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Hearts break downtown as fate fells someone beloved

He is an institution in downtown Buffalo.

He hawks his plastic threaded boondoggles for a couple of bucks.

He helps the pushcart hot dog vendors, getting change for them at banks and ice to chill their pop.

And he loves a hug and kiss from the opposite sex and is sometimes playfully known as “the kissing bandit.”

But now Marc Weinfeld is at death’s doorstep, after suffering a massive brain injury when he was struck by a car while trying to cross Oak Street on Monday morning during rush hour.

An autistic savant with a gift for numbers, Weinfeld is on life support in Erie County Medical Center. His sister, Marcia Weinfeld Goode, a concert violinist, is flying in today with her husband, Grammy Award-winning classical pianist Richard Goode, who was on tour in New Mexico.

“I’m just heartbroken. He’s a sweetheart. I can’t believe it,” his sister and only sibling said of Weinfeld. “I’ve spoken with the hospital, and they are very pessimistic. I’m going to see what they have to say.”

As word spread Tuesday that the “John Doe” hit by the car at 7:30 a.m. Monday near the Clinton Street intersection of Oak was, in fact, one of downtown’s most familiar faces for the last three decades, there was shock, and there were tears, especially among those he helped.

Each morning, Weinfeld rode the bus in from Elma to be of service and earn a modest living.

“I keep looking down the street for him,” said hot dog vendor Mark McCarthy, his voice cracking and eyes filling with tears at West Eagle and Franklin streets. “Every morning at 7:45 a.m., Marc met me at the warehouse on Broadway and Elm Street and helped push my cart over here. I was looking for him all day Monday.”

Accident Investigation Unit Officers Martin H. Forero and Keith S. LaFalce were investigating the accident; they noted that the woman who struck Weinfeld pulled over and cooperated. But the eyeglasses that Weinfeld normally wore, authorities said, could not be found at the accident scene, despite an extensive search.

Though 58, Weinfeld has a childlike aura and could often be heard saying, “I’m a good boy! I’m a good boy!”

But if he behaved perhaps a bit rambunctiously, he would be quick to say, “Don’t tell Cathy!” referring to Cathy Dzierzanowski and her husband, Tom, of Elma, who became his full-time caretakers in late 2004, when his aging mother, Naomi, became too ill to care for him.

Weinfeld’s sales pitch for his boondoggles almost always ended in a sale. Spotting an unsuspecting pedestrian, he would quicken his tall frame and slightly tilted-forward gait and call out, “Excuse me, mister, can you help me out?” and display one of his plaited plastic boondoggles.

Many downtown workers were familiar with the drill and happy to help him make a sale. And the hot dog vendors and restaurant owners he ran errands for rewarded him for his services – not only in cash but in giving him a sense of purpose and dignity.

Though autistic, Weinfeld is very social, according to his sister. “He was a very big personality. He knew so many people. He loved meeting people,” she said.

And he was “somewhat of a calendrical savant,” said Weinfeld Goode, of New York City, explaining that her brother could perform mathematical calculations involving calendar dates.

McCarthy said, “Marc could tell you the day of your birthday 20 years from now, and he never forgot your birthday or your name.”

During the lunch hour Tuesday over at Taki’s Restaurant on Court Street, co-owner Danice Kyriakopoulos began weeping, saying she had feared that the unidentified pedestrian who had been struck was Weinfeld because he had failed to show up Monday to run errands.

Dzierzanowski said she first met Weinfeld some 28 years ago in a drugstore at West Chippewa Street and Delaware Avenue.

“He asked me for a kiss. He settled for me buying a boondoggle instead,” said Dzierzanowski, who at the time ran a nearby jewelry shop. “He started running errands for me and one day I gave him a Statue of Liberty key chain and told him to memorize the inscription, ‘Give me your tired, your poor …’ His mother called me to thank me that someone took an interest in Marc. He memorized all of it.”

As his parents grew older, the Dzierzanowskis agreed to provide them with respite, first one day a month, then one weekend a month, until finally, about nine years ago, Weinfeld moved in full time.

“What can you say?” Cathy Dzierzanowski said of the accident. “He’s not only a legend downtown, but no matter where we went, someone knew Marc.”

Richard G. Berger, Weinfeld’s attorney and the former law partner of his father, described Marc as “a dear friend … known by every judge and police officer, almost everyone” in the downtown area.

In fact, police kept a caring eye on Weinfeld, whose simple ways offered a lesson to others.

“We all felt protective of him. He reminded me to keep life very simple,” said Central District Police Chief Brian K. Patterson. “He has a spirit that is very generous.”