Ernest Askew, who wouldn’t give up his bike

Ernest Askew, a Brooklyn singer, was one of 15 cyclists killed in NYC streets this year. 
Ernest Askew, a Brooklyn singer, was one of 15 cyclists killed in NYC streets this year.  Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Long before Ernest “Andre” Askew briefly became the latest cyclist to be killed this year in New York City, his brother Melvin wanted him to stop biking.

There was plenty reason to, Melvin says: Around two years ago, Ernest was dragged by a truck while riding near his home in Brownsville. His coat got caught. The dragging injured his back but Ernest didn’t call the cops. The driver gave him $100 cash and drove away.

Even after that, dropping the bike wasn’t so simple for Ernest, who would have turned 58 on Thursday. He didn’t love cars either, after accidents as a passenger and driver.

“He developed a phobia of driving,” said Melvin, 62.

So, the bike then, the pedal-assist variety he was riding on Sutter Avenue on the evening of June 27, when a driver in a white Hyundai fatally struck him. Charges were not filed, but the incident was one of 15 cyclist fatalities so far this year. There were 10 recorded all of last year. 

“That was his main mode of transportation,” says Melvin.

It’s what he used to get to medical appointments off bike-unfriendly Linden Boulevard at Brookdale Hospital Medical Center, where he went for sessions to deal with mental health issues, his brother says. Those issues also sometimes made it hard to take buses or the subway, where he didn’t always like being around lots of strangers. 

The bike was how he traveled to the Bay View apartments next to bike-lane-less Rockaway Parkway, which still has space for six lanes of car traffic. That was where his mother lived until she died in 2017.  

“He had a very small circle in which he traveled,” says Melvin, noting that his brother had children but was not married. Ernest’s bike carried him around.

His life used to be less bounded. He was a talented singer, remembers Melvin, performing R&B covers in all sorts of places. Like the cafe in Coney Island frequented by Russian mob-type people. How did Ernest know they were mob-type people? Melvin laughs.

The dress, the language, the look. “You know the rhythm of the talk,” he says.

From there in the depths of Brooklyn, Ernest went to the famous Harlem stage at the Apollo Theater. The theater’s records show that he performed the song “Feel the Fire,” perhaps the one by Jermaine Jackson, at the amateur night finals known as the “Super Top Dog” show in March of 1995.

The Dick Clark talent show “Your Big Break” featured an “Andrew” or “Andre” Askew twice performing as R. Kelly in 1999, when it appears that he won the first show and performed again in the semi-finals, according to the show’s head of archives.

But something happened around the mid-2000s, says Melvin. Ernest found that he couldn’t sing in public. Nobody could exactly understand it, where the stage fright came from. Even Melvin, a Brooklyn musician himself, couldn’t coax him out of it. Just like he couldn’t convince his brother to give up his bike.

Ernest sang at their mother’s funeral but other than that, his public singing tended to be done in the street.

So many New York lives have their sadnesses and unfairness, and Melvin sees an unfairness in his brother’s death, too.

No matter what drivers do or don’t do, where were the speed bumps? Or where were the truly protected bike lanes that are only slowly trickling out around the city?

The relative lack of effective bike infrastructure to protect people in farther-out parts of Brooklyn was raised by advocates at a vigil for Askew in Brownsville last week. Hours earlier, yet another biker was killed on another Brooklyn street, the most recent of the 15 fatalities this year. 

For Melvin, the only bright spot in the last weeks was the renewed attention on bikers, drivers, their shared space. Maybe that’s overdue given the increases in city cycling numbers. Maybe it’s a reckoning as people consider how increasingly traffic-clogged streets should be split. For Melvin, there was the recognition that his brother as a performer had always been able to draw an audience. His death made an impression for a cause. 

“The cause is for safety in the streets.”