling a mist of hypertonic saline (a saltwater solution) via a nebulizer, a common treatment for Cystic Fibrosis patients but one that is not widely available to patients with COPD. He said it’s helping.
The second day of February, Groundhog Day is day 33 of Hank’s retirement attempt number four.
He’s managed to stay retired longer than any previous try. It is 12 degrees and bitterly cold. Piles of ankle-deep gray slush line the streets leftover from a blizzard.
Hank is optimistic as usual.
"I look at it this way, every single day is closer to July," he says, slowly trudging through the slush and breathing heavily.
The weather is a backdrop for Hank’s quest of the day –- a visit to his former office.
He waits for the M103 bus at a stop just half a block from his apartment. Only minutes pass before the bus inches up. He boards the packed bus, grasps a handle and rides the short distance to 86th Street, where he walks the length of the avenue to catch the 5 train uptown to the Bronx.
Southern Blvd is where Hank feels most at home when not at home. He knows "the girls" who work at Sol’s Pharmacy, the countermen at his regular lunch spot, and the people at the drug store. And he feels like he is there even when he isn’t because the oversized sign above the practice door still says “Dr. Henry Blum."
This is Hank’s second visit back to his office since retiring a month ago. He’s there to say hello and eat his favorite chicken soup at a nearby lunch spot. He walks in to the office and there is already an unfamiliar face, a new employee, behind the counter.
"I’m Lauren," she says.
"I don’t know you and you don’t know me either but my name is out front," Hank says.
Kenny, who has worked with Hank for the past seven years, swoops in from the far end of the counter to save his new colleague from her faux pax.
"This is Dr. Blum. He’s the mayor of Southern Blvd," says Kenny, an optician.
"Can you AR me? I think I need a change in prescription," Hank asks Kenny.
Hank sits in front of the automatic refractor, a machine that can read a person’s approximate prescription, something he never thought would be possible earlier in his career.
"Technology blows my mind."
Kenny talks about what is so "legendary" about "The legendary Dr. Blum."
"It can be an exhausting process coming here. No one wants to. He softens the air when you walk in the door immediately before you walk back," Kenny says. "You know what you are going to get. It’s a show from the moment you walk in."
After 15 minutes, there isn’t much for Hank to do in his old office. He walks a few storefronts over to an unassuming Mexican restaurant. "They make the greatest chicken soup in the world," he says.
He’s been coming here almost every workday since he discovered the place last year. He orders a bowl – called "chicken in pot" – and it quickly arrives, steaming, oil bubbling, a large bone poking out of the top.
Hank genuinely loves the dish, and says he makes it part of his routine "for medicinal purposes." The warm broths help ease the uncomfortable congestion from his COPD.
"I eat this in the summer in 110 degree heat with no shade."
The sips of fragrant broth seem to revive him and soon he’s ready to make the trip back downtown.
Despite the cold, he’s meeting up with Patti, at 40 Carrots, the frozen yogurt shop inside Bloomingdale’s – their new daily routine since he retired.
As he pushes the restaurant door open, a burst of cold air shocks as some stray snow flurries sneak in. Hank exits into the biting air, now heavy with fat flakes of snow.
When Work Calls
Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
It’s the ninth day of April, a Thursday, and after months of snow and ice, the promise of spring is just around the corner.
Vibrant daffodils poke their heads out of the thawed soil and tiny leaves are appearing on trees. At 8:30 in the morning, Hank Blum, in his black MetroOptics button-down shirt and a mid-weight jacket leaves his apartment building on E. 79th Street and waits patiently for the M103 bus that will take him to 86th street where he will pick up the 5 train to the Bronx.
This time just a few months ago, Hank thought he’d spend an early spring day like this padding around his apartment, checking his stocks on the computer and leisurely watching Fox News. Instead he’s headed back to his former office for a full day of seeing patients.
For six decades Hank worked as an optometrist on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx serving ten of thousands of people. After three failed retirement attempts over the years, and as many retirement parties, he was sure that the close of 2014 would mean putting away his phoropter for good. While he loved the work, the rigors of the job and commute were finally catching up to his aging body. He was managing Stage 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which constricts his breathing on a daily basis and Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). He handed over his client files, said he goodbyes, and closed the book on that stage of his life.
Just weeks into his retirement, his former boss, John, call him up, saying he had an emergency. They were shorthanded and could Dr. Blum, possibly come in a couple of Saturdays in February to help?
"I like the idea. I don’t like the idea. I told myself I was going to retire, but for two days I can manage it," he told himself.
A couple days turned into a few - Hank admits to having a hard time saying no - and Hank has now spent a few Saturdays and the occasional weekday working.
"He needs me more than I need him," laughs Hank, yet he seems pleased to be back at work part-time. "I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I enjoy myself," he says.
He enjoys seeing the patients he thought he’d left behind for good - many were his regular clients for years - but working a full day is more difficult than is used to be. "I enjoy it up to 3:30 p.m.,” he says.
"At the end of the day I’m 85 years old. I’m not a baby anymore. It catches up to you.”
Even through he’s not in regularly, Hank’s had to make adjustments to his daily schedule. Other employees take a 45-minute lunch break but Hank needs a full hour in order to recharge for the second half of his shift. He also has to be careful about overbooking his schedule.
