Living and loving the Island on her own terms

Despite her troubles, Lolita Duarte finds time to help others.

Lolita Duarte cuts up bread for seagulls on the seawall in Vineyard Haven. — Stacey Rupolo

Lolita Duarte’s day starts at 4 am. She shakes off a mound of blankets and wiggles her toes, which have gone nearly numb overnight. Lumbering through a pathway carved through piles of belongings, she bundles herself in a bright red hooded sweatshirt with “South Beach” written in block white letters, and pulls on a puffy vest.

With a tuft of white hair poking out of a hood that nearly envelops her face, she sets off to use the bathroom at the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven.

She gets to see the sunrise, which is one small pleasure she can take with her to help get her through the day. “I actually like the Island at that hour. It’s so peaceful, it’s so nice,” she said.

Lolita, 80, lives in a house in Edgartown that is crumbling down around her and without plumbing, which is why she must use the public facilities every day. But despite her unstable circumstances, Lolita finds time to give back to the community in small ways.

She describes herself as generous and caring. Although she doesn’t have a working kitchen, she picks up extra food to help feed a friend and mother of three boys whose boyfriend is unemployed. She picks up day-old bread and pastries from the Stop & Shop for the Island Food Pantry, of which she is a recipient, and senior centers around the Island. “I hate waste,” she said. “I don’t waste anything.”

Lolita is a hoarder, by her own admission. Her home in Vineyard Haven, which she still calls her “mother’s house,” although her mother passed away years ago, was deemed unfit for human habitation in April 2016. The home, stuffed with a medley of objects, flooded last year, which prompted the Tisbury Board of Health to take action — shutting off the water and electricity and forbidding Lolita to live there. Lolita now occupies the Edgartown house, which is quickly approaching the status of her former Vineyard Haven property.

According to Tisbury health agent Maura Valley, hoarding is an uncommon but serious issue on the Vineyard. Ms. Valley recalled connecting Lolita with different community service organizations, but ultimately Lolita’s efforts and participation floundered. “I can connect her, but I can’t make her use them,” Ms. Valley said.

Lolita paints no pretty picture of her life. At 19, she discovered her sister dead in her bed while her parents were away. This is something she never recovered from. “In those days you didn’t get counseling,” she said. She believes the stress of the event, combined with a divorce and losing her business later in life, exacerbated her hoarding. “I never in all my life dreamed I would end up like this,” Lolita said. “I had money once.”

Back when she had a working TV, she would spend hours watching the home shopping network QVC, ordering whatever took her fancy. Now, she goes to the dump and collects things, whatever their condition. “I’m a QVC addict,” she said. “In a way it’s good I don’t have a television, since I can’t afford anything anymore. I miss my TV. I’m a couch potato. I love all the cooking shows and the judges. I love Judge Judy. I wouldn’t want to have to appear before her. I don’t have a TV now, I miss it. You take all this stuff for granted until you lose it.”

Seagulls reap the benefits of Lolita Duarte’s generosity. —Stacey Rupolo

Still, a smile creeps across her face as she talks about her life on the Island. Standing by the seawall by the Lagoon Drawbridge, she brings out packages of moldy bread and bagels. She lays them out on the cold concrete slab and begins to methodically cut the bread into small pieces.

“Once upon a time, not that long ago, come Labor Day everyone folded up the sidewalks and there was nobody around. It was wonderful,” Lolita said. “I like being alone. There’s a certain amount of tranquility here still, that you don’t get on the mainland. I would love to live on the highest hill up in Gay Head and never come down.”

Feeding the seagulls is something Lolita has done for years. While this behavior is frowned upon by most for conditioning the birds to associate humans with food, it makes Lolita happy. As her knife scrapes against the seawall, she talks about the many birds she has fed over the years. “I had one seagull who knew who I was, I swear. He took it right out of my hand,” she said.

As she finishes the task at hand, Lolita looks up toward the ferry, approaching the port in Vineyard Haven. “I am not leaving this Island,” she said, with ferocity in her voice. “I have obligations. [I was] born and brought up here, over there [where that] hospital [is]. I’m not going off-Island, stubborn Portagee that I am. But I’m suffering for it,” she said.