Caroline Sanniola was walking down the makeshift runway with a somber dignity, in a black lace dress donated by one of her caretakers. She was brave enough to forsake her walker, and if it hadn't been for John Snow draping her over his arm her feet would have buckled under her ankles. She is about 4 feet tall and in her 90s.
"Do it! Do the chicken, Caroline!"
Snow could barely get her past the first table of residents in Staten Island Care Center's cafeteria when the goading started. When the fashion show began, most of the spectators didn't look up from the discarded slips of paper they were reading, or they drifted off to sleep, or they played with the strings of the balloons hanging from the ceiling. Medicated?one presumes?the large majority stared into space. But when Sanniola and Snow strutted by, the party got going.
"Come on, just once, please!"
And with that, Caroline stuck out her elbows to make wings with her arms, and shook her hips, quickly and violently, to hoots of laughter and thunderous applause. She looked around, all eyes on her, and broke a huge gum smile across her rouged cheeks, earning a second round of approval.
She had dumps like a truck, truck, truck?
The Care Center currently houses 296 residents for long-term, short-term, respite and hospice care. "We try to return the individuals to prior functioning level, get them independent, and get them home," said Karole Sullivan, director of admissions, in the elevator of the six-floor complex. As the door opened on the hectic second floor, a denizen in an oversized purple dress wandered in and executed three slow pirouettes before remembering she was not supposed to be going either up or down. Sullivan complimented her dress and pointed her in the proper direction. "We also do hands-on care, and allow families to have quality time with their relatives who are here for the long term."
The fourth floor houses many long-term residents, largely in double rooms. "We try to match personalities, but it doesn't always work out," Sullivan said. Computer printouts in plastic sheaths hung on a few doors, reading WELCOME TO OUR HOME, PLEASE KNOCK BEFORE ENTERING. "The person who complains, moves. Sometimes people are placed in isolation, for behavior reasons. We try to accommodate each resident based on individual need."
In the activities room, six residents stared at the tv and played with colored plastic rings. One man was locked in a battle of wits with a cup full of colored pencils. Since abilities and interests vary with the circumstances of each patient, sedentary entertainments are the most accessible, however monotonous. The Care Center sponsors a recreational trip every month. In the meantime, other events have to provide relief, and recreations director Donna Coffey spent the past several weeks in preparation for the event that made the hospice ward come alive: the summer fashion show, with residents modeling evening wear donated by area clothiers and the Care Center staff.
For outsiders, it was hard to imagine a more despicable opportunity for schadenfreude. For the staff, darting around with boundless enthusiasm, hanging balloons, arranging tables and making the dining room hospitable as the fashion show's rain-delay venue, it was an absolute delight. Coffey said one lady started to cry when she saw herself with her hair done and makeup applied. Outside the cafeteria doors, a staff member in a blue jumpsuit began ushering in residents, gently patting people on the back and giggling. "Well, don't you look gorgeous! Oh, Ethel! Look at Mary. Oh, Miss Willie?'Scuze me, miss, do I know you?"
One woman scooted by in a wheelchair, draped in a toothpaste-green satin dress, singing to anyone who would listen, "Loooooooooooook me over, loooo-wooooook me o-ver?" She smirked like she was ready to pop a wheelie.
Coffey emceed the show, on a perpetually tinny microphone, while a solitary CD player droned a series of genteel piano selections from an album called Music for Dining. "If our first gentleman would escort our first lady?"
The gentlemen of Staten Island Care Center had the clear advantage. Since Socci Tuxedo was able to donate only six tuxes, each of the seven men participating (resident council president John Spinello rocked a brown sports coat and tasteful blue trousers) walked back up the aisle after escorting his partner, to take his pick of the 19 female models. Arnold Goldenburg, at late middle age the rake of the Care Center fashion industry, sported a pair of yellow-framed sunglasses.
Cattiness does not diminish with age. Lydia Montana arched her back, cloaked in a flowing peach floral spring dress, as she made her way toward the chairs at the end of the runway. Someone shouted out, "She's a strumpet!" Lydia kept her nose held high and her painted lips puckered. But the other models clearly snubbed her.
Coffey kept the excitement level as high as it could be, given a sedated audience. "There's Willie Hawkins, modeling a very sexy black dress?we got her some black stockings, the slit was so high. She wanted to show off her legs." Another model hiked her deep-blue dress provocatively above her knees, and an aide trotted out to pull it down.
?thighs like what, what, what?
But controversy was reserved for the finale, as Arnold and President Spinello took the final spin down the runway arm in arm. Perhaps symbolically, Arnold took off his sunglasses. He was later spotted sucking helium out of the balloons.
Everybody filed out slowly, as Coffey thanked everyone in sight, glowing with happiness. Mascara started running. Residents, some of whom had only months to live, began flirting, hoping maybe to take the runway atmosphere back to the fourth floor. Caroline was in serious demand, shooing off men desperate for another shimmy.