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I was working on this story, I watched a worker cleaning out the apartment of a man who had recently died, he opened the closet and found a pair of work boots totally clean. Apparently, they had never been more. Try them on, and they weren't the right size, but they were close enough, so they lay some up and continued cleaning out the apartment, wearing the dead man's boots. I'm Sonny Kleinfeld, I'm a freelance writer and a former reporter on the metro staff of The New York Times.
I wrote a story about what happens when you die alone in New York City. You know, the thing about New York, it's just jam packed, vibrant city, a live sandwich beside and beneath and above multitudes of others fight your way down sidewalks. You just smothered by all this humanity that in fact, in your homes, many people, they live the loneliest of lives. I wondered what happens in instances like that when someone dies and there's no one to arrange a funeral and a burial and no one makes any claim on the possessions of that person's life.
So I found that there was a public administrator who handles cases like that. And I approached them and told them I wanted to follow a case from beginning to end and find out just what does happen. And I came back to me with a case that they thought I might want to look into at the beginning. And all they knew was that it was a seventy two year old man who apparently had died in his apartment in Queens apartment belonged to someone named George Bell and actually took months before they even confirmed that that's who it was during the process.
The public administrator's office looked through George Bell's bank accounts. They took whatever possessions they thought had any value is car his watch and they auction them off. He learns a lot about what George Powell had, but nothing in the process about who George Powell was. I knew I wanted to tell that story, too. So here's my article from 2015, The Lonely Death of George Bell, read by Arthur Orrie. They found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet.
Police did. Sniffing a fetid odor, a neighbor had called 911 one, the apartment was in north central Queens in an unassertive building on SEVENTY-NINE Street in Jackson Heights. The apartment belonged to a George Bell. He lived alone. The presumption was that the corpse also belonged to George Bell.
It was a plausible supposition, but it remained just that for the puffy body on the floor was decomposed and unrecognizable. Clearly, the man had not died on July 12th, the Saturday last year when he was discovered, nor the day before nor the day before that. He had been there for a while, nothing to announce his departure to the world while the hyperkinetic city around him hurried on with its business.
Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday, on Thursday, there was a break in his routine, the car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to a bay. Parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper, the woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.
Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car, each year around 50000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to grace a new low with people living healthier and longer.
A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learned of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral.
A reverence. Death never appears. Sympathy cards accumulate.
When the celebrated die or there is some heartrending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.
Much tinier, no die alone in unwatched struggles, no one collects their bodies, no one mourns the conclusion of a life there, just the name added to the death tables.
In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names. George Bell. A simple name, two syllables, the minimum. There were no obvious answers as to who he was or what shape his life had taken. What worries weighed on him, whom he loved and who loved him. Like most New Yorkers, he lived in the corners under the pale light of obscurity, yet death, even in such forlorn form, can cause a surprising amount of activity, setting off an elaborate lurching process that involves a hodgepodge of interlocking characters whose livelihoods flow in part or in whole from death.
With George Bell, the ripples from the process would spill improbably and seemingly by happenstance, from the shadows of Queens to upstate New York and Virginia and Florida. Dozens of people who never knew him, all cogs in the city's complicated machinery of mortality, would find themselves settling the affairs of an ordinary man who left this world without anyone in particular noticing. In discovering a death, you find a life story and perhaps meaning could anything in the mouth of George Bell's existence have explained his lonely and possibly not.
But it was true that George Bell died carrying some secrets, secrets about how he lived and secrets about who mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow at the same time they would deliver rewards, death does that, it closes doors, but also opens them. Once firefighters are jimmied the door that July afternoon, the police squeezed into a beaten apartment groaning with possessions, a grotesque parody of the Lived-in condition.
Thurley, its occupant, had been a hoarder. The officers from the 115 precinct called the medical examiner's office, which involves itself in suspicious deaths and unidentified bodies, and a medical legal investigator arrived.
His task was to rule out foul play and look for evidence that could help locate the next of kin and identify the body.
In short order, it was clear that nothing criminal had taken place.
No sign of forced entry, bullet wounds, congealed blood.
A fire department paramedic made the obvious pronouncement that the man was dead.
Even a skeleton must be formally declared, no longer living. The body was zipped into a human remains pouch. A transport team from the medical examiner's office drove it to the morgue at Queens Hospital Center, where it was deposited in one of some 100 refrigerated drawers cooled to 35 degrees.
It falls to the police to notify next of kin, but the neighbors did not know of any detectives, grabbed some names and phone numbers from the apartments, called them and got nothing.
The man had no wife, no siblings. Police estimate that they reached in 85 percent of the time they struck out with George Bell. At the Queens morgue, identification personnel got started, something like 90 percent of the corpses arriving at city morgues are identified by relatives or friends after they are shown photographs of the body. Most remains depart for burial within a few days. For the rest, it gets complicated. The easiest resolution is furnished by fingerprints, otherwise by dental and medical records or as a last resort, by DNA.
