A Latino teenager and an old woman wrestle with angels and demons during a four-year friendship at the nursing home where she lives and he works.
There is poignancy and pain in this account by Kleinfield, a prize-winning reporter for the New York Times who observed firsthand a friendship he calls unlikely. The woman, nonagenarian Margaret Oliver, was a dressmaker and opera fan before she arrived at the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged. The young man, Elvis Checo, was a hip-hop fan from the Dominican Republic who’d found a job helping out at the home: pushing wheelchairs, talking with residents. Kleinfield obtained their permission to follow them around—in and out of the facility—and so this simple story emerged. There are no real high, lows, climaxes or conundrums. (Margaret does not die; Elvis does not subsequently go off to study geriatric medicine at Harvard.) Instead, the volume has the feel of a photo album with accompanying captions. We see Margaret in her room sharing jokes with Elvis and giving him gentle advice (have a plan in life, look out for number one). The two discuss Republicans (both hate the GOP) and rap music; Elvis tries to explain to her what a cell phone is. We also venture out into the mean streets with Elvis. He fathers a daughter with a woman he does not love (Margaret advises him to keep his distance from the mother); he visits his brother’s barber shop; he tries college; he hangs out with friends; he watches many cartoons; he writes dreadful rap lyrics, one of which he performs for Margaret, who asks: “You thought all that up yourself?” He battles a bad back, lassitude, stereotype.
At times trite and a tad portentous, the writing nonetheless reveals two sincere souls.