Monday, November 16, 2009

Cover of the Week 54 and Part II of the Miami Saga

Cry Baby Cry mp3

Not much to tie this song into this week's post, but I certainly have done my share of crying this past month. Someone requested it. Again, a charitable donation is always encouraged. This has long been a favorite Beatles song from one of my favorite records. The Throwing Muses did a cover, I believe, back in the day.

Below is part 2 of 2 posts about the murder of my uncle. Part one is here.

*****

A good place to start would be his first communion photo -- him before all the stress and struggle -- which I actually found at the end of a long first day in his house going through records, paperwork, making piles, trying to organize it all, as if by working through the tasks, I could keep myself distracted and hold the waves of emotions at bay.

It had been a long day, that first day which had started bright and early, then a quick flat tire on the rental, the first meeting with the lawyer, the detective’s office and news of the arrest, back to the airport to exchange the car, and then a lunch with Vincent T. and Jane. Vincent T. had quickly become one of the all-time greats to me and now here I was meeting another compassionate and interesting person, Jane, who had worked for the brilliant Mario Cuomo up in Albany. We had an amazingly healing lunch where we discussed the arrest and compared stories about our mutual friend, Vince. Finally, the three of us went to the house.

I had not been here in years. The first thing that hit me, after the initial approach and entering through the front gated courtyard, was the beautiful smell inside. He had always chosen just the right room scents, little fragrance sticks soaking in oil. It was the smell I remembered from my last visit, years before, and instantly brought him back and brought me back to this place. And then I took in the visuals, the lay of the place, the open floor plan with views out of the walls of glass doors in the rear overlooking the very sleek pool and lush tropical foliage dotted with Buddha statues and Burmese teak patio furniture, a canal back behind the foliage.

The house was mostly clean, Vincent T. having, saintly, opened up the place to a “bioresponse” industrial cleaning company that specializes in crime scenes.

Imagine.

But still there was blue dye left on the walls and floors; there were framed prints removed from the walls, piled against a door; a sisal rug was stained with blood. All such remnants of a crime scene, of the struggle, were tough to take. But not as tough to take as the more mundane signs of life, the life that had been lived there, living daily as we do, leaving things undone: dishes in the sink; trash not taken out; counters not yet sponged clean; a gym bag with scrunched up shorts and a new iPod Touch; clothes and bath towels on hooks in his new bedroom suite.

I surveyed it all, taking it all in, silent except for the sighs, walking aimlessly with Jane and Vincent T., each of us doing something, picking up, cleaning, throwing out trash, eyes glancing, listing, taking inventory:

bags of paper
dog toys
blue dye
dried blood on the gate’s lock
his navy medals

his little book of restaurants he loved from his travels:
this little cafe in Sao Paolo
that little trattoria in Napoli
a grander brasserie in Paris
duck in Hong Kong

his birthday was September 19

special soaps he ordered
stepping small steps
opening the back door
books: a fan’s notes; some gore vidal; sedaris on the night stand
buddhas in the gardens
his new addition off to the left there
leaking AC unit in the utility closet
friends

And so many pairs of eyeglasses! He had never thrown any out, it seemed. There were eyeglasses and frames everywhere I turned and I started gathering them up from end tables, night stands, counters, the Audi in the driveway, the gym bag, cabinets, his work briefcase, eventually -- and it seemed steadily for the next two weeks -- piling them in a basket and bowl in the center of a round wooden table in his office. It became this activity of which I was at first only numbly aware, something that kept me busy and gave the appearance that I was making progress when all I was doing was circling the wagons of the larger and more difficult items on my to-do list as executor. All the sorts of things one needs to do when trying to fulfill his responsibility as the executor of the estate of one who was murdered -- of one who was taken senselessly, as if there could ever be sense to such an abomination as murder.

*****

At 43, I thought I had pretty much gone through or sampled most of the adult-sized responsibilities, getting married, owning a house, having kids, a career or two. But except for maybe caring for an aging parent or close relative -- which I have not had to do -- or perhaps serving in the military when one is young -- few things I can imagine makes you feel more grown up than trying to manage the closing out of someone’s life according to their last will.

My friend, Jay, and I attended the funeral of the father of our college buddy, Mike, a couple of months ago in Springfield, MA. Mike had been the executor for his father, who was only around sporadically for Mike during his childhood. It was not easy for Mike in his father’s waning years. Mike was out in the Bay Area, where he has lived for over 15 years, and his father was starting to suffer from dementia and living alone in Springfield. The service was very moving, in a small funeral home, with old friends from his dad’s days as a civil rights activist and as an educator, testifying, telling funny and emotional stories, and singing spirituals.

I was struck at the awesome responsibility Mike had undertaken and how disruptive it must have been for his life as a father of two small kids. He lauded Jay for all his help he had provided clearing out his dad’s place. Apparently he had started to become a bit of a hoarder. Mike had told me he is also listed as executor for an aunt in New York and for his mother, also in New York.

Afterward, Jay and I discussed all of this at a lame sports bar downtown Springfield. (The only thing more exciting than Springfield during the day is the famous Springfield nightlife). I think we looked at each other in a bit of bewilderment, feeling like their had been a shift in the parent-child relationships; we were entering the phase where we have to watch out for our elders. I am on the young side of the scales, with my parents only in their late 60s. I know a lot more people have been dealing with all of this for longer than I have. But the older your parents are, the more likely you have older siblings as well.

