The Voice mourns the loss of Richard Leck, a longtime East Village habitue who passed away of heart disease on Dec. 19.
Leck, 75, was one of that disappearing class of people who make the neighborhood more colorful and more interesting than the yuppie scum who invade this sacred ground and drive up the rents.
As a young man in the 1960’s, Leck was a fixture in the flourishing cafe scene at places like Cafe Figaro, the Commons, the Limelight and Cafe Feenjon. There he hung out with Yoko Ono, Shel Silverstein, the eccentric late night radio host Long John Nebil, the artist Yukiko Katsura, and the Feenjon’s arm-wrestling owner, Manny Dworman, among other bold-faced names, according to accounts he gave his biographer.
“I didn’t write in those days — I just listened. I just took it all in,” he once told a friend.
Leck was born in 1933 in Jersey City. He attended journalism school at NYU from 1951 to 1955, and later worked at a newspaper in New Jersey.
He had a long, strange and varied working career. He was an artist, drawings mainly. He took acting classes at Stella Adler, and got a part as an extra in the cheesy horror movie “Bucket Head.” He sold knick-knacks on the street. He worked in a Jewish child care program for children.
In the cafes, where he appeared nearly every evening, he rubbed elbows with future celebrities. He was also a regular at the Neptune Diner on 1st Avenue and St. Mark’s Bookshop.
In his later years, Leck restyled himself a poet, and unlike many of us lesser scribblers, he actually was good enough to find a publisher in Karen Lillis, who runs Words Like Kudzu Press in Pittsburgh. In one of those typical Village encounters, he met Lillis while she was working as a clerk in the St. Mark’s bookstore.
Leck’s poetry was also published by the Pastel Society, Manhattan Arte International and the Salmagundi Art Center.
At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiographical novel with Lillis that he titled “Jumped, Fell or Was Pushed.” In the 1990s, while working as a receptionist at the Salmagundi Art Club, he began writing bits and pieces, and then eventually started with the poetry. He often wrote in a notebook, but he also scribbled his poems on diner napkins and receipts.
In his poem, “Residents,” Leck seemed to be referring to the vanishing eccentrics of the village when he wrote:
Let dandelions be. They break up
the monotony of the grass.
Old losers continue to lose even though they know
what they have lost.
And in “Experience,” he seems to be referring to the scars that aging brings.
to catch the drops.
Will find you.
Alas, Leck fell on hard times and wound up intermittently homeless, finally finding a real place to live in 1993 at the Sirovich Senior Center on East 12th Street.
Lillis describes him “as a character, a bohemian, and an astute observer of city life.” “He embodied the pace of the old village,” Lillis says. “He once told me, ‘I never learned to walk fast like Manhattanites.'”
Leck’s closest friend was Frances Winn, a retired VA nursing assistant. Winn and Leck met at the VA hospital two decades ago. She used to visit with him while on her rounds. When he signed out of the hospital, the friendship continued. Leck once gave an engagement ring to Winn, and often proposed marriage, but she always declined.
“I had been a battered woman in my previous marriage, and it just soured me,” she says. “Richard was very kind and gentle, but I just didn’t want that life again.”
Winn says Leck loved the culture of the village. “He loved the mix of people, the fact that people don’t look at you as different, that they treat you well no matter who you are. He was someone to know.”
Leck was also remembered fondly at the Sirovich Center, as well. “He was very independent,” recalls Anthony Alexander, who works at the center. “He did a lot of poetry for our newsletter. He was very lucid,”
Leck died without any next of kin. He had lost touch with his family decades earlier. As a result, Lillis and Leck’s closest friend, Frances Winn, a retired VA nursing assistant, had trouble obtaining his personal effects and figuring out how to get the city to release the body. The body has lingered in the city morgue since his death.
The city typically holds an unclaimed body for up to a month before sending it to Potters Field, a government-run cemetery of the forgotten.
“He’s a veteran, a poet and a dear soul and it doesn’t seem like a vet should go to Potter’s Field,” Lillis told the Voice.
Indeed, it appeared that the city was on the verge of sending him to Potters Field.
But, after speaking with Lillis and Winn, the Voice contacted the city Medical Examiner’s office, which graciously placed a hold on Leck’s body for two more weeks so his friends could navigate the process of contacting the Public Administrator and obtaining the release of the body.
The other issue was how to pay for the burial. There, Winn and Lillis sought help from the Veterans Administration. Leck was a soldier during the peaceful interlude between the Korean and Vietnam wars.
But, citing policy, the VA declined to help, with one official saying, “We can’t bury this person. This person is out of luck.”
Lillis says she plans to hold fundraisers to raise money to pay for the burial costs. She is hoping to bury Leck in the same cemetery where his parents and grandparents are interred.
In one of their many interviews, Leck offered Lillis a kind of coda on the village, though he was actually speaking of those halcyon days back in the sixties. “People weren’t afraid to be themselves, to let you see their weird edges. Not put-on weird, but their naturally human character edges,” he told her. “I think The Self has gone underground in recent years.”
(Update 12:06: inaccurate byline fixed)