I was compelled to attend my old acquaintance’s funeral, not as a courtesy, nor as a homage, but as a debt that I owed. No. One that we all owed, the kids who grew up in the Pit. It was a debt our late brother never knew existed.
Next to the coffin, a memorial tapestry of the deceased, a joyless expression ingrained in the fabric, greeted the bereaved.
I couldn’t remember the last time I saw Rich—15, 20 years? Maybe more. His death was an incomplete surprise, as life in Paterson brings death prematurely and faithfully.
Rows of soulless chairs accented the wallpaper dying to be cremated. The strained circular fan moaned in the windowless parlor of no more tomorrows. The funeral home’s meager decor and neglect, served as a murky summary of the lives of those who ended up here.
Familiarity guided me towards the funeral home’s guestbook. Pen in hand, I glanced over the three lonely entries and pondered.
How many people would show up to my funeral? Who would do the eulogy? Would my soft-spoken son have the courage?
When I learned that Richard Hobson had overdosed, my immediate concern was for Mrs. Hobson, his mom. She already had lost her husband and Willie, her middle child, a light-footed, big-bodied, tub of laughs.
He was the eternal homebody, who I had planned to visit, but unfortunately, it never happened. Complications from his heart defibrillator took his life at 50. My homey Kanique was now Mrs. Hobson’s only living son.
I remembered the first time I saw Rich get high. I remembered the broken glass, the weeds, the patches of dirt, and the box springs in the vacant lot across from School Twelve.
Dilapidated mattresses with rusty coils, burnt stuffing had burst through the beaten down cushions and covered the grounds where kids like Rich elevated. The heights they attained weren’t chemically induced, but physically achieved, through street gymnastics or as we coined it “flipping.”
Flipping on mattresses was for beginners. The real flippers flipped on the tar, the street, and the concrete. Richard’s compact Bulldog frame was ideal for acrobatics. He was known as one of the best.
In Paterson, reputations bring challenges. I was a lollipop spectator watching the hood heroics. I remembered Rich, bulging with potential, rocking a Doo-rag and Gi. He called out each of his flips, while soaring. “Back flip, back flip, roundhouse, semi, backflip semi, tuck.”
We shook our heads, clapped our hands, amazed at his agility, as he stuck the landing, barely bending his knees on the hot blacktop. Flawless. He was cool as Kung Fu.
More mourners staggered in, some aided with canes, filling the seats with different shades of sorrow. The ticking of the grandfather clock struck a nerve, a reminder to cherish each breath, and laugh as hard as I could and as often as I could while time still ticked.
“They say Black don’t crack, but it does when Black smoke crack,” I thought and snickered, while shaking my head, then wondered if I could use it on stage.
Four days earlier I had asked my lifelong friends Joe and Kendu to accompany me for a visit to Mrs. Hobson’s home before the funeral and we agreed to meet in Paterson, at Joe’s home.
We all grew up in the Pit and had been accomplished. The commonality between us was leaving Paterson for a brief while after high school. It was a move critical to expanding our world, which benefitted us in an immeasurable way. Joe and Kendu went to college, while I enlisted in the Air Force.
Joe rode with me while Kendu tailed us, top down, in his ferocious white Corvette. Our first stop on the excursion; Walgreens. In the hallmark section I scanned for a sympathy card. Happy birthday, happy anniversary, and other types of happiness overstocked the shelves. The grievance section was sparse. The sorry-for-the-loss-of-your- son section was depleted.
Paterson is one of the densest cities in the US and is rich in history. Like a tourist, I drove swivel headed behind my windshield. There was so much to look out for, like the police. A siren blared behind us. I pulled over to allow a police succession to pass. They had work to do.
Many bridges cross the Passaic River, and I was trying to recall the smelly one we were crossing. “This is Straight Street bridge?” I asked.
“Yeah, this is where that girl jumped off,” Joe said.
“The one that jumped off the bridge.”
“Thanks for clearing that up.”
To be continued…