The medical examiner can also do a so-called contextual I.D. when all elements are considered, none of which by themselves bring certainty, a sort of circumstantial identification can be made.
Fingerprints were taken, which required days because of the poor condition of the fingers, enhanced techniques had to be used, such as soaking the fingers in a solution to soften them. The prints were sent to city, state and federal databases.
No hits. Once nine days had elapsed and no next of kin had come forth, the medical examiner reported the death to the office of the Queens County Public Administrator, an obscure agency that operates out of the state Supreme Court building in the Jamaican neighborhood. It's austere quarters are adjacent to Surrogate's Court, familiarly known as widows and orphans court, where wills are probated and battles are often waged over the dead. Each county in New York City has a public administrator to manage the state's when there is no one else to do so, most commonly when there is no will or no known heirs.
Public administrators tend to rouse attention only when complaints flare over their competence or their fees or their tendency to oversee dens of political patronage. Or when they run afoul of the law last year, a former longtime counsel to the Bronx County public administrator pleaded guilty to grand larceny while a bookkeeper for the Kings County public administrator was sentenced to a prison term for stealing from the dead. Recent audits by the city's comptroller found disturbing dysfunction at both of those offices, which the occupants said had been overstated.
The most recent audit of the Queens office in 2012 raised no significant issues. The queen's unit employs 15 people and processes something like 1500 deaths a year. Appointed by the queen's surrogate, Lois M. Rosenblatt, a lawyer, has been head of the office for the past 13 years. Most cases arrive from nursing homes, others from the medical examiner, legal guardians, the police, undertakers. While the majority of estates contain assets of less than 500 dollars, one had been worth 16 million dollars.
Mega estates can move swiftly. Bigger ones routinely extend from 12 to 24 months. The office extracts a commission that starts at five percent of the first hundred thousand dollars of an estate and then slides downward money that is entered into the city's general fund, an additional one percent goes toward the office's expenses. The IS counsel, who for 23 years has been Girard's Sweeney, a private lawyer who mainly does the public administrator's legal work, customarily gets a sliding legal fee that begins at six percent of the state's first 750000 dollars.
You can die in such anonymity in New York. He likes to say, we've had instances of people dead for months. No one finds them. No one misses them. The man presumed to be George Bell joined the wash of cases, a fresh arrival that means Rosenblatt viewed as nothing special at all. Meanwhile, the medical examiner needed records X-rays would do to confirm the identity of the body. The office took its own chest x rays, but still required earlier ones for comparison.
The medical examiner's office had no idea which doctors the man had seen, so in a Hail Mary maneuver, personnel began cold, calling hospitals and doctors in the vicinity in a pattern that radiated outward from the Jackson Heights apartment. Whoever picked up was asked if, by chance, George Bell had ever dropped in. Three investigators work for the Queens County public administrator. They comb through the residences of the departed, mining their homes for clues as to what was found, who their relatives were.
It's a peculiar kind of work, seeing what strangers had kept in their closets, what they hung on the walls, what deodorant they liked. On July 24th, two investigators, One Plaza and Ronald Rodriguez entered the flooded premises of the Bell apartment clad in billowy hazmat suits and booties.
Investigators work in pairs to discourage theft leakage.
The place was they had seen worse, an apartment so swollen with belongings that the tenant, a woman, died standing up, unable to collapse to the floor or the place they fled, swatting at swarms of fleas. Yes, they saw a human existence that few others did.
Mr. Plaza had been a data entry clerk before joining his McCard field in 1994. Mr. Rodriguez had been a waiter and found his interest peaked in 2002. What qualifies someone for the job, Miss Rosenblatt, the head of the office, summed it up. People willing to go into these disgusting apartments. The two men foraged through the unedited Anakie, 800 square feet, one bedroom, a stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick.
Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose. The only bad was the lumpy fold couch in the living room, the bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged, the kitchen was splashed with trash and balled up decades old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver a soiled shopping list.
Red Sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli to Pax TV Guide.
If I said didn't work, a chipped stove, had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time. The men scavenged for a will, a cemetery deed, financial documents, an address, book computer, a cell phone, those sorts of things. Photographs might show relatives. Could that be a mom or sister beaming in that picture on the mantle? Portable objects of value were to be retrieved, a familiar hangs on the wall, grab it once they found 30000 dollars in cash.
Another time, a Rolex wedged inside a radio. But the bar is not placed nearly that high. In one instance, they lugged back a picture of the deceased in a Knights of Malta outfit. In the slanting light, they scooped up papers from a table and some drawers in the living room, they found 241 dollars in bills and 187 dollars and 45 cents in coins, a silver relic, which did not look special, but they took it in case.
