Mom holding baby Nicholas. Taken in Brookville Lake State Park on Long Island, Spring 1949.
Nicholas, Alfred and me. In that order, youngest to oldest. The three sons of Danny and Mary.
Mom, me, Alfred and Nicholas in front at the May Day Festival, 1954
I was four years older than Fredo and six years older than Nickie. Nickie and Fredo slept in the bunk beds. I slept on the Castro. When we moved out of our apartment and into our little house in Coney Island I was almost fourteen. Nickie was only eight.
A worn family photo, Nicholas in front – circa 1954
When I started driving, Fredo would join me and my friends to cruise Mitchell’s Drive-In on 86th street. Nickie was too young to hang with us. Nickie was the loner.
Looking back sixty plus years I can’t recall any of Nickie’s friends. I don’t know if he had any. I can’t remember ever seeing one of Nickie’s friends at our house although our house was a neighborhood hang-out. My best bud Billy practically lived with us if I wasn’t at his house. Fredo’s local girl friend MaryAnn lived around the block. Our kitchen always seemed crowded – except for friends of Nickie.
Nickie seemed to have no one. Everyone in the neighborhood was older than Nickie.
When I joined the Army and left home for good Nickie was about fifteen. He was a good kid, never in trouble but now I know he was lost. Mom was already ill and would be dead in less than three years.
After her death our father fell apart. He could not live without Mary. He didn’t know how. I don’t think he cared if he lived or not. He too would pass six years later at 56,
After mom died Nickie never went back to school. But he had met someone in school.
Lillian was a complete surprise to us and suddenly Nickie had someone.
Nickie and Lillian. Now and forever. One and inseparable.
Nickie was happy. There was only one problem.
Lillian was an addict. Pills. Prescription drugs. All kinds. Anything she could get her hands on. Nickie entered her world and her small circle of friends.
Nickie was 18 and for all practical purposes on his own. He began coming home to our father’s apartment less and less. In the era before cell phones it was difficult to reach someone if you didn’t know where they were.
Still, while Lillian rode the roller coaster, Nickie remained her rock.
I never saw Nickie stoned and I don’t believe he used. Maybe I was being naive. But he hung around with those who did and he was always there for Lillian.
Nickie got drafted but when the Army wanted to send him far away from Lillian he simply left and came home. The MPs picked him up but after receiving a non-judicial punishment for being AWOL he simply came home again. The Army eventually stopped picking him up. Vietnam was raging and lots of draftees were going home or going to Canada.
Through all the ups and downs with Lillian and her “friends” Nickie stuck with her. Nickie loved Lillian.
I hadn’t seen Nickie in several months when the phone rang one Sunday morning.
Nickie wanted to marry Lillian and called his big brother.
I can still feel the emotions. I knew Nickie loved Lillian – but I also knew Lillian.
“Don’t” was the essence of my reply. I was being a big brother trying to give the right advice. Maybe I should have just wished him well.
Nickie felt bad – but married her anyway. He was happy. Lillian was the only girl Nickie ever loved.
Several years later he would find her dead on the bathroom floor from an overdose.
Nickie was broken-hearted. He felt he hadn’t done enough. But there was no saving Lillian.
I had my own troubles; my wife and I lost an infant and then a second son was born with profound disabilities. We were living out of state and Nicki and I lost touch.
My wife and I were in Baltimore when our disabled ten year old Michael died. He had died in my arms and I was devastated. Many thought his passing was a blessing both for him and for us, but my wife and I didn’t think so. I tried to hold it together as I comforted my wife, tried to explain death to our two young daughters and make funeral arrangements.
The doorbell rang.
I opened the door and fell apart. It was Nickie.
Nickie was a bigger man than I and he enfolded his sobbing older brother in his arms and told me it was going to be ok. Nickie lived with his own demons.
Nickie had survived. A few years after Lillian passed he went into business and leased a gas station on Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn in a busy traffic area under the West End El. Business was good and he was making a living. Fredo would stop and buy gas and Nickie seemed content. But Nickie still seemed very much alone.
Nickie met Maria, a good woman who loved him and cared for him. They bought a small house in an urban redevelopment district near Sea Gate – it had bars on the doors and windows but Nickie knew Coney Island and everyone in Coney Island knew Nickie. Maria gave Nickie a settled life. Home. Work. Dinner. Love.
Me, Nick and Al (left to right) on Nick’s 40th Birthday. They were in their mustache period.
On his 40th birthday Maria threw a party to celebrate. It was 1988. A picture was taken of the three brothers – one of only three pictures including all of us together.
I went back to Baltimore and Nickie went back to Brooklyn. He eventually had to close the business as the oil company continued to raise the lease rate on the station until it become impossible to sell enough gas to make a living.
Nickie fell back to driving a gypsy cab in Coney Island. He and Maria split. I don’t know why.
Maybe life was too stable. Maybe he never loved her. Maybe he met someone else.
Nickie disappeared again into his world which Fredo and I knew little about. He rarely contacted us and he was always hard to find when we tried to contact him. We were in different worlds again – the two hot shot Wall Street brothers and the gypsy cab driver. I look back now with regret and sorrow. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough.
Three months after my wife died in 2004 I got the call that Nickie was dead. Lung Cancer. Same as my wife. He was 56 years old.
I couldn’t cry anymore.
Oh Nickie, we hardly knew ya……..
For Nickie – Part II – A re-post
Today I felt a shiver, like a familiar ghost passed too close.
Yesterday I heard from my cousin, I’ll call her Chris, who lives on Long Island. Chris, a few years younger than me, is the daughter of my mom’s younger brother. While we knew each other in childhood, we were separated by the miles during much of our lives until we renewed contact over the last decade.
Chris forwarded me a photograph of a boy and a little girl and a question – “Is this us?” She thought the picture was of me and her. She had run it passed my brother and he also thought it was of Chris and I.
I studied it, enlarged it, pondered over it. I had my doubts.
The boy sure as hell looked like me and the girl looked like Chris; yet deep inside I had my doubt. Deep inside I didn’t think it was me. I sent the picture to my daughter. Her reply? “Are you sure that isn’t you?”
Everyone seemed to think it was Chris and I – except me.
So I asked Chris whether or not she was sure the little girl was her – and not her younger sister. The younger sister, lets call her Diane, lives in South Carolina.
So Chris sent the photo to her sister asking for her vote. Who did she think was in the picture?
It was she and my deceased brother Nickie. Her note to me this morning:
“I remember being friends with Nicky. When we would visit as a family, he was the one I played with, I have memories of sitting on the top bunk playing cards. I would always lose and he would hit my knuckles. I was a glutton for punishment but it is what we did. I also remember just walking around outside in the yard of your home together and chatting. There was a big age difference in my mind, so Nicky and I were the little ones that stuck together. He was the one brother I related to as a child. I remember reading that blog from your book…it is lovely.”
And so this morning I wept for my brother who passed within months of my wife in 2004 – he was 56 years old. I wept because I was out of tears at the time. I wept because I never really knew him; we all have our own burdens in life. He had his and I had mine – and then he was gone.
As I agonized over that picture yesterday, staring at it, knowing that it sure as hell looked like me but knowing full well it wasn’t me, I never thought of my brother.
As soon as I read Diane’s note I KNEW it was Nickie and yet I didn’t recognize him on my own. I didn’t recall how much alike we looked.
Chris had the picture for months (it was probably her mom’s) but was having problems with her scanner; yesterday she got it working and sent the photo, thinking it was me. It’s one of the few pictures I have of Nickie as a boy.
Today is Nickie’s birthday. Chris thinks he just dropped by to say hello.