The Slow Death of Dan Dinnerstein

by

11/02/2008

Washington Heights, 10033

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

I met Dan Dinnerstein at a party in 1982, when we were young, single guys in our late twenties. We had a lot in common: we were both were products of the New York State University system, we both came from the same neighborhood in the Bronx (although we hadn’t known each other there), and, at the time, we both lived in Washington Heights — me on 181st Street and Cabrini Boulevard, him at 192nd and Broadway. Soon, we started going to the Pinehurst Bar together in our spare time.

Dan was stocky and balding, wore glasses, and spoke in a high, thin voice. Years later, whenever my wife and I watched Seinfeld, one of us would always remark on how much he looked and talked like George Costanza. He had two interests: going to singles events almost endlessly in search of a possible mate, and New Age religious mysticism of every variety. He put all his energy into both these activities. He went to all sorts of organized singles dances, discussions and dinners all over the five boroughs, eventually switching to the personals. I admired him for keeping at it, although he rarely had more than three or four dates with the same woman.

Whenever I saw Dan, he would go on and on: “When you put an ad in Newsday, you only get women from Long Island; when you put one in the New York Review of Books, you get only older women; when you put an ad in a local community weekly, you get only these dull, conventional, lower-middle-class types…”

After one of his dates rejected him, as almost all of them did sooner or later, Dan never expressed disappointment, but just dissected the situation intellectually: “Well, she’s a conventional upper-middle-class type, so she probably wants someone who makes at least $65,000 a year,” or “I can tell she’s a social type, you know, plays tennis and all, so she probably wants an outgoing, upbeat person, not someone like me…”

At one point, Dan considered reading up on different countries so he could pretend to his prospective dates that he was well-traveled, but he never went through with it. Sometimes, he was so desperate that even after one of his would-be girlfriends turned him down, he called her phone number and hung up just to hear her voice.

Dan would also talk ad infinitum about his New Age interests. Eckankar, yoga, past lives, UFOs, meditation, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, numerology, the Bhagavad Gita, the Gnostic gospels, Edgar Cayce, Sufism – he took it all in.

The only mysticism that he had little use for, it seemed, was Jewish mysticism, although he did have one or two obligatory books on the Kabbalah. Dan inevitably would drift over to his parents’ house on the High Holy Days, but the rest of the year, he belittled Judaism as being overly concerned about “the survival of the group” at the expense of intense spiritual experiences.

“Because the group was always low in number, the rabbis had to create a religion that was easily understood by 13-year-old shepherd boys,” he explained. “But what I seek,” he began to shout, in an uncharacteristic display of positive emotion, “is a connection to the divine, a union with the universe!”

With all his hip, trendy New Age interests, I got a kick out of the way Dan still kept up with his old Bronx buddies with whom he used to play touch football – “crude guys” (Dan’s own description) like Al the Accountant and Barry the Paramedic whose only real interests were watching sports on TV.

No conversation with Dan was complete without an amusing anecdote: “You know Al the Accountant? That crude guy who’s got a whole tape just of hockey fights? Well, I saw him last night. It seems that he went to a singles social in Fort Lee, and he tried to talk to a girl who had already rejected him three times….”

Dan continued in his familiar yet unhappy day-to-day routine for about 10 years. He might have done so endlessly until, one unlucky day, he injured his foot on a fence in Fort Tryon Park while trying to catch a ball that some kids had hit in his direction. A few days later, he injured his knee. Things went from bad to worse, and he began missing days at his job as an assistant manager for the city Housing Authority, a job that he’d held since his early twenties.

He manager was unsympathetic, and the Authority was preparing to hold a hearing with the intent of firing him. But Dan hired a lawyer and managed to get a disability pension from the job. Simultaneously, he started receiving Social Security disability. He was now getting two pensions, almost as much as his salary.

Unfortunately, he soon began pissing his money away — he became as obsessed with curing himself of his injuries as he had earlier been with finding a girlfriend or finding the meaning of the universe. He went to five or six different therapists every week: an orthopedist, not one but two chiropractors, a Feldenkrais therapist, a psychic healer, a podiatrist. When a skeptical neighbor suggested his injuries might be psychosomatic, he promptly added a psychiatrist to the mix. It was all to no avail.