"If I don’t eat by 1 my blood sugar drops and I get a headache," he says.
Hank is planning on telling John that he has to cut the day short and at least end at 5 p.m., but he’s not sure if it will be enough to stave off the fatigue.
It’s been a busy morning and Hank sits down in his office for a rest between patients.
He’s doing paperwork by hand as he always has. The other doctor completes his on a computer but Hank finds using the computer too time consuming.
Soon he hears the sounds of activity outside and his name being called. He steps outside to meet a walk-in patient. She’s never been to Metro Optics before but had heard good things about Dr. Blum. She fidgets with her glasses as she sits down in the examination chair for her yearly eye checkup and a contact lens fitting. Hank puts her at ease with a joke.
Soon they’re talking about the best places to get pizza in New York. He quickly and efficiently runs through the routine of typical tests, while devoting a full half an hour to her and her eye care.
He asks if she has any questions, as he sits back down in his chair. She asks about Lasik eye surgery and if she’d qualify as a candidate. Hank says yes, and explains what an eye surgeon would do. He swivels around to his desk and writes down the name of a local eye surgeon he recommends, Dr. Eric Mandel on 70th Street. "Only go to him," he says. "He’s the best.”
The appointment over, Hank walks down the hallway and hands over the contact lenses and glasses prescriptions to his colleague, Lucy. She mentions to Hank that she’s found something of his and takes out an old photo of a barely 15-year-old Hank that’s she found scattered around the office. He stares back at it, marveling how young he looks.
"I was a handsome devil, wasn’t I?" he says. "Where the hell did the time go?”
The spell is broken by the sound of steps behind him. Snapping back to the present, Hank explains to the patient who has followed him out of the examination room that she’ll come back to see another doctor for her eyeglass adjustment in a few days. "It won’t be you?" she asks with hesitation. "No, I’m only here sometimes," says Hank but he assures her that she will be in good hands. They say goodbye and and Hank hurries back to his office to get his jacket.
It’s past 1 p.m. and Hank is getting hungry and tired. With a quick wave he exists the office and heads directly over to his favorite Mexican restaurant where he’ll get his usual order of "chicken in a pot." He says it’s the best chicken soup in the world, but more importantly is eases the difficulty he has breathing from his COPD. "You don’t have to say make it hot. The steam is in your face," he says. He eats soup for this reason, practically daily.
"I’m getting older quicker," he says. A few weeks ago, he noticed that his hands have begun to shake. He recently babysat his young granddaughter and the shaking made him afraid to pick her up. His thumbs have been stiffer than normal, as has his neck.
The prospect of not being able to play with his grandkids bothers him. At this stage of his life, as his body and career has slowed down, family is unequivocally the most important thing to him.
Hank meet his wife Patti at an Upper East Side bar, Pembles, 40-something years ago and won her over with the line "You have gorgeous eyes, let’s dance." He says he trusts her with his life. More than a decade and a half younger than Hank, they are parents to two adult children, along with Hank’s son and daughter from a previous marriage. There are five grandchildren between them. Hank adores them all. "I’m so fucking lucky."
Hank turned 85 on February 7 and has lived past life expectancy in New York City, currently 81.
He’s still coming to terms with the milestone. "85 is a big number and I’m aware of it. My age never bothered me at 70, 75, 80," he says. This is the first time in my life I’ve thought of how long I’m going to be here."
He had plans of celebrating locally but ended up traveling to his daughter Randi’s house in Connecticut on the Sunday of his birthday weekend. He and Patti took the train in the morning. Hank doesn’t drive long distances anymore because he gets tired.
He knew some family members would be there but did not expect his older kids to make the trip.
When he got there he walked directly to the kitchen to get settled in. "I came in and sat down at the kitchen island. My wife called, ‘Come in for a minute.’ I walked in and saw them."
Assembled in the living room were his four children, their spouses and all five of his grandchildren.
"I just looked up and my mouth dropped," he says.
He hugged them all, before settling in to a brunch of eggs, bacon, ham and potatoes. His daughter Randi made pecan pie, her specialty. Hank opened presents from his kids: train tickets for their next few trips to Connecticut from his youngest daughter, Randi; a jacket from his oldest daughter, Bonnie; reservations at a favorite restaurant from his youngest son, Marc, and a polo shirt from his oldest son, Barry.
"That was a hell of a surprise," he says. "I’ve got a hell of a family."
Hanks says the years have mellowed him. "It’s amazing - my old age and how I’ve changed. My outlook on life has changed. When you are 45 and 85 you see things differently. I am more aware of life now because it’s coming to an end."
Just last night he left evidence of a midnight cookie binge on the piece of paper the milk rests on in his fridge. Patti was irritated when she saw the crumbles. He refused to get into an argument and asked her if it was really worth getting upset over. "Don’t stress the small stuff and you have to be able to differentiate the small stuff," he says.
Randi has noticed changes in her father as well. "There’s been a progression from who he was with my half brother and sister and who he was with me and my brother and who he is for my kids," she says.
She says he’s been an exceptional grandfather. "Nobody on this planet loves my kids even close to how much I do beside them."
In June, Hank is taking his younger kids and their children on a week-long family vacation to Jamaica. He just booked the trip. "I’m very excited. Extremely excited. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m a 40," he says.
