The time had come for Gene to leave the ground-floor apartment, as he knew it would. The owner who let him stay there rent-free had been dead for more than a year, and the estate wanted it back. With the marshal at the door, Gene delivered his cats to a neighbor, then bundled blankets, pillows and some clothes. Parked right outside was his next home: a 1996 Ford Explorer. He moved into the back seat. That was Feb. 27, 2015.
One year later, Gene still sleeps on a mildewing futon in that sport utility vehicle, parked on the same tree-lined street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He will turn 60 in May. An organic chemist who did postdoctoral research at Columbia University, Gene shares credit on more than 40 patents for work he did at a major pharmaceutical maker, a job he left 12 years ago. Gene is his middle name, and he asked not to be further identified.
Although he has not physically moved, what has happened to him over the last year can be mapped as a journey, still in progress, from nameless menace to neighbor, a change both in his trajectory and in the esteem of those with whom he shares one small block of New York City....His background, and how he lost his position:
A voracious reader as a child, he discovered chemistry in college, and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A grant from the National Institutes of Health paid for his postdoctoral work. At a large pharmaceutical company, he worked with a team on variations of an immunosuppressant, and compounds useful in treating diabetes. Records list him as a co-inventor on at least 44 “composition of matter” patents in the United States and Europe.
Gene said he was married for three years in the late 1990s, and records show that he once owned a house in Princeton Junction, N.J. By 2004, he said, he was unhappy in his job and living on the East Side of Manhattan. When his mother, who was living in Arizona, had a stroke that year, he said, he took a three-month leave of absence, and never went back. Why not? Perhaps, he speculated, the trauma of 9/11 had affected him. And, he said, he had been unable to find a position close to his old rank. “They wanted someone cheap,” he said. “They weren’t going to pay $115,000 for a bench chemist.”
He moved to Brooklyn and took a job with Barnes & Noble in Park Slope that paid about $10 an hour. He also managed to run up $40,000 in credit card debt. How?
“Going out, eating,” he said. “Like I was still making $115,000.”And the denouement of the story:
...He was let go by Barnes & Noble in late 2014, he said. While still covered under the company’s health insurance, he had gotten a new hip. His health problems continued: He developed severe arthritis in an ankle, and broke a toe.
....Gene reported that his disability claim had been approved, and that he had been awarded about $2,500 a month. Though some people on Fifth Street are skeptical that he has righted himself, and a few friends worry that he has gotten too comfortable in the Explorer, he insisted that was not true. He plans to move to Wisconsin in the summer, he said, where he went to graduate school and where the money will go further.
On a walk through the neighborhood, he passed the soup kitchen where he had often eaten. Was he going to stop for lunch?
He shook his head.
“I’m on the other side now,” he said.If you read the whole article, it sounds to me like there are a number of factors contributing here.* That said, his difficulty in attempting to make the transition to caregiving for his mother and then his apparent inability in 2004 to find another position in chemistry that would make a sufficient amount of money and also make him happy is worth contemplating.
Best wishes to Gene, and to all of us.
*I really dislike amateur psychological diagnosis, but I suspect there is some untreated depression?