Fastened to the walls were a bear's head, steer horns and some military pictures of planes and warships over the couch hung a photo sequence of a parachutist coming in for a landing with a certificate recording George Bell's first jump in 1963. Chinese food cartons and pizza boxes were ubiquitous. Shelves were stacked with music tapes and videos. Top Gun, Braveheart. Yule Log. I splotched kjellander from Luckie market, hung in the bathroom, flipped open to August 2007. Hoarding is deemed a mental disorder poorly understood that stirs people to incoherent acts.
Sufferers may buy products simply to have them amid the mess where a half dozen unopened ironing board covers multiple packages of unused Christmas lights for new tire pressure gauges, the investigators returned twice more, rounding up more papers. Another 95 dollars. They found no cell phone, no computer or credit cards. Rummaging through the personal effects of the dead, sensing the misery in these rooms can color your thoughts, their work changes people and it has changed these men. Mr.
Rodriguez, 57 and divorced, has a greater sense of urgency. I try to build a life like it's the last day, he said. You never know when you will die before they somewhere along, like I would live forever. The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. This job teaches you a lot, he said. You learn whatever material stuff you have, you should use it and share it.
Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to. They die and relatives come out of the woodwork. He was my uncle. He was my cousin. Give me what he had. Gimme, gimme. Yes. When he was alive, they never visited, never knew the person from working in this office. My life changed. He is 52, also divorced and without children. But he keeps expanding his base of friends every day. He sends them motivational Instagram messages with each sunrise, maybe value every minute.
We kind smile to the world and it will smile back. Share your life with loved ones. Love, forgive, forget. He said, When I die, someone will find out the same day or the next day since I've worked here, my list of friends has gotten longer and longer. I don't want to die alone. In his Queens cubicle wearing rubber gloves, Patrick Tressler thumbed through the sheaf of documents retrieved by the two investigators. Mr. Dressler, the caseworker with the public administrator's office responsible for piecing together George Bell's estate, is formally decedent's property agent and a title he finds useful as a conversation starter at parties.
He is 27 and had been a restaurant cashier five years ago when he learned you could be a dissident property agent and became one. He began with the pictures, Mr. Stress Flamingo's in the weavings of people he can never meet and especially likes to ponder the photographs. So you get a sense of a person's history, not that they just died. The snapshots ranged over the humdrum of life, a child wearing a holster and toy pistols, a man in military dress, men fishing, a young woman sitting on a chair in a corner, a high school class on a stage, everyone wearing blackface.
Different times, Mr. Dressler mused. In the end, the photos divulged little of what George Bell had done across his 72 years. The thicket of papers yielded a few hazy kernels, an unused passport issued in 2007 to George Maine, Bell Jr., showing a thick necked man with a meaty face ripened by time. Born January 15, 1942, documents establishing that his father, George Bell, died in 1969 at 59. His mother, Davina Bell, in 1981 at 76.
Some holiday cards, several from an Elsie Logan in Red Bank, New Jersey, thanking him for gifts of Godiva chocolates.
One dated 2001 said, I called Sunday around to no answer. We'll try again. A 2007 Thanksgiving Day card read, I have been trying to call you, but no answer.
A 2001 Christmas card signed Love All was Eleanor Puffy with the message, I seldom mention it, but I hope you realize how much it means to have you for a friend.
I care a lot for you.
Cards from Thomas Higginbotham addressed to Big George and signed friend Tom. A Goldfine agent, our block prepared tax returns useful for divining assets. The latest showed adjusted gross income of 13000 to 207 dollars from a pension and interest another twenty one thousand three hundred eleven dollars from Social Security, the bank statements contained the biggest revelation from what appeared to be a simple life. They showed balances of several hundred thousand dollars. Letters went out to confirm the amounts. No evidence of stocks or bonds, but a small life insurance policy with the beneficiaries, his parents, and there was a will dated 1982, it split his estate evenly among three men and a woman of unknown relation and specified that George will be cremated.
Using addresses he found online, Mr Stressless sent out form letters asking the four to contact him. He heard only from a Martin Westbrook who called from Breaker's Hamlet in upstate New York and said he had not spoken with George Bell in some time. The will named him as executor, but he deferred to the public administrator. Loose ends began to be tidied up. The car, a silver 2005 Toyota Rav four, was sent to an auctioneer. There was a notice advising that George Bell had not responded to two juror questionnaires and was now subpoenaed to appear before the commissioner of jurors.
A letter went out saying he would not be there. He was dead. Even apartment's contents have any value auction companies bid for them when they don't clean out, companies dispose of the belongings. George Bell's place was deemed a cleanout. Among his papers was an honorable military discharge from 1966, following six years in the United States Army Reserve. A request was made to the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration in St. Louis for burial in one of its national cemeteries with the government paying the bill.
St. Louis responded that George Bell did not qualify as a veteran, not having seen active duty or having died while in the reserves, the public administrator appealed the rebuff. A week later, 16 pages came back from the centralized satellite processing and appeals unit that could be summed up in unambiguous concision. No. Another thing the public administrator takes care of is having the post office forward, the mail of the deceased statements may arrive from brokerage houses. Letters could pinpoint the whereabouts of relatives on magazines show up.
