As told to Russ Miller by Stanley Rosen in the first person.
(reading time approx. 12 minutes)
“Someone is looking for me?” I said as I read the letter. It came from a firm in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, addressed to me. My name is Stanley Rosen. The letter stated that there is an asset valued over $10,000 and I may be the rightful owner.“
“Sounds like some kind of a scam. Throw it away,” said a poker buddy at the senior citizen center on Arch Street, in downtown Philadelphia. “I heard about those people. They try to bleed money from you while making you think you are some long lost heir.” I was just about to toss it in the trash when another buddy said, “If it’s an 800 number, it doesn’t cost anything. Call them just for fun and see what they have to say. I heard that some people do this for a finder’s fee. It can’t hurt.” They can’t get any money from me anyway, I thought.
I called the number and referred to the letter. The lady on the other end of the line asked me several questions to verify my identity. I was a retired widower, age 70, with just ample funds and social security to meet my needs, if I don’t live too long. Such a legacy is curious, since I have no close relatives, nor have I had for many years.
“Tell me what’s involved,” I questioned. She asked if I knew a lady named Dolly Michaeleski. “Could that be Dolly Michaels?” I asked. “Probably so. I understand she did use that name also,” the lady from the company said.
It seems that a lady friend Dolly, who used to occasionally visit our senior center for a year or two, took a shine to me. She always had coffee and a donut with me. We became more friendly. We exchanged our mutual miseries and our secret desires, had a few dinners (she paid), went to some movies, and had a few intimate soirees. I remember her saying that I made her feel loved again and desired. She liked to hold my hand and was always dressed impeccably. Her mannerisms were cultured. She spoke with a slight upstate Pennsylvania Dutch accent and a little Polish tint. I called her Mrs. Michaels. When alone, I called her Dolly. She was very warm and lovingly affectionate. She liked to smooch and cuddle.
Well, if it is the same Dolly, it seems that she died a couple of months ago with no relatives and left me a little over $10,000 cash, plus her real estate including a house in upstate Pennsylvania. It’s in a former small mining village in a valley. The mine had been abandoned because of cave-in problems, and not yielding enough coal to keep it going profitably. After some miners died, the few remaining residents and their families all left the hillside village. There were no jobs, which drove all of the people out of the valley. It has been a ghost town for several years.
“Yes, I did know Dolly”, I told the lady, from whatever agency she represented. “But, I don’t have any money if that’s what you want.” She said, “Don’t worry about that. We take a percentage of what we find for you. So far, you have over $10,000 in the unclaimed estate, with the Pennsylvania Treasury. Our fee will be deducted from that.”
After discussing this event with my buddies, we were certainly curious to see the real estate. I enlisted two friends from the senior center to accompany me. We drove to the village in my 1979 Chevy crew cab pick-up truck to make an inspection. Wow, what a discovery. It was a ghost town, indeed. The main house, as described in Dolly’s will, was inherited by Dolly from her late husband. She was the second wife of Stosh Michaeleski. He not only owned the house he gave Dolly, but was also the owner of the abandoned mine, and several acres on the valley hillside. Along the road, there were also tenant houses that Stosh had built for the former miners to live with their families. Stosh had no known relatives in this country and Dolly was the sole heir. Stosh and Dolly met in Poland, and if there were any relatives they would probably be in Poland and dead by now.
The workers’ houses were along a creek and the roadside. All were included with the inheritance. The tenant families have since died or vanished into another society. After Stosh died, the mines were closed and abandoned.
What to do? Over a half dozen houses. Even the county tax collector didn’t want them, since all of the remaining shells were abandoned and presently uninhabitable. This was a legacy that even I, who lived in a one-room apartment in center city, with a bunch of down and outers, didn’t really want. The mountains were beautiful, especially in October when we went for the inspection. The workers’ houses were around a bend in the road, away from view of the mine activity, the collieries and the railroad siding, but within walking distance for the workers. The good news is that since there was a major collapse in the main mine, from subsidence, the air in the old mine was now clear. It no longer seemed to be a threat to anyone or to this the ghost village. It was still deserted, with no industry and no potential source of employment in the village. So, it would remain as a ghost town. I reasoned that Dolly was dead and she left this to me – Stanley. This was now all mine, if I accepted it
I returned to my little one room, gloomy apartment in Philadelphia. I resumed my usual boring, daily lifestyle, lunching and playing cards with my buddies in the senior center. Each day I returned to the lonely apartment with a 14 inch black and white TV, a radio, a bed, a lounge chair and a deck of cards for solitaire. No sun ever came into my windows. The shadows from the tall brick walled building across the alley shielding me from any sunlight. My buddies and I talked daily about my inheritance from my departed friend Dolly.
Dear Dolly and I had a few very pleasant romantic dalliances in her final years. She had no living relatives, so who else was there but me? After all, we were passionately close in those years. She was clean, pretty and lonely. I wondered what happened to her. It was not difficult to share lonely hours and mutual affections with each other. I really liked Dolly! Now I see she really liked me.
One of my poker buddies, Charlie McGraw, a former truck driver for a bootleg coal dealer, stood up one morning and exclaimed, “I’ve got it! I know that area from my bootleg coal days. We have nothing to lose. Let those of us who are able and can support ourselves in whatever way we do now, form a team. We can all go to the village to make a plan, for rehabbing the salvageable houses, one at time. Maybe we can create our own new village, just like our grandfathers did when they came from the old country, but we don’t have to fight the Indians. The industry is gone, but the air is clean now. We can get most of the lumber and parts from the abandoned house shells. We can do one at a time. It will give us something better to do than drink coffee and play poker in the senior center. Beyond that, we can make due the way our ancestors did. It’s worth a try. We’ll be able to afford our food there just like we do here and we won’t have to pay any rent. That can make a nice pool of cash if we need it. Why not? The only thing we can lose is our boredom. We can use our combined skills for another new piece of life. Or…we could just keep playing poker and live in our gloomy tiny one room apartments, drift around the streets of downtown Philly, waiting to get mugged by some wandering street thugs.”
After a few jokes and senseless remarks, the first of our group of 12 men said, “I’m in. Let’s do it. We all have some kind of income with social security and our meager savings. It sounds exciting and gives us a chance to use our skills again. We can always come back if it doesn’t work. With this weather, now is right time to put up a tent for temporary quarters until we get one house ready to move into for the winter. There’s plenty of room for all of us in Dolly’s house. And now, it’s Stanley’s house. There’s lots of lumber that can be stripped from the tenant houses to rebuild Dolly’s house.” With that, we were all in. Off we went, three carloads of hopeful, otherwise bored men and a pickup truck. We were loaded with our luggage and tools, ready for an adventure.
So, Stanley and his friends embarked on what would be the rebirth of a village. It would be a new enterprise, regenerating life for the old retired men from the morose senior center on Arch Street, in downtown Philadelphia. That was the beginning of what Stanley and his poker pals named, Phoenix Valley. It became a tourist attraction for travelers. Each man created his own small gift shop, selling whatever visitors would buy – from a piece of engraved coal, to a bird’s nest. Every souvenir had a picture of a phoenix bird rising from the fire, with the name Phoenix Valley, and signed “With Dolly’s Compliments”.
This story happened only because Stanley took an interest in making a nice, pretty, lonely lady happy with his company and affection in her senior years. Dolly liked to visit the senior center in old Philadelphia, where poor elderly folks congregated for free coffee, donuts and sandwiches. She always left a generous contribution in the collection box, which would buy meals for everyone, for several weeks. Dolly was some kind of angel, down from up state.