One More Story About Nicholas “Nicki” Hernandez: Maybe He Wanted to Watch the Sun Come Up

A funeral home may not be a typical neighborhood hangout, but that’s Brooklyn.  We were a strange trio in the last days of this cold winter on Atlantic Avenue.   Nicki, Ronnie and I at Heights and Hill Funeral  Home, late afternoon.  In the foyer, brilliant sun blazing through the  stained glassed window, potted plants and faux Victorian gee-gaws.  Ronnie owned the place, loved my dog Molly, and Nicki would be getting warm and washing up in the bathroom. 

I wrote about Nicki for BHB  in 2009:  The hunchback, homeless and  drug addicted—  who nevertheless was charming, intelligent, kind, respectful, in short,  a paradox.  A man whose humanity shined through despite a life on the streets, and a spine that curved like an S.  Nicki, Nicholas Hernandez, to be specific, born March 20th, 1950, to be even more specific,  died on Atlantic Avenue early last Sunday morning on March 13th in front of the Island Deli at the corner of Henry;  where there is now a memorial of flowers and candles.

I’d often ask him if he needed money for food,  he always blessed me and said, Oh no, honey, I’m fine.  I found out that Ronnie gave the deli owner, Jamal, money every month, and said, Give Nicki anything he wants.  Jamal also let him sleep downstairs, and take hot showers.  Before Jamal, the guy who owned the now defunct  Nova Zembla, a furniture store, did the same.  Again, a paradox; a drug addict that everyone trusted.  Nicki  also worked hard, and took pride in what he did including planting roses around a scrawny urban tree or sorting recyclables for local businesses.  And yes it’s true that some of the time he was on the nod, half-way to the ground, or completely passed out.  And yes  it can be difficult  running a local business with a homeless man asleep on the stoop.  Still.

Ronnie said several of Nicki’s vertebrae in his back were crushed, how he doesn’t know.   Ronnie said Nicki was often in great pain.  When he began his sojourn on Atlantic Avenue, almost a decade ago, he stood upright.  There was talk of back surgery to try and fix his spine, but ultimately, he gambled on life without it.   He must’ve known the risks.  So he sunk lower and lower with each passing year, until he was unable to lift his head past his midsection.   Yet, somehow, he still maintained his dignity.  About three months ago, I asked him if he was alright,  if he needed something to eat.  He looked up at me and said, I can tell you are good person with a good heart, and I respect you.   I was stunned by how much this meant to me.

I love Atlantic Avenue; it embodies everything that makes Brooklyn a great city: Diversity, tolerance, beauty, ugliness, bars, trees, bird shit and restaurants— and all the people who knew and loved Nicki.   I think its fair to say he will be missed.    Last Saturday, I took Molly for a walk.  It was such a beautiful day.   I saw Nicki  sorting recyclables, just east of Henry.   We said our usual hellos, and I went on my way.  In fact, everyone saw Nicki on Saturday, and said the same thing,  He looked fine.  On Saturday night, so the story goes, he slept downstairs at Jamal’s deli, and woke up very early, around 6:00 a.m.  He got a roll and a cup of coffee, and took his place outside, on the stoop.  He hated being indoors.  Maybe he wanted to watch the sun come up.

Around 8:00 or 9:00,  a young man, who never met Nicki, gently shook him, and said, Sir, are you alright?  And when Nicki didn’t answer, he went inside and said, Call an ambulance.   Nicki was pronounced dead at Long Island College Hospital, on the other side of Atlantic Avenue.  I found out because Ronny, proprietor, posted flyers  in the neighborhood for the memorial service, which has been covered in an earlier posts, but I’ll repeat it:  it’s this Saturday, the 19th, at Heights and Hill Funeral Home, 116 Atlantic Avenue, 12:00- 3:00, 718-797-3248.  All are welcome.  

Nicki’s funeral is covered 100% by local business owners and friends from Atlantic Avenue, including flowers from Floral Heights . This is thousands of dollars in goods  and services— for a man who might casually and superficially be classified as homeless.   A delivery man who never even knew Nicki’s name asked, Hey, where was the guy who always watches my truck when I have to double-park?  When he found out, he paid for the prayer cards.   I think it’s fair to say that Nicholas “Nicki” Hernandez, will be missed.  Rest in peace my friend.
Post updated with photo of Nicki and Ashley Scribner’s dog Scully

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  • nabeguy

    Lillian, your eulogy for a man I did not not know brought me to tears. I’m left to wonder who, in the relationship between you, benefitted the most.