"I don’t have to see the Taj Mahal. I would rather sit in the pool with my grandkids," he says. Especially because he considers it to likely be his last international trip.
"Next year I don’t think I’ll be as well as this year and I don’t want to be stuck in another country and be sick… at 86 I’ll be vulnerable."
He worries about something serious happening and being far away from a good hospital. Before the trip he’ll make a visit to his pulmonologist, Dr. David Posner.
Before Jamaica he is considering adding another family member. In December Hank and Patti’s beloved Havanese passed away. "I’d come home. She’s jump on me. Wag her tail. Lucy was a wonderful puppy."
Patti has been inconsolable. She wants to get a new dog but Hank has been on the fence. He doesn’t really want one and besides, the average life expectancy of a Havanese is 14 years.
"I don’t think I’m going to make it. I don’t think I’m going to be here in 10 years. I’ll live to 90 if I’m lucky."
Even if he does, he’s realistic about what he body will be like at that age. When he looks at his grandkids, he’s amazed at their development. Their bodies and minds changed so rapidly within the timespan of just a few years. He says he’s much different than he was at 80 and expects things to deteriorate exponentially.
"It’s reversing" he say of his body. "What am I going to look like in 5 years?"
His lunch hour is up and the soup’s grown cold. It’s time for Hank to return to the office and finish his day. He is hoping he’ll have enough energy to get through it. His feet are already hurting him. He gets up with a labored push off his chair, waves goodbye to the counterman, and walks slowly but deliberately back to the office.
"All my life I have not thought of my age. Right now I think of my age. It’s definitely a little scary. I still do what I have to do. I still live life."
Where to eat lunch,
and other dilemmas of retired life
Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
It’s 7:15 a.m. on a Tuesday in late spring.
Hank Blum has been lying in bed for almost an hour "chilling," as he calls it, and wondering what to do for the day.
Fifteen minutes later, he gets out of bed and shuffles into the kitchen. He pours grounds into the coffeemaker to brew a pot for his wife Patti, and then pours kibble into a bowl for his dog, Ethel. He then begins his daily regime of medicines - six pills and two or three inhalers a day - to control his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and atrial fibrillation (AFib).
Next, Hank turns on the shower. When the couple downsized a decade ago and moved from a three-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue into their one-bedroom on 79th Street, they converted the bath tub into a shower stall because it was easier for Hank to get in and out of. A grip bar was installed a couple of weeks ago. He says the bar gives him peace of mind as he has become less stable and more afraid of falling.
After toweling off, Hank gets dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and walks back into kitchen. Patti has left to meet some friends for brunch, so he’s eating breakfast alone. He decides on a Cheerios-Fiber One mix topped with banana and skim milk, rejecting his other morning go-tos, eggs or a swiss cheese sandwich.
With the decision to retire finally made—a decision he waffled over for 15 years—he’s now figuring out how to structure his days.
After breakfast, Hanks gets dressed and walks to his desk in the living room where he pushes the power button on his desktop PC. As he waits for it to boot up, he turns the television to CNBC. He watches for a few minutes before returning to his desk.
Back at the computer, he logs onto Fidelity.com to check how the stock market and his investments are doing. Next he logs into his email, checks the daily forecast on weather.com and then reads a few articles on foxnews.com.
Lunchtime is approaching and Hank has to decide: will he make a baked bean omelet or sweet potato, the extent of his culinary repertoire ("I don’t cook"), or head out to one of his regular Upper East Side hangouts.
And so begins Hank’s new post-retirement life. For more than six decades Hank worked as an optometrist on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx serving tens of thousands of people. He loved his work deeply but decided at age 70 that it was time to retire. Bored and failing to come up with a new daily routine, he was back at the office within weeks.
Three more retirement attempts followed, the last being at the end of 2014. He really thought he was done for good, but last month, he couldn’t resist being pulled back into working a few days a month when his former boss, John Bonizio, called him.
After clocking in a few 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. days, though, he decided it was just physically too much.
"I just found lately a little bit of the edge being taken off," he says. "This time I am not lying to myself. This time I am not doing it. I’ve seen my last patient.”
Hank still seems reluctant to close the door on his career permanently. This past Saturday, he had dinner with John.
"I said, ‘If you need me, you know I’ll be there for you but I have to be the last resort,’" Hank recalled. "If he calls I’m not going to do it. I’ll give him an excuse. I don’t want to do it anymore. 62 years is enough.”
But immediately, he waivers. "He’s been so nice to me. I don’t want to totally close the door."
It’s past noon and Hank has decided to make his way over to one of his usual lunch spots, 40 Carrots, housed in Bloomingdale’s on Lexington Avenue and 59th Street.
He discovered the cafe two or three years ago, but now with more time on his hands, he’s been spending most afternoons there, often meeting Patti for an afternoon frozen yogurt, in between tagging along on her frequent shopping excursions. It’s become a ritual of sorts for them and Hank loves it.
"Almost seven days a week I’m here for soup or yogurt," he says.
He usually gets the coffee-flavored frozen yogurt, sometimes with a large dollop of chocolate yogurt on top, ironic because he had to give up both the drink and sweet because of his health issues. Occasionally he’ll mix it up and get coffee and butter pecan, or coffee and blueberry yogurt.
