“Call me Ishmael.” That opening line from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” has a very different meaning around Rye Manor, an affordable-living apartment complex in Rye.
For when they call Ishmael Vargas, 63, when he's on duty there, it can be for any number of reasons.
Those reasons range from calling Ishmael for help in tracking down a resident with dementia who has wandered off-property to calling on him to help the elderly carry grocery bags from the supermarket up to their apartment.
Vargas is one of those unsung heroes, working behind the scenes in Rye. A man for all seasons really: he shovels snow in winter, mows lawns in summer, plants flowers in springtime, and helps pick up various older residents after falls. He regularly checks on the welfare of the Manor residents by discreetly tapping on their doors, making sure all is well when they haven't been seen up and around.
Vargas lives on site. His job description may be superintendent-porter, but that is only part of the story. He is so much more, from a personal shopper for the homebound to a surrogate friend for the lonely to someone Rye Manor residents know they can count on no matter what.
Those “whats” recently included Ishmael’s roaming the streets of Harrison looking for a Rye Manor resident with Alzheimer's disease symptoms. The resident had wandered off and tried to withdraw money from a bank where she didn’t have an account. Ishmael found her there, and quietly brought her home.
Every one of the 100 Rye Manor residents has a favorite Ishmael story
Ishmael shrugs off the praise by saying he is just doing what comes naturally.
“I just like people," he says. "Rye Manor is like my family, and I come from a big, loving family: six brothers, three sisters, from Humacao-not far from San Juan in Puerto Rico. I lost my mother four years ago, my father long before that, so I know the meaning of family, loss, death and heartache. We had nothing, no education, no money, but we had plenty of love.”
Ishmael came to the U.S. in 1989 looking for a better life and greater opportunity. He wound up in Westchester willing to take any kind of job so he could send money home.
He worked in several kitchens in places ranging from St. Vincent’s in Harrison to the Osborn Retirement Community in Rye for around a decade.
Vargas heard about the opening at Rye Manor through the grapevine in 2001, applied and got the job. He has been working there ever since. He likes what he does. And loves the people at Rye Manor.
“So many of them remind me of my mother, my brothers and sisters. I get home to Puerto Rico twice a year, but Rye Manor has become my surrogate family the rest of the time,” Ishmael said.
And vice versa.
Not long ago, Ishmael got a phone call from Puerto Rico that no one should ever receive. One of his brothers had been murdered in a bungled robbery attempt in San Juan. Ishmael had to make the sad journey home on short notice.
Rye Manor residents like Jo Del Monte and Annie Budd took up a collection to help Ishmael with the round-trip airfare and funeral expenses. He was visibly touched.
“There’s so much love and compassion and caring for one another at Rye Manor,” he said on his return. “I will never forget that. It does my heart good.”
Ironically, Ishmael had saved for years to pay for a kidney transplant for that brother, putting off his own. “I tried to convince him to stay here in Rye after the transplant, I told him I could help him find a job,” Ishmael recalled. “But he wanted to go home, he said my sisters needed him.”
He paused, searching for the right words. “My family is aging,” he said. "I have lost my parents. And now I have lost my brother. I know what the fear of dying is like because I have been there with my family. And I know what familial love is like. And that is how I feel about Rye Manor.”