Malissa Post Prattsville NY
I first saw Prattsville in 2012 – a year after Hurricane Irene nearly swept it down the Schoharie Creek. The main street was one shuttered house after another, one boarded up window after another, a series of X's indicating a house that was abandoned, waiting for demolition.
Sprinkled in between the desolation were signs of life – a bar, a diner, a man sitting on his porch.
I met Larry that day, a lonely elderly expat French Canadian watching the cars go by. Larry's house was immaculate.
“My family helped me rebuild,” he told me. “But all my neighbors are gone.”
A year later, I stopped at the Prattsville Diner and asked the lone waitress if she knew Larry and could tell me what had happened to him.
“It's kind of sad,” she told me. “Larry's such a sweetheart. He's moved to an assisted living center a ways from here but no one ever goes to see him. Most people didn't get to know him because they had trouble understanding his accent.”
It was a sunny late summer day. The annual Mudfest, the community event commemorating the floods that nearly destroyed their town, were over.
“Not many people came this year,” the waitress, Malissa Post, told me. “I think a lot of the crowd last year was from New York City, and this year they're still cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy.”
I had a cup of coffee and watched Malissa work. There were just a couple of tables to handle, a group of elderly ladies meeting for lunch, a man in a blue workshirt sitting by himself, a regular stopping in for “just a coffee, honey.”
One of the older ladies left her styrofoam container of leftovers on the counter.
“I'm visiting the little girls room,” she told Malissa. “Don't let me forget this!”
Sure enough, she came back out and shuffled deliberately out the door without it. Malissa went running after her, waving the styrofoam over her head.
“Martha my dear, did you forget something?”
“I love my locals,” Malissa told me. “I'm here Monday, Thursday and Sunday and they know my schedule. If they don't show up, I worry.”
Malissa grew up in Prattsville. She's worked at the diner for ten years.
“I was a CNA (certified nurses' assistant), got my certificate and worked for just four months. They paired me with a girl who was a lot smaller than me. We were lifting a 195 pound man and I asked her if she was ready. She said she was but she couldn't hold the weight. And you know you can't drop him to the floor – you have take yourself to the floor with them and take the patient's weight on you, break their fall. I messed my back up and I can't do it anymore. Being a CNA was my plan for life. With them, I was making $15 an hour. Per diems it meant I could pick my hours. I did not plan on working in a diner the rest of my life. Nope.”
“This job pays $240 a week. But now I've got no arm strength. None. I have a hard time lifting these buckets. If we had to carry trays here like you do in most restaurants, I couldn't work here. I'm so grateful we have a dishwasher on the weekends, cause those buckets fill up so quick and I can't lift 'em. When I got hurt I weighed like one fifty, now I weigh one thirty, but I have no muscles. I'm forty and I already have back issues. I've lost all this weight walking for six months straight. I finally just now got my car back on the road. I've been walking back and forth to work. If I had to go to the doctor's, God forbid I had to find a taxi. We don't have those.”
“I work three jobs. I babysit for my cousin in the morning, she has two little boys. I work from six in the morning to fifteen minutes to twelve. And, uh, I try to get ready while I'm babysitting. You know, get dressed, do my hair, my makeup, so when she walks in the door I'm ready to go. She's my cousin and it's hard to find a babysitter around here. She pays me twenty dollars a day. So if I work five days, that sets the salary, what 20-40-60-80, I only usually work four days a week, that's $80 on top of $240. Well, I say $240 but by the time the taxes come out, I end up with like $150. So $150 plus $80.”
“Then I clean for my aunt who has handicapped children. She went through knee surgery last year and her knee is worse now than it was before the surgery. Her surgeon says it will never be any better. So I clean one day a week for her, she pays me $75 a week. But she doesn't pay me on the day I clean – because she gets Social Security disability, I get paid the beginning of every month for the work I did the month before.”
“I have to basically live off this job and babysitting. I don't touch that other money – I live on my tips and my salary here and $60 from babysitting. I live alone. I am moving into a very small studio. My children are both grown and out of the house this year. It was easier when they were with me, 'cause they both had jobs. I said, look, you're this age and this is Mommy's job and you've got a little summer job and you're going to contribute. And I made them put the extra away, so in the winter they'd have their little jobs at the ski mountain and I have my little job here, but when you need extra money it's there.”
“My daughter moved to Florida and my son moved to Ashland and it's just Mommy now. I moving out of the four bedroom house I had just a month ago. I'm leaving a lot of my furniture behind and moving into a tiny little studio. All I need is my bed, I have an overstuffed chair, a coffee table, two little end tables, that's all I need. I'm good. It's $500 a month, everything included. You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes.”
I noted there weren't many options for living or working in such a small community.
“There's nothing in this town. Yeah, I love the owner of the local grocery store to death, but all he hires is little schoolgirls and college girls. I've put in applications three times in the past six years. Every time, I say, 'Jim, are you doing any hiring?' and he says, 'I will be in a week. Fill this out and come back and see me in a week.' And I go back and in that time he's hired four new girls.”
“We've got that, we've got the liquor store, Agway and one bar in this town is about it. My cousin actually works in the grocery store. I may end up taking a fourth job cleaning houses on the days I'm not working here.”
I asked if she considered moving to a bigger community.
“My father lives here and he's in hospice, dying. I lost my mom two years ago. Actually, July 24, right before the flood I lost my mother and then we had the flood. No way am I going anywhere right now. But I tell my friends and even my sisters, the day he closes his eyes and don't wake up, once everything's settled that's the day you see me saying, 'Call me. See ya!' I'm going back to Tennessee.
I actually lived there for two years before my dad got sick and I loved it there. It's so much cheaper to live and that's what I'm going back to!”
“I'm not involved with anyone right now – I had a boyfriend for five years and we broke up a few months ago. So I'm free. I have kids but they've moved on with their lives. So the only thing stopping me is my father. And I know it's just a matter of time.”
“I can't believe he's hung on so long. He's got something called myesthenia gravis. It's almost like multiple sclerosis, but instead of paralyzing you, it shuts down all your major organs. My dad's had surgery three times on his eyes – he can't have surgery anymore. Now it's started to affect his heart and his lungs. Hospice came in and he's on morphine. He weighs like seventy pounds. So it's just a matter of time before he lies down and that oxygen just won't be enough. And I'm okay with that. I have three younger sisters and the one he lives with isn't – she thinks it's horrible. I try to tell her, do you want to see him keep suffering or do you want him to be free? After the last time in the hospital he looked at me and told me, 'No more. You tell them no more, I want to go home to my bedroom to die.' And since I'm his health proxy, there's nobody can do a damned thing about it. I love my dad to death. I loved my mom to death, too, but I always had a closer bond with my dad. When I was growing up, I was working with my dad. I was hanging sheetrock on walls. I was taping, I was painting. I was working on cars because my father had two older boys, and they moved away and then he had me. So I was his tomgirl. My sisters had no desire to get dirty or greasy, but as long as I was with my dad I was happy.”