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Queens Chronicle

ESSAY Carlos Nino: He died trying to save his wife

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Posted: Wednesday, July 3, 2019 10:30 am | Updated: 12:15 pm, Thu Jul 11, 2019.

Our longtime doorman, Carlos Nino, was finally going to get to retire. No, he had no wish to stop working. It was because he had no choice.

His wife of 40 years, Reinalda, was desperately sick. A year earlier, she’d received a diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer. Since then she had struggled through chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy.

And now Carlos, himself robustly healthy and still only 62 years old, was retiring from the job he loved. His only reason was to devote himself full-time to caring for Reinalda, whom he called Reina, his “queen.” Little could he have known that his sacrifice would take a detour and ultimately force him to pay the highest possible price.

* * *

Carlos worked the door in Parker Towers, a three-building residential complex in Forest Hills. Our 20-story building at the corner of Queens and Yellowstone Boulevards has 454 apartments and more than 1,000 tenants. I’ve lived there since 1977, first with the girlfriend who became my wife, Elvira, then with our son, Michael, and daughter, Caroline.

Carlos was more than a doorman. Yes, he opened the doors and distributed packages from UPS and Fedex. Yes, he announced guests and Chinese-food deliveries. Yes, he kept an eye on who came in the service entrance and rode on the elevators, making sure we stayed safe and secure.

But I often saw Carlos give the job something extra. He greeted everyone, residents and visitors alike, with a smile and a warm, sincere hello. He stooped low to say hi to babies and little kids. He sprinted outside to help old people getting out of cars carrying bags of groceries or wheeling suitcases.

He knew every tenant by name and apartment number. He even memorized the names of all the children living in the building as well as those of visitors and pets. He kept a spiral notebook that he regularly updated.

“He always wanted to help everybody,” says Deborah Caudle, a tenant for 24 years. “And he always talked to me about his children.”

Some doormen are more than sentries. They also serve as psychologist, house detective, diplomat, traffic cop, social worker and babysitter. Carlos truly looked after us all.

“You could know Carlos only one day,” says Israel Rodriguez, a fellow doorman for 10 years, “yet he would already make you feel like family.”

* * *

Carlos grew up on a farm in Colombia and came to this country at age 18. He had little money and formal education. Whatever jobs he could find, he took. He befriended electricians and plumbers to learn enough to be a jack of all trades and eventually became a certified mechanic.

Soon he married and became a father to two sons. While a porter at Parker Towers, doing maintenance work, he took a second job as a custodian in a medical office. He showed up every morning at 6 a.m. to sweep and vacuum. In the late 1980s, he graduated to doorman, now looking official in a uniform complete with jacket and cap. His wife stayed home while he supported his family, almost never missing a day on the job.

“He would buy new clothes only when his old ones had so many holes they were falling apart,” his son Jason recalls. “He never went out drinking. Never took himself to the movies or for weekend trips.”

“Growing up,” Jason says, “I always had clothing, food, toys, video games, even a computer. I never knew we were working class.”

One day, 12-year-old Jason had a homework assignment to do that was a grade or two over his head. It was late and he was tired and doubted he could figure it out. Jason realized he was on his own and quietly sobbed over his notebook.

Just then his father came into the room and left a bowl of ice cream on his desk. “My little son,” Carlos said in Spanish, patting him on the back, and left without another word.

“Suddenly I no longer felt like I was on my own,” Jason says. “That bowl of ice cream is why I was able to finish my homework that night. Just knowing that his support was there meant the world to me. The memory of that experience then helped me get through so many other challenges.”

Carlos put Jason through Amherst College and then Fordham University Law School, and his younger brother, Kenneth, through Queens Community College.

“Until my brother and I graduated from college, my father never took vacations with our mom,” says Jason, now a lawyer with the New York City Human Resources Administration. ”It was only many years later that I realized our family never wanted for anything because our father sacrificed everything.”

Carlos once told me, his face radiating pride, that Jason, then just out of law school, was already earning twice as much as he.

* * *

Reinalda was so weak from her cancer treatments she could barely walk to the car for medical appointments. Carlos cooked potluck stews for her on his days off and convinced her to eat despite her nausea and fatigue from chemo. He cleaned the house to keep it hygienic, even scrubbing the fruits she ate, and took her for walks to help her regain her strength.

