TRINITY — John Collins sat at his kitchen table Wednesday morning and wondered what he could have done differently.
A week ago, his 90-year-old neighbor, Justyn Ambrozia, was trapped in a car in the garage next door. Collins said he usually watches out for Ambrozia and offers to help around the house. But last week, in a roughly 48-hour lapse between neighborly hellos, the unthinkable happened. If not for a passer-by, it could have been worse.
"I feel (terrible) because for days I walked back and forth and didn't notice him," Collins, 62, said between sips of coffee.
Beside him at the table, his roommate, Vivian Burnett, chimed in. "We all feel bad that we didn't catch him before then."
Last Thursday, another neighbor happened to hear Ambrozia's cries and found the man injured, weakened and dehydrated, trapped in his car in his garage. He had hurt himself in a fall at Publix, and by the time he got home, he couldn't get out of his car. He waited two days for help.
Collins described Ambrozia, who most know as "Jay," as spry and quick to turn a joke. He usually left his home on Mitchell Ranch Road to grab his mail or haul out the garbage. Other neighbors would sometimes mow his back yard, but he always insisted on doing the front and edging the sidewalk.
Ambrozia, who lived alone, seemed to get along just fine, Collins said. He cleaned his own house, cooked his own food and did his own laundry, hanging it to dry on his front porch railing. Collins treated him like he would any other neighbor.
"I don't want to invade his privacy. I don't want him to think I'm always checking up on him," he said. "But I will from now on."
On April 30, Ambrozia left for the grocery store in his green Chevrolet Beretta like he always did, leaving the garage door open and gunning his car up Mitchell Ranch Road (like Batman, his neighbors said).
He went to the Publix at 1300 Little Road for Fig Newtons, ice cream cones and pound cake, among other things. He walked around a corner and fell, injuring his left wrist and hip. He said two Publix employees came to help and took down his information, then loaded him into a wheelchair and took him to his car.
Ambrozia's copy of the Publix customer incident report notes the fall happened at 10:30 a.m. April 30. It lists his injuries as "right elbow scraped and cut open, small oval sized wound. Left arm in pain from bracing for the fall."
Publix spokesman Brian West said the store does not yet have any comment on the incident, citing an internal investigation.
When Ambrozia returned home, his wrist and hip hurt so much that he couldn't get out of his car. And the car's battery died. He was stranded until last Thursday, when neighbor Tim Weidman heard his cries for help.
Collins and Carl "Ed" Frantz, who lives in the house on the other side of Ambrozia's, said they saw Ambrozia's garage door open both days, but thought he might be out on errands because of his habit of leaving it that way when he was gone.
At the kitchen table Wednesday, Burnett, a former caregiver, offered to watch over Ambrozia when he gets back from the hospital, pro bono.
"For a lot of people, especially the elderly," she said, "it's a support group in their community that keeps them going."
Collins decided to pay his neighbor a visit. He finished his coffee, tied on his boots and got in his blue minivan, headed for Medical Center of Trinity.
He found Ambrozia in his hospital bed, alert and with a fresh-shaven face, which caught Collins off guard. He'd only seen Ambrozia with his long, silver goatee. He joked that Ambrozia had done it for the nurses. Ambrozia's thin lips puffed out while he chuckled. His teeth sat in a blue container on a shelf next to a bouquet.
"We gotta get you better and home," Collins told him.
"Oh, yeah," Ambrozia said. "That's what I want: home."
He agreed to let Burnett take care of him.
Three nurses and a speech pathologist made small talk with Collins. His voice shook and his eyes welled when he told them he was oblivious to his neighbor's suffering for two days. In comforting tones, they assured him there was nothing he could have done differently.
"This is the type of man," Collins said earlier in the day, "who deserves everything in the world and asks for nothing."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.