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Radio Diaries: How one NYC hotel tenant spread kindness for decades


We're continuing our series The Unmarked Graveyard from Radio Diaries, where we're untangling mysteries from America's largest public cemetery.

SUSAN HURLBURT: Neil Harris was last seen in Inwood, N.Y. on December 12, 2014.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There were thousands of questions. Where's his family? Where's his people?

ALI MAHMOUD: You can't help but wonder what her life has been.

CHANG: The Belvedere Hotel is in the heart of New York City's Theater District. Many of its guests come to see the sights, take in a show. But a few dozen people call the Belvedere home. Decades ago, they came to New York, rented rooms. And as the hotel changed hands over the years, they stayed on because it was rent-stabilized. One of them was an 82-year-old woman from Japan who lived a private and quiet life in Room 208. Radio Diaries brings us her story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Welcome to the Belvedere.

MAHMOUD: My name is Ali Mahmoud (ph), and I work at the Belvedere Hotel in New York City. Hisako Hasegawa lived here for at least 40, 50 years, and she lived alone.

JERRY: She was a very sweet lady. She would stop by, always say hello to me. My name is Jerry (ph). I've been a bellhop at the Belvedere Hotel for 22 years. I would have a morning shift on Fridays and Saturdays. We always opened the door for her. She would look up with a smile - a huge smile. You know, she was always bowing, saying hello, hello, hello, hello.

MAHMOUD: When she spoke, she spoke with an accent, but she was able to convey herself very clearly. Every time I ran into her in a hallway or in the lobby, she said nice to see you. She actually meant it. If you wrote her a rent receipt, for example, you would magically find a hand-drawn card next day on your desk. Someone took 45 minutes to make that card.

JERRY: Her handwriting was beautiful, like poetry, like, well, I don't know. But I'd never seen something like that. One time I said hello, and she just waved and rushed into the elevator with a little shopping cart. So she came and gave me a letter. Hello, Jerry. I do want to apologize that I didn't get to say hello to you correctly, you know, and just how bad she felt. And it touched me. There's some tenants here that don't got nobody to talk to, nobody say have a good day or nobody say happy holidays, nobody say I love you, nobody say I hate you, you know?

MAHMOUD: I always saw her alone - alone yet happy. Perhaps to each their own. You see such a person, and you can't help but wonder what her life has been.

RENEE: Hi. Come in, come in, come in.

My name is Renee (ph), and I live here in Belvedere Hotel. When Miss Hisako was still alive, this is where she lives - Room 208, and I live in 207, across the hall. As far as the nearest neighbor, I am the only one who she talks to and she knows my name. Doesn't say so much, you know, except, you know, the usual greeting. How are you? Weather is nice. I'm going to get my mail (laughter). I always play this, you know?


RENEE: This is my piano, and I play it in the evening most often. She knows when I play the piano because she hears it. She tells me, you know, it's a good thing you play the piano last night, how nice is it. Those things - very gracious.


NANCY BOYCE: My name is Nancy Boyce (ph), and I have lived in this building, at the Belvedere, for the past 41 years. So this is the living room and the bedroom. It's just one big room. Hisako's room just like mine. This is the hallway, and then this is a depressing kitchen. Yeah, it's very small, the size of a closet. I have my hot plate and refrigerator. At least we had our own little kitchen, tiny; our own private bathroom. That's what was important to me. People who don't know or, like, tourists or friends, they are amazed. Wow. You live in a hotel in the heart of the city especially. You know, it's a big deal for them. But to me, having lived here for such a long time, for decades, you know, I can't stand this apartment. At the end of the day, I feel lucky that I have my family and wide circle of friends, but I see a lot of older people like Hisako. They're all alone.


JERRY: One Friday, I realized that she didn't come down, and it bothered me. So I, like, asked upper management to please check up on her because we've had tenants that have passed away in the hotel.

RENEE: When I came in from work, everybody was on the hallway. The police and then the investigators were all there, and then they started asking questions, questions. I said, what happened? She died. She fell from the bed. I cannot believe that she died that way. And investigator was telling me, oh, you're the next neighbor. OK, do you know her - anybody who knows her? My gosh. After all these years, I never saw her with anybody. I wish - if she only knock at my door, you know? I should have ask her. They think that you are intruding or something, but, no, I - that is - that's a misconception. I think you should ask.

MAHMOUD: New York is a place for the dreamers, and we all come from somewhere. To leave and leave your families behind and come here and make a new life - and one would hope that you'd find love and meet people and have a family and maybe not end up alone in a hotel room somewhere.


CHANG: Very little is known about Hisako Hasegawa. She was born in Japan in 1934 and probably came to the U.S. in the 1970s. And after she died at the Belvedere in 2016, she was buried in Plot 379 on Hart Island. This story was produced by Nellie Gilles and the team at Radio Diaries. You can hear more stories from The Unmarked Graveyard on the Radio Diaries podcast.

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Nellie Gilles