Go Fish

By Richard Rosenthal

Back in the spring of 2017, my physician detected a blockage in my carotid artery that subsequent tests confirmed.

We had a heart to heart.

At least once a week, I was to eat fresh, wild fish. I must avoid supermarket fish, which he said is not reliably fresh and usually raised in pools full of antibiotics. He said he would be nagging me about this.

Then, aware that I try to keep sandwiches on hand because a hip disability sometimes prevents me from making my meals, he urged me to avoid supermarket cold cuts, which he said were stuffed with harmful preservatives. He promised to nag me about this too.

I was confident I could handle the situation. Because I am a low-income, disabled senior, my grocery shopping is done for me, entirely with my money, by a town-employed homemaker aide under the auspices of EISEP, the Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly Program.

The obvious place for my aide to get the right fish was Round Swamp Farm. It’s a pricey place, no doubt about that, but their fish is reliable and by Hamptons’ standards competitively priced. And over the years I’d found that Round Swamp could surprise you. Every year, their season-end, bargain-priced local tomato sale had supplied me with months of great tomato sauce.

Also, EISEP guidelines require that aides use “the closest grocery store only.” Round Swamp, a half mile around the corner from my house, is the closest. In the off-season, when Round Swamp closes, we could get wild fish from Citarella in the village and the sandwiches from Mary’s Marvelous, as we had been all along.

Problem solved.

But then, shortly after my doctor’s artery blockage diagnosis, my town social worker phoned to tell me that aides could no longer buy fish or anything else for their clients at Round Swamp.

Why not?

Well, Round Swamp was not a “grocery store” but a “specialty market,” and the town’s Human Services Department had declared specialty markets off limits for EISEP shopping. Furthermore, Citarella was also a specialty market and so now also off limits. And further-furthermore, all groceries, including fish and sandwiches, were to be bought only at one of East Hampton’s two supermarkets, the I.G.A. or Stop and Shop. Mary’s Marvelous also had been blackballed.

I told the social worker of my doctor’s warnings, but she blew it off. These were the regulations for any senior on the program regardless of his or her need to follow a coronary-care diet.

What’s all this in aid of, anyway? This bureaucratic overreach. This bossiness masquerading as efficiency.

The changes do not lower costs and thereby help taxpayers. Quite the contrary. A healthy diet means less use of expensive emergency services and other costly taxpayer-supported health care activity.

They don’t save time, either. The time allotted each client remains the same, in my case two hours once a week for my shopping and mail pickup. During my four years as an EISEP client, I can’t recall one occasion when an aide (they are remarkably efficient and conscientious) exceeded the limit. Shopping and mail pickup were completed well within the two hours. Their remaining time is spent doing light cleaning for me.

The categories assigned to the town’s food retailers are also confused. Citarella in East Hampton is far more a supermarket than a specialty market. It has the major hallmarks of a supermarket — a variety of defined departments: dairy, produce, baked goods, meat, fish, and more. Citarella also contains such standard supermarket features as aisles, self-service, and customer lineup checkout.

Pork stores, cheese stores, condiment stores, pasta shops, and butchers are examples of specialty markets. They specialize overwhelmingly in one food category and offer product expertise and personal service, which Citarella largely does not. 

Round Swamp Farm, with its variety of inventory and lineup checkout procedure, also is not a specialty market.

What these regulations really do is display an infantilizing contempt for the ability of us older people to steer our own lives. They also mess with our opportunities to patronize local merchants with whom we have had trusting relationships for decades, and deprive them of business that is mostly conducted during off-peak hours.

And anyway, why on earth exclude specialty markets? Gosman’s fish store in Montauk is a specialty market. Can you imagine a town aide being forbidden from buying fish for a Montauk senior at Gosman’s, just because East Hampton Town labels it a specialty market? Or from Duryea’s? Or burgers for a Montauk 80-year-old’s birthday cookout from Herb’s?

All the work and mental gymnastics that must have gone into producing these deadly little proclamations; all the conditioning of social workers to become petty enforcers when the end result is that we defy our doctors and risk our lives. I am hardly the only senior in town who has received coronary-care diet orders from a physician.

I first raised these issues in June 2017, when I emailed the director of the Human Services Department about their danger. In October, I wrote a “Guestwords” piece for The Star and copied each member of the town board.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, I have yet to receive a response or acknowledgment. Which is quite astonishing really in a democracy and from a local government that likes to think of itself as efficient and caring.

Is all this deadly nonsense simply the nature of the bureaucratic beast? It needn’t be. The town board can fix it immediately if it wants to.

I am 93 years old and living independently. I am not a burden to the town, my friends, or emergency services. I hope to last a few more years and write a few more articles, such as this, that I believe are necessary for our community.

Where are the better angels of our town government? Where is the simple, essential curiosity of civic leaders to explore the consequences of such actions and report their findings? Where is the town board’s concern about what is taking place with an esteemed and vulnerable part of the population? 

But during the year now that I have periodically informed them and the Human Services Department of my physician’s dire warnings, I’ve heard nothing from them — no actions, no queries about the wasted money, laughable nitpicking, or indifference to endangered lives that is taking root on their watch.

I believe that now, with our nation’s political culture facing a crisis of decency and maturity, such oversight by local governments is more important than ever.

Richard Rosenthal has been a business reporter for Fairchild Publications.