I remember visiting him at his tiny apartment. Not only did he limp when he walked, he wasn’t able to bend down, so he arranged an elaborate system of organizing his refrigerator. “Ron,” he told me, “take the bottle of soda from the third shelf, and put it on the second shelf. Then, take the loaf of bread from the second shelf and put it on the top shelf.” When his friends couldn’t come, Dan hired helpers, advertising for them on index cards he hung in the local grocery store. At least one of those helpers ripped him off. After almost two years, a miracle happened—he got better! He didn’t have any problems walking or bending down. He never knew exactly which of the therapists had cured him, but he was happy just the same. He began to work again, although this time, it was only a part-time job in a bookstore. And he started taking computer courses at NYU with an objective of getting certified as a programmer. To celebrate all these new developments, he gave a little party and invited me, my wife, Al the Accountant, Barry the Paramedic, and a woman he’d met at his chiropractor’s office and who lived nearby.

That woman, Anna Kleinman, soon became his girlfriend, the first real girlfriend he’d had since his twenties. Anna was a tall, somewhat overweight, conservatively-dressed former schoolteacher who sang in a folk group. A few years older than him, she was a fellow veteran of the singles dance circuit. The fact that Anna was receiving a kind of disability other than the one he had – she was receiving psychiatric disability – didn’t bother him. Soon, they started seeing each other several times a week.

Only my wife struck a note of warning – she had a friend who knew Anna, and who told her that Anna had tried to commit suicide twice.

Sure enough, Dan and Anna’s affair came to a tragic end when Anna finally killed herself by jumping off her roof. It was obvious that Dan wasn’t the cause – after all, hadn’t she tried this before? Still, he became despondent. He received his computer programming certification, but aside from a temporary job with the city, was unable to find a position as a programmer.

He blamed the job market: “Things are so tight now that the companies won’t hire novice programmers, they just keep raiding each other for experienced programmers.” On top of it all, he re-injured himself when he accidentally banged his foot against the bathroom wall. Soon, his back, knee and leg pain returned. This time, there was no cure. His podiatrist told him that he would have to have a costly operation.

When I met him in a nearby restaurant, he finally let his guard down, speaking in a monotone and staring at the floor. “It’s all karma from past lifetimes,” Dan said, near tears. “Sometimes the pain is so intense, I don’t know how I can go on much longer.” After 9/11, he announced that he wasn’t leaving his house unless it was absolutely necessary. He ordered takeout food from restaurants, and once again hired neighborhood youths to do errands such as going to the mailbox, shopping and taking out the trash. His brother up in Syracuse became alarmed, came down to see him and talked him into seeing his shrink again. It didn’t help.

I can’t say I was surprised when I got a call at work one Wednesday morning two years later. “Hello,” a voice said at the other end of the phone, “Is this Ron Rothstein?”

“Yes…”

“This is Rabbi Golden, the Jewish chaplain at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. We found your name in Dan Dinnerstein’s address book. We’ve been unable to contact his brother so far…”

“Is he, um..?”

“Yes, he’s deceased. We’d like to come down and identify the body.”

I hopped on the subway and rushed to the hospital, and it was definitely Dan. Rabbi Golden told me that, like Anna, Dan had jumped off the roof. Perhaps, inspired by her, he had wanted the two of them to be reunited. He’d actually survived for a few hours, but then suffered a massive heart attack and died. In the background, I heard a nurse talking to Dan’s brother on the phone. It was ironic that Dan had spent his final hours in the company of a rabbi rather than a Buddhist monk, a Sufi mystic or a psychic healer. Dan’s possessions consisted of a few broken-down pieces of furniture; an eight-year-old laptop, which was immediately claimed by his brother; a video player; a CD/cassette player; a TV that barely worked; and hundreds of New Age, books, tapes, magazines and CDs, most of which were soon thrown in the trash by the building superintendent. Well, Dan, I thought, you’ve finally achieved your goals: A connection to the divine, and a union with the universe.

Raanan Geberer is a community newspaper editor in Brooklyn who is now in a Master of Arts in Teaching program. He grew up in the Bronx, went to SUNY and once lived in Washington Heights, although he now lives in Chelsea’s Penn South co-op with his wife Rhea and cat Celeste.

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