Friday, January 21, 2005

Freezing sleepover: My 43° nightmare

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Freezing sleepover: My 43° nightmare


Curtis Kinsey, a 69-year-old amputee, uses the oven as only real source of heat in his Harlem studio.

As the clock ticked closer to midnight, Curtis Kinsey gingerly moved his wheelchair to the oven, twisting the dial down from 450 degrees to OFF.
Thus began our cold descent into the dark of night.

The Daily News sent me Wednesday night to Kinsey's unheated Harlem home, a modest but immaculate studio on W. 131st St. Within hours, it had become a live-in refrigerator.

On the slush-swept streets outside, the temperature was a frigid 24 degrees. With the oven on, the mercury inside flirted with the housing-law required low of 68 degrees.

"The heat's been off for the last three years," said Kinsey, a 69-year-old amputee. "It's like hell, living without heat."

To stay warm, Kinsey puts a pot filled with water atop the open oven door, the steam offering a whiff of warmth.

With the stove burning, it was bearable. But as bedtime approached, Kinsey killed the pilot light.

"If I slept with the oven on I might wake up dead," said Kinsey, pulling a long thermal nightshirt over his pajamas and underclothes and crawling under two blankets and a comforter.

The night was still young, but I felt old.

The cold crept in by degrees. The baseboard radiators were stone-cold. The frost on the windows obscured the orange-haloed streetlights outside. By 1 a.m., the fifth-floor room was a raw 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

The studio's temperature plummeted to 48 degrees. Kinsey stirred as the wind pounded the drafty windows. Shivers and aches in both shoulders won't let him rest. At 2:57 a.m., he lifted himself out of bed and into his wheelchair for another blanket.

"In the cold, you find out about arthritis," said Kinsey, fighting a hacking cough. "What you don't know about it, arthritis will tell you."

It was 4:10 a.m. The mercury dived to 43.5 degrees, just a notch above the average icebox. I pulled up the hood of my down coat but couldn't shake the chill. Kinsey's sleep was a restless hibernation.

I saw him toss and turn, searching for a warm place on the full-sized bed.

On most days, Kinsey's tired ritual starts at 5 a.m., when he rises in the dark, his breath often visible in the air. Once the old gas oven ignites, it's at least a two-hour wait for the apartment to become bearable.

As dawn came Thursday, I was still awake. Gray light crept in through foggy windows just after 7 a.m. The apartment's chill eased slightly as Kinsey's neighbors fired up stoves and portable space heaters to heat their own studios.

Kinsey has complained to his landlord, but he's not sure who gets the message - the managing company, Web and Brooker Real Estate in Harlem, or the owner, a company formed by nearby St. Philip's Episcopal Church.

"Management has changed about five times since I moved in," said Kinsey, a resident of the 104-unit complex for seniors and the disabled since 1997. "The heat isn't there when it turns cold, but the rent is due on time every month. No doubt about that."

My night was sleepless, my morning bone-cold. Wrapped in a blanket, Kinsey shivered as he eagerly waited the long seconds for the blue flame to spark another numbing day. Steam from the pot lifted the chilled morning gloom to a balmy 63 degrees.

City warms to task at Bldg. in Harlem

The big freeze could soon be over for tenants of 450 W. 131st St., as city engineers move in to fix faulty heating.

Carol Abrams of Housing Preservation and Development said workers went to the building yesterday to look at the problem.

And she said they will return today to "bleed" the heating system - removing air pockets that may be blocking it.

"It seems that the problem is in distribution," she said. "Bleeding it should improve, and ideally cure, the problem."

But disabled resident Curtis Kinsey, 69, said, "I've been hearing promises for a long time."

Adam Nichols

Originally published on January 21, 2005

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