And thus began my friendship with Stephanie. One of Stephanie's more endearing traits is that she will launch into a wild story within seconds of meeting a person-- often before customary greetings are exchanged. And that's exactly what she did. She began telling me stories from the 1970's, when she worked as a burlesque dancer named Tanqueray. Her memory for detail was amazing, and she had a singular way of describing things. Stephanie will say the wildest things without a hint of self-consciousness. It really has a way of drawing you in. And after she'd been going for about five minutes, I interrupted for long enough to ask if I could run to my house and get my camera.
The resulting interview went quite viral, as many of you will remember. And Stephanie had a lot of fun with it. People were stopping her on the street all day long. And Stephanie loves an audience-- even if it’s just an audience of one. So anyone who stopped her for a selfie would leave ten minutes later with an earful of stories. And what stories they were. Nobody has lived a life like Stephanie’s. The two of us agreed to meet regularly at a nearby diner, so I could get her whole story down on paper. We did about twenty interviews together. Our initial plan was to create a podcast. But after we'd gone quite a distance down that path, circumstances suddenly changed.
Stephanie has been in pain for as long as I've known her. When we first met she was walking with a cane. And every time we walked to the diner, she'd grip tightly to my arm. Even then-- it would take us fifteen minutes to travel half a block. She’d wince in pain whenever she was jostled or bumped. Occasionally she’d scream out. It was clear that something was seriously wrong with her leg. She attributed the injury to a bad fall that she'd suffered a few months earlier, but she seemed confident that she was on the mend. When the pandemic started, Stephanie and I continued our conversations over the phone. She would call me several times a day. And whenever I didn't answer, she'd always leave a voicemail—usually telling me some story she’d just remembered. Last month I grew concerned when a few days passed without hearing from her. I called a neighbor to check up on her, and he heard Stephanie's voice coming from the back bedroom. She'd taken a bad fall and had been on the floor for 72 hours without food or water. The EMTs broke down her door and took her to the hospital.
Ever since the fall, Stephanie has been unable to stand or walk. She is in a lot of pain. She's always been a private person in many ways, but the current crisis has necessitated a candor about her situation. We’ve hired a team of professionals to make her apartment clean and comfortable. We’ve gotten her a 24-hour home health aide. She now has a physical therapist coming to the apartment multiple times a week. And we're working on handling the back rent and eviction notices. Her health is not improving as quickly as we'd like, but Stephanie remains absolutely convinced that she is on the mend. Unfortunately her unorthodox lifestyle hasn't qualified her for social security. And she doesn’t currently have insurance. (Though we're trying to get her signed up for Medicare.) Her care is extremely expensive. So far I’ve been using funds from the HONY Patreon, but it’s not sustainable long term.
Stephanie and I have decided to scrap our idea of making a podcast. And I’ve spent the last few weeks retooling the story for publication on Humans of New York. Our plan is to raise funds for Stephanie’s care alongside the telling of her story. The ultimate goal is for Stephanie to live the rest of her life on her own terms. Maybe that means an assisted living facility. Maybe that means remaining in her apartment with the assistance of a home health aide. I’m not sure. But I want to provide her with enough resources so that it’s her decision, and not a decision forced upon her. But I’m not viewing this as charity. Stephanie brings a priceless resource to the table—her story. We're just going to tell that story using a new model. Instead of selling advertising, or selling it to a publisher, we’re asking for voluntary contributions from anyone who’s gotten value from Stephanie’s narrative. If the story of her life has made you laugh, or cry, or think—please consider compensating the person who lived it. Because right now her story is the one thing she has to offer.
We are being very thoughtful with the money. Stephanie knows that there are risks involved with publicly raising funds for a person in her vulnerable situation. So with her blessing, we will be placing the money in a trust to ensure that it provides sustainable, long term care. The trust will cover her living expenses and health care needs moving forward. (Which will admittedly be quite extensive.) And at Stephanie’s request, any money remaining at the end of her life will be donated to The Association To Benefit Children —a highly respected New York charity dedicated to helping the city’s most vulnerable children.
Please consider joining us as we seek to transform Stephanie’s life.
Humans of New York is audience supported.
If you would like to support Humans of New York, you can do so by joining the Patreon.
Or by preordering Humans , which will be published on October 6th.
- Andrea Sanford
- susan bernstein
- Chelsa Vinklarek
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