Their subscriptions are ended and refunds requested could be six dollars and eighty two cents or twelve dollars and five cents. But the puny sums enter the estate, pushing it incrementally upward.
Not much came for George Bell, bank statements and notes on the apartment, insurance, utility bills, junk mail. Every life deserves to come to a final resting place, but they're not all pretty. Most states arrive with the public administrator after the body has already been buried by relatives or friends or in accordance with a prepaid plan.
When someone dies destitute and forsaken and one of various free burial organizations does not learn of the case, the body ends up joining others in communal oblivion at the Potter's Field on Hart Island in the Bronx, the graveyard of last resort.
If there are funds, the public administrator honors the wishes of the will or of relatives where no one speaks for the deceased, the office is partial to two fairly dismal cut rate cemeteries in New Jersey. It prefers the total expense to come in under five thousand dollars, not always easy in a city where funeral and burial costs can be multiples of that. Salmonsen funeral home in Forest Hills was picked by Susan Brown, the deputy public administrator, to handle George Bell once his identity was verified.
It is among 16 regulars that she rotates the officers deaths through.
George Bell's body was hardly the first to be trapped in limbo some years ago when it lingered for weeks while siblings skirmish over the funeral specifics that his sister wanted a barbershop quartet and brass band to perform, a brother preferred something solemn. Surrogate's Court nodded in favor of the sister, and the man got a melodious sendoff. The medical examiner was not having any luck with George Bell, the cold calls to doctors and hospitals continued. But as the inquiries bounced around Queens, the discouraging answers came back slowly.
And redundantly know George Bell. In the interim, the medical examiner filed an unverified death certificate on July 28, the cause of death was determined to be hypertensive and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease with obesity a significant factor. This was surmised based on the position in which the body was found, its age, the man's size and the statistical likelihood of it being the cause. Occupation was listed as unknown.
City law specifies that bodies be buried, cremated or sent from the city within four days of discovery unless an exemption is granted, the medical examiner can release even an unverified body for burial absent a corpse is being confirmed. However, the policy of the medical examiner is not to allow cremation. What if there has been a mistake you can't own? Cremate someone. So days scrolled past other corpses streamed through the morgue, pausing on their way to the grave while the body presumed to be George Bell, entered its second month of chilled residents.
Then it's third. In early September last year, a downstairs neighbor complained to the public administrator that George Bell's refrigerator was leaking through the ceiling and that vermin might be scuttling about. Grandma is at a cleanout was sent over to remove the offending appliance, Diego Benito's, the company's owner, showed up with two workers. The refrigerator was unplugged with unfrozen frozen vegetables and Chinese takeout. Rotting inside. Roaches had moved in. Mr. Benitez doused it with bug spray.
He plugged it in to chill the food and ridded of the smell, then cleaned it out and took it to a recycling center in Jamaica. A few weeks later, wipe out exterminating came in and treated the whole place.
Meanwhile, the medical examiner kept calling around hunting for old X-rays.
In late September the 11th call hit Pay Dirt, a radiology provider had chest x rays of George Bell dating from 2004. They were in a warehouse, though, and would take some time to retrieve. We stumbled by in late October, the radiology service reported. Sorry, the x rays had been destroyed. The medical examiner asked for written confirmation that came. The response, never mind. The x rays were there in early November. They landed at the medical examiner's office.
The x rays were compared and bingo. In the first week of November, nearly four months after it arrived, the presumed corpse of George Bell officially became George Bell, deceased of Jackson Heights, Queens. Support for this podcast and the following message come from McDonald's having limited English skills was hard for Yoenis. Being able to apply for a job at McDonald's in her own language made a big difference. So did free English language courses offered through McDonald's. Yoenis gained confidence and worked her way up.
Today, she's a training manager for 19 restaurants, using both her languages to hear Yiannis tell her story. Visit McDonald's. Dotcom backslash skills happen here. Cold out streaks of sunshine splashing over Queens on Saturday morning, November 15, John Smith settled into a rented hearse, eased into the sparse traffic and drove to the morgue. He owns Salmonsen Funeral Home. At age 73. He remained a working owner in a city of dwindling deaths.
At the morgue and attendant withdrew the body from the drawer and both medical examiner and undertaker checked the identity tag using a hydraulic lift, the attendant swung the body into the wooden coffin.
George Bell was at last going to his eternal hope. The coffin was wheeled out and guided into the back of the hearse. Mr. Smith's smooth an American flag over it. The armed forces had passed on a military burial, but George Bell's years in the Army Reserves were good enough for the funeral director, and he abided by military custom.