"When I get down to the end I get sad," he says. "There is nothing you could say to convince me to give up yogurt.”
When Hank came in around his 85th birthday this winter, the staff surprised him a huge "cake" constructed out of yogurt, crowded around him and sang "Happy Birthday." Hank loves the familiarity, particularly as he navigates the unknown waters of retirement. "I’m known," he says.
When he enters the restaurant today, he looks around for his favorite waitress, Betty, before remembering that it’s her day off. Before he can be disappointed he’s greeted by another regular waitress, Anna. She quickly ushers him over to a table in the back as they exchange pleasantries. Without looking at the menu Hank orders a split pea soup, hold the bread.
Anna asks if he wants his usual for dessert. Hank says, of course, coffee frozen yogurt with a dollop of chocolate.
"What do you think of the Bruce [now Caitlin] Jenner news?" she asks.
"I wouldn’t want to date him. He’s not my type," he says. But "whatever is going to make you happy, do it," he advises.
In his later years Hank has grown increasingly mellow and less judgmental. He’s decided that he wants to spend the remainder of the time he has focusing on what makes him most happy—his family. Patti and Hank are parents to two adult children, along with Hank’s son and daughter from his previous marriage. Between them, there are five grandchildren, the center of his life.
Most weekends they travel to their daughter Randi’s house in Connecticut and spend time with their grandkids. They often babysit their young granddaughters Leah, 7 and Dylan, 2. "I couldn’t live without my grandkids," he says.
Making his family happy makes him happy and that’s informed a recent decision that he made.
In December their beloved Havanese, Lucy, named after Patti’s favorite comedic actress, passed away at age 13. Patty has been inconsolable and wanted to get another dog.
"I said to Patti, ‘no more dogs,’" he says.
He wasn’t keen on the responsibility or the fact that he will likely die before the dog—a Havanese’s life span averages 14 years—but the more he reflected on the reality of his life winding down and leaving his family behind, the more he liked the idea.
"I’m going to be gone. She’s going to be alone," he says of Patti.
A dog, he thought, would provide her with companionship, and that comforted him greatly, even if she doesn’t want to face the thought of losing him yet.
"She thinks it’s going to be the same but it’s not. Life is nothing but a series of transitions.”
Besides, he learned a long time ago that it’s best to concede to Patti’s wishes.
"I had two kids. I said no more. I had another. I said no more, and then another. I had a dog, you see how this goes?" he laughs.
Two months later, on a sweltering day in August, Hank has new company lapping at his feet.
He has the air conditioning cranked high in his apartment. Hank follows his morning routine, once again pouring a bowl of half Cheerios, half Fiber One cereal topped with sliced banana and skim milk, showering, and changing into a grey T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans.
"At this stage of my life, if I can’t wear denim, I don’t go.”
As he washes his breakfast bowl, a small nine-month-old black puppy with a white belly, toes and tail weaves in and out of his legs, yipping for food.
Ethel—almost named Dezi, but Hank’s idea was squashed—has been part of the family for a few months now. Patti had found an internet listing for the Washington State-based pup and after arranging the cross-country travel, they took a taxi to pick her up from Delta cargo at JFK airport.
While Patti and Hank love their new addition, training has not gone entirely smoothly.
"I’m not sure I was ready. She’s a handful," says Patti. "It will be worth it if we don’t throw her out the window," she jokes. "[But] It’s been fun.”
Last night Ethel had an accident. After successfully going to the bathroom, Patti and Hank saw no harm in playing with Ethel on their bed. Before they knew it she had peed on the mattress.
"She thinks the bedroom is her bathroom. We were up in the middle of the night washing. Lucy learned quicker. I was younger then. I just had more patience with her.”
Hank’s already plopped down $1,500 on multiple trainers and says they’ve not been successful.
"Hell no. It cost me a fortune of money for nothing," he says. "The only thing she can do is sit.”
Still, they haven’t given up and hired yet another trainer to come tomorrow.
"I’m addicted to her," he says. "I think she’s one of the prettiest dogs I’ve ever seen. She’s very affectionate.”
Hank says a women recently stopped him on the street and offered to give him a large amount of money for the Havanese, but Hank immediately declined. "My wife would go crazy," he says.
He has jokingly encouraged his brother-in-law to borrow Ethel for walks. "I tell him, ‘You’d meet a lot of girls," Hank says, laughing.
Most importantly Patti has deeply bonded with her.
"This is her dog and I think it is important I took into consideration the fact that when I’m gone instead of being alone she’ll have a companion.”
Hank takes the bag of Eukanuba puppy chow out of the cupboard before pouring a few kibbles into the brown and pink ceramic bowl. Ethel yaps and yips in anticipation as Hank bends down slowly to place the bowl on the floor. Ethel demolishes her meal in a matter of seconds.
Later, Patti will walk her. Hank rarely does so because it is too taxing on his breathing. Today, at 90 degrees, it’s way too hot.
In the living room, Patti is looking through old photos.
Ethel tries makes her way into the living room to join her but her attempt is thwarted by the baby gate Hank and Patti installed to keep her out.
The albums Patti flips through contain hundreds of photos documenting the beginnings of their marriage and years raising their kids. Hank has taken many of them. "He was fantastic," she says.
