Remembering the Little Man Who Was a Big Voice for Causes
Being a gay, Jewish, nearly deaf and otherwise disabled dwarf from Queens has its advantages, and Harry Wieder used every one of them. Arm crutches, which he needed to walk, served double duty as clubs when he felt he wasn’t being heard. “If he wanted your attention, he would hit you in the shin with his crutch,” said Marvin Wasserman, a longtime ally and occasional victim. “Sometimes he’d aim a little higher.”
Mr. Wieder, who was buried Friday after being killed by a taxi at age 57, spent most waking hours of his adult life campaigning for gay rights, safe public housing, health care, access for the disabled and hundreds of local lefty candidates. He was determined that what he lacked in height he would deliver in volume: in lengthy e-mail messages to elected officials and in fiery disquisitions at public hearings or community board meetings.
As his hearing failed more and more with each year, he would ask, “Again, please? Again?” of someone with an opposing view at some meeting, until that person was forced to raise his voice — at which point Mr. Wieder naturally felt entitled to shout his own position back.
Mr. Wieder, who lived in the East Village, made the rounds of New York City in his beat-up Buick Regal, which he drove with hand controls — badly, some said, but generously, always offering rides to his compatriots (who would discover only upon the car’s arrival that if they wanted to sit in the front seat, they would have to climb in from the back, thanks to a broken door). He sometimes attended seven or eight meetings in a day, even if he snored his way through one or two of them. His friends joked that he must have a clone — “but why would anyone clone someone that strange?” Mr. Wasserman said.
He was impossible; he was lovable, and determined to get the affection he was due. “Petrelis, get on your knees and hug me,” he used to say to his friend Michael Petrelis, a fellow gay activist. Affection, the casual commodity of most acquaintances, delivered in a passing air kiss, required, like everything else in Mr. Wieder’s life, effort. He demanded it on his own terms, not those of the people from whom he wanted it.
The only child of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Wieder hardly considered his own situation a hardship. He never complained, for example, about how difficult it was for him to walk, but it was, which is probably why, after a meeting of Community Board 3 on Tuesday night, he tried to cross Essex Street in the middle of the block. The passing cab abruptly ended a life with countless agendas still incomplete.
At his funeral Friday in Forest Hills, Queens, friends and admirers, many in wheelchairs or on crutches, poured in, along with the elected officials whom he alternately harassed and supported, including Mark Green, Christine C. Quinn, Tom Duane and Scott M. Stringer. “You weren’t done talking to Harry until he was done talking to you,” Ms. Quinn, the City Council speaker, recalled in a eulogy. “Harry went out of his way to be devilish, and as we continue to struggle in his name, we need to maybe be a little more devilish ourselves.”
Outside, friends filled in the details: about the time Mr. Wieder showed up for a protest at Radio City Music Hall on Easter dressed as a bright pink bunny; the time he got one friend’s attention with a bang of his crutches to inform her that he hated her newly bleached hair (he was right, she added); the time he drove himself to Key West to enjoy a vacation at a clothing-optional gay resort. Jasmine Jose, the wife of a home attendant who worked with Mr. Wieder for 15 years, recalled how, upon her invitation, he kept sneaking into her labor room during the birth of her first son, hiding behind the curtain and finding his way back each time nurses asked him to leave. She ended up having a Caesarean section, and Mr. Wieder sneaked in once more to keep her company after visiting hours “so I wouldn’t be alone,” she said.
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