On Memorial Day weekend in 2016, just days before Carlos would leave our premises to care for the love of his life, I stationed myself in the lobby of our building with an oversize greeting card. I asked every tenant passing by to sign the card for him and perhaps leave a message to express appreciation for his services.

Within a few hours the card was filled with handwriting from fellow tenants, and I had to go back to a stationary store around the corner to buy another. The same fate soon met the second card, and then the third. After three days in the lobby, I had collected signatures from 100 tenants wishing Carlos farewell.

I handed the three cards to Carlos on his last day at the door. He touched his hand to his heart. In doing so, he said both nothing and everything.

We stayed in touch after he retired. We talked by phone, but mostly corresponded through email and Facebook. And that was how I learned Reinalda’s cancer was in complete remission. Within two months of his retirement, her health had turned around.

But then, only a few months later, came news that Carlos himself was now sick. His feet had swollen, making it hard for him to fit into his shoes and walk. Nephrologists took tests and diagnosed the problem. His kidneys were failing him.

More than once I offered to visit him and take him to lunch. Carlos expressed gratitude, but invariably declined. “Sorry,” he once said, “but I am a little sick.”

I understood. He preferred his privacy. He refused to burden anyone with his problems. He wanted to confront his illness on his own.

But the swelling worsened and spread. He had trouble breathing and felt oppressively tired. He was admitted to Long Island North Shore University Hospital for kidney failure. He began to undergo dialysis every other day that left him exhausted.

Now he was going to need a kidney donor to survive. But the waiting list in New York was so long it would likely take years. Both of his sons volunteered a kidney, but Carlos said no.

The last time we talked, in early 2018, he assured me his health was improving. He told me he had even managed that morning to walk around the block. He said, “Thank you for being my friend.”

I never saw Carlos again.

He went back to Colombia with Reinalda — people from his hometown had offered to donate a kidney. Suddenly he felt pains in his chest. At the hospital, doctors told him he had suffered a heart attack. He would immediately require open-heart surgery.

The blockages in his heart turned out to be severe. The procedure, ordinarily three to six hours long, instead lasted eight hours. Recovery from the marathon surgery quickly brought serious complications. Last October 1, with Reinalda at his bedside, my friend Carlos died.

But first, unable to speak, he tried to write out his last words. His scrawl was hard to read. His family suspect the note said “Reinalda.”

* * *

Word of his death last October — at age 64, in the country of his birth — came to me, fittingly enough, from fellow doorman Ronald Basdeo. Talk about cruel irony. Talk about cosmic injustice. Carlos Nino had long since earned a long, healthy retirement. He had quit his job to save his ailing wife, only to see her recover and then need saving himself.

He was cremated in Colombia, his remains brought back to his house in Kew Gardens.

I knew Carlos for more than 40 years. I loved him. In fact, everyone who knew him loved him. He was as close to a saint as anyone I ever met. And now, too soon, he’s gone.

I posted a tribute to him on Facebook that prompted dozens of sorrowful comments singing his praises. Our landlord sent an email to tenants about his death and put a photo of him in our lobby in his memory.

Some people are born to set an example for how we should act. Carlos felt privileged to come to this country and make a living as a doorman. He put his heart into his job every day he came on duty. He was a classic case of your job is what you decide to make of it. His is the story of an immigrant dream realized in America, well worth celebrating on July 4th.

New York City’s 3,200 or so apartment buildings have about 10,000 union doormen. Many are immigrants. If you’re lucky enough to live in a building with a doorman like Carlos, I know just how you can honor my friend.

Give him a smile. Shake his hand. Better still, come the year-end holidays, tip big.

Bob Brody is an executive and essayist in Forest Hills and the author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”

Welcome to the discussion.

1 comment:

  • SusannaLee posted at 6:05 pm on Thu, Jul 4, 2019.

    SusannaLee Posts: 1

    My heart is hurting right now after reading this. I lived in Parker towers and had the privilege of having Nino as my doorman. I was one of the people who signed his card. He had such a good heart and would always put a smile on your face. My heart goes out to his family. May he Rest In Peace.