Article and photos by Trudy Knockless
Video by Shannon Jones
Hazel Fleischmann’s most memorable birthday gift was a visit to an East Village adult toy store last year, for her 100th birthday. Fleischmann never knew such a place existed before her caretaker introduced her to it.
She purchased souvenirs for her caretaker and hair stylist. She posed with risqué toys for a photograph that ended up on her 100th birthday party invitation. For a woman who has lived a relatively sheltered life, the trip was a unique experience.
And Fleischmann has had quite the lifetime; the lifelong New Yorker and retired teacher turned 101 this past June. She belongs to a select group of New York centenarians. New York City residents over 85 are a mere 1.7 percent, or 121,703 residents, of the city’s population, according to the most recent report by the city’s Department of Aging.
And nationwide, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates New York is home to the second-largest centenarian population in the country, with 4,605 residents 100 years or older, according to its most recent report; California has the largest.
Born Hazel Lillian on June 1, 1914, Fleischmann was raised to live within the boundaries set by her strict parents, and then by a protective, though loving, husband.
Fleischmann’s lifestyle has remained largely unchanged over the century she has lived, all too familiar with routine. She taught at the same school in the Bronx for 30 years, and has lived in the same apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for nearly four decades.
Fleischmann has maintained a weekly routine of getting dolled up. The Upper East Side resident frequents hair and nail salons on East 86th Street, always asking for George the hairdresser to style her hairdo.
“She’s very loyal and she’s very specific about her hair so she’ll tell you what to do. She sticks to the routine, which I think is very wise,” said Tanya Chegal, owner of the hair salon where Fleischmann has been a client for 16 years. “She’s bright and funny.”
“She brought me this from East Village,” she said, referring to a phallic-shaped yellow lollipop she pulled from a drawer.
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After a day at the salon, Fleischmann admits she feels good, but very tired, and can’t wait to sit down in her favorite blue chair to listen to some music and snack on chocolate candies she keeps close by.
In her younger days, Fleischmann’s favorite hobby was playing bridge, at which she can still win. Now she enjoys apps on her iPhone, like the game of solitaire, and recently learned how to take a selfie.
Fleischmann normally starts the day with breakfast, a game of solitaire and an hour and a half of reading the newspaper. Fleischmann will perform what she calls “clerical work”— making out checks to pay her bills, checking her bank transactions and balancing her account. In the afternoons, she watches news programs and talk shows — she likes “The View” and “The Talk,” and reads romance or mystery novels (Danielle Steele is one of her favorite authors).
As Fleischmann recalled her childhood, she cannot help but remember the devastation of the Great Depression. In 1929, when she was 15, her father’s business ventures began to fail.
Subsequent to losing the 22 apartment buildings he owned, he was forced to sell his hardware business and was placed on suicide watch. Not until after World War II ended was he able to repurchase his hardware business. Although the family recovered financially, her father was never the same.
Throughout the Depression, Fleischmann was a typical teenager. She recalls her joy when, upon turning 16, she was allowed to attend Sweet 16 parties with her friends and could finally mingle with boys. When she finally brought a boyfriend home, her mother would sit at the kitchen table at an angle that allowed her to keep an eye on the teenagers in the living room.
At midnight, she would announce, “It’s time to go home.”
Fleischmann attended a training college for teachers where she studied for three years, before completing her senior year at New York University, earning a degree in early education at a time when women earning a post-high school education was uncommon.
Fleischmann worked as a substitute teacher for about four years at P.S. 43 in the Bronx, where she would remain for 38 years. Quite content in her position as a classroom teacher, Fleischmann was surprised when her principal offered her the position of early childhood coordinator, training incoming teachers and teaching the English as a second language.
“If you’ll be happy doing that, then do it,” Abraham, Fleischmann’s husband of more than 60 years, told her. She took the job.
As Fleischmann exited the subway to make the two-block walk to work each day, she would often run into parents of her students. Some would stop her in the street, showering with hugs and kisses.
During her tenure at P.S. 43, Fleischmann witnessed the South Bronx transform from a middle-class neighborhood to a crumbling, dangerous place in the 1970s.
“The place was in very bad shape,” she said. “It was horrible. The kids were hungry and some had nowhere to sleep.”
She recalls taking sick children home from school, and the deplorable conditions—some walked around naked, with no place to sleep. The parents explained that they had “hot beds,” or beds that were shared among several families who would take turns to sleep. Fleischmann retired in 1980.
Fleischmann’s work as an educator was, perhaps, the only thing to which she gave more of herself than her marriage with Abraham Fleischmann, whom she’d begun dating when she was 17 and had known since childhood. Growing up in the same Staten Island neighborhood, they both participated in their community center’s annual musical, in which Abraham was the lead singer.
“He was a very good singer,” she beamed, “I wasn’t so good, so I sang in the chorus.”
Although they tried and longed for children, their attempts were futile, even though medical tests found no abnormalities with either of them. That allowed them to invest some of their earnings, which now allows Fleischmann to live a comfortable life. “It was unfortunate,” she said, because they both loved children. “But we loved each other and that’s what was important.” Abraham died in 2003, after he suffered from complications relating to Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
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Fleischmann still wears her wedding band. Having had double mastectomies for benign tumors, a hip replacement and a heart valve insertion, Fleischmann is amazed she outlived her husband.
“I never thought he would die before me,” she said, solemnly shaking her head. “I thought that I would die very young.”
Fleischmann’s nail technician also adores her, and said, “She’s similar to my grandmother.”
Her caretaker, Luana, who describes her boss and friend as fun, outgoing and down-to-earth, says Fleischmann isn’t “your regular 101-year-old person.”
“I call her my girlfriend, but we’re more like family. We talk about everything. We don’t have an employer-employee relationship.”
Fleischman attributes her longevity to the healthy full-course meals her mother made, which included fish or meat, a starch, vegetables and dessert. For the remainder of her life, Fleischmann is looking forward to enjoying her days with her caretaker, her stylists and nephews.
And as for the adult toy store, she does not plan on visiting again, but says it helped her become “street smart.”