Next stop was U.S. Columbarium at Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village for the cremation, Mr. Sammie's made good time along the loud streets lined with shedding trees. The volume on the radio was muted. The dashboard said, Queens, you are my best friend was playing. Are the undertaker said he didn't dwell much on the strangers' he transported, he allowed how instances like this saddened him.
A person dies and nobody shows up, no service, no one from the clergy to say a few kind words to say rest in peace. The undertaker was a Christian and believed that George Bell was already in another place, a better place, but still.
I don't think everyone should have an elaborate funeral, he said in a soft voice, but I think burial or cremation should be with respect or else what is society about? I think about this man, I believe we're all connected. We're all products of the same God. Does it matter that this man should be cremated with respect? Yes, it does. He consulted the mirror and blended into the next lane. You can have a fancy funeral, but people don't pay you for kindness, he went on, they don't pay for understanding, they don't pay for caring.
This man is getting caring. I care about this man. At Columbarium, he steered around to the rear, to the unloading dock, another hearse stood there, yes, a line at the crematory, squinting in the sun. Mr. Sammie's paced in the motionless air. After 15 minutes, the dock opened up and the undertaker angled the hearse in. Workers took the coffin. Mr. Smith's kept the flag. Normally, it would go to the next of kin, there being none, the undertaker folded it up to use again.
The cremation process, what U.S. columbarium calls the journey, consumes nearly three hours, typically, cremains are ready for pickup in a couple of days for an extra 180 dollars. The columbarium provides same day express service, which was unneeded. In this case. Some 40000 cremains were stored at the columbarium, almost all of them tucked into a handsome individual wall, nonissues viewable through glass. Downstairs was a storage area near the bathrooms with a bronze tree affixed to the door.
This was the community tree. Behind the door, cremains were stacked up and stored out of sight, the budget alternative names were etched on the tree leaves some time ago when the leaves filled up, doves were added. Several days after the cremation, the superintendent stacked an urn shaped like a small shoebox inside the storage area, then he nailed a metal dove, wings spread above the right edge of the tree. It identified the new additions, George and Bell Jr.
, 1942 to 2014. On Alternative Tuesdays, Davidar, Moltz and company in central Islip, New York, auctions off 100 to 150 cars other days at auctions, real estate, jewelry and pretty much everything else. It has sold the Woodcrest Country Club in modern town New York. Four engines from an automobile shredder, 22 KFC franchises. Items arrive from bankruptcy repossessions in the states, including a regular stream from the Queens public administrator in the frosty gloom of December 30th as a hissing wind spun litter through the air.
The Moltz company had among its cars a 2011 Mustang convertible, multiple Mercedes Benz's two cars that didn't even run and George Bell's 2005 Toyota.
Despite its age, it had just over 3000 miles on it and broadening its appeal. In a one minute bidding spasm, 3000 thousand bid 1535, the bid 4000, the car went for nine thousand five hundred dollars, beating expectations after expenses, eight thousand six hundred thirty one dollars and fifty cents was added to the estate. The buyer was Sam Maloof, a regular who runs a used car dealership, Beltway motor sales in Brooklyn and plans to resell it. After he brought it back, his sister and secretary, Janet Maloof, adored it.
She had the same 2005 model, same color, burned with over 100000 miles. So feeling the holiday spirit, he gave her George Bell's car. And a couple of weeks, the only other valuable possession extracted from the apartment, the Relic Watch, came up for sale at a moltz auction of jewelry, wine, art and collectibles. The auction was dominated by 42 estates put up by the Queens public administrator, the thinnest by far being. George Bell's bidding on the watch began at one dollar and finished at three dollars.
The winner was a creeky, unemployed man named Tony Nick, he was in a sulky mood mumbling after his triumph that he liked the slim price. Again, after expenses, another two dollars and 31 cents trickled into the Bell estate. On a Son Kendalls day, a week later, six muscled men from green necks, a junk removal business arrived to empty the cluttered Queens apartment. Dispassionately, they scooped up the dusty traces of George Bell's life and shoveled them into trash cans and bags.
They broke apart the furniture with hammers. Tinny music poured from a portable radio, eyeing the bottomless thickets, puzzling over what heartbreak they told of one of the men said depression. I think people get depressed and then, Lord, help them forget about it.
Seven hours they went at it, flinging everything into trucks destined for a Bronx dump where the rates were good, some nuggets they salvaged for themselves. One man fancied a set of Marilyn Monroe porcelain plates. Another worker plucked up an unopened jumbo package of Nike socks, some model cars and some brand new sponges. Yet another claimed the television and an unused carbon monoxide detector. Gatherings from a life all worth more than that, three dollars watch a spindly worker with taut arms crouched down to inspect some never worn tan work boots, still snug in their bunks and wear a size big.
But he slid them on and liked the fit.
