When I moved in with the woman I affectionately called Crazy Aunt Julia the summer after graduating from college, I was ambivalent about New York City. Leaving behind a long-term boyfriend, starting a job in a field I knew little about, and trying to find my way around a new place didn’t fill me with the kind of excitement that most 21-year-olds experience.
But Julia — not my actual aunt, but a cousin of my grandmother’s — was determined to change all that. A widow for over a decade by then, she had little family in her life. Her sister, who never married, lived in a one-bedroom apartment across town. Julia married late in life and never had kids. Her relationship with stepsons who lived across the country was strained.
But she had friends galore and colleagues (she worked at an advertising agency until she was in her late 70s) and was having a grand old time. She never cooked — we went out to dinner or ordered in almost every night. The waiters at the neighborhood joints flirted with her and she flirted back. She had tickets to concerts at Lincoln Center and Broadway shows. She was a member of the Metropolitan Museum and the Jewish Museum and was invited to various gatherings they had for donors. Though we disagreed about politics —sometimes arguing about the news over drinks before dinner — she was always great fun.
I was reminded of Julia last week after reading a New York Times story on the prevalence of loneliness during the pandemic: “New York City, where one million people live alone, was for two years an experiment in loneliness: nine million people siloed with smartphones and 24/7 home delivery, cut off from the places where they used to gather. Therapists were booked up, even as tens of thousands of New Yorkers were grieving for a best friend, a spouse, a partner, a parent.”
Robin Solod, an Upper East Side resident, told the Times reporter she didn’t think she was ever going to suffer from loneliness. “I was too busy schmoozing. … Chicken soup at the Mansion Diner. We would go to Zabar’s on the West Side every week, get a bagel, sit, schmooze. Who was home? I never was home.” She added: “People are my air.”
It’s not an uncommon sentiment among a certain set of New Yorkers. While researchers find that loneliness is a bigger problem among the less educated and more disadvantaged — the lower classes tend to have fewer connections to jobs, to schools and to church — there are plenty of middle- and even upper-class folks who decided they could thrive by living in a city like New York and taking advantage of all of its cultural and culinary offerings.
Another relative of mine moved out to Long Island for financial reasons, but her attachment to life in the city was visceral — she never put down roots in her new location. Everything that was exciting and interesting happened in New York. It was as if New York itself was a living, breathing person.
By the time I moved in with Crazy Aunt Julia, though, she was already slowing down a little. Within a couple of years she had to retire. And I remember her complaining about how she never heard from her former co-workers after she left. She would buy tickets to events but then found she wasn’t up to going and would offer them to me. The solicitation letters from all the charities she had donated to would pile up. But no one from these organizations called to check on her. She was fiercely independent and didn’t want to ask anyone for help or favors, but she also grew increasingly bitter about old family relationships, wanting to know why this or that cousin never called.
As her health began to fail — and her sister’s did, too — I began to wonder who was going to care for Julia in her old age. She swore she would never leave the city. After I moved to the suburbs I visited as much as I could. One afternoon when I came, Julia seemed disoriented. Her heart was racing. I took her to the hospital in a cab — a hospital that was farther from her apartment than others because she had very clear views about New York hospitals. When we got there, the nurse asked me if I could sign a health care proxy form, allowing me to make decisions on her behalf.
My jaw dropped. Who was I? Wasn’t there someone closer?
The short answer was no. After much pleading, her stepsons finally understood the gravity of the situation and acknowledged that she could no longer be alone. Yet after a long stay in the hospital, she still didn’t want to leave the city. And so she was cared for in the end by a series of aides.
I thank God that Julia was not alive during the pandemic. Her world, which was so constricted toward the end, would have been even more depressing. But I also think about how being around a lot of people — even if they are your “air” — is not the same as having family you can depend on.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.