Once an avid photographer, he would travel around the city on his time off and spend hours snapping photos with his Minolta. His framed photos line the walls of the apartment.
As the technology changed from film to digital, it was the beginning of the end. Hank says the digital format stifled creativity, the new technology was too difficult to learn and physically, photography became too taxing. Commuting down to Chinatown, a past favorite neighborhood of his to shoot in, was too much. He hasn’t picked up a camera in years.
"I’m not picking it up again. Nope. nope. nope. I’m not happy with digital.”
Patti wishes he would. She’s supportive of Hank’s retirement and the timing—“there was no question, physically it’s just too much”—but is eager to figure out new daily routines for both of them now that they’re both home. She’s still adjusting to leaving behind the convertible three bedroom they raised their kids in on 85th Street and says it’s tight in their one bedroom.
"Having him home was just as much as a change for me," she says.
She suggests they join a local swimming pool.
With a look at her watch, Patti realizes it’s time to leave to meet her friends for lunch. She says goodbye, grabs her pocketbook and hurries out. Alone today at lunch time, Hank decides to head to one of his nearby hangouts, the Highlands Cafe Restaurant, another place where he is "known." Tomorrow, he’ll make the same decisions, all over again.
Never Leaving this city
Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
Hank Blum’s children have been charmed by the space and pace of suburbia, dispersing to Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and Florida.
But as he sits in the living room of his apartment, in the middle of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he says he has never been tempted.
"I would never want to leave the city. Period," he says.
Hank has called New York City home for the majority of his life. He was born in Newark, N.J., and he spent his teenage years in Borough Park, Brooklyn. He only left the city after that to attend Sampson College upstate. For 62 years he was an optometrist, mostly working on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.
Hank says the best thing about the city is the diversity ("it opens up your perspective"), the abundance of things available to do, and the ease of doing them.
"New York has so much to offer beyond belief. South Street Seaport is fabulous. Central Park is fabulous. Coney Island is fabulous."
Recently he saw "Kinky Boots" on Broadway and loved it. Up next is "Wicked." He is fortunate that he is able to afford to enjoy New York the way he wants to. He takes advantage of the city’s restaurants daily. Hank even relishes the harsh winters and enjoys the change in seasons.
Patti, Hank’s wife of 41 years and a native New Yorker, says her children have tried to convince them to leave over the years.
"The kids want me to move to Connecticut but (NYC) is easier as you get older. I don’t drive." Besides she says, "they have their own lives."
Hank agrees. "I became old. They’re young. I don’t want to interfere with their lives."
He worries Patti would feel isolated in Connecticut, dependent on someone else to drive her around. He used to have a car but gave it up five years ago. The extensive public transportation system and abundant taxis in New York give them independence.
"Accessibility. It’s just there, says Hank. "When you walk out the building, there’s the bus."
Accessibility has become even more important to Hank as he’s aged. He suffers from Stage 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Atrial Fibrillation (Afib) and has good days and bad days.
Yesterday was a bad day.
Not only was he not feeling the best, but Patti had been sick all weekend with a bacterial infection. Instead of their usual trip to Connecticut to see their daughter and grandkids, they had to visit the doctor. It upset them both to miss out.
But today is a new day and a good day. Hank says his breathing is "not too bad." Which is good, because he has a lot on his schedule.
Last week Hank had an MRI to figure out the source of his recent neck pain. Today he’s going to pick up the results and run a few neighborhood errands. Later he is meeting his son to walk him through a Lasik consultation at a local surgeon’s office.
Before leaving, Hank feeds his new puppy Ethel and increases the air conditioner temperature. It’s a hot day, Patti is out with her friends, and with his list of errands, he’s not sure how long he will be out.
Hank exits the apartment and walks the 10 or so feet to the elevator bank on his floor. Hank is grateful for the convenience. Back when he was much younger, he lived in a walk up.
"I can’t walk up steps anymore. I wouldn’t be able to breath," he says.
The elevator descends and the doors open to reveal the pristine tiled lobby. An elegantly dressed older woman using a walker, and a younger one donning denim shorts and a T-shirt, cross paths with Hank, an example of the generations of people who live in the building and nearby. Hank exchanges a few pleasantries with his doorman and walks out onto E. 79th Street.
It’s a gorgeous day and Hank is walking to his destination, but he feels fortunate that if he wanted to, he could wait for the bus right outside his building.
As he takes a right onto Third Avenue, heading uptown, he reminisces about his journey into retirement. For 15 years, Hank tried to retire on four separate occasions. It never stuck until now, his fifth attempt.
"I retired because I was ready," he says. "Some men have issues with being retired. I do not. I love what I do now — nothing."
He can’t quite believe it’s been 66 days since he had dinner with his boss and broke the news that he was done.
"I’m surprised how quickly the days go," he says.
Hank only has to walk half an avenue and one and a half blocks — a little over a tenth of a mile -- to get to his doctor’s office. He says he’s grateful that he lives in a city where medical doctors and hospitals are in such abundant and convenient proximity.
"I think you have the best damn doctors in the world in New York City."
Hank pulls open the door to the Medical Arts Building, pushes the button for the fifth floor and exits into the office of Dr. Ilisa Wallach, his internist and cardiologist.
