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PASSING ON


On Wednesday night last week we lost our next door neighbor, Helen Scafuto. She died of a sudden heart attack. She was 63. Helen was babysitter to our children; mother, grandmother and foster mother to her own large brood; and a charming and calming presence on the block. Helen always had time for her neighbors – and she demanded time in return. When Helen was on the street, you couldn’t get away with your frantic New York pace; you were compelled to slow down, and talk about your family, your work, your house etc. She was a deeply religious person who never tried to foist her beliefs on others. She personified the positive reasons for living on a terraced street. She will be greatly missed.

It’s always tough to lose someone you’re close to, especially when their death is unexpected. There was an added aspect of personal pain to this particular passing, given that myself and a couple of other neighbors ran over and tried to administer CPR as soon as we heard the commotion. It was the first time I’ve dealt with such a situation. And while in this case, our efforts were fruitless, in another case, administering CPR may well save someone’s life. I realized from this tragic incident how important it is to know precisely what you’re doing when you administer CPR (fortunately, one of the neighbors and my own wife have certified training), and to everyone reading, I would say this: if you’ve never stopped to read the posters you see in diners and doctors offices, now is the time to do so. Read up, practice on your partner if need be – or take a course. The only thing worse than knowing that there was, only in retrospect, nothing we could have done to save Helen, would have been to know that we could have done something – and then to have done it incorrectly.

On the positive side, assuming that there is one in such a situation, it was reassuring that the Fire Department’s venerable Squad 1, an EMT team and three police cars were all on our block within minutes of the 911 calls being placed. I know how quickly they arrived because I was inside desperately praying for their arrival so that they could take over the CPR process. They did everything they could to revive Helen. Their efforts were very much appreciated by all of us.


For the first couple of years we were on the block, we would take Campbell next door to stay with Helen while we went out and enjoyed "being young" as she always kindly called us. (She also always called Campbell "my baby;" we were honored.) Once Campbell had a few years on him, Helen entrusted her own children to sit our son, and charged us pocket change compared to what our friends pay their sitters. But now that we have a baby again, we’d asked Helen to resume responsibilities. We’ve only been out a couple of times without Noel in the six months since he’s been born, and we were scheduled a third occasion on Friday night, when Helen had offered to look after Noel and Campbell while we hosted Step On. Obviously that was not to be. We were fortunate that another friend stepped in for a couple of hours so that Posie could come out and play a few records despite everything. We remain devastated to have lost such a good person who was so kind to us. Our condolences and our hearts go out to the many surviving members of her lovely family, especially her husband Michael. If there is any other positive aspect to this tragedy, it’s to see the outpouring of support from friends, neighbors, family and church. Helen was greatly loved.


As if this wasn’t enough bad news for our block, which was witness to the horrific death of cyclist Liz Padilla just two weeks ago, another good neighbor, a Mr. Mohammad, proprietor of the Wise Up street promotion company, died on Friday in Colombia, after taking ill while on holiday there. (And my mother wonders why I worry about her every time she goes on another trip to a far corner of the earth.) I wouldn’t pretend to know him as well, and the street did not have to suffer the pain of his departure happening at home, in front of his distraught family. But he’s another person of whom I only had good encounters. The last we chatted, was when I saw him standing bemused by his car one morning, which was resting on raised bricks, having been professionally removed of its tyres overnight. (None of us had heard a thing.) It was a necessary reminder that for all the decrease in crime around New York City, you’re never totally safe. And it was another reminder that for all our different lifestyles and beliefs, we bond together on the block as neighbors and friends. He, too, will be greatly missed.


There’s that saying about things happening in threes. Let’s hope so. We’ve had enough tragedy for one street for a long time to come.

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