To Rashawn Brazell
B K - 7 6 8
By Troy Longmire
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether ‘tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.˚
In 1992 I had been involved with a psychiatrist who needed a psychiatrist, Gavin was his name. We are still friends but he moved from Long Island to Washington, D.C. to work for the Veterans Administration. We both had friends who had relocated from various places to the D.C. area and so I was in and out of there a lot during that time. One of our friends, Michael, had a boyfriend and they were known to pick up rough trade and take the guy back home for a threesome. They came to town for Gay Pride weekend and we all had a festive time dancing at Sound Factory Bar, Sugar Babies—a dive in lower Manhattan known for its great house music, and partying in Brooklyn at the Oxford Tennis Club—our latest haunt located across from Fort Greene Park.
About a week later Gavin called to say that Michael’s boyfriend was dead, he was nineteen years old. “And it was not the virus,” Gavin said in his snobbish tone. Michael’s boyfriend had been murdered by a trick they had picked up, Gavin believed, in New York. No clues as to who the murderer was as Gavin was not home when the murder took place. The only description was that of a tall dark Jamaican man. Gay men murdered by anonymous tricks, so what else is new? Except for the fact that Michael’s lover had been murdered, dismembered and put into large black industrial strength garbage bags this was otherwise a routine case for the police. To this day it remains an unsolved murder.
Tasha now lives in Chicago and is a professor of journalism; her family still lives in Crown Heights. On a visit home one late spring, she asked me to meet for an early dinner at our favorite eatery Le Gamin, a most charming French restaurant at 556 Vanderbilt Avenue in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn. I had the apple crêpes and they were delicious. Feeling good we strolled on over to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and marveled at the cherry blossoms, then we sat outside the Brooklyn Museum and talked about our lives while watching traffic along Eastern Parkway. It was like meditation. I walked her to the train and we embraced and parted.
Still daylight, I decided to walk home and when I got to Dean Street right at about 5th Avenue I paused to look at some books in the window of a bookstore, I am a bibliophile. It felt good looking at used books. I turned around to head for the curb and right in front of me was a telephone pole and affixed to it was a N.Y.P.D. poster offering a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the murder of Rashawn Brazell, he was nineteen years old. Case No. BK-768. My memory jogged, I vaguely recalled hearing something about this on the local news and I could remember seeing such a poster on Christopher Street in Manhattan. I just had not paid any attention to it until now. I rushed home and got on my computer to learn more. The police think that he may have met a man over the internet, in any event he was last seen alive on St. Valentine’s Day. All of a sudden I found myself haunted by the details of this murder and the photograph of Rashawn Brazell. At about 11:00 P.M., restless and unable to get to sleep, I decided that I needed to take a ride. I left my apartment at 335 State Street in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn and walked over to Hoyt and Schermerhorn where I got the “A” train to Nostrand Avenue. It felt kind of weird, I mean what was I doing? I got off the train and decided to have a look. Like some lay gumshoe I wandered the platform looking down into the tunnel. I thought this is crazy man I’m getting out of here. And then as I was leaving it struck me suddenly, there to my right was the stairs to the lower level platform. By now it was midnight and I found myself very much alone eyeing a flickering light bulb. I thought this creepy feeling could be manufactured in my imagination as I walked to the end of the platform. There on top of a maintenance container covered in dust and silt were rolls of large black industrial strength garbage bags. I could here train service up above but nothing or no one down here, eerily vacant. I turned around to peer down into the dark tunnel devoid of light, oddly stilled, oddly quieted. I began to get a little nervous and thought it best to leave. I stopped and thought this is where they found Rashawn Brazell, BK-768.
I decided to take the long walk home. It was nice and warm outside, the moon was full. I walked to the center of Grand Army Plaza and found myself sitting in the small pond beside a dolphin sculpture. It was my private space for the moment, no one else was there but a sweet scented fragrance did linger in the air. As I looked up at the visible starry night sky and full moon, I looked up at the sculpture commemorating The Grand Army of the Republic in the Eastern Parkway roundabout in front of the entrance to Prospect Park. I, ironically, harkened back to my childhood in the late 1960s when we would watch The Patty Duke Show on television. There is an episode when Patty—who has only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights—is in the car with her family and they are riding down the street, it is a bright sunny day and all is right in her TV world, and through their car’s rear window receding into the distance is The Grand Army Plaza and the tall victorious statue of The Grand Army of the Republic stately atop its proud arch. Sitting there amid the peace I thought about Paris, I was just there and fell in love with the city. In my mind I compared the statuary in The Grand Army of the Republic with the Nike of Samothrace in the Musée du Louvre. I thought I could move to Paris and not be alone, embarrassed or ashamed or worried.
Reality set in. I was feeling sad. The murder of a stranger had taken hold of me. For some odd reason, I know it sounds strange, I felt the murder of Rashawn Brazell was an insult and I took it personally. Black gay men have been through too much in this city and enough is enough already. Here one might ask if I am naïve or have I been hiding under a rock? I would answer, no, I am fully aware that death does not take a holiday; furthermore according to the gospel, He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. I thought about the number of friends and family I had lost to A.I.D.S. It took me back to the 1980s, when I lived on Eastern Parkway across from the Brooklyn Museum with André, Keith, Hilario, Norberto, and A-B, close friends who had come to New York from all points with big dreams, big plans; some had gotten bit parts in major Broadway productions. Shows like “Timbuktu,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Wiz,” “Dreamgirls,” and “Sophisticated Ladies.” Like the promising spring rain, they had awakened my own imagination at the most opportune moment. We shared our lives and our youth in such a way it gave friendship a really special sense of place. It is true that love that knows no fear, for we were fearless back then.