Recently Hank has been experiencing neck pain. He had an MRI done last week to hopefully find the source of the pain. It’s another annoying ailment to add to a growing list as he ages.
He chats with the receptionist, Joan, while he waits to get the results of his test. He is known here, although it’s not one of his favorite places to be.
"You are better off going to a restaurant where they know you then going to a pharmacy or doctor where they know you," he jokes.
Four other patients wait in the austere room. Joan hands Hank some folded up sheets of paper and Hank opens them and begins to read at the window, before heading over to sit in one of the beige waiting room seats.
The MRI showed a bulging disk and the doctor has recommended that Hank see a neurologist. He adds that appointment to his increasing medical to-do list. He says he will refuse surgery if recommended.
"I’m aware of it every minute of every waking hour. (But) it’s tolerable."
He is more worried about the potential complications that could arise in surgery and the effect it could have given his Afib and COPD.
"If someone said go in for surgery for new lungs, I’d go in in a heartbeat," he says. But he knows and accepts that’s not an option at age 85.
"It wouldn’t be fair if they gave it to me. How much more am I going to live?" he says. "I’m too old for new lungs."
Finished at the doctor’s office, he walks a block away to his bank.
He opens the door, crosses the lobby and walks up to the windows. He cocks his head as he looks for his favorite teller, Greg, but doesn’t see him. Another teller, Maxima, notices him. She tells him that Greg is on his lunch break, and they chat for a few minutes. Although Hank doesn’t mind using the ATM, he generally uses the tellers because he likes the social interaction.
"They know me here. They are so pleasant that I don’t mind giving them my money," Hank jokes. Maxima laughs.
Back on the street Hank walks just half a block when he spots Greg walking towards the bank. They greet with a hearty handshake, and chat for a few minutes before Greg has to return to work. The doggy bag Greg clutches in his hand is a reminder to Hank that it’s time for lunch.
After saying goodbye, Hank continues up Third Avenue but soon reduces his pace.
"There’s a hill. I’ve got to go slow," he says.
He’s relieved when the traffic light at 84th Street turns red. The pause gives him extra time to catch his breath.
When the light turns green, Hank continues up the sidewalk.
Hank decides that he will head to one of his regular spots, the Highlands Cafe Restaurant, a diner at Third Avenue and 85th Street, for lunch. He and Patti have been coming here multiple times a week since they lived in their old apartment, steps away.
Neither Hank nor Patti cook ("Cook? What is that? We don’t cook," he says. "The stove is pristine.")
Hank crosses 85th street, the restaurant in sight, when he recognizes one of his usual waiters, Alex, outside during his break. They hug hello and Hank says he’ll see him inside. He heads to a table by the window and settles in.
When Alex returns, he mentions that he just saw Patti here for breakfast this morning. He offers Hank a menu but Hank waves it away. He orders the Greek Salad — "extra anchovies." He’s watching his weight on advice of his doctor. His pulmonologist, Dr. David Posner, suggested that his difficulty breathing might be eased if he lost some weight. Hank even deviated from his usual order at his favorite frozen yogurt shop, 40 Carrots inside Bloomingdales, recently and ordered a small yogurt with fruit on the side instead of his usual large bowl.
"No soup?" says Alex.
"Not today" says Hank.
Hank is feeling good, which means no soup.
"I’m breathing. When I eat soup it’s for medicinal purposes. That’s why it has to be very hot."
Hank orders it so frequently that all of his regular waiters at his regular hangouts expect he’ll order a cup and know to make it extra hot without him asking.
After a few minutes, Alex, returns with his salad — minus an important ingredient. Hank immediately notices the absent anchovies.
"A Greek salad with no anchovies makes no sense at all," exclaims Hank.
Alex quickly hurries away and minutes later comes back with a small bowl filled with the fish. Hank happily dumps it on his salad and digs in.
Alex is in his 70s and is, like Hank until recently, working past the age when most people retire. When he’s not waiting tables at the diner, he works at Yankee stadium. The standing is taxing, but he continues to work in order to be able to afford to live in the city. He dreams of retiring from both jobs and moving to Long Island. Hank tells Alex that he finally, officially, retired.
"You can’t quit work," says Alex.
"I already did," say Hank.
"I don’t believe you. You’ll be back in the office," says Alex.
"No way," says Hank.
Hank is adamant that he is done this time. He once thought he would make monthly trips back to his former office to visit but has come to terms with this new stage of his life.
"I don’t know if I’ll ever be back there. I used to think I’d go up there for lunch. Now I don’t. It’s too much of a bother. I have to deal with what is."
Lunch done, Hank has to make a quick stop at nearby Rite Aid before he meets his son. He enters the familiar drugstore, walks straight to the supplement aisle and picks up two bottles of magnesium — "it keeps the rhythm of my heart" — before he hears a man call out his name. Hank greets his pharmacist, Ari, who’s responsible for doling out the many pills and inhalers Hank takes every day to keep his conditions in check.
Hank looks down at his watch. It’s well past 3 p.m. and he has to leave if he wants to make it to meet his son in time. Marc is considering Lasik surgery and wants Hank to accompany him to his appointment with a local eye surgeon on E. 70th Street. He may be retired but Hank still relishes being called upon for his professional advice.
Hank pays the cashier, exits the store and hurries back into the bustling streets of the city he loves.
