I have a favorite bodega: Ralph’s, on the corner of South Portland and Lafayette. I’ve been going to Ralph’s since I was a freshman in High School, as it rests directly in my walking path to my old high school, Brooklyn Tech.
Every day as a kid, I’d stop at Ralph’s for a turkey-and-cheese hero and sour cream-and-onion potato chips for breakfast. My whole family knows Ralph, my mom, my sisters, my aunt. He’s a legend in Fort Greene, absolutely the kindest, most considerate store owner in the community.
There’s a guy who has worked for Ralph for at least the last 15 years. We all called him Mexico, or Mexi for short. Mexico has always been like Ralph’s second-in-command. If Ralph isn’t at the store, Mexico is. He made great sandwiches; he was always in good spirits. The community loved Mexico, because Mexico loved serving them at Ralph’s.
A couple of weeks ago, Mexico was shooting the breeze with a worker from Habana Outpost. This was normal. The establishments in that area, Ralph’s, Mo’s and Habana, the workers and even the customers, are a tight-knit group. The worker from Habana, Mexico, and another one of Ralph’s workers, Julio, kicked it with each other for a few minutes. When the worker was leaving, he mentioned that he thought he might be coming down with pneumonia, and people who saw him said he didn’t look so good. A week later, the worker from Habana was dead. Two days after, Mexico died of complications from COVID-19. Julio, the third guy that was there, is fighting for his life in a hospital.
A normal interaction killed Mexico, and left a hole on the corner of South Portland and Lafayette. Ralph can hire other guys, but he’ll never be able to replace Mexico.
Ms. Janice …
I don’t even remember the first time that I met Ms. Janice. I’ve been a member of the Bedford YMCA off and on since I was a teenager. I can’t tell you how long she’s worked the front desk, I just kinda feel like she’s always been there, though I do understand that isn’t the case. Few who frequent the Y would tell you any different. She was the anchor of the place, the face of the Bedford Y in my opinion. When I published a book in 2009, I had my first booksigning at Rustik Tavern. Even though I didn’t send her an invite or even notify her of the event, Ms. Janice showed up. She purchased a book, and sat next to me so that I could sign it. I asked her, “Ms. Janice, how did you know about my booksigning tonight?” She replied, “Don’t worry about that. You’re a good man and you deserve to be supported in your works.” Not only did I never forget that she was there for me in that way, but her action endeared her to me in a special way. And even though we only interacted at the Y and at the booksigning, I loved her. I loved her because she loved her community. I last saw Ms. Janice in the fall of 2019.
Admittedly, I haven’t been back to the Y in a few months.
Last week, I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw that someone posted that Ms. Janice had passed away from COVID-19. It hurt to see that. I don’t think I’ve ever been hurt by the passing of someone that wasn’t family or even a good friend. But I know Ms. Janice and what she gave to our community, what she gave to me. You don’t just replace someone like her. You can’t.
Rev. Cunningham …
Brown Memorial Baptist Church is my church home. Reverend Clinton Miller is a friend, and a good man. Under his leadership, Brown has transformed into more than a place of worship. It is a community hub, a crossroads for Clinton Hill, a place of safety and peace in an ever-changing world. Brown Memorial has been hit so hard from this virus.
Day after day I am receiving calls notifying me of the passing of a parishioner or the status of another. It’s so difficult to consider losing so many elders. James Baldwin once wrote that “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” The elders at Brown make up a blueprint for community. You don’t just see them in church, you come across them in all walks of community life. Rev. Cunningham was like that. A soft-spoken man with a firm handshake and an even disposition.
I remember the first time I saw him outside of church. He was working at the polling station at PS11 during an election day. I’ve done polling work too, so when I saw him, we spoke for a while about the need to get Black men more civically active. He said, “Son, your voice is only as good as your action. Voting is action.” That sentence has stuck with me ever since. It’s such a powerful thing to say, delivered with such a slightly drawled cadence that you might have missed the jewel if you were looking for it to be delivered with a bang.
To date, I’ve heard of ten members of Brown Memorial succumbing to COVID-19. Last Monday, Rev. Cunningham was the 9th person to be counted among the lost. A man like Rev. Cunningham was fashioned in faith and a lifetime of experience. You can’t replace a guy like that.
The Resurrection …
We are losing so much more than time away from loved ones, more than being able to socialize with people, more than the freedom of walking the streets with others. We are losing more than businesses, more even than money to survive. We are losing pieces of our community that we cannot replace.
But that is why Baldwin’s quote speaks to me in this moment, because the one thing that we can do to survive whatever comes next, is to emulate the character and integrity of some of the elders we have lost.