It was one of those Busboys and Poets nights, I can’t remember which one now, but I do remember this. The young poet walked up the stairs to the stage and approached the mic, looked out across the audience and asked this question,
“Do I have permission to speak from the elders?”
There was quiet at first, I was thinking that his query was a part of his performance. It well might have been but he repeated,
“May I speak? Do I have permission from the elders?
This past Wednesday I got word that one of my main men, college room mate, one of the best people I’ve ever known had died. I don’t know if I can adequately find the words to describe the meaning of our relationship beyond trite and banal expressions like, ‘even if we hadn’t communicated in years there was always a connection as if it had only been a short time since last we spoke’. Or, ‘you know how you never really loose touch with people you’ve bonded with, it’s like that’.
We were both northern kids at a southern HBCU, me from Philly, Cliff from Red Bank, New Jersey. With another guy from Jersey, Kwame Mark Freeman we formed The Tres Club, pledging to support one another and hang tough regardless. Our first Christmas break we grabbed seats on a regional airline and flew north, dropping Freeman off in his home town of Atlantic City. Cliff and I flew to Newark, met his dad at the airport and drove to their house where I proceeded to wipe out Mrs. Green’s store of New York strip steaks.
A blizzard hit the East Coast that first night and I couldn’t go home for a week. The Greens adopted me. Well, they did for that week anyway.
There wasn’t much that happened over the four years Cliff and I were in college where it wasn’t shared between us. I’m sure here were some things we didn’t speak about then, and certainly over the years, decades, after leaving college communication was intermittent at best.
But always personal and heartfelt.
Kwame and I have had two long phone conversations since hearing of Cliff’s passing. He cannot attend the service in Red Bank because of a recent knee operation. We both noted that each of us has had three really good friends pass. For each of us Cliff is the third friend who’s gone.
I took this picture on the day Cliff, Kwame, and I graduated. Bob Haney is the third person in the picture. The four of us were the Tres Club (It was something you’d have had to be a member of to understand why there were four of us in a club named for three!). Bob and Cliff are two of the three friends of mine who are gone. A friend named Len is my other deceased walk man.
The poet continued to ask for permission from the elders, finally looking right at me. I felt a poke, looked over at the other elder in the room and saw an unspoken, “He’s talking about us, Chuck.” look in her eyes.
I fully cloaked myself into my elder hood…
“Speak on it.”