The Life and Times of Carol Rhyner

Carol Rhyner was a child the last time November 8 felt so cold on George Street.

It was 18 degrees there in 1960, early before daybreak. Carol would have still been asleep, warm in bed.

Things were simpler then. It was a school day.

Carol woke up to find JFK the newly elected President of the United States. Richard Nixon was just another losing candidate. The king was Elvis, and there wasn’t a Berlin Wall yet.

She probably woke up around 7 a.m., showered, got dressed and ate a warm breakfast before setting out for school. Her mother didn’t worry she walked alone for the same reason she didn’t bother to lock the doors at night.

47 years later, November 8 was a little warmer.

Carol slept at a bus stop with an unlit cigarette in her hand and dark sunglasses over her eyes. She had an open bag of barbecue potato chips next to her on the bench and a pouch of loose tobacco resting atop her enormous belly.

Around 5 p.m., she woke up and sluggishly gathered her belongings into a small rolling suitcase, then began making her way down George Street. A harsh wind was blowing.

The rolling suitcase flipped over every time it hit a crack in the pavement and Carol would drag it upside down for a few feet — steel zippers and fabric grinding against the concrete — until a sturdy jerk of the handle landed the suitcase right-side up again.

A hacking cough audible from blocks away followed her as she walked, and it only ever gave way to labored breathing.

Carol made it as far as Rite-Aid — two blocks or so — then staggered over to a nearby trashcan.

Winded, hunched over garbage and with a dirty, tattered handkerchief to her mouth, she said, “I’m out of breath.”

Carol didn’t seem to notice the passersby staring at her as she stood there, gasping for air. Or she didn’t care.

The fit ended after a minute and she was on her way again.

Her destination was a short brick ledge behind the Krauszer’s on Bayard Street. She’s something of a fixture there, chatting up any passing stranger willing to listen.

“He hit me, slapped me, kicked me. I didn’t hit him back. I was thinking about it,” she said, reminiscing about a former lover named Wesley. “I couldn’t get my scissors out.”

She broke up with Wesley following the incident, but admits he was angry over something she’d done in the past.

“When he was passed out drunk, I went in his pockets and took his money. About 40 bucks,” she said, a wry smile creeping over her face. “I left New Brunswick. I went to the city, got drunk and came back. I know New York. I worked in Manhattan for four years.”

Maybe she went to retrace old footsteps, or to lose the sadness she says follows her around like a curse.

Carol hasn’t worked in more than a decade and lives entirely off monthly disability checks doled out by the government.

But she says she used to be a high-powered corporate-type, working for the likes of Revlon.

“I worked five years in planning and then I got promoted to New York. Four years in the sales forecasting department. I worked my way up to senior manager making $45,000 a year in the’80s. Then I got laid off. The company had to cut back expenses, so they said they eliminated my job.”

She chuckles before adding, “What they probably did was laid me off, changed the job description and hired some kid out of college for half my salary.”

Carol is intelligent and well spoken, but hard to understand sometimes. Her voice is a strained whisper – a casualty of cigarettes, booze and neglect. It often tapers out mid-sentence, rendering her words indecipherable.

With her grumbled speech and bright-red-Barbie-doll lipstick, it’s easy to drown her out – just another crazy drifter.

She wasn’t always this way.

As a young girl growing up in Edison, her childhood was relatively normal. She says her family made her feel loved, and that she loved them back. Her grades were mostly A’s and she had an aptitude for math.

After high school, she attended Trenton State College — now called The College of New Jersey.

“My parents were not wealthy people, but my mother was determined to send me to college because she always wanted to go and never did,” she said.

Carol keeps her diploma and college transcripts in the front pocket of the rolling suitcase, yellow and crumpled. She holds up the aged documents and says plainly, “you can’t do much with a B.A. in psychology.”

But her mother had taken out loans to pay for her undergraduate studies, and Carol felt uncomfortable asking her to pay for a master’s degree as well. So in 1975, she entered the workforce.

“I started substitute teaching in Piscataway … making $20 a day,” she said, counting off a string of jobs on her fingers. “UPS was hiring, so I quit my job subbing because they paid better. I didn’t work much though, there was a lot of flirting.”

“Then I worked for Abraham and Straus, which is now Macy’s. I did all these stupid jobs [and then] I heard Revlon was hiring a lot of college kids to take inventory,” she said.

The Revlon job was supposed to be a two-week stint and ended up lasting nine years. But in 1987, Revlon was forced to institute mass layoffs in the wake of a failed hostile takeover bid of rival Gillette. Carol was let go.

“After that, I got a job at Conair as a marketing manager in Edison,” she said, counting off a fifth finger. “Then they decided to relocate to Connecticut, and I got laid off again. I went to Nabisco and got hired there in the corporate logistics department, which is distribution. I worked there for two years before I got laid off when it was taken over by RJ Reynolds.”

Carol was fed up with the lack of job security in the corporate world and confided in her mother she was thinking of leaving it altogether.

“I can’t take this anymore,” she said, “getting laid off, making these good salaries that don’t last. I know I’ll take a big cut in pay, but I’m going into retail.”

She worked for Macy’s and saved her money until there was enough for a plane ticket to Florida. There, she found employment as a desk clerk at a Holiday Inn.

Carol regards her time in Florida as one of the happiest periods in her life. Though her salary was considerably less, it was enough to pay for her subsidized apartment. She says she also fell in love with a Honduran man who helped with expenses.

One day, her mother called.

“She just said, ‘I want you to come home and help me. I’m sick.'”

Carol left her boyfriend, her job and her apartment, and flew back to New Jersey.

“[The emphysema] just kept getting worse and worse,” she said. “Once they told her she had cancer, I think she gave up her will to live.”

Her mother suffered greatly toward the end of her life, she said. It was Christmas Eve when doctors gave her a shot of morphine to ease the pain.

“I drove back to the house and wrapped the gifts that we had gotten for her,” she said. “When I came back, she was asleep. I just sat there at the side of her bed and held her hand. She passed away at 2 a.m. She barely made it to Christmas.”

Carol said her mother’s death put her over the edge. In her will, the house was left to Carol’s stepfather, who promptly kicked her out.

She says she wandered around Edison in a stupor for three days before calling 911, demanding to be taken to a hospital. Police arrived and brought her to the Acute Psychiatric Service of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

“They took me to APS in Piscataway,” she said incredulously. “That’s a place you take crazy people. I was tired, fed up, sad, depressed, but I wasn’t crazy. Then they tricked me and gave me this pill and said it would make me feel better. It was a sedative. I fell asleep and next thing I know, these big goons come in and wake me up and say ‘We’re taking you somewhere else.'”

Carol protested, pleading to be taken back to New Brunswick.

“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” she said. “I don’t even know why I’m here. They said they were going to take me to a hospital – this isn’t a hospital.”

But the orderlies ignored her, she said, and strapped her down to a stretcher. They took her to Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, where she spent the next nine months.

After being released, her life became a cycle of drinking and sleeping. It still is.

Carol dislikes Middlesex County, but says she can’t leave yet because of a court date scheduled for December. She won’t discuss the charges against her, offering only that it’s “a minor offense.”

She says she’s not as sad as she used to be — just not happy, either.

“When I can leave New Brunswick, I’ll be happy. Maybe.”