Friday, August 17, 2007

A Good Deed Is Rewarded, With a Catch

By CLYDE HABERMAN
NYC
The New York Times
August 17, 2007

Brooke Astor, whose 105 years will be celebrated at her funeral today, donated a fair chunk of change to the New York Public Library. That gave her something in common with Ruth Cooper Jacobs, practically a kid by comparison at 98. Ms. Jacobs also sends money to the library, pretty much every year.

Granted, as a philanthropist she is not exactly in Mrs. Astor’s league (but then, as she says, she hasn’t had the same sort of, um, issues with her son that Mrs. Astor had). Her contribution is to buy a couple of tickets in the library’s annual fund-raising raffle.

The “dream raffle,” as it is called, offers more than 200 prizes — stuff like flat-screen televisions, digital cameras and gift certificates. This year, it raised $287,105, which can buy a bunch of Harry Potter books and leave enough to pay a few salaries.

As in years past, Ms. Jacobs, a retired public-school teacher and guidance counselor, bought two raffle tickets, for $10. She does the same with other organizations, she said, especially groups concerned with cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

“I don’t expect anything from any of them,” she said the other day in her Upper West Side apartment. “I didn’t expect anything from the library. I was more than surprised that I’d won first prize.”

That she did. A few weeks ago, she learned that she had won an eight-day river cruise for two in Europe. Between now and next July, she can sail the Rhine or the Danube — her choice, and not a bad one, most would agree.

Ms. Jacobs, whose husband died in 1998, figured it would be nice to travel with her daughter, Louisa Craddock, who works for the Department of City Planning. But she had to say aye or nay rather quickly. And that’s when the trouble started.

The riverboat has no elevator, and the cabin being offered is on the lower deck. The restaurant and lounge are on the upper deck. “I Googled the boat,” Ms. Craddock said. “The minute we saw pictures, we all groaned.” Her mother would have to walk up and down stairs several times a day. Those 98-year-old legs couldn’t take it.

To look at Ms. Jacobs, you might guess she is in her mid-80s. Mentally, she is sharp as can be (crediting her regular bridge game with helping to keep her alert). But the legs are not what they were. “Let me put it this way,” she said. “When I step off the bus, I have to sort of wait a couple of seconds until I’m stable.” Her cane is indispensable.

She asked if there was an alternative prize, or if she might transfer the cruise to, say, Ms. Craddock and her husband. Not a chance, she was told. Reluctantly, Ms. Jacobs said she would have to decline her prize.

But hold on. Maybe there was another way to go at this. The boat turned out to have an upper-deck cabin that is handicapped accessible.

The catch, though, is that this cabin would be offered to her only if not sold to a paying customer. Its availability would be uncertain at least until 90 days before the boat sets sail. Long before then, Ms. Jacobs would have to accept the prize and, with it, taxes she would owe, estimated at $2,500. That means committing now to a gift — and a tax obligation — that in the end might prove untenable.

“In other words, I’m taking $2,500 and gambling with it,” Ms. Jacobs said. The gamble did not seem worth it to her.

Hold on again.

“We really want her to take the cruise,” said Anthony Calnek, the library’s vice president for communications and marketing, who couldn’t resist adding in this week of Brooke Astor’s death that “we’re feeling particularly loving toward older women.” The library agreed to pick up the tax tab should Ms. Jacobs discover belatedly that she could not make the trip.

Mind you, neither Ms. Jacobs nor Ms. Craddock pretends that this matter looms terribly large in a world filled with mayhem. Both agreed that people at the library had been most sympathetic.

Still, there is an issue, Ms. Craddock said. It is the wisdom, even fairness, of offering a prize that is not truly possible for everyone. “There’s a whole group of people that can’t use it from the get-go, no matter what,” she said.

What her mother will decide remains unclear. But one thing is evident: This is a city where even a good thing comes with complications.

You know, Ms. Craddock said, “I think Mom would have settled for dinner for two in a very good restaurant.”

“That,” her mother agreed, “would have been very nice.”

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com

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