By Anna Merlan
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In 1996, after 20 years in business, Fancy From Delancey closed. By then Steve and Jerry were too sick to run the shop anymore.
Steve Helfer left, Jerry Rice right
photo: Courtesy Steve Helfer
A small black leather address book rests on the table next to Jerry's bed. Inside are the names of 90 men he once knew, three or four per page. "There's at least two on every page that's no longer here," he says, flipping through the book. "I'd call up one of these guys and his mother would answer and say, 'Mark is no longer with us.' But I didn't cross their names out because I wanted them to go on living in my head."
Jerry has a ritual he practices, to ensure he doesn't forget anyone: He recites the names of his friends who've died. It's something he used to do when he took his daily walks on the beaches at Fire Island. Now he says the names silently on his daily trip to the deli, as he slowly makes his way along the sidewalk with his one good eye. "I say the names of as many people as I can think of. Sometimes I'll do 30, sometimes 10," he says. "Then I'll go and buy my tuna fish sandwich and think of five more on my way back."
Steve taught special ed in the city's schools until 2002, when he, too, started collecting Social Security disability. One day, about four years ago, he walked into Jerry's apartment and found him sprawled on the floor, his pants soaked. Jerry did not wake up until he was in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent's. He'd had a heart attack; Steve had saved his life. These days, Steve and Jerry see each other three or four times a week, and some nights Jerry stays at Steve's place.
A few years ago, the owner of Jerry's buildingwhich was then TIAA-CREF, the pension fund for teacherstried to evict him. With help from Steve, Jerry paid a lawyer $14,803 to fight back. It was the equivalent of five years' rent, but the investment worked. Jerry won. "It's over! Congratulations," the lawyer wrote to him in January 2004. Jerry was relieved. "I thought I would have a home until I died."
But then, in 2005, SUNY bought the buildings at 119 and 121 East 54th Street, and sent letters to the four tenants telling them they'd have to leave. SUNY plans to open a center for corporate executives and graduate students called the Levin Institute, named after Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority who perished on 9-11. For the properties that included Jerry's building, SUNY paid $21.5 million. "The building is going to be put to good use," a spokesman says.
The stress of another eviction threat was more than Jerry could bear. His weight plunged from 170 pounds to 145. Steve did everything he could to help: He convinced Jerry's state assemblyman, state senator, and city councilman to write letters on his behalf; he studied the Levin Institute's website and called some of its board members; he brought Jerry packaged dinners from Fairway to help him gain weight.
At press time, Jerry has received no reprieve from SUNY, no promise of another apartment or a large payment. He has been trying to stay calm by listening to his disco records. But of course, he can't stop thinking about his future. "They're not going to say, 'All right, Mr. Rice, it's time to leave,' " he says, seated atop his bed on a recent afternoon, his voice growing louder and more insistent. "I will be in the apartment and will handcuff myself to the radiator. They're not going to get me out of here."