Hughie Reid loves money.
That’s why he went into the funeral business.
Becoming an undertaker was not exactly a life-long vocational dream. Reid, now 86, says that as a kid growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn what he really wanted was to own a German delicatessen like Fred O.’s, the store he worked at every morning before school.
Reid says his business interests changed though, once he observed the elegantly dressed funeral directors walking into St. Anthony’s Church every Sunday and driving away in flashy cars.
He told himself he would one day own a funeral parlor.
Today, he owns the Hugh A. Reid Funeral Home located at 153 Greenpoint Ave., a business he bought in 1956 when the neighborhood was predominantly Irish. Greenpoint now is home to more Poles than Irish and Reid’s business has suffered, he says, as the neighborhood’s Poles tend to go to nearby competing Polish funeral homes like Stobierski’s on Driggs Avenue. The Irishman says that when business was good he had 135 funerals per year; last year, though, he only had 49. Yet, he has no intention of living anywhere but in Greenpoint where he has lived all his life and where he says he will die.
“Greenpoint is heaven, as far as I’m concerned,” he says as he sits comfortably in a chair near a window in his funeral parlor and fiddles with his post-cataract sunglasses. The strong late September sun seeps in through the window, shining down on Reid’s bald head and his thick black-framed glasses. Hard of hearing, Reid frequently replies to comments or questions with a curt “who?” or “what?” and he is unabashedly honest. For example, he says he voted for Christine Quinn in this past mayoral primary solely because she is Irish.
Reid’s grandparents came from Cushendall, Ireland to Greenpoint in 1856 at the height of the potato famine and he is the sixth of 12 born into a big Irish Catholic family, so it’s no wonder he has such strong ties to his heritage. When Reid was nine, he started working at Fred O.’s, the kind of neighborhood deli he wanted to own when he grew up. To earn supplemental cash he also ran a paper route with his older brother, Danny, buying copies of The Greenpoint Weekly Star, now called The Greenpoint Gazette, for two cents a pop and selling it for three cents. He made a nice profit with soda too, buying three Pepsis for a dime and selling them for a nickel a piece.
“I was always doin’ somethin,” Reid says.
In 1949 he enrolled in the New York School of Embalming and Restorative Art, a one-year college program, and then bought McElroy’s Funeral Home, located just a few blocks from the home he grew up in on Leonard Street. Reid changed the name of the funeral home to his own and he and his wife, Nancy, whom he met in the neighborhood, moved in upstairs. They also bought the building next door and rented out the apartments.
Reid still lives upstairs, alone, because his wife died a few years ago of cancer.
Boxes stacked on top of one another in the dark funeral parlor show the room’s little use; when Reid slowly stands up to answer the phone it’s his one daughter, Mary, or a friend—no one calls to make arrangements during a four-hour long interview.
Regardless of Reid’s fondness for and recent issues with finance, he is generous to his tenants, who live next door, and treats them like family.
“I always believe in helping people,” Reid says.
Artur Lapinski, 44, a burly man who works in building maintenance, emigrated from Poland and has been Reid’s tenant for over 20 years. Reid fondly remembers Lapinski’s son, now in his 20s, as a baby sleeping in his father’s arms. Lapinski calls Reid “the greatest guy in Greenpoint” and explains that after all of this time living in the same apartment, Reid only raised the rent once.
“This shows the kind of guy he is,” Lapinski says with a heavy accent. Asked if he will stay in Greenpoint, Lapinski answers yes, as long as Reid is here. After that he doesn’t know what he will do since the neighborhood has become so expensive.
Reid says he suffered from a stroke eight years ago that has slowed him down considerably. His youth as an energetic undertaker seem so long ago to him, but he remembers them fondly.
“Years back when I was a young buck, I embalmed five bodies on one Friday night. I took no breaks, I just kept working and working,” Reid says proudly. He never allowed himself to think of his job as a morbid occupation because if he did, he would, as he cleverly put it, “Go to the Mickey Mouse factory.”
Just as Reid jokes about his profession, he finds humor in his own mortality.
“If I’m lucky, I wake up,” he says. “One of these days I’m not gonna make it.”