KARIN DICKSON spent 29 years in a white stone building at 857 Union Street, at Seventh Avenue. There is a solid grace about this stretch of Park Slope. The brownstones stack up neatly. The trees are old and generous. The flower boxes are well tended.
Ms. Dickson fell in love here, had a child here, gave tea parties for her neighbors. Those who know her say she lost her mind here.
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."
Sherry Dickson did not learn of the eviction until May, when Ms. Jackson told her. She was shocked. She said the landlord, Bari Lepelstat, who helps run BB&L Realty Company, never informed her of the eviction.
Ms. Lepelstat refused repeated requests to comment. But Meryl Wenig, the lawyer who represented BB&L in the eviction proceedings, said: "We were in court for a number of months, and never during that period of time did the family contact me nor did they contact the guardian who was appointed. The landlord is not God. He's not clairvoyant. If the family is concerned that she's at risk, they should have been there."
Once Sherry Dickson learned of the eviction, she began searching for her mother. She called hospitals, homeless shelters and the police. But nothing happened until the night of July 21, when she and a friend were having coffee at Happy Days Diner on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.
"It was midnight," she said. "I hear a German accent. Then I see this woman get up. I only see her from behind. She had long, gray scraggly hair."
It was her mother.
"I called out, 'Mom!' and she didn't answer," said Sherry, "so I called her by her name. She turned around and was like, 'Who the hell are you?' "
The two talked for five hours.
"I gave her my phone number," Sherry Dickson said. "Every number in the world to reach me. I made her promise to meet me for breakfast the next morning, and she did, at Happy Days Diner."
They spent the entire day together.
"The night I ran into her, she was talking about voices," she said. "The next day she was normal. Completely normal, acting as if everything was fine. I asked to take her home, and she was like: 'No, I'm just going to walk around a little bit. I'll be all right. I'll call you in a few days.' "
She never heard from her.
Seven months later, in February of this year, it was Sandra Dickson's turn to discover that her mother had disappeared. The weekend of Feb. 17, she and her fiance went back to her old neighborhood.
"I kept going by Union Street," she said. "I wanted to just take a look and see if everything was O.K. Finally, we passed by, and I looked at the buzzer. Her name wasn't on the buzzer anymore."
Despite their estrangement, Ms. Dickson immediately called her sister, and the two of them tried to trace their mother's trail and figure out where and how she had been living since her eviction. They posted fliers. They spoke with people who had seen her on the D train, in the Borough Hall subway station, on the Promenade, at Ozzie's and Cousin John's in Park Slope, at Happy Days and Connecticut Muffin in Brooklyn Heights. They learned that everything in her apartment had been sold at auction. They learned where she did her laundry.
Karin Dickson was everywhere and nowhere. She was hiding in plain sight.
Ms. Jackson had seen her wandering around the neighborhood.
"She was pushing a little wire shopping basket," Ms. Jackson said. "She had on a coat I didn't recognize. It was clean. Her hair was pinned back like she always wore it. And that was clean. She looked a little more stooped, maybe like she was tired. I thought, 'Oh, I should say something,' but I was rushing to work. I knew that if I started talking to her, it would turn into a long conversation, so I just didn't."
Carl Carew, who worked at Ozzie's, said Ms. Dickson came in every morning at 5:30 and often stayed until 9:30 or 10 at night. At first, she carried a small black purse. Then she carried a suitcase, then bags and a cart wrapped up with rope.
"The conversation would start from different points, but it never really changed," Mr. Carew said. The bank was supposed to call. She couldn't find her friends. She needed another sweater.
One day she walked out of Ozzie's, and Mr. Carew never saw her again.
Four times the daughters tried to file a missing person report, but without success.
"This person does not qualify as a missing person," said Detective Walter Burnes, a police spokesman. He said a person must be missing from a New York residence to merit an official report. "We're not a homeless-find service," he said.
Then, on March 21, a longtime Park Slope resident walking to work spotted Ms. Dickson near City Hall Park. He telephoned Sandra Dickson, who notified the police. When they arrived, they took Karin Dickson to Bellevue Hospital.
She came to Bellevue after 54 weeks on the streets. This, say her daughters, is what she carried with her:
Her house keys. Her marriage certificate. Her baptism papers. A photograph of her father on his deathbed. Photographs of herself and her daughters as young girls. A blanket. Countless paper bags. A toiletry bag containing an extra pair of panties. A bar of soap in an old cigarette pack. Toothpaste and a toothbrush. Deodorant. A safety razor. A small stuffed rabbit. A key for a safe deposit box.
At the hospital, she was sent to the locked psychiatric ward, where she was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Doctors concluded that she was delusional and had impaired judgment. They said she needed to be on a mood stabilizer and antipsychotic and antianxiety medications.
