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