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.
“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.”