Classmates by Reuben Jackson

Photo by PoPville flickr user AWard Tour

Reuben last shared some poems with us back in August. The following commentary originally aired on WAMU’s “Metro Connection” and covers an encounter Reuben had with a former junior high school classmate.

He writes:

“I happened upon a former junior high school classmate in a long, extremely slow, grocery store “express” line recently. I hadn’t seen him since the early ’70’s, when he was known as one of the toughest young men in my Northwest Washington neighborhood.In fact, I have an indelible image of -well, let’s call him Harvey, punching out a kid in front of the old Kennedy Theater. In those fisticuff and street gang -laden days, life was considerably easier if you were friends with someone like Harvey-less so if you were not. I fell somewhere in the middle.

But here was the once notorious “Little Harvey”, alternately doting on his adorable young daughter-(who was engrossed in her Reese’s Peanut butter cup) -and discussing a Who’s Who” of neighborhood terrors with me.. These guys all had one sobering thing in common-they were all dead, and they were guys I played sandlot ball with. Some of them made their way into poems I read in countries they never got the chance to see.

Thinking about the likes of Albert, Rod, Big George and Peanut, was alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking. But what really stopped me in my tracks was something Harvey said about the neighborhood in which I grew up. “Those were nice houses”- he noted, before wheeling his grocery cart toward the parking lot, “But there were a lot of rough people in them.” He was right.

Later that evening, I sat down with a pen and paper. I wrote down the name of every playmate, neighbor, or former classmate who died before the age of 30. The final tally? 18. Shootings. Stabbings, Two died of cirrhosis. Two from heroin overdoses. How had I managed to escape? Or block this all mayhem out?

The answer to the first question is simple. My parents. To paraphrase a line from a James Brown classic- “Papa (and Mom, for that matter) didn’t take no mess.” End of story. I also think my lifelong love for music and writing helped. A Lot.

If I could , I’d erect a monument on the Mall for every young’un ( as they say) who found themselves on the wrong end of a bullet, blade, bottle or hypodermic needle. They, too, are casualties in a war that never seems to end- a bloody, and rarely discussed urban quagmire. It’s one thing to read or hear about a homicide on the evening news, another to associate that person with cool, autumn afternoons on the concrete gridiron , or a back alley smile shared over an illegal bottle of wine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not attempting to romanticize or justify illegal activity. Nor is this an attempt to make me sound like an extra in “West Side Story.” But I think it is important to try and make sense of one’s life-whether said life takes place in Brightwood or Chevy Chase.

I am thankful to have run into Harvey-and not just because he seems to be in a much better place these days. But I never would have thought such a profound reunion possible in a long, slow , grocery store line.”

10 Comment

  • As always, thanks for sharing Reuben.

  • awesome. Write it all down. So few books and movies that actually revolve around DC the city. Heres to hoping a Pelecanos book one day gets made into a movie.

  • pretty sad. i wonder what neighborhood it was.

  • I heard this on WAMU this morning right before the 9 a.m. newshour started – nicely done Reuben!

  • saf

    Reuben, I always appreciate it when you share your thoughtful reflections. Thank you.

  • So sad… Great piece, Reuben.

  • This is a really cool story. I have a surprisingly similar story from my grandmother’s rural white farm community- Out of the dozen or so friends I had when I’d visit her almost all of them are dead. W’s brother was killed in an Army accident while I was a kid, B’s car that he was working on fell on top of him, destroying his arms and later an infection killed him, JFK was shot by his girlfriend’s policeman father (his own father was a cop shot and killed in a 1971 traffic stop where the driver was transporting marijuana), one of the girls whose name I forget was found raped and strangled and in a ditch, another drove drunk and flipped her car, still another was shot in a domestic, another girl died of some kind of obesity complication, I forget. To the best of my knowledge B’s sisters are alive and W is alive and everyone else I knew was dead before 30. They lived in a tiny farming community in Western PA.

    All my aunts and uncles received college scholarships and some of them Ivy League. Everyone fought tooth and nail to get out of there.

  • If the KKK had killed 18 out of 30 young black men over the past 30 years, what would the community be doing about it?

  • victoria,
    they’d have a common enemy and rise up against them.
    why do you ask?

  • I ask because I find it unacceptable and appalling that so many young men – 18 out of 30 – (even take out the 4 druggie/drinkers, you still have almost 50% mortality) have died.

    If f**head white guys in bedsheets had showed up with torches to lynch these black man the city would go nuts. But if f**head black guys just shoot each other on the street, no one really seems to care – black or white. I think that’s wrong.

    It is always clearer/easier to rise up against an outsider “common enemy.”

    I think it is time to focus the same brave intensity that brought about the triumphs of the civil rights movement on the problems that now continue to cripple certain communities.

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