He cleaned George Bell's apartment wearing the dead man's boots. The people named to split the assets in the world were known as the legatees over 30 years had passed since George Bell chose them Martin Westbrook, Frank Mirzaei, Albert Shober and Eleanor Albert. Plus, there was a beneficiary on two bank accounts, Thomas Higginbotham. Elizabeth Rooney, a kinship investigator in the office of Gerard Sweeney, the public administrator's council, set out to help find them by law. She also had to hunt for the next of kin down to a first cousin once removed, the furthest relative eligible to lay claim to an estate.
They had to be notified should they choose to contest the will. There was time for George Bell's assets could not be distributed until seven months after the public administrator had been appointed, the period state law specifies for creditors to step forward. Prowling the Internet, Masrani learned that Mr. Mirza and Mr. Shober were dead. Mr. Westbrook was in Breaker's and Mr. Higgenbotham in Lynchburg, Virginia, means Rooney found Miss Albert now going by the name Flem upstate in Worcester. They were surprised to learn that George Bell had left the money and his firm had spoken to him by phone a few weeks before he died, the others had not been in touch for years.
A core piece of news, Rooney's job was drafting a family tree, going back three generations, using the genealogy company Ancestry.com, she compiled evidence with things like census records and ship manifests showing their relatives arriving from Scotland. Her office once produced a family tree that was six feet long. Another time, it traced her family back to Daniel Boone. Masrani created paternal and maternal trees, each with dozens of names. She found five living relatives, two first cousins on his mother's side, one living in Adana, Minnesota, and the other in Henderson, Nevada.
Neither had been in contact with George Bell in decades and didn't know what he did for a living.
And the paternal side, Masrani identified two first cousins, one in Scotland and another in England, as well as a third whose whereabouts proved elusive.
When that cousin Janet Bell was not found, protocol dictated that a notice be published in a newspaper for four weeks, a gesture intended to alert unmotivated relatives with sizable estates.
The court chooses the New York Law Journal, where the bill for the notice can run about 4000 dollars.
In this instance, the court picked the wave, a queen's weekly, with a print circulation of 12000 at a cost of 247 dollars because it might have been in Tajikistan or in hajat Arkansas or even on Staten Island. And the odds of her spotting the notice were approximately zero. Among thousands of such ads that Mr. Sweeney has placed, he is still awaiting his first response. Word came that Eleanor Flem had died of a heart attack on February three, 66, since she had outlived Mr.
Bell, her estate would receive her proceeds. Her heirs were her brother, James Albats, a private detective on Long Island who barely remembered the Bell name, along with a nephew and two nieces in Florida. One did not know George Bell had existed. Death, though, isn't social, it's business, no need to have known someone to get his money. On February 20, a Queens real estate broker listed the Bell apartment at 219 thousand dollars. It was the final asset to liquidate three potential buyers, toured it the next day, and one woman's offer of 225 thousand dollars was accepted.
Three months later, the building's board said no. A middle aged couple who lived down the block entered the picture and at 215 thousand dollars was approved. Their plan was to fix up the MA department turned their own place over to their grown up son and then move in overwriting George Bell's life. Meanwhile, Mr. Sweeney appeared in Surrogate's Court to request probate of the will. Besides the two known beneficiaries, he listed the possibility of unknown relatives and the unfond cousin.
The court appointed a so-called guardian ad litem to review the will on behalf of these people who might, in fact, be phantoms. In September, Mr. Sweeney submitted a final accounting, the hard math of the estate for court approval. No objections arrived tallied up. George Bell's assets amounted to roughly 540000 dollars. Bank accounts holding 250000 dollars listed Mr. Higginbotham as the sole beneficiary. And he got that directly proceeds from the apartment. Other accounts, a life insurance policy.
The car and the watch went to the estate around 324 thousand dollars. A commission of 13000 726 dollars went to the city of three thousand two hundred thirty eight dollars fee to the public administrator, nineteen thousand four hundred fifty three dollars to Mr. Sweeney. Other expenses included things like the apartment maintenance at seven thousand three hundred sixty dollars, a funeral bill of four thousand eight hundred seventy three dollars, 2800 dollars for the cleanout company, 1663 dollars for the kinship investigator, a 222 dollar parking ticket, a 704 dollar fire department bill for ambulance service, 750 dollars for the guardian ad litem, and twelve dollars and fifty cents for an appraisal of the watch that sold for three dollars.
That left about 200, 64000 dollars to be split between Mr. Westbrook and the heirs of Miss Flem some 14 months after a man died, his estate was settled and the proceeds were good to go for the recipients. George Bell had stepped out of eternity and united them by bestowing his money. No one in the drawn out process knew why he had chosen them, nor did they need to. They only needed to know him in the quietude of death as a man whose heart had stopped beating in Queens.
But he had been like anyone, a human being who had built a life on this earth. His life began small and playing George Bell was especially attached to his parents. He slept on the pullout sofa in the living room while his parents claimed the bedroom and he continued to sleep there even after they died. Both parents came from Scotland, whose father was a tool and die machinist, and his mother worked for a time as a seamstress in the toy industry.