She refused treatment. But a mental health court at Bellevue ruled that medication was in her best interest and that she could be treated against her will for 90 days. On June 21, she was transferred to Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg, N.Y.
The journey from Union Street to Rockland Psychiatric had begun two years earlier. In June 1999, BB&L Realty began eviction proceedings against Ms. Dickson in Brooklyn Housing Court on the grounds that she had become a nuisance. Court documents allege that her use of candles instead of electric lights to illuminate her apartment created a fire hazard that endangered other tenants. The landlord also asserted that her disruptive behavior caused at least one tenant to move out and drove away several potential renters.
"We had some tenants who left because they did not want to find out if Karin Dickson was going to murder them or if she was just blowing steam because she was imbalanced," said Ms. Wenig, the lawyer. According to Ms. Wenig, the landlord contacted Protective Services for Adults, which is part of the Human Resources Administration, and asked the agency to intervene, but it did not. Subsequently, Ms. Wenig told the court that Ms. Dickson was at risk, and got the judge to order the agency to evaluate her.
On Nov. 19, Dr. Charles Hayes, a psychiatric consultant for the agency, went with police officers to her apartment. When she refused to let them in, they forced open the door. In his report, Dr. Hayes diagnosed her with "Psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified" and said she had no insight into her impending eviction.
"She told me initially that the fillings in her teeth allowed her to contact the police and E.M.S.," he wrote. "She is at risk of becoming homeless and may be a threat to others if not successfully treated."
The agency ruled that she was eligible for protective services, and Dec. 19 the court appointed a guardian to represent her in the eviction proceedings because her "impaired mental condition" rendered her incapable of defending her rights. In January, the guardian signed a statement agreeing that she would surrender her right to the apartment because she had not paid her $386 monthly rent for nearly a year and her use of candles posed a fire hazard.
Protective Services got the electricity turned back on, but Ms. Dickson refused its help. Because she was not classified as potentially violent, nothing more was done.
Karin Dickson Speaks
On Aug. 13, a week after she became an outpatient at Rockland Psychiatric, Karin Dickson sat down in a booth at Hogan's Diner in Orangeburg and ordered coffee. Her hair hung in a long ponytail down her back. She wore immaculate white oxfords, tongues turned out, and carried a small black purse. Her hands shook.
"It's from the medication," she explained. "I'm sorry."
Sometimes she was perfectly lucid. Sometimes her speech bounced off reality in a way that was only vaguely recognizable. Sometimes she rambled.
She said people claiming to be caseworkers and doctors had come to her apartment. "You begin to feel like you're getting booby-trapped into something," she said. "It's two people, then it's a whole building full of people for just one woman. I just look at the whole thing, when the door came toward me inside, I knew they weren't playing games. All I had on was one outfit. I took my bag."
After the eviction, Ms. Dickson walked. She walked through the police cars and ambulances and ended up at a hotel near Madison Square Garden. When the hotel got "money hungry," she bought a suitcase with wheels, boarded a northbound bus, and headed to Canada. Then, for two weeks, she stayed with her sister in Rochester. "We both get sick and tired of each other," she said. "We love each other, but enough's enough."
Ms. Dickson came back to Manhattan. She came back to trouble.
"I was broke," she said. "I needed money. The bank simply said, 'No cash available.' "
She learned to sleep on benches.
"Sometimes I would open my eyes and see someone who looked like they just walked by, and I'd find a couple dollar bills stuck to my suitcase," she said. "I like Brooklyn Heights. There are good people there. They help you. If I had a choice to live anywhere, I'd live in Brooklyn Heights."
Of the night she ran into Sherry Dickson at Happy Days and learned that she had been looking for her, Ms. Dickson said: "All I could say was: 'Sherry, you know very well where I am. Everybody knows.' "
Gradually, she settled into the landscape. "You sleep outside," she said. "You don't think too much about it. You're a little bit dazed sometimes. You sit someplace. You feed the birds. You pay more attention to the birds than to human beings. At least I do."
When the police picked her up near City Hall Park, she demanded to know the charges against her. "By the way," she added, "how do I know you're a cop?
"They took the ambulance with me to Bellevue Hospital, and before I could do anything or say anything, I was called a schizo," she said. "That's bad."
At the hospital, they took her shoelaces and her house keys.
She said not everyone who slept outside was crazy. "Schizo," she said. "To call us a name like that. That shouldn't happen."
Late last month, Rockland transferred Ms. Dickson to an adult home in Brooklyn.
In the conversation before she left the hospital, she said she would take her medication. She said she wanted an apartment of her own near a pharmacy. She said she looked forward to wearing the four-inch black heels she had bought with her sister in Rochester. She said her Elvis collection better be back at 857 Union Street.
She said she wanted her freedom back.