Film Review: The Mayor of Bedford Street, produced and directed by Alice Elliott. Harriman, NY: New Day Films, 2002.
The Collector of Bedford Street is a short documentary film, produced and directed by filmmaker Alice Elliott. The film introduces Larry Selman, a man in his late 50s with mental retardation, who narrates the film. Not since Best Boy, Ira Wohl's film about his cousin Philly, have we gotten in a documentary such a close view of an adult with mental retardation.
As the story begins, we see that Larry, a collector of funds for charity, has been living on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, New York, since his parents died over 30 years ago. Larry, like many other people in their 40s and 50s, is trying to give something back to his community. He collects money for charities. Through the fine work of filmmaker Alice Elliott, we see how especially ironic this is, given Larry's impoverished situation. Throughout the film, we observe Larry walking around the Village and asking friends and strangers for donations for different charities—and, he is good at it. He collected over $3,000 the year before the film was made. At times people seem annoyed at being asked to contribute, even though they are being filmed. Nevertheless, Larry is persistent, as all fundraisers know they must be. Because of his collecting and his forcefulness, some people in the neighborhood refer to Larry as the Mayor of Bedford Street.
As the film progresses, Larry moves into his own apartment after living with his aging uncle, who has cared for Larry for years. In his loneliness, Larry befriends anyone who will talk to him. He encounters homeless people who will often talk to anyone. Kindhearted Larry often brings some of these “friends” home with him and, occasionally, gives them keys to his apartment and building so they can come and go as they please. Although people in his neighborhood co-op had been friendly towards Larry for a long time, some of them were upset about having homeless people with access to the building. After one of these friends caused a flood by turning the water on and leaving the apartment, the Co-op board called a meeting and considered asking Larry to leave. Fortunately for Larry, some Board members felt that more constructive measures could be taken, so a meeting of the Bedford Barrow Neighborhood Association was called to consider Larry's situation. One of the members knew that the United Jewish Appeal–Federation had a mechanism for establishing trusts for adults with disabilities. As a result of this meeting, the neighbors decided to establish a trust for Larry so that he could be self-sufficient after his uncle could no longer help him.
This excellent example of the natural support that we hear about so much today is an unusual case of community advocacy by a group of neighbors and friends who cared about Larry. During his walks in the neighborhood, we see Larry's persistence, reintroducing himself to people and asking them to contribute to whatever charity he happens to be collecting for at the moment. He may be a nuisance at times because of his persistence, but this is a tolerable, if not lovable, nuisance. This film portrays a number of current issues important to adults living with mental retardation. Where to live? What to do? How to be supported? With whom to associate and live? Who do we love?
Larry first lives with his family and then in his own apartment, thus giving us a view of one way that an individual with mental retardation can live his life—as a contributing member of his community. As far as we know, Larry never lived in an institutional setting nor did he receive services from any agency until his neighbors set up the trust and connected him with one of the large voluntary agencies in New York City. The film also shows that Larry has made his own vocational choice, that of fundraiser. He has chosen to donate his time to collecting funds for charities such as the AIDS walk and muscular dystrophy. The rest of his time is spent attending to activities of daily life and taking care of his pets. Finally, the film lets us see a neighborhood association coming together to establish a trust for Larry. It is, as an official from the United Jewish Appeal-Federation tells us in the film, a very unusual occurrence when a neighborhood association acts as advocate for a person with mental retardation..
Despite the fact that we find out a lot about Larry's current life, we know little about his past. We do not know about his school experiences or much at all about his early years. That is unfortunate because there are lots of questions that leap to mind as we are watching. How is it that Larry has escaped the prying eyes of social service agencies for so long, living on Bedford Street—first with his uncle and then later by himself? What sort of education did Larry get? Why doesn't he have any friends outside his neighborhood? There are some clues to his past in his admission that he is suicidal and that his mother was also. He relates that his mother wished a car could hit her so that Larry and his father would get the insurance money. At times, Larry does seem to be depressed. At other times, however, he does not.
Perhaps the most poignant and interesting part of the film is toward the end, when Larry meets Ellie. Larry goes to a dance held by one of the organizations that provide programs for people with mental retardation. We hear him telling Alice (and the audience) how much he is looking forward to this dance. He seems determined to meet someone and, sure enough, he does. He dances with Ellie the whole time, apparently. After their initial meeting, they seem to spend a lot of time together. Ellie comes to visit him at his apartment on Bedford Street on his birthday. Of course, she brings a card and a gift. The gift is cologne and Larry is very happy. His face is beaming. He tells Ellie how much he likes the gift and we see them hug. There are several moments when they kiss—these are the most touching scenes in the movie. But these moments are separated by long periods of silence during which we only hear the clock ticking. After Larry asks Ellie to marry him, she tells him she will have to think about it for a few months. Just as the happy ending is at hand, we are jolted back to the likely realities of Larry's life. Larry might never find fulfillment on this front, as is the case with many people with intellectual disabilities.
Filmmaker Elliott has been able to create a contemporary piece with Larry Selman as the centerpiece that considers the plight of adults with mental retardation who live in large urban centers. Her portrayal of Larry touches on many issues that most individuals living in the postinstitutional age must face. Larry, and many others like him, often live in near poverty with few friends and little to occupy them. Policymakers and all who view this film may better understand the realities of life today for adults with mental retardation.