Give me a Brook, Give me a Book
Story and Photography by: Heather Clayton Colangelo
The carefree days of summer have given way to a more somber fall as 85-year-old Hank Blum sits at the Gracie Mews diner on 1st Avenue and 81st Street with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and a family friend.
Hank, a recently retired optometrist who is known for his upbeat personality and sense of humor, is more subdued than normal. It has been a hectic few weeks.
Hank and his wife Patti were on their yearly trip to Ogunquit, Maine, this time to celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary. Hank was only one lobster-meal deep when they got the news that Patti’s 74-year-old brother had fallen and broken his hip.
They cut their trip short, raced back to be by his side and have been caring for him ever since.
This week, the week before school starts, Hank and Patti have been babysitting Leah, their almost-seven-year-old granddaughter, for two full days.
"I’m exhausted, totally unequivocally exhausted," says Patti of their packed weekend.
Yesterday Hank spent the day with his brother-in-law while Patti took Leah out to breakfast. Patti took Leah with her to the dentist and then they went to the Nike store on 57th Street to get Leah a pair of new shoes for the school year. Leah choose black sneakers, a sign that she is growing out of what was a long pink phase.
"Grammy Santa," Leah calls her grandmother.
Today Hank and Patti brought Leah to Victorian Gardens, the amusement park in Central Park that takes over Wollman Rink in the summers.
"Camp Grammy and Papa," she calls it.
But "camp" is over—Leah starts second grade in two days—and Hank and Patti meet Leah’s mom (their daughter Randi) at the diner for dinner and the handoff.
Although they are exhausted, they are sad to say goodbye, and light up anytime Leah says something; it’s the same way with all of their grandchildren.
"I have been told that I’ve been trumped by my own children. That’s okay, you’re going to be trumped," Randi laughs.
Along with Randi, Hank and Patti have their son Marc and Hank’s two children from a previous marriage, Barry and Bonnie. Between them all, there are five grandchildren: Eric, Laura, Leah, Sabrina and Dylan. Patti calls them the "loves of their lives."
The waiter comes by to collect the family’s orders. Hank orders soup—extra hot, as usual. The hot broth helps his ease his breathing. In addition to atrial fibrillation (AFib), Hank suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Hank visits his pulmonologist, Dr. David Posner, regularly and credits him with helping him though his disease.
Dr. Posner credits Hank’s sense of humor and his "indomitable spirit" with why he has done so well.
"I have not let this get the best of me. I still don’t feel sorry for myself…[but] I have a condition that deteriorates."
This year his condition progressed from Stage 2 to Stage 3.
On a recent visit, Dr. Posner explains that they can continue to adjust his medication (six pills and two or three inhalers a day), but there is not much else they can do.
"It’s not a good disease. It’s progressive," says Dr. Posner. "His lungs aren’t great."
By October, Hank is in better spirits.
His brother-in-law is on the mend and life is back to normal.
Hank is now more than six months into retirement, and although it took him five attempts over 15 years, he shows no signs of going back to work this time. Yesterday, he stopped by the office. He says some former patients saw him and were begging him to come back, but he resisted.
"I said no. I will not go back," he says.
Hank still frequents his usual hangouts like 40 Carrots in Bloomingdale’s and he’s still ordering his usual—coffee frozen yogurt with a dollop of chocolate on top.
Hank and Patti have also been spending time with their children and grandkids. They recently went to Westchester to visit son Marc—"he makes the best filet mignon on the grill"— and enjoyed hosting their five-year-old granddaughter, Sabrina in the city.
"I love having sleepovers with her. She’s so talkative and bright," says Patti.
Patti signed up for the New York Sports Club on 3rd Ave and 92nd St last week. With Hank now home for good, she has been wanting to explore new things for them to do. Hank signed up as well, although either has yet to go.
"Patti will go," he says. "She loves to swim."
But doubts he will himself.
On a November day, Hank decides to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It’s been more than a year since he’s been, despite its close proximity to his apartment.
Recently, Hank and Patti signed up for ID cards at the New York Public Library in midtown. The new identification cards available to city residents, including undocumented immigrants, give all cardholders perks like discounts on Broadway shows and eligibility to one-year free memberships at various museums, gardens, zoos and theaters. Hank and Patti recently used their cards on a trip to the Museum of Modern Art.
Today Patti is visiting her brother, who is back at home and doing much better, while Hank visits the museum. They leave their apartment together. In the lobby, they run into a neighbor, Iris. They talk about the city.
"New York is the best city in the world. Everything’s here," says Iris.
Patti agrees: "It’s the best."
"[In NYC] you’re alone but never alone," says Iris as she walks outside.
Patti says goodbye to Hank and follows her out the door.
Hank waits for the M79 bus, which arrives within minutes, and takes it to 5th Avenue.
He walks in the ground-level side entrance of the Met at 81st Street, searching for the membership desk and avoids having to walk up the iconic museum steps.
Hank flashes his IDNYC card at the membership desk and a women gives him a free one-year museum pass within minutes.
"That was painless [and] not a penny!" he says. "Maybe she’ll put a bedroom in here for me," he jokes.
Hank takes the elevator up to the 2nd floor and walks into the room housing Greek and Roman Art.