Some of these friends went home in body bags; parents came to town to collect their sons and for many that would be their only New York story. Of my many roommates in the humble place we called home on Eastern Parkway was my closest friend and ally who with only the knowledge that love provides completely empathized with his shy friend’s lonely childhood in abject poverty born the youngest of too many children without any field to plow or cotton to pick or tobacco to chop but born too black and too skinny with a big nose and called fag and punk much to the disgust and disdain of the God that he worshipped. He overlooked my awkward bookishness to become my animated muse and we called him A-B like the first two letters of the alphabet, it was short for Abraham Bates. I must admit at first I had reservations, based on my own insecurities, when he pulled up in his Volvo that still had Texas license plates. A-B had come east to attend Howard University maintaining a family tradition that began with his great grandfather who was among the celebrated men who chartered the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. A-B hailed from a long line of Baptist preachers out of Houston, Texas. It is hard to explain the fact he degenerated right before my eyes but I could not see it. He knew that the severity of his illness was not registering with me and would remind me that the astrologist had said there was no Earth in my zodiac. He would try to tell me to take it easy. I used to intercede on his behalf with his parents and I thought if I had parents like them, I would have never have left home. They were so nice and sober and together.
Once the doctors gave his mother the prognosis that A.I.D.S. was incurable, A-B consented and his parents came to take him back home to Texas. It still had not clicked in my head that my closest friend was about to checkout. We packed him up and we all loaded into his dad’s rental car and I promised A-B to not say goodbye when we got to the airport. He’d put his index finger to my mouth when it came time to leave. “Oh, no trouble Deacon and Sister Bates, I can take the train back home from the airport once you drop the car off at Avis,” I said to his parents reassuringly. With his wife by his side, the Deacon settled in behind the wheel of the big shinny Buick, “All right we’ve got to go east,” he said. Silence. Then turning to look at me, “What’s the quickest way to the highway?” asked the Deacon. “I have no idea,” answering so quickly that A-B laughed and for the first time the Deacon and Deaconess let out a laughter that was more relief. In the backseat with A-B I reached in my pocket and pulled out an envelope. I opened it so that A-B could see the invitation the cover art depicting, “The Sands Of Time,” in it read a brief personal letter from Michael Brody announcing the final weekends of the Paradise Garage. A-B absorbed short missive and turned his head toward the window and we remained quiet. During the ride A-B grabbed my hand and held it tight. I knew the invitation from the Paradise Garage would get him and the subtle way his parents communicated with one another during the ride, I thought was so sweet. My mind was adrift a million miles away. When we got to the airport, I noticed the Deacon pulled into a parking lot for long term parking. I did not want to wake A-B but it did get my attention when I thought the Deacon was coming around to open his wife’s car door and instead he opened mine as she sat there motionless. The Deacon reached for my right arm and with my finger raised slightly I said softly, “Wait, he’s asleep.” The Deacon said gently, “It’s all right now, Troy, you can let go.” I looked at him like, What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis? And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. A-B was dead.
Friends were leaving me, dropping like flies. I had no place to go to no place to run and hide until the storm passed over. I would have to stay here in Brooklyn and let them see in me the last man standing. I pledged to my dieing comrades to fight the good fight and I pledged to God that I would praise Him no matter what. This goddamn disease cannot win it cannot kill us all, I thought in anguish as I returned home from the airport on the “A” train to a fugue.
The wafting fragrance heavy on the night air hastened my return to the present, where I sat in the center of Grand Army Plaza feeling alone, crushed by isolation. Finally, at long last after so much remembering and thinking about Rashawn Brazell, a life cut so short, the tears began to flow and they did not stop until sunrise. I thank God because in my mind I had stopped feeling and the tears reminded me that I was indeed a human. The sweet scented fragrance that had sat there with me was right under my nose all the time. Someone had planted white gardenias in full blossom beside a park bench with an inscription on it that read, In Loving Memory of Anton Edgar Melton 1960-1987. I did not recognize the name but I thanked him nevertheless. And I thanked Rashawn Brazell for helping me to acknowledge the fragility of life once more.
The iconic clock high atop the old Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower silently chimed a new day’s dawning. The young boy riding his bicycle did not get my attention right off. He looked between the ages of ten and twelve years old. He did not catch my attention until he hesitated. He wondered at the sight of the hearse. He rode his bicycle slowly closer and closer, wondering. He circled it slowly, like a dog sniffing at something. He peeked inside the hearse and saw that it was empty. He studied the situation and the men dressed in black gathering at the door of the stately old Baptist Church on the corner of Third Avenue and Schermerhorn. The young boy seemed puzzled. He was not surprised, but he was curious. For him life was all he knew, death a strange-looking car parked along the curb ready to go.
˚Poem by Robert Frost, “Storm Fear”.