The last thing a landlord wants to hear on the answering machine is a tenant calling to say he can’t make the rent. But this call was different.

“He left a message on one of our lines, and he was crying,” recalled Leyli Johnson, maintenance supervisor for Port Properties Management in Portland. “He said he couldn’t get out of bed and get to the bank to pay his August rent. And he didn’t want to get evicted.”

His name is Larry Bauernfeind. He’s 85. He’s lived alone for the past decade in an apartment owned by Port Properties Management at 30 Preble St. in Portland.

And the last few months, to put it mildly, have been anything but easy.

The moment they got that call back in late July, Johnson recalled, the folks at Port Properties dispatched their tenant relations specialist to the apartment to see what the problem was. What they found was an old man, with no family or friends to keep an eye on him, fast slipping through the cracks of an ever-widening social safety net.

“His place was covered in flies. His bathroom was a filthy mess. And he had buckets of urine next to his bed,” recalled Johnson. “He couldn’t make it to the bathroom, so apparently he was peeing in cups and then dumping it into a bucket next to the bed. He was desperate.”

Enter Johnson, who quickly became Larry’s lifeline.

She dispatched her cleaning crews — not once, not twice, but at least weekly for the past two months — first to clean up Larry’s place and then to keep it just this side of livable.

When Johnson heard that Larry’s bed was broken, she sent one of her workers over to fix it. (“It was like he was sleeping on an off-ramp,” recalled Kevin Hammond, the maintenance technician for Port Properties who did the repairs.)

Most importantly, Johnson got on the horn to find out who else, if anyone, knew Larry was quickly crossing over into that stage of life where total independence is no longer an option.

“I think he’s just a proud old man,” she said. “I think he didn’t want to trouble anyone. And he’s very lucid. Extremely lucid.”

Johnson had heard Larry mention that a guy from the state came by from time to time. But when Johnson called the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ office of Adult Protective Services and told them Larry needed at least a daily visit, she recalled, “They were like, ‘We don’t have those kinds of resources, we can’t do that.’“

(Contacted last week, DHHS spokesman John Martins said confidentiality laws prohibit the agency from confirming whether Larry is a DHHS client.)

Johnson knew that at least three times, Larry had asked for Portland’s Medcu to come and take him to Maine Medical Center — in fact, she placed one of the calls herself.

But all three times, she said, he came home in a cab. And when she called the hospital to ask why, “They said he wasn’t sick enough (to be admitted) and he wasn’t their responsibility.”

Johnson also thought there might be some kind of visiting nurse involved — during one cleaning mission, she found an old catheter in Larry’s apartment. And she knew he received regular food deliveries from Meals on Wheels.

“So we kind of assumed that he was being visited regularly,” she said. “But every time we went in, we found that nobody had cleaned, things were not any better and he was just lying in his bed in this dark, dark, dank apartment.”

Through it all, Johnson also got to know a little bit about Larry.

He told her he grew up in Oshkosh, Wis., one of five brothers who all enlisted in the Army and fought in World War II. Larry served as an anti-aircraft gunner on Okinawa and, like all of his brothers, got through the war without a scratch.

He moved to Portland in 1960, got married and then divorced. He worked as an accountant and later laying out newspaper ads for Sears, Roebuck and Co. — hence, he never had reason to investigate what benefits he might be entitled to for his long-ago military service.

But Johnson, upon hearing Larry was a veteran, now saw a ray of hope.

Last week, after one of her cleaners came back and said apologetically that she couldn’t enter the apartment because the smell was so bad, Johnson went back herself and sat down with Larry.

“I’m trying to find you some help, but I’m running into brick walls everywhere I go,” she told him. “How about Togus (Veterans Affairs Medical Center)?”

“I’d like that very much,” replied Larry.

“I don’t want to force you to do anything you don’t want to do,” Johnson told him. “Are you sure you’re OK with this?”

“It’s very OK,” replied Larry. “I know I need help.”

Johnson went back to the office and consulted Tom Watson, co-owner of Port Properties. Watson, of course, could have told her that as long as Larry paid his $625 monthly rent (out of his roughly $1,000 a month in Social Security benefits), he was not Port Properties’ problem.

Instead, Watson told Johnson to call a local limousine service, hire a car for the next day and personally escort Larry to the Togus VA Medical Center.

So on Wednesday morning, much to Larry’s astonishment, a shiny Lincoln Town Car pulled up to his building. The black-suited driver got out, carried the two suitcases down from the apartment and respectfully opened the door while Larry, cane in hand, slowly got in.

A few hours later, Larry found himself in a hospital bed at Togus — his hair and long gray beard clean, his stomach full and his future infinitely brighter.

Jim Doherty, a spokesman for the veterans hospital, said the first priority is to assess Larry’s physical condition. After that, Doherty said, the Department of Veterans Affairs will help place him in the residential setting that best suits his needs.

“If they’re a veteran, they belong to us,” Doherty said. “He’s now in the system, and he’s being taken care of. That’s the important thing.”

Sitting in his hospital bed Friday morning, Larry acknowledged that yes, things were getting pretty bleak back there on Preble Street.

“I was kind of at a standstill there,” he said. “I was very isolated.”

As for Johnson and the others at Port Properties, he said, “They were excellent. They thought a lot about me, and I’m glad that they were on my side and they helped me. I was surprised that they took me under their wing that way.”

Chalk one up for the landlord. 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.