UPPER EAST SIDE — His name was Richard Coleman, but to many Upper East Siders who live or work along First Avenue in the 70s, he was known simply as Richie — a generous, funny and fashion-loving member of the neighborhood’s homeless community.
Coleman lived on the streets of the Upper East Side for more than 20 years before recently passing away, leading locals to hold a memorial service on Sunday and set up an online fundraising campaign to donate to the National Alliance to End Homelessness in his name.
“Richie was funny and kind and generous,” said Laura Bogdanski, one of the memorial's organizers, who works at Bar Coastal on First Avenue at 78th Street. “Sometimes he would say to me, ‘Hey sis, you need a few bucks?’ and I would tell him ‘No, I’m doing OK.’”
Bogdanski said officers from the 19th Precinct informed the bar's owners and some local businesses late last week that Coleman had passed away.
The cause of his death has not yet been determined, according to the city medical examiner. Officials said he was pronounced dead on April 16, but no information about where he was found or the circumstances surrounding his death were available. The NYPD said officers from the 19th Precinct identified Coleman's body and noted he had no next of kin.
Occasionally, he would disappear for a few months or even a year at a time, but would always return to the area he considered home, staying mainly on First Avenue between 72nd and 80th Streets, local business owners said.
Bogdanski, who has worked at Bar Coastal for 10 years, developed a relationship with Coleman based partially on the fact that she would help him out with small donations, but also on genuine affection. She recalled how Coleman would often stop by the bar in outrageous outfits and joke with the staff, one time showing up wearing a woman’s and a man’s suit at the same time.
“He knew when he had a good look on,” she said. “He’d say to us, ‘Come on, take my picture.’”
Like many things about Coleman, the origins of his wardrobe changes were a mystery.
“He’d come in sometimes with some very elegant clothes. I’d ask where he got them and he would always say, ‘My mother dressed me,’” said Marcello Lorusso, co-owner of Maruzella’s Italian Restaurant, also on First Avenue.
Lorusso, who knew Coleman for 15 years, never knew whether or not to take him seriously, because Coleman referred to everyone in the neighborhood as his brother or sister, he said.
Many locals did play a caretaking role in Coleman’s life. The manager of Lee’s Market and the owner of La Mia Pizza said they offered Coleman free meals a few times a week. The staff at Bar Coastal collected coats and blankets each winter to help him stay warm. Several members of the community also said that the owner of a now-closed laundromat would allow Coleman to wash his clothes there for free.
However, Coleman resisted attempts at more substantial forms of help, many locals said.
“It was really through the good grace of the neighborhood that he was able to survive as long as he did out here,” Bogdanski said.
However, Coleman wasn’t just on the receiving end of others’ generosity. He tried to give back to those who helped him as well.
“When he liked you he would give you little things he collected,” said Rosa Ha, the manager of Lee’s Market. “An interesting pin, little toys. They may not be high-quality, but anything interesting he found, he’d bring it in and say, ‘This is for you.’”
Larry Campbell, 61, who is also a part of the local homeless community, met Coleman about nine years ago. He said Coleman earned small amounts of money by collecting cans to recycle and by helping to take out garbage for large residential buildings. Campbell said that they had looked out for one another.
“He was a giver,” Campbell said. “Me and him was real close in terms of helping each other out with food or clothes or money. We never played any games with each other.”
Locals said Coleman did have his bad days, and that he suffered from substance abuse and mental health issues. He could become belligerent at time, and locals called the police or EMTs several times a year when Coleman had an outburst or became ill, they said.
In 2012, Coleman disappeared from the neighborhood for about a year and many feared that he was dead. However, he returned in July 2013 and remained in the neighborhood throughout this past winter.
Bogdanski helped to organize the memorial service because she didn’t want Coleman to be forgotten. Roughly 20 people attended the simple service on Sunday, held in Carl Schurz Park, and shared their memories of Richie.
If his body is not claimed, Coleman will be buried on Hart Island, New York City's public cemetery.
“In a city that can be pretty cold and aloof sometimes, I thought it was nice that he formed this little web,” said longtime neighborhood resident John Steinberg, who attended the memorial service. “He is going to be buried in Potter’s field, but people cared enough to remember him.”