  • Claude Scales

    Thanks for that remembrance, Lillian. I never had the honor of meeting Nicki, though, I’m ashamed to say, I probably walked past him many times. Sometimes we don’t appreciate someone until they’re gone.

  • ryan

    i also will miss nicki, and wish i wasn’t out of the country for his service. i will be sure to let the new island deli to know my condolences, i live only one block away at atlantic and hicks. his presence will be missed for sure

  • Curtis and Ashley

    We were lucky enough to get to know Nick while living on Atlantic Avenue for a few years. He always made me smile when I got home late from work. He was an amazing person and great man. He will be missed.

  • Ashley

    Nick was truly my friend. When my husband and I moved to Brooklyn from Ohio he was the first person who greeted us. I admittingly so was a little scared! That was until every morning I was blessed with his hello and good morning. I always wanted to give nick money, but he always wanted to help me. When we brought our puppy home for the first time nick was so excited. He thought scully was his own. We always say nick was scully’s first friend, but actually he was our friend. When we moved back to Ohio we missed bklyn with all our heart, nick, Ron and the Brooklyn heights deli were top on our list. I went back to visit my old neighborhood and made sure to track him down. You will be missed my friend! Atlantic ave. Will never be the same.

  • Lillian Ann Slugocki

    thanks all who commented, it was nice to read :) Ashley, Molly says helllo to Scully, and we will tell Ronny you said hi :)

  • Adam Suerte

    When we moved our tattoo shop to Atlantic ave. many years ago, we befriended Nicky. Always friendly, always mentioned how hard I seemed to work, as far as how true it as at any particular moment,who knows, it was nice to hear. When we moved to Smith street a couple years ago he was one of the things we knew we were going to miss. To my delight, Smith street was on his route, and we began to see him as much as we did on Atlantic. Always, always pleasant, never in a bad mood. He got to meet my new daughter in the last few weeks, and from then on when we’d run into each other he’d ask about her, and say how beautiful she was.He will truly be missed, I can only assume he is at well deserved peace now.

  • Jessica

    I really loved nick. I l ived on Atlantic for 2 years and talked to him almost everyday on my way to work or school. He was such a sweet guy. After I moved to schermerhorn street, my daily talks with him were something I missed the most, thankfully I was able to see him and talk to him recently.

    I also would offer him money and clothes and he said that “he was fine”. This man;s death has had more of an impact on me than some of my relatives. I will really miss him. He was a sweet, compassionate person who loved kids and animals. I can only hope that good things await him, I’m not a religious person, but if there is a heaven, Nick would be first in line.

  • Homer Fink

    If anyone has a photo of Nick, please send it over to us or link to it here.


  • ashley

    Homer…I have a pic. Where can I send it?

  • T.K. Small

    I am very impressed with the heartfelt response to the passing of someone whom many would simply ignore. While I did not know Nick, I am glad that his presence will be remembered.

  • Homer Fink

    @ashley webmaster AT brooklynheightsblog dot com

  • ashley

    Homer, I sent pic.
    Lillian, How are you? How is Molly. Scully misses the people on Atlantic but has a big back yard and a state park very close. Give Ron our best, I did call him when I heard the news. Thanks for such a kind article.

  • Ellin

    To all those who couldn’t make it, I just want you to know that Nicki had a wonderful send off on Saturday. Ron spared no expense and so many people came by: because so many people (4 legged ones included) were touched by Nicki’s life.
    His daughters finally understood why he’d refused to stay with them – he had his family on the Avenue – and this, I think, was comforting to them. It was to me.
    Ellin at 93
    Hi Ashley and Scully!!! Miss you.

  • Lillian Ann Slugocki

    hi Ashley, Molly sends her love to Scully. Thanks for sending the pic, its so nice to see him, he is really missed, it’s strange on Atlantic Avenue without him.

  • Karin

    I’m shocked at the assertion that Nick was an addict. Having known him well and seen him daily for nearly 10 years, I never saw him high, no matter the hour. No one I know did either. His weaknesses were cigarettes, coffee, and perhaps most tragic, the Mets.