Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ramon Fernandez, 1968-2009

It's been a banner autumn season, friends, for sickness and death. The people around me seem to be perishing at an alarming rate--first, my grandfather, the old lion of the family, who caught pneumonia in early September and died within weeks; my dear friend CJ, also, whose cancer will soon overtake her; and now this news, out of a clear October sky: my next-door neighbor, Ramon Fernandez, apparently jumped off a bridge onto the Kennedy Expressway last night, was struck by a fast-moving vehicle and presumably died on impact, at the age of 41.

I'll not attempt a heartfelt eulogy. I hardly knew the man, and from what I'd gathered about him over the last couple of years, I'd never have given him a glowing endorsement; to praise him now would be dishonest. Ray lived, on and off, with his mother Nydia, in the coach-house abutting our backyard. The Fernandez' can't have ever thought too highly of us, the two-flat full of noisy, would-be bohemians next door--the endless band practices and frequent bonfires which transpire spitting distance from their bedroom windows can't have been very charming for them, though I've never heard them complain.

The Fernandez' haven't always been the ideal neighbors, either, for that matter. I've grown to enjoy the highly sentimental old Puerto Rican ballads which Nydia blasts from a shitty stereo in the afternoons; I never warmed up as much to the screaming matches which Nydia and Ray would undertake, sometimes nightly, with increasing volume and fury in recent months. Ray was never anything but civil to me--though as a powerfully-built, heavily-tattooed, macho hombre, God knows what he made of me and my art-addled roommates--and certainly no rancor ever arose between us. Just two dudes from different worlds. But he definitely gave his mother a heap of trouble. They just couldn't stop screaming at each other, trapped in some primal mother-son feedback loop of rage and bickering. Limited as my Spanish is, they rarely seemed to be fighting
about anything in particular.

He'd steal from her; at one point she called the cops on him and he spent several months in jail. Far from rehabilitating him, the jail-time seemed only to whet his appetite for trouble and malingering. The unverified rumor around 21st Street is that Ray developed a hunger for cocaine. I don't know one way or another, but certainly by this summer things were coming to a head. One afternoon Nydia barged into our house, wearing her usual sunglasses and cigarette, weeping and cursing incoherently. It turned out that Ray had decked her in the face. She begged my roommate, Nora, to call the police. Nora, not wanting to get involved, gave her the phone and said,
"You call the police." It was a gut-wrenching decision for her to make--sending her own son back to jail--and by the time she worked up the nerve to make the call, Ray had long since split.

He came back that night, though--I remember it vividly, as I was camping out on the back porch and slept fitfully while they fought through the night. She'd locked Ray out of the house, and he pounded relentlessly at the door until well after daybreak, cussing her out and insisting that he needed to get his "stuff". It was intense. Read all the books you want, but if it's actual human drama you want, in all its gruesome depths, try listening to a desperate addict pound on his mother's front door for eight hours on end. If it doesn't break your heart, it will at least rob you of sleep.

The kicker is that
since that August of discontent, I hadn't seen or heard much from Ray and Nydia. They were around, but their domestic strife seemed to have mellowed. And get this: my roommate overheard Ray telling his drinking buddy Junior, during one of their under-the-porch swill sessions, that he planned on going to school to earn his GED. Something in him, perhaps, was beginning to bloom. And then this.

I don't have the faintest clue what happened, or why; I did find this extremely terse and dispassionate report on Fox news, but it doesn't say much. For commuters, Ray's death can only have meant a baffling late-night traffic jam: stop-and-go, at almost midnight?! Must be some kind of accident... suicide jumper on the Kennedy Expressway, a momentary fracture in the city's facade, another night's work for the coroners and police bureaucrats; certainly nothing newsworthy, just a dead Puerto Rican cokehead... I don't imagine his funeral will be much of a gala affair, either--his buddies from the block, a bitter and inconsolable Nydia...

He was, I think, a decent man. There's not much I can say, even less I can do... Tip my drink in his direction, say some kind of little prayer, and get rid of that damned talisman...

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