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February 11, 2004
A tough town's soft side revealed

by Dennis Duggan
He died after being crushed in a city garbage truck's jaws late in November.

It was 3 a.m. on Meeker Street in Greenpoint, and he was wrapped in dirty blankets and plastic bags as he slept under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He awoke moments before he was crushed to death.

By now he would have been buried in Potter's Field on Hart Island, a final stop for people with no claim on possessions and few friends.

But because a band of strangers led by a determined Queens woman came together, the man has been identified as Andrew Solarski, 51.

This morning he will be buried in Forest Green Park Cemetery in New Jersey after the 23rd Psalm, written by an unknown person and beginning "The Lord is my shepherd," will be read.

Yesterday, Regina Barry sat and talked about her nearly three-month crusade to give some meaning to a life that was given little value.

"Don't make me a saint, a lot of people helped me," said Barry, who was widowed six years ago. She now devotes herself to good works, including the Holy Name Homeless Shelter in Glendale.

It was through Barry that city detective Paul Callahan of the Police Department's Missing Persons Bureau was able to identify Solarski, a Polish immigrant.

Solarski was a familiar figure on the streets of Greenpoint, but one who didn't cause trouble, according to residents in the area.

It was Callahan who called George McDonald, head of the Doe Fund, which provides work and shelter for the homeless. McDonald agreed to pay for the cost of a simple wooden casket, and arranged for a funeral home in Little Italy to handle today's burial.

In a city that is often thought of as indifferent to the plight of people like Solarski, this is a story that shows that New Yorkers have a sensitive side even to someone they never met, whose life was lived on the fringes and came to a gruesome end.

Thanks to Sister Tesa, who runs Hour Children, which helps women in prison, Solarski will be buried in a "gently used" navy blue suit.

"I am also arranging to put rosary beads in his casket," said Barry, who grew up in the Polish section of Greenpoint before moving to Queens 25 years ago.

A few days ago Barry arranged to have a Mass said in Polish for Solarski at St. Stanislaus Church in Greenpoint. It was only a few days ago that Barry learned the name of Andrew Solarski.

Saying it brought tears to her eyes.

It took dozens of phone calls and heartbreaking near misses to get to this point.

Yesterday, I talked to Joseph Guidetti, 62, another good Samaritan, who runs the Crestwood Memorial Chapel in Little Italy. "We're waiting for the Kings County morgue to release his body and we will dress it here tonight," he said.

Guidetti was bought into the widening chain of helpers by McDonald, who has buried homeless people through the chapel beginning 18 years ago. Guidetti tries to keep funeral costs for the homeless at a minimum.

"On a bad month we bury 12 to 15 homeless people," said McDonald, who began a life of helping the homeless by passing out sandwiches in Grand Central Terminal, where he was often arrested for disturbing the peace.

In the end though, it was Regina Barry who inspired many New Yorkers to help save Solarski from an anonymous ending to an anonymous life.

"I had gotten to the point where I was desperate," Barry said. "I thought of going to City Hall and try to talk to Mayor Bloomberg about this man. One person asked me what would it matter if he were to be buried in Potter's Field because he's dead."

It mattered a lot. Especially to Barry, Callahan, McDonald and Guidetti.

Now Andrew Solarski will be given a respectful burial, thanks to a band of strangers who found time in their busy lives to extend a loving hand.

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