By Gligor Tashkovich
About four years ago, I began supporting and advocating for a couple who were living on the sidewalk outside my office building. A year ago I wrote about the death of Joseph Digilio. Now it is with great sorrow that I must record the equally untimely death of his widow, Nikole Ann Terzakos, age 42.*1
Nikole made a strong impression on me the first time we met. I was walking back to my office around lunch time with a take-out salad in a brown paper bag from the nearby Cosi when I rounded the corner of East 57th and Madison Avenue. I saw a couple sitting on overturned white corrugated USPS mail sorting boxes. I had never spoken to them before. Like most people at that very busy midtown Manhattan intersection, I had walked past them. The woman leapt to her feet and approached me decisively. She blocked my path and pointed at my chest, saying:
“I want your brains, not your money. I’ve been living on the street for thirteen years and I’m tired of it. I’ve been told that I am stupid and worthless my entire life, but I know that I’m entitled to a bed and a roof over my head. I am tired of going each day to the dollar store to buy alcohol wipes and then to a Starbucks where I can clean up. And I’m tired of hoping that random strangers will put $2.34 in front of me so that I can go to Duane Reade and buy an overpriced container of macaroni and cheese — and then go back to Starbucks to get a container of free hot water to make it. Will you help me?”
Some years ago, I had the privilege of helping Warren Buffett’s older sister, Doris, to responsibly give away some of her money. While Nikole was talking, I could hear Doris’s cautionary words echoing in my ear: “Gligor, remember: I give hand-ups not hand-outs.” When Nikole ended her direct appeal, I felt I had no choice but to agree because she was clearly looking for a “hand-up.” Nikole said that she wanted a bed under a roof with a bathroom and a mirror. She wanted her life back. She thought that I — of all the thousands of people who pass their street corner each day — could help her and Joseph achieve that dream. So without knowing anything about their situation other than that it was clearly dire, I didn’t hesitate. I said, “Of course.”
On the spot, we made an agreement and shook hands. Nikole had absolutely nothing but the clothes on her body — not even photo identification other than a card for a methadone treatment program. Because she and Joseph lived outdoors in all weather conditions, every rainstorm disintegrated any paper documents they tried to hold on to, leaving them to start all over each time. Even when they occasionally found clothes, sleeping bags, or backpacks, these items were eventually stolen by other denizens of the night. The end game was to help her and Joseph get a place to live and apply for Supplemental Security Income. Nikole’s end of the bargain was a promise never to lie to me and to respond promptly to my calls and messages. We both kept our word.
In the beginning, I assumed that if we followed the correct steps, we could solve all their problems. That is how life ought to work. I had no idea how hard it would be. It was humbling to discover that we always had to go above and beyond in order to navigate the obstacles of the system. When people have struggled for years with homelessness, poverty, a lack of education, and systemic oppression, it is just not enough to work hard and with determination. Despite my own advanced education and network of personal contacts, I regularly felt overwhelmed with the craziness of how challenging it was to help them change the trajectory of their lives.
The first eleven months were a steep learning curve for me as I heard story after story of their trials and tribulations. At the hands of city government employees, they continually felt looked down on and treated dismissively. Nikole had suffered practically every indignity in her short life. She showed me 27 stab wounds on her body and said she had been assaulted numerous times on the subway. She was also raped on three occasions, including once when she was a patient in a psychiatric ward at Metropolitan Hospital. A 2007 car accident left her with chronic pain for the rest of her life. She gave birth four times and delivered a fifth child stillborn. Her fallopian tubes had been tied without her permission.
With Nikole by my side, we got her registered to receive the health and income benefits to which she was entitled. We went to numerous doctors, emergency rooms, psychiatric wards, alcohol detox and rehab centers, dentists, therapists, and social workers. We traveled twice to the Office of the Public Advocate in order to get city agencies to do their job. Finally, on the late morning of the 24th September 2015, hours before the Pope traveled up Madison Avenue on his historic visit, I got Nikole and Joseph housed in a couples-only shelter. We traveled to Brooklyn many times to attend legal hearings together — and she won all but one of them. Completing the process for getting Nikole long-needed dentures in December 2016 was very exciting. She had a beautiful smile.
Once Nikole and Joseph had a mailing address, I invited my personal friends to send them postcards of encouragement when I had to leave town on long business trips. Many people responded, and the couple were thrilled to receive cards from around the world. They said they couldn’t remember the last time they ever received personal correspondence.
Beginning in 2015 and with the agreement of Nikole and Joseph, a friend and I wrote up their story in a lengthy multi-part blog that was posted here on “Together in Dignity.” Reading their own story made a huge impact on on them. They were proud to have their story told and found it very satisfying that they might end up being role models for others trying to overcome similar obstacles.
Following Joseph’s tragic death on 11 March 2017, Nikole was no longer technically allowed to remain in the couples-only shelter but I fought “the system” hard to buy her an additional six weeks of time — much to the surprise of the Legal Aid Society who had never seen anything like that done before. I finally got her into a detox program at Cornerstone and then immediately into a rehab program there and in Rhinebeck, New York. After several days of homelessness and subway riding, she was miraculously taken in by a woman who lived at East 54th Street and Park Avenue. In late July 2017, Community Access offered Nikole long-term housing in a shared two-bedroom apartment. As her life gained stability, her sense of direction and ability to figure out the subway system improved. She went on to find a part-time job, with no help from me. She began volunteering her cooking skills at ATD Fourth World. I was so proud of her. On the last day I saw Nikole, she looked the best I had ever seen her in the four years since we met — and I’m very glad that I told her so.
Nikole had plans to finish her GED*2 and then start a multi-year process to earn her Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor license. As she was always proud to remind me, she had been clean of illegal drugs for six years. She wanted to give back and help others as she had been helped. She was also reconnecting with her two adult children (one in person, one by text message) after not seeing them for nearly all of the previous thirteen years. She was looking forward to attending her daughter’s Union College graduation in June.
Nikole was only two months away from winning her appeal for Supplemental Security Income. Her plan had been to use the money she would have been awarded to take her children on trips.
Early every single morning without fail, Nikole used to call me in what I would come to describe as an “affirmation of life” call.
“Good morning, Mister G,” her cheerful voice would say. “How are you? Have a blessed day.”
I will, Nikole. Thanks for looking out over the rest of us. Fly with angels.
1 To protect their privacy during their lifetimes, several previous posts in this blog referred to them as “Jeffrey” and “Nadine.”
2 The equivalent of a U.S. high school diploma.