This much is certain: for nearly three decades, she bought cigarettes from the newsstand across the street from her house. She worked as a cosmetologist at the now-defunct Jarret Drugs. She collected Elvis memorabilia. She was rarely seen without high heels. She drank coffee at the Economy Diner for more than two decades.
Then one day in spring 2000, she disappeared.
Hers is the case of an individual suffering from mental illness who self-destructs almost before our eyes. In this large, anonymous city, others have stumbled: Michael Joseph Gallagher was evicted and froze to death in a Bronx park in 1996; Joseph Stiletto froze to death in his Greenwich Village apartment in 1988; Eleanor Bumpurs was shot to death by the police in an attempted eviction in 1984; the so-called Wild Man of 96th Street terrorized the Upper West Side for years. Still more will fall.
All are casualties of New York’s imperfect network of social services. All are consequences of America’s deeply held belief in personal freedom.
Ms. Dickson was born in 1941 in the city of Mainz, Germany, where she worked as a pharmacist’s assistant. In 1960, at 19, she married a G.I. who carried her off to Tennessee. There they had two daughters, Sandra and Grace.
In 1971 Ms. Dickson left Tennessee. ”She dropped us off with our grandparents and ran away to New York,” said Sandra, 2 at the time.
Ms. Dickson landed in Park Slope. Soon, she found an apartment on Union Street and a boyfriend, Gerald Schaubman, a pharmacist who owned Jarret Drugs and was separated from his wife. With Mr. Schaubman, Ms. Dickson had a third daughter, Sherry, who was born in 1974. But they never married, and by 1980 they were no longer a couple.
When Jarret changed ownership in 1982, Ms. Dickson, who had worked at pink-collar jobs most of her life, went on welfare. In 1985, she had a tumor removed from her jaw. Soon after, Sandra Dickson went to live with her mother. (Grace remained in Tennessee.)
”My mother helped me run away,” said Sandra Dickson, who was 17 at the time. ”She sent me airline money. She was going to be my happily ever after.”
Happily ever after lasted seven and a half months. In October of that year, a week before the daughter’s 18th birthday, her mother kicked her out.
Five years later, also at 17, Sherry Dickson left her mother’s house, too. ”She started throwing things at me and started accusing me of being crazy,” she said. ”So I called my dad and moved out.”
By the early 90’s, Karin Dickson had disconnected her telephone. Sandra Dickson no longer spoke with her mother. Sherry Dickson and her father maintained only sporadic contact with her.
”I would go over to see her a couple of times on holidays,” Mr. Schaubman said. ”But the relationship just shriveled up.” He last saw her at home about five years ago, when he learned that she had turned off her electricity and was using only candles to illuminate her apartment.
The half-sisters moved on. Sandra Dickson, who lives on the Upper East Side, is preparing to be married and is seeking work as a paralegal. Sherry Dickson, who lives in North Brunswick, N.J., works as a temp. Every few months, she said, she called a neighbor or the landlord to see how her mother was holding up.
But except for their long, straight hair, the sisters have little in common. In 1999 a petty argument got out of control, and the two stopped speaking with each other.
Then, on March 7 of last year, city marshals came to Ms. Dickson’s apartment to evict her for being a nuisance and nonpayment of rent. Movers were seen taking her possessions to put them in storage. Two mental health workers tried to persuade her to get treatment, but she refused.
”She just walked away,” said Janet Jackson, Ms. Dickson’s longtime friend and neighbor. ”I don’t know what she took with her besides her purse.”