Editor's Note

Editor’s Note: A beloved Upper West Sider is frank about pandemic isolation

Brigitta “Brig” Ortner, a friend of local politicians and a Holocaust survivor, uses a dry sense of humor to keep up her morale.

Brigitta Ortner is a staple of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Brigitta Ortner is a staple of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Brigitta Ortner

Brigitta Ortner, or Brig, as many people call her, is a staple of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The retired Saks Fifth Avenue cosmetic counter associate has lived on the top floor of a four-story walk-up since 1953 and is friends with some of the area’s best-known faces. A lifelong Democrat, Brig knows many local politicians, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who’s been a friend for years. Brig even worked on Brewer’s 2001 City Council campaign. 

Brig also is a survivor. She escaped the Holocaust at age 10, having fled Germany with her family and eventually moving to New York. Now, like many senior citizens, she’s surviving the coronavirus pandemic alone. 

The 93-year-old has avoided infection by staying home in her flat not too far from Central Park. How does she keep her spirits up in such isolation? “It’s a sense of humor that helps you survive,” she said in an interview last week. “You really don’t want to be here, but what are you going to do? You can’t even kill yourself, because it’s not nice. I can try jumping out the window, but it’s only four flights down. It’s gallows humor that helps you survive.”

Brigitta Ortner
Brigitta Ortner

Her dry wit falls short when she talks of the price of her longevity. “I think it’s a kind of punishment to survive this crap,” she said after outliving a close friend and cousin this summer. “I got a lot of (sympathy) cards, but those are from people who are nowhere near me.

“People who want to live till they’re 100 need to have their heads examined,” she said. “Old age alone is terrible, because who do I have?”

Brig admitted her tone these days is a bit too dark. “I told you,” she said, reminding in a follow-up conversation that it was difficult for her to sound more uplifted. “What would cheer me up? Seeing Mitch McConnell step down before I go, or living long enough to attend Trump's funeral,” she said laughing. “Then again, if they put an elevator in this four-story building, that might make it better,” she added. “That’s not too much to ask.”

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