After high school, he joined his father as an apprentice. In 1961, he made an acquaintance at a local bar, a moving man. They became friends in the moving van, pulls George Bell into the moving business.
His name was Tom Higginbotham. Three fellow movers also became friends, Frank Merza, Albert Shober and Martin Westbrook, the men in the will. They mainly moved business offices and they all guzzled the booze in titanic proportions. We were a bunch of drunks, Mr. Westbrook said, I'm a juicer, but George put me to shame. He was a real nice guy, kind of a hermit. Boy, we had some good times. In the words of Mr. Higginbotham, we were great friends.
I don't know if you can say it this way, but we were men who loved each other. They called him Big George, for he was a thickset brawny man weighing perhaps 210 pounds later, his ravenous appetite had him pushing 350. He had a puckish streak. Once a woman invited him and Mr. Higginbotham to a party at her parents house, her father kept tropical fish. She showed George Bell the tank when he admired a distinctive fish. She said, oh, that's an expensive one.
He picked up a net, caught the fish and swallowed it. One day, the friends were moving a financial firm after they had fitted the desks into the new offices, George Bell slid notes into the drawers, writing things like, I'm madly in love with you, meet me at the water cooler or there's a bomb under your chair. Your next move might be your last. Dumb pranks, Big George being Big George. Friends, though, found him difficult to crack open.
There were things inside no one could get out. Learned to suppress your questions around him.
He had his burdens, his father died young as she aged, his mother became crippled by arthritis. He cared for her, fetching her food and bathing her until her death. He was fastidious about his money, only trusted banks for his savings, there was a woman he began dating when she was 19 and he was 25.
We got real keen on each other, she said later. He made me feel special.
The marriage was planned. They spoke to a wedding hall. He bought a suit.
Then he told friends the woman's mother had wanted him to sign a prenuptial agreement to protect her daughter if the marriage should break apart. He ended the engagement and never had another serious relationship. That woman was Eleanor Albert, the fourth name in the will.
Some years later, she married an older man who made equipment for a party supply company and moved upstate to become Mrs. Flynn. In 2002, her husband died. Distance and time never dampened the emotional affinity between her and George Bell, they spoke on the phone and exchanged cards. We had something for each other that never got used up. She said she had sent him a Valentine's Day card just last year. George, think of you often with love. And unbeknownst to her, he had put her in his will and kept her there.
Her life finished up a lot like his she lived alone in a trailer, she died of a heart attack. A neighbor who cleared her snow found her. She had gotten obese. Her brother had her cremated.
A difference was that she left behind debt owed to the bank and to credit card companies, all that she would pass on was tens of thousands of dollars of George Bell's money, money that she never got to touch. Some would filter down to her brother, who had no plans for it, a slice went to Michael Garber, her nephew, who drives the bus at Disney World. A friend of his on set owned a Camaro convertible that she relished, and he might buy a used Camaro in her honor.
Some more would go to Sarah Tator, a niece retired and living in Altamont Springs, Florida, who plans to save it for a rainy day. You always hear about people you don't know, dying and bleeding you money, she said, I never thought it would happen to me. And some would funnel down to Eleanor Flames, otherness, Dorothy Gardiner, a retired waitress and home health care aide. She lives in Apopka, Florida. Never heard of George Bell.
She is survived two cancers and has several thousand dollars in medical bills that could finally disappear. I've been paying off 25 dollars a month what I can. She said I never would have expected this. It's crazy.
In 1996, George Bell hurt his left shoulder and spine, lifting a desk on a moving job, and his life took a different shape. He received approval for workers compensation and Social Security disability payments and began collecting a pension from the Teamsters, though he never worked again. He had all the income he needed. He used to have buddies over to watch television and he would cook for them. Then he stopped having anyone over.
No one knew why old friends had drifted away and with them some of the fire in George Bell's life of his moving man colleagues. Mr. Merza retired in 1994 and died in 2011. Mr. Schober retired in 1996 and moved to Brooklyn, losing touch. He died in 2002. Mr. Higginbotham quit the moving business and moved upstate in 1973 to work for the state as an environmental scientist. He is now 74, retired and living alone in Virginia, the last time he spoke to George Bell was 10 years ago.
He used a code of ringing and hanging up to get him to answer his phone. But in time, he got no answer. He sent cards, beseeched him to come and visit, but he wouldn't. It was two months before Mr. Higginbotham found out George Bell had died. It has been hard for him to reconcile the way George Bailey's money came to him. I've been stressed about this, he said. I haven't been sleeping, my stomach hurts, my blood pressure is up.
I argued with him time and again to get out of that apartment and spend his money and enjoy life. I sent him so many brochures and places to go, I thought I understood George. Now I realize I didn't understand him at all. Mr. Higginbotham was content with the fundamentals of his own life, his modest one bedroom apartment, his 15 year old truck, he put the inheritance into mutual funds and figures that will help his three grandchildren through college.
