This drawing was made for a painting that was never completed. The subject was a man named Robert Couri, who lived in the Washington Heights Neighborhood and he was homeless. Robert would panhandle outside the grocery store, One Stop Smile Deli, located at 181street and Fort Washington Ave. I always remember him leaning against a tree. He seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood. He enjoyed talking to neighbors and my wife and I got to know him over time. We would buy Robert a sandwich, or give him a pair of socks. He had a sweet tooth and he was crazy for Goobers – the peanut butter and jam spread in a jar. I tried to get involved in helping him get off the streets and I tried to find social services for him. But I couldn’t move beyond a certain point in helping him.
From my conversations with Robert – or Bobbie, as he liked to be called, I learned that he was a demolition expert in Vietnam and saw a lot of gruesome stuff. He had PTSD. He put his life back to together got married and had a wife and a child and a home in New Jersey. He said he lost his family in a home fire, and completely broke down, became homeless. That was the story he told me.
I told Robert about the fact that I was a painter, and that I did portraits. I asked him if he would sit with me for a portrait and I told him I could pay him. He agreed, and one day came up to my studio and sat. I drew his portrait in pencil, as a plan for an eventual painting. After the session was finished he looked at the drawing and told me, ‘That’s me all right. Just sitting and waiting. I’ve spent my entire life waiting.” The date on the drawing is April 2001.
We never got the portrait finished. Robert’s health worsened, He didn’t look good. For some time, I didn’t see him in front of the deli and I wondered what he was up to. One day in 2004 I got a call from the city morgue asking me to identify a body. Robert had passed away, from a heart attack I was told. My number was in his wallet when he died.
There was no next of kin that I knew of. But I didn’t want to see Robert buried on Hart Island for anonymous bodies. I found out about a charitable burial site for the Jewish homeless and poor. I contacted them, they asked me “Was he Jewish?” and I told them, “I think so.” OK, I stretched the truth. I had no idea if Robert was Jewish or not. But they did claim his body and he was buried out in Long Island. My wife and I when to see his plot later when a headstone was installed. It was nice.
After I found out that Robert died, I thought about the many people in the neighborhood that knew Robert and I posted the news of his death on the tree that he leaned against. I placed candles at the foot of the tree. I thought that there might be a way for people to come together and remember him. I left my phone number on the sign for anyone who wanted to contact me to organize the memorial. I did get a call form about four people,
As a group, we approached the Marble Collegiate Church located across the street from the deli. We approached the head pastor and spoke to him about our plans to give Robert a memorial. He knew of Robert, and agreed to donate the use of the church space. Our committee of four formed a memorial service, a program, and posted signs.
On the evening of the memorial I would say we had about sixty people in attendance. We had readings, and songs, and people got up to share a favorite story of Robert. The drawing was placed in the front and people placed flowers next to it. We sang “Whatsoever you do, to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” There was a jar of Goobers there too.
Wow, so many people came to his memorial. I had no idea so many cared for him. But Robert had a sweet side to his personality that was endearing. He really enjoyed greeting people and exchanging pleasantries with them on a warm summer evening; I guess if your homeless that’s about as good as it gets. He touched people’s lives.
I didn’t know I would become so involved in Robert’s life but I can say that Spirit moved me to ensure that his burial was respectful and that he was remembered. The drawing is probably the only tangible record of Robert’s image left in the world. And I have my story which I share with you.
I called him Bobbie, and he called me Bernie. Not many people call me Bernie, but he could.