Carless

They finally took Bertilda’s car. Her conservator showed up with a colleague and official papers. I happened to be in my front yard and was recruited as a witness or interpretor.

The conservator’s name is Leah. She’s a plump black woman probably in her 40s, with creamy chocolate skin and straightened hair. Leah has a Masters in social work and has been with the county for almost a decade. She’s experienced and warm and patient. Too patient, in my opinion. Too bureaucratic, but she works for a bureau so I shouldn’t be surprised.

Leah thinks she’s encountered clients like Bertilda before, but I doubt it. I’m sure Alameda county has a number of deranged senior citizens. I’ll bet many of them are isolated and either inherently damaged or veterans of the early drug years. I googled “What do I do about my crazy neighbor?” and was swamped by all the Internet complaints about filth, noise and weapons. But I’ve lived and watched people for over 60 years, in a number of populated areas, and I’ve never encountered a personality like Bertilda’s.

Remember the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil? That’s what Bertilda reminds me of: a being who is whipping like a cyclone along life’s path, spewing anger and hostility in all directions. Taz was consumed with anger. Bertilda’s passion is hate.

As mentioned, Leah was not alone. Her colleague was younger, male, and so dark of skin he looked Ethiopian, so narrow of feature he seemed Eritrean. A well-dressed, soft spoken young man.

I hung back a bit, next to the young man, while Leah spoke to Bertilda. “We have to take the car now, honey.” Bertilda’s face was carrying its usual sore expression. She looks hostile even when she is trying to smile.

“You can’t take my car.”

“We have to. It’s not registered. Your license isn’t valid.”

Bertilda looked confused for a moment. Then she raged. “That’s bullshit! You’re Communists! Think you can just show up and take my things!”

Leah took a step closer. Bertilda read her face and changed her own demeanor. We’ve all seen how fast she can cycle from rage to reason to rage again. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Leah handed her the papers. “We’re here to help you, sweetheart. We can take you to the store. We can bring you food.”

“Fuck you! I don’t need any help! I’m a strong independent woman! You’re Nazis!” She stomped toward the sidewalk. The tow truck had arrived and the driver was connecting Bertilda’s car to hardware. Bertilda swung her leg to kick the driver but he saw her and dodged.

“Ms. Wagner!” Now Leah’s voice had a little forcefulness. Bertilda looked at her, grimaced, tried to smile, wailed “Arrggh!”

She calmed again. “I tell you, I don’t need help. My mother lived to be 90. I take after her.” She seemed to look inside her head. “She’s old now. That’s why I call her every day. I have to check on her.” Bertilda’s mother is of course no longer alive. And Bertilda’s phone hasn’t worked in months.

“I’m sure,” Leah consoled. “And I can tell you’re strong. It’s obvious that you’re fit.”

“Hmph,” Bertilda said. Then she noticed that the truck driver was in his cab and about to depart. She dashed toward her car but failed to reach it before it was pulled away.

There really wasn’t anything for me to do. I couldn’t communicate the situation any better than Leah was. No one can. Bertilda is no longer able to care for herself, but she doesn’t know that. She’s losing her memory but she’s certain all the rest of us are misremembering, and not herself. I loathe and despise the nasty little old woman, and I want to stay away from her. She’s repulsive. She also may be dangerous. If she associates my face with the intervention she may lash out at my property. I could come home to broken windows.

Our little party dispersed. I retreated to my house, and Leah and her colleague drove off.

I don’t get it. Adult Protective Services was the only agency we could call. It’s their job to deal with grownups who can’t care for themselves and have no other resources. I’m one of a half dozen concerned neighbors who phoned in about Bertilda. We were all told that, to protect Bertilda’s privacy, we would not be fully informed about APS’s activities. But we learned that our calls weren’t the first reports. APS has had a file on her for four years. They sent specialists to evaluate her when they first became involved. They mentioned something to my neighbor Anne about what a shame it is that Bertilda refused to take the medications they arranged for her.

So they know about her. They have notes all over her file about her “noncompliance.” They summoned her to court and she failed to appear. The court appointed a county conservator for her. Leah then told us it would take about three months to gather together the information about Bertilda’s health, assets, and liabilities. As soon as the court awarded conservatorship, APS began paying Bertilda’s bills for her. But APS is otherwise acting like it’s a brand new file. They know she’s been unwell and uncooperative four years, three years, two years, and one year ago, but they now have to discover afresh? Bertilda last registered her car three years back. She doesn’t have a valid driver’s license. She hasn’t paid taxes or insurance premiums in more than four years. She no longer pays her phone or electricity bills, her HOA dues, or any other invoice. She no longer trusts any bank. She has lost the key to her mailbox and she regularly misplaces the keys to her house. She doesn’t bathe, cook, or discard anything. She adopted a stray cat and we have no idea what she feeds the animal, but we all see it squatting and straining to shit, in daylight, in open areas, which is not what any well cat does.

We all get it that the wheels turn slowly. We understand Bertilda’s privacy should be protected, her rights preserved. We’re starting to have an idea that the three months Leah mentioned isn’t so much about gathering information as it is about going through a probationary period. Her conservator must have some checklist that needs completion, some rules that require her to find home aides and try to place one with Bertilda. Leah has no reason to believe that will work. She makes statements about “baby steps” one minute and “I know it won’t work” the next. She just told me that there will be another court date in two months, when the conservatorship will be made final.

Meanwhile, what can we do but hope that nothing goes wrong? We read about malfeasants who commit crimes even though they were in the mental health pipeline – just not far enough in the pipe to be prevented from hurting others. We figure odds are it won’t happen here. We hope.

The car removal was five days ago. Predictably, Bertilda soon forgot the circumstances of the removal but did not forget to be outraged, enraged, and voluble. She has been making the circuit of Anne’s place, Jerry’s place, and mine (at least – I suspect her complaints have taken her to other neighbors by now). She knocks on my door every few hours. She starts with a simper and then cranks herself up.

“Did you see who took my car?

“They stole my car.

“It happens every day.

“My enemies steal my car every morning and bring it back when I’m asleep.

“They can’t do that!

“I hate you Americans.

“You can eat shit!

“Fuck. You. All!”

That’s our neighbor. She used to drive that car to the store across town every couple of days. She would buy produce there. As far as we know, that’s all she eats. It may be what she feeds her cat too. As far as we know, she no longer has a way to acquire food.

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