On a bright sunny Saturday afternoon, Rachel Martin, 62, looks out of the window of the slow-moving M104 bus. Temporary stalls selling colorful scarves, jewelry, snacks and knick-knacks line Broadway all the way to 97th street. The weekly street market is on. Martin smiles ruefully and looks away. “What’s the point of looking at the things when I can’t afford any of them?” she asks no one in particular.
Martin is a resident of Morningside Gardens on the border of Harlem and Morningside Heights. She has been constantly working since the age of 15, when she was forced to leave home, until March 2013, when she was fired from her last job at a health insurance firm. Despite years on the job, today she feels desperate. She faces debt, has an abysmally low pension and no savings, and depends on her monthly $2,000 disability check. “I went to a committee meeting in my building yesterday because they were serving crackers and cheese,” she said. “That was my dinner. I cannot afford anything else.”
Martin’s financial situation is worsened by health issues, which make it difficult for her to work. As she gets off the bus and walks to the 96th street subway station, her gait is unsteady and she has to hold on to the bannisters when she climbs down the steps to the downtown No. 2 subway platform.
Her difficulties are partly due to her age and partly due to a car accident eight years ago. “I was crossing the street, I had the right of away and this woman hit me with her car,” recalled Martin. “I was flung across the windshield and she drove over my right foot.” The accident has made her doubly cautious when she crosses streets.
“I went to a committee meeting in my building yesterday because they were serving crackers and cheese. That was my dinner. I cannot afford anything else.”
– Rachel Martin, pet sitter
Things weren’t always this bad for Martin, who is a trained nurse. After nursing school, she worked for two years at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Then, she switched to NYU Langone, when it was still called Tisch Hospital, where she was employed for 18 years,, mostly in the cardiac rehabilitation department. The work was physically strenuous and it affected her health. She now suffers from arthritis in her knees and spinal problems because of the nature of her job. She underwent surgery for severe arthritic bunions, but when she returned to work, she realized that at the age of 50, she was too old to do floor nursing any more. “I would see my older colleagues, see how they limped along, they were pushing themselves until their retirement age,” she said. So she decided to quit her full-time position and work on a per diem basis, and take a desk job on a full-time basis instead. The hospital agreed, but left out one critical detail..
“What I didn’t know was that my pension is based on the work I have done in the last five years,” said Martin. “No one told me that. So now I get a pension of only $33 per month.”
Dental surgery over three years, starting in 2004, wiped out $54,000 of her savings, while the stock market did the rest – she lost $4,000 because “I trusted people who I thought knew what they were doing.”
She added that it is key for people, especially women to think early on how they will fund their retirement. “No one told me, ‘You are a single woman, you should plan ahead’,” she said. “I thought I would work till my dying day.”
Instead, she now faces the problem that if she doesn’t get a job within six months, she will have to move out of the Upper West Side apartment that has been her home for 16 years.
She’s considered looking for a corporate job, but she can’t bear the thought. For many years after she left nursing, she worked for health insurance companies. But the stress of being an appeals nurse, dealing with the doctors, keeping up with changing computer systems and working with unsympathetic colleagues caught up with her. One day, after a quarrel, she punched a coworker in the face. Expectedly, she was sacked. After, Martin underwent therapy three times a week for four months to learn how to take care of herself again. Her sister footed the bill since she couldn’t afford to pay.
Even today, the thought of returning to a corporate environment terrifies her. She prefers to be a dog and cat sitter, she says.
But the icy winter smashed even those plans. “I would walk this Rottweiler for a walk every day but he was huge and I couldn’t control him. He would pull me,” she said. “I fell seven times.”
I was injured here, in my shoulder,” she said touching her right one. She had to wait for months to have the shoulder looked at and in late April, she underwent surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital.
Martin still hopes she will get clients who will want her to watch their cats or dogs, but for the moment, she is living off the generosity of her neighbors. One gave her a gift card of $500, another left a bottle of shampoo in a bag hanging from her front door knob, a third gave her a box of doggy treats for her mixed breed 13-year-old dog, Happy. “Even my sister said, it is because of their support that I am hanging on,” she said.
But some days, even that warm support is just not enough. “I wake up and I think,” she says sadly. “‘Why should I get out of bed? What use am I alive?’”