UPPER EAST SIDE — For the past 11 years, Juanita Vega served as Richard Coleman’s morning wake-up call. And after his recent death, she personally took the responsibility to give him a proper final goodbye.
Vega developed a friendship with the homeless man who was a popular feature of her Upper East Side community. Each morning, she roused him from slumber in the vestibule of the bank where she worked.
She was devastated by his death on April 16.
Vega was so troubled that Coleman, 62, who had no known next-of-kin, was about to be buried in the city’s public cemetery that she personally organized and paid $2,000 for his burial Thursday at the Rosemount Memorial Park in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
“I know about Potter’s Field and I didn’t want him to end up there,” Vega, 51, said after organizing the small burial ceremony with the help of her boyfriend, funeral director Tom Valek. “He was a nice person. He didn’t deserve that.”
Coleman, whose nickname was "Smokey," was a fixture in the East 70s between York and Lexington avenues, growing familiar with many residents and local workers. Community members held a small memorial service for him earlier this month and raised about $1,500 in his name to donate to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
His final resting place was expected to be on Hart’s Island, a public cemetery where prison labor is used to perform mass burials, Vega said.
She enlisted the help of her boyfriend, who works at the Krtil Funeral Home on First Avenue and 70th Street. Valek had to convince the medical examiner’s office to release the body to him even though he is not next-of-kin, he said.
Valek buried Coleman Thursday in a simple service.
“We said a few words, the Our Father and the Hail Mary,” Valek said. “We don’t know what his religious background was, so we just said a few committal prayers.”
Right now, the grave will remain unmarked due to the high cost of headstones. However, the plot is deeded in Coleman’s name in case anyone from his family does come forward to claim him.
Even without the headstone and with Valek working for free, the burial cost was $2,000. A few people who knew Coleman from the neighborhood have reached out with small donations, but Vega shouldered most of the cost herself, she said.
“I just wanted to do the right thing,” she said, adding that she fondly remembers Coleman's nickname for her, "sis," and his gifts to her of found trinkets from the street.
“Everybody knew him," she said, "so why should he end up in Potter’s Field?”