Starting With (Less than) Scratch

It was so sudden.  My husband left.   There I was in NYC without a nickel and no idea what to do.  I felt shattered.  Facing the challenge of survival, I collected cans from trash bins to redeem for food money and retrieved discarded shirts from laundry rooms to use as cleaning rags.  I papered my neighborhood bus stops (quasi-legal at the time) with handwritten notices ‘seeking clients’ advertising my services as a house keeper.  That was in 1987.

One of my weekly clients was a highly regarded, retired professor of politics and history whose wife had recently passed away.  His nearest family was a daughter who taught in college and lived with her family far away in Washington State.   The professor kept his wife’s personal things exactly where they were when she died. It appeared that she kept an organized and tidy home, including his impressive and vast library.  However, the professor seemed overwhelmed and just couldn’t keep up the apartment.  Recently accumulated books, newspapers, magazines, journals, academic papers, files and lecture materials filled all table tops, counters and window sills.  Bowls of partially consumed food were left on his bed, bureau, chairs and sofas.  He wore the same clothes for days, leaving untouched the mended and laundered clothing I’d placed in bureau drawers.

On a very hot summer day, he went out to pick up his glasses from his long time local eye doctor.  After an hour of waiting anxiously for him to return, I went to find him.  He hadn’t arrived at the eye doctor’s, hadn’t stopped at the corner newsstand and was not in his usual booth at the café.  I ran to the vest pocket park he and his wife enjoyed for so many years and phew!  There he was, sitting alone.  I took him to the doctor and then walked him home to safety, set out his dinner, tidied his bed and fastened his glasses to one of those strings you wear around your neck.  I told him I’d call later just to check in, and restored the emergency phone number card I’d made to its place by the phone.

My role had changed from being just his “cleaning lady‘.  I was naturally transforming into roles I had not expected –  assessing my client’s declining capacity to take care of himself and  his home and becoming his advocate and advising his family.   I called his daughter.  “Tina, I think you should come see your Dad.”   I shared my observations, reviewed my detailed notes I wrote after each cleaning session.  A few days later, Tina and I met in the apartment which had also been her childhood home.  With sadness, she made the decision to move him to Washington to live near to her.  “Kristin, I’ll book a flight for my father and me.  Can you take care of shipping his things to us and clearing the apartment?”  “Absolutely!” I promised.  But, I had no idea how to do any of it.  None!

So, I researched, talked to friends, contacted a full range of other professionals and companies, asked dozens of questions, took notes, compared options all centered on the client’s needs and wishes.  At times, I felt discouraged and confused.  Pressure on the professor to return the apartment to Columbia University Real Estate was formidable.  Problems coordinating logistics multiplied as I involved more agencies and charities.  There never seemed to be enough time, especially as the deadline got nearer.   I also contacted a friend who owned a ‘temp’ business which dispatched mainly men to jobs requiring extra manual labor.   I needed a lot of help just doing the work.

Kristin Bergfeld

Kristin Bergfeld persists!!



A friend made me a t-shirt with the word “PERSIST” printed on it and that’s exactly what I did.  I actually wore it at home while I was trying to find solutions to his many issues.





Giant rooster puppet made with ties

In the days that followed, much energy was spent sorting through possessions accumulated over 40 years.  We started with things he was ready to simply discard.  Deciding which to keep was a harder task.  As his resistance to being moved from his apartment intensified, he focused on one particular item…neck ties.  He insisted I save and ship all of them.  To those without an Ivy League college background, these ties with their dark solid backgrounds and colored diagonal stripes could look indistinguishable from each other.  To him, each represented an academic community or achievement that he valued highly.  Then, I had an idea!  I had a friend who made giant puppets for street theater and the Greenwich Village Halloween parade.  He is always looking for materials.  I called him. He was working on some characters for some Miracle Plays, among them, a giant rooster.  Neckties could make a perfect tail!  I arranged for him to meet the professor.  He explained his idea to the professor who was so intrigued he readily relinquished many of his beloved ties for this good and unique cause- making feathers for the rooster’s tail.   From then on, deciding what to keep got easier and easier.  He agreed to donate many things to charities which I selected according to his special interests.

We shipped his clothing, archival materials, correspondence, photos and other personal treasures to Washington State.  His stove, refrigerator and toaster oven went to the half way house of a drug treatment program in East Harlem.  Some of his clothes were donated to a theater/film costume manager, others to Harlem Restoration, and Salvation Army.  Many of the books were scooped up by Columbia Libraries as well as his friends and colleagues. His wife’s hospital bed went to a client of Catholic Charities.  Tapes and worn out LP’s of classical music were more difficult to place because of their condition. We gave them to various local street vendors to sell.

By month’s end, we’d cleared the apartment, cleaned it so that it could be returned to Columbia without penalty.  As I surveyed the emptied apartment, I know that I loved helping him, the complicated logistics and issues involved in accomplishing this, and passing on to others the property that would otherwise be wasted in landfill.   Shortly after this, on what would have been my father’s 77th birthday, I went to City hall, filed my business as a ‘DBA’, got a federal ID number, lined up statutory insurance policies.  I had to figure out wage withholding  (those big white charts with tiny red and black calculations), learn simple bookkeeping (those green forms with sheets with microscopically tiny lines) and get new ribbons  for my portable typewriter.

BERGFELD’s was born.

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One Response to Starting With (Less than) Scratch

  1. I enjoyed your inspirational story. I have seen some neglected homes here on the Olympic Peninsula and it makes my heart cry out to love those homes, the items and people who had to leave those items behind due to death and the lack of someone to clean it up. It is my desire to reach out to my local community and try to fill this need as you have done in your area.

    Thank you for setting a fine example for those of us who desire to help others.

    Susan Winters

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