He takes in a 5th Century B.C. sculpture for a few minutes.
"Look at the workmanship. Look at the face," he says as he stares at the limestone bust.
"Some of this stuff is so old. I guess that’s why it’s here," he jokes before turning serious.
"I can’t believe I’m going to be 86. 86," he says. "I’m the last one standing. All my friends are gone…I feel like I’m in a waiting room for something."
Hank is at peace with dying.
He’s already made detailed end of life plans. He finds graves "barbaric" and wants to be cremated.
"I don’t want my kids on Father’s Day to schlep out to see my grave. Take my ashes and sprinkle them in Central Park—but not where the dogs pee and shit," he laughs.
Instead of a somber funeral, he’s told his oldest daughter Bonnie that she’s in charge of making sure they have a big party.
"I had a great life. What I had, you celebrate it. I want everyone to get drunk."
But as he creeps closer to his next birthday, he has been re-evaluating his lifestyle.
His children have been urging Patti and him to move to Connecticut for a while but they have always resisted. They loved the energy of NYC and besides, one of the biggest barriers was the worry that Patti, a non-driver, would feel isolated and dependent on others to get around.
On a recent visit to Randi’s house in Fairfield, Conn., Hank sat outside near a brook in her backyard. He felt a great sense of peace wash over him. Even Ethel the dog seemed to love the new environment.
"My breathing was easy. I was so relaxed. The world was my oyster," he says.
A couple of weeks ago they discovered an over-55 retirement community in Fairfield, Conn., that intrigued them. They took a tour and liked it. While they haven’t committed yet—the unit they were shown had too many stairs—they are seriously considering it.
Hank feels like this could be an ideal set up. Patti—who is 18 years younger—will enjoy being in the same town as daughter Randi and granddaughters Leah and Dylan, who live in Fairfield, and close to son Marc and granddaughter Sabrina who live in Rye Brook.
To make up for the lack of public transportation, he’ll buy a car. No longer up for driving long distances, Hank feels comfortable driving locally, and he wouldn’t mind play chauffer.
When Hank eventually passes, Patti’s brother could move in with her, and have the car.
(That would ease another worry they had. "A lot of things are scary. I’ve never lived alone. I went from my parents’ house to being married," she says.)
The train station to NYC is close; she could be in the city visiting her girlfriends in an hour and 10 minutes.
Hank says he isn’t nervous about leaving the neighborhood he’s lived in for decades and "starting from square one again." He says they make friends wherever they go and he’s confident Patti will make new girlfriends in the community setting easily.
Financially it could make sense as well. Hank figures if he sells his one-bed room apartment on 79th street he could make a profit, even after buying housing in the retirement community. It gives him peace of mind to think that Patti could live comfortably with the leftover money.
Hank thinks he will still go into the city periodically to see a Broadway play, visit a museum or for a doctors appointment (he says there is no way he would switch pulmonologists from Dr. Posner) but says he would be content with a change of pace.
"I’ve done it all. All I want to do is sit," he says. "I don’t mind living in Connecticut. The less I do the better…It’s such a different way of living. The hustle and bustle is over. Give me a brook, give me a book. It’s what I want now."
He says the decision is ultimately Patti’s; he learned a long time ago that it’s best to do what she wants.
"If it happens, I’m happy. If it doesn’t, I’m happy."
Hank walks through the photography exhibit. He once spent his free time shooting all over the city before being "done" with hobbies. He isn’t impressed so he leaves.
He walks by a group of students sitting around a giant stork sculpture, sketching.
"Why would they draw that? It’s ugly," Hank laughs.
He walks by a gigantic black and white mural (Sol LeWitt: Wall Drawing #370) consisting of geometric shapes with parallel bands of lines spanning the length of the entire wall. It looks like it could have been part of an eye test.
"I should have had my patients look at this," says Hank. Hank continues onto the Modern and Contemporary Art Wing, one of his favorites. As he looks at the paintings his thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, just a couple of weeks away.
It is Hank’s very favorite holiday. There are no presents to distract, just good food and even better company. It’s the one time each year he has his whole family there. Bonnie will cook the turkey and host at her house in Long Island. Barry will fly in from Florida. Marc will come from Westchester. Randi will bring the pies and cakes. Hank will make his mother’s secret recipe cranberry sauce. He can’t wait to see all five of his grandchildren there, sitting around the table.
"It gives me a chance to sit back and look around me and see my legacy," he says. "To know you have such great kids…I’m the nucleus. I look at this and this would not be there without me."
"And Patti," he quickly adds.
Two days after Thanksgiving Hank and Patti will be on a plane enroute to Jamaica. He thought their big family vacation there this past June might be his last international trip, but he felt great there and couldn’t pass up the deal he found online. This time it will be just Patti and him relaxing by the pool. With such a busy year, they are looking forward to "doing nothing."
They may make it back up to Ogunquit, Maine for some more lobsters. Grandson Eric, an actor, will be in rehearsals for a play there.
Hank stops and sits down on a bench in front of a vibrant room-sized mural (Thomas Hart Benton’s "America Today"). He’s getting tired and he needs his energy. This weekend he and Patti are watching Sabrina and taking her to an art class. He can’t wait.
It’s time to leave. Time to leave the museum and possibly New York City some time soon. He never thought he’d say that.