Years ago I got to know a retired hairdresser named Vincent who lived with his younger brother Dom in a seedy neighborhood in the next town over from mine. They had occupied the same ground-floor apartment since their parents emigrated from Sicily after the First World War. Faded black and white photographs of their mother and father were prominently displayed on the wall, and you got the strange sense their grown sons viewed themselves as orphans. Although Dom was then in his early sixties, Vincent always affectionately referred to him as “Baby Brother” and saw it as his role to look after him. Dom, who had an enormous head and deformed arm, was like a child in many ways. He had once worked at Woolworth’s but now rarely left the house except for doctors’ appointments. He was afraid to go out. Vincent, on the other hand, was always out and about. He made the rounds of all the churches in town, which is how I met him. He was mainly interested in the food served at the coffee hour and would often bring back goodies for this brother. Although he had become something of a regular at the Episcopal Church I attended, he let it be known that the Seventh Day Adventists put on a better spread.
Vincent once told me things were so dire back in Sicily during World War I that his family had been forced to eat grass. He was an inveterate con artist, so you learned to take everything he said with a grain of salt. Still, this would explain his fixation on food -- and some other things as well. He and his brother were pack rats. Their apartment was piled high with all kinds of stuff that most people put into recycling or store in the basement until the next tag sale. In this case, it didn’t look like anything had ever been thrown out. Some of the women in my church showed up at their apartment once with brooms and mops, determined to make it their reclamation project. In addition to piles of rubble, they had to contend with the tobacco residue that clung to everything, since both brothers were prodigious smokers. The women eventually gave up, defeated by decades of grime and clutter.
You would sometimes read about people like Vincent and Dom, usually after neighbors complained of a foul odor, and a body was discovered buried under stacks of old newspapers. The most famous such case involved the Collyer brothers, whose bodies were found in their boarded-up Fifth Avenue brownstone in New York in 1947. The younger brother had been caught in a booby trap that was set to ward off intruders, and the older one, who was blind and bed-ridden, then died of starvation. Rumors had circulated for years that the brothers didn’t trust banks and had stashed a fortune in the house. When the place was finally cleaned out, investigators found a Model T Ford chassis, 10 pianos, 25,000 books and mountains of trash – more than 100 tons of it – but no fortune.
Unlike the Collyer brothers, who came from a wealthy family, Vincent and his brother would never be suspected of stashing a fortune in their apartment. Just as he tended to view every meal as his last, Vincent worried obsessively about running out of money. Judging by his living conditions, he had cause for concern. I would occasionally slip him a little cash, which was always gratefully received. Then one day he asked if I wouldn’t mind reviewing his investment portfolio. (I was an investment manager at the time.) Vincent handed me a brokerage statement showing he had socked away more than $100,000 in cash and securities. This was decades ago, when you could buy a small house and a car for that kind of money; at any rate, it was more money than I had at the time. I was too astonished to be angry. Vincent had grown up poor during the Depression, and he would always be poor in his own mind, no matter how much money he had.
Vincent and Dom are long gone, with little to remember them by. They did nothing to make a name for themselves. They did not even ensure their lasting notoriety by dying under piles of their own trash. Vincent died of congestive heart failure, no doubt brought on by heavy smoking; Dom followed a year or two later. They left no heirs, as far as I know. The squalid little apartment where they spent most of their lives was cleaned up and rented out to others. Vincent and his brother live on in the memory of a few people like me who bothered to get to know them. Those memories will live on only until we ourselves become memories that live on for a generation or two in the minds of others. Thereafter, those poor lost boys will live on, if at all, only in the mind of God.