Photo shows the entrance to The Mansion diner. Inset is a photo of a older Black man smiling.
After nearly 25 years at The Mansion, Upper East Side fixture Earl Wilcox says goodbye as he enters hospice care for terminal cancer | Upper East Site, John Phillips

The Mansion Diner Celebrates Earl Wilcox, Longtime Employee & Family Friend with Terminal Cancer 🆓

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After 24 years as a fixture in Yorkville, and at the end of a protracted battle with terminal cancer, a longtime employee and friend of historic Upper East Side diner The Mansion will say goodbye to his favorite corner, as neighbors and friends plan to celebrate him at a party this week before he transitions to hospice care.

Earl Wilcox, now 74, was homeless, living in Carl Schurz Park when he first came into The Mansion, at 1634 York Avenue on the corner of East 86th Street. The year was 2000, and Phil Phillips, the second-generation owner of the iconic diner, extended a helping hand, providing Earl with meals, odd jobs around the restaurant, and eventually a place to stay in the basement. 

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A corner restaurant seen from the street
Earl Wilcox has been a fixture of the legendary Yorkville diner The Mansion at 1634 York Avenue on the corner of East 86th Street, for over 20 years | Upper East Site

“What’s important here is that you can’t really discount anyone,” John Phillips, the third-generation owner and Phil’s son, told Upper East Site of Wilcox. “We kind of took a shine to [him] early on, and over the years he grew [from] someone we’re just helping out to, I guess a member of my family.”

ALSO READ | The Mansion’s Holiday Windows Keep Generations of Upper East Siders Smiling

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As Phillips’ family expanded and he took over the running of the restaurant, Wilcox has been there. From picking up Phillips’ children from school to helping out with dining room renovations, he’s become a stable figure in the business owner’s routine. 

An older Black man poses with a fluffy brown dog on a stoop
Beloved by neighbors, Wilcox used to walk dogs for the Phillips family and those in the area | John Phillips

“He’s a very, very big part of their lives,” Phillips said. Though his children — Max, 11, and Adam, 6 — understand death, having lost their great-uncle to cancer not long ago, they are concerned about the future. Given Wilcox’s worsening condition, Phillips estimates he has about a year to live. 

“Earl really made an impact in people’s lives,” he said. 

An older Black man and a young white boy pose with strawberries in front of a diner's table and blue booths
Having bonded with Wilcox their whole lives, Phillips’ children now face the prospect of losing him | John Phillips

It was around six years ago when Wilcox got sick, dropping down to 130 pounds, Phillips recalled. Because of his living situation, he lacked health insurance, a bank account, and an ID. For the last 20 years, he’s been sleeping in The Mansion’s basement — first on a utility table before he finally acquiesced to Phillips getting him a bed. 

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The family has offered him a vacant apartment in the building above the restaurant, which they own, and has also suggested paying for him to live in low-income housing nearby. He’s refused both. 

A corner NYC block with a restaurant
Wilcox has lived in the basement of The Mansion for the last 20 years, rebuffing attempts to get him an apartment | Upper East Site

“Sometimes we find him sleeping at a table in the dining room, still,” Phillips said, explaining that Wilcox formed sleeping habits when he was living on the street that he’s never been able to break.

As his medical power of attorney, the Upper East Sider sent him to Metropolitan Hospital Center, then to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where tests showed Stage Four cancer in his colon, lungs and liver. A devastating prognosis.

The entrance to MSKCC with bright blue signage
Tests at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center showed tumors in Wilcox’s colon, lungs and liver, though he initially responded well to treatment | Upper East Site

Initially given two or three years to live, Wilcox responded well to medication, and “we had the cancer almost completely eradicated, with the exception of a small spot in the center of his liver,” Phillips said. A recent round of medications, however, has had significant adverse effects, he added.

“The doctors and I and [Earl] made the decision to end treatment and move into a hospice scenario,” Phillips said. The cancer taking a toll on his body, Wilcox’s memory is also worsening, he added, explaining that signs of dementia have become more apparent recently. 

An older Black man with a young white boy in a light blue graduation gown and cap; the same man with a fluffy brown dog
In his time at The Mansion, Wilcox has become a fixture of the neighborhood, taking care of Phillips’ children, walking dogs, and doing odd jobs | John Phillips

Sitting down at a booth for an interview at the restaurant on Wednesday, Wilcox was in pain, holding his belly and complaining of the pressure the cancer puts on his stomach. His eyes, now yellow-tinted with jaundice, lit up as he thought of his relationship with Phillips’ children, and when a young girl walked by with her mother, he smiled, waving at her. She waved back. 

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Earl Wilcox will bid his farewell to The Mansion, where he’s built a life and a legacy, in a going-away party on Friday, May 3rd, from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm at the restaurant. He will soon move to Florida, where he will spend his final months with his daughter, Latoya, and son-in-law Marquis. 

With over 200 neighbors, customers and friends expected on Friday, plus city officials close to the restaurant, Wilcox is excited to see everyone, but not happy to go. 

An older Black man in black clothing pushing a red stroller down the street while a young white boy in a yellow shirt and black shorts walks beside him
Wilcox believes that his loss will be hard on Phillips’ children, but that in time they will grow to understand what happened | John Phillips

“I don’t want to leave them at all,” he said. Having come up from Savannah, Georgia, as a young man to visit his father, Wilcox got one taste of New York City and never left. While he’s looking forward to seeing his daughter, who has the space he will need as he transitions to hospice care, he’s disappointed to leave the bustling Upper East Side corner he’s called home more than two decades.

ALSO READ | Dog Mauled by Pit Bull Inside UES Park, Owner Blames ‘Menace’ Neighbor

“I’m gonna miss all my people here around me,” Wilcox explained. “[I’ve made] a lot of friends, a lot of people know me.”

Of Phillips, he said, “He got me up on my feet, and he helped me out a lot.”

An older Black man in a white T-shirt side-hugs a young white man in a lavender button down, while raising his fist and smiling
Wilcox made many friends in the neighborhood, and looks forward to seeing them at his party on Friday | John Phillips

Taking in Wilcox all those years ago was not a fluke, Phillips said, but rather another day in the restaurant’s long history of helping the less fortunate. 

“Community is not something that happens of its own accord,” Philips explained. “It needs to be worked for and protected, and that starts with predominating people over circumstances.”

A bald white man hold a small white boy, while an older Black man stands behind them, smiling and waving
Phillips (right) and his children (left) will miss Wilcox’s presence in their lives and on the Upper East Side | John Phillips

“If we want this to be a community in which we live, we have to make it an actual community, and it requires taking care of people who need help,” he added.

“I hate to leave them,” Wilcox said, remembering the feeling of being welcomed into The Mansion all those years ago. “I had a family again.”

The Mansion asks that those who can donate to a GoFundMe set up to help Wilcox’s family with his medical costs.

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