George Bell's money educating the future. In 1994, Mr. Westbrook hurt his knee and left the moving business. He moved to Breaker's, where he had a cattle farm when he got older and his marriage dissolved. He sold the farm, but still lives nearby. He is 74. It was several years ago that he last spoke to George Bell on the phone. Mr Bell told him he did not get out much. He has three grandchildren and wants to move to a mellower climate.
He plans to give some of the money to Mr. Myers's widow because Mr. Mirzaei had been his best friend. My sister needs some dental work. He said, I need some dental work, I need hearing aids. The golden age ain't so cheap. Big Georgias money will make my old age easier. He felt awful about his dying alone, nobody knowing. Yeah, that'll happen to me, he said, I'm alone loner, too. There's maybe four or five people up here I talk to.
In his final years with the moving man gone, George Bailey's life had become emptier. Neighbors nodded to him on the street and he smiled. He told lively stories to the young woman next door who lived with her parents when he bumped into her. She recently became a police officer and she was the one who would smell what she knew was death. But in the end, George Bell seemed to keep just one true friend. He had been a fixture at a neighborhood pub called Bundes Bar.
He showed up in his cut off blue sweatshirt so often that some regulars called him Sweatshirt Bell. At one point, he eased up on his drinking, then worried about his health, quit. But he still went to Bud's ordering club soda. In April 2005, Buddz closed, many regulars gravitated to another bar, legends George Bell went a few times, then transferred his allegiance to Bantry Bay Public House in Long Island City. He would meet his friend there.
The sign of the entrance to Bantry Bay says enter is strangers leave as friends.
Squished in near the window was Frank Burton sipping soup and nursing a drink. He is known as the dude, George Bell's last good friend. In the early 1980s, not long after moving to Jackson Heights, he stopped in at Bud's in need of a restroom. A big man had bellowed, Have a beer. That was George Bell in time of friendship respond, deepening during the 15 years that remained of George Bell's life.
They met on Saturdays at Bantry Bay. They fished in the Rockaways and the Jones Beach, sometimes with others, Mr. Bell bought a car to get out to the good spots. But the car otherwise mostly sat a past time meandering around the dazed, bleeding into one another.
Where did we go, Mr. Burton said no place one time we sat for hours in the parking lot of a bed, bath and beyond. What did we talk about? The world's problems. Just like that, the two of us solved the world's problems. Mr. Burton is 67, a retired inspector for Consolidated Edison over the last decade. He had spent more time with George Bell than anyone, but he didn't feel he truly knew him. One thing about George is he didn't get personal, he said not ever.
He knew he had never married. He spoke of girlfriends, but Mr. Burton never met any. The two had even swapped views on wills and what happens to your money in the end, though, Mr. Burton did not know George Bell had drafted a will before they met. Mr. Burton would invite him to his place, but he would beg off. George Bell never had him over. Once, some eight years ago, Mr. Burton trooped out there when he hadn't heard from him in a while, George Bell cracked open the door, shoot him away.
A curtain draped inside the entryway had camouflaged the chaos. Mr. Burton had no idea that at some point George Bell had begun keeping everything. The dude, Mr. Burton, told the story. A few years ago, George Bell was going into the hospital for his heart and had asked him to hold on to some money, gave him a fat envelope inside was 55000 dollars. Mike Kerensa, bartender, interrupted. Two things about George. He gave me 100 dollars every Christmas, and he never went out to eat, he had confessed he was too embarrassed because he would have required three entrees.
George Bell had diabetes and complained about a shoulder pain. He took pills which skipped them during the day, saying they made him feel like an idiot. Both the dude and Mr Cameron's sensed he felt he had been bullied too hard by life. George was in a lot of pain, Mr Cameron said. I think he was just waiting to die, had lived enough. It was as if sadness had killed George Bell, his days had become predictable, an endless loop.
He stayed cloistered inside. Neighbors heard the regular parade of deliverymen who brought him his takeout meals.
The last time that you saw George Bell was about a week before his body was found, frozen shrimp was on sale at the shopping center. George Bell got some to take back to the kitchen. He did not use.
Mr. Burton didn't realize he had died until someone came to legends with the news, Mr. Cairns was there and he told the dude he made some calls to find out more, but got nowhere. Why didn't he die alone? No one knowing. The dude thought on that. I don't know, man, he said, I wish I could tell you, but I don't know. On the televisions above the busy bar, a woman was promoting a cleaning product in the dim light, Mr Burton emptied his drink.
You know, I miss him, he said. I would have liked to see George one more time. It was my friend. One more time. This was recorded by autumn. Autumn is an app you can download to listen to lots of audio stories from publishers such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic. Great journalism applies relentless curiosity in search of the truth, and with every story, there's a need for analysis, context and structure, all tools that help create positive change in the world.
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