Here I was, only a few weeks later, hit with two shocks, the major one being the murder of my beloved uncle and friend; the lesser surprise was that I discovered that I was the executor and had just been handed that same responsibility that I admired Mike for handling with such grace and aplomb.

*****


Jane and Vincent stayed a little while at the house but then had to leave. Left alone in the house, in the waning sun of the October afternoon, I tried to get down to the business at hand. I can easily slip into morose loneliness in even the most benign of circumstances. But now, without the presence of, and a temporary absence of support from Vince’s friends, I again relented and let my guard down and let the waves crash over me. It was hard not to, wading through Vince’s house, his papers, his objects, all the little and big pieces that gave tactile evidence of his life.

But I started. I had to at least start going through it all. I get overwhelmed when I have a few bank statements and scattered papers in a pile on my desk waiting to be filed. So the idea of going through someone else’s records to try and make heads or tails of his finances, obligations, debts, credits, etc. was daunting. Each time I would get up a head of steam, make some progress, getting things into piles, the phone would ring. It would be my mother, or a family member, a friend of mine, or one of Vince’s friends, checking on me, offering help, making arrangements, or reminding me of things. These calls were welcome as therapy, to keep me talking, keep me from wallowing in loneliness and stress. But they would also successfully aid me in procrastinating and I would have to back up a few steps to pick up the trail where I had left off.

By 9 p.m. I was exhausted and hungry. I started to go through the darkened house locking up. Back in his bedroom, the loneliness started to well up again. Back in the office (large converted 2-car garage), I started preparations to leave, picking up some things to bring back to my hotel room. I needed a box or something and I started to look for one. I found a basket, and I opened it. It was filled with photos. The first one, right at the top, was the picture of him on my grandparents' lawn on his first communion day and I was brought down to my knees on the floor, staring at it.



*****


I kept thinking he would walk in and ask me why I was going through his stuff, and asking me if I wanted to go grab something to eat. I didn’t feel like I had lost an elderly relative; he could not be described that way -- even though he would get a perverse kick out of and would half feign dramatic outrage at the headline seen later, “Elderly Gay Man Murdered...” No, he was taken down during healthy and productive years. I felt like I was mourning a brother or even a kid, that little boy he had been in the picture. And I thought of my poor grandmother, who had lived out her final few years just next door on the other side of this office wall, and was thankful this did not happen during her life, during the years that she had still been lucid enough to understand; it would have crushed her, this violent taking of her only son, a gentlemanly and caring soul. The thought of my grandmother hearing such news made me feel misery at such depths that it made me feel physically ill.

Then I thought of my siblings, all forever my kid brothers and sister, who had all taken the news as sadly as I had, if not more so. I thought of my mom, from whom I still and will always feel that mother’s love for a child. And I thought of my kids, too young and innocent to grasp something like this and so from whom we had kept the details of Vince’s death.

And then I thought of my uncle again and saw the arc of his life laid out before me, starting as a little boy about my own son’s age. I thought about being a parent, going through such trouble to raise our kids healthy and safe until we can let them out into the world, somehow managing to stave off cancer, accidents, disease, only to have such potential trouble almost arbitrarily washed away with an unnecessary and obscene incident like this. And so I mourned the man my grandmother had cherished, preserved, and delivered into this world.

*****


But of course, this was not a child, a boy, or even a young man taken from us. It would be a tough loss even without the whole business of murder. It would still be sad and we would still feel the grief. And there would still even be a bit of shock, given that he seemed young for 63. We are all going to die, though, ravaged by cancer, heart attack, or just plain old age. Like many friends of mine, I am just starting to take this fact seriously. I’m not afraid of death, even though I lean heavily toward the atheistic end of the agnostic scale. I am more sad about endings in general, friends and family leaving each other. You just want peace for those you love, absence of suffering. You wish long and happy lives and, when death comes, they go as easily as possible, in their sleep, or, as I said in the previous post, in the arms of someone who they love.

My friends have lost close parents in harrowing and protracted bouts of cancer. There are children who fight, only to take their last breaths before they reach the prime of their lives. For those close to them, this can only be the worst kind of pain and excruciating loss. From this perspective, we don’t need any extra compassion, I guess, for the way Vince died. But this was not a quick gun killing. He was stabbed multiple times. He had suffered. He died at and, perhaps, in the hands of more or less a stranger. Picturing that, imagining the struggle and desperation he felt at the end is what makes this disgust and heartache more acute.

Looking at the remaining signs of the crime scene, once could trace the course of the incident. There was an initial struggle outside of the office/garage, which forms an “L” around a courtyard. I have my theory, and the detectives’ theory, of what happened after that. I don’t want to describe any of that here for a number of reasons, some obvious some not so. But suffice to say that there was a significant amount of traces of the crime on the interior of the house as well.

I looked around. There was nothing more I could do tonight. Gathering myself together, I turned out the lights and locked up I got in the car and drove to the Miracle Mile, an older street (In much of Miami, anything around more than 10 years is old) of swanky shops and mix of restaurants and bars. I needed some life around me. I just wanted a seat at a bar of someplace I could get a drink and something basic to eat. The first place I poked my head into was way too much life, more of a pick-up joint for young professionals with no seats at the bar -- or anywhere else; there was a wait. I did not need that so walked down the sidewalk to a fake but dark Irish pub, where I had a steak and a beer or two, watching the Yankees/Angels game next to some obnoxious “Jeter girl” before heading back to the hotel.

I had brought my acoustic guitar under the ridiculous assumption that I would be able to practice for the Exile show the next week. I took the guitar out of the case once, to tune it back up after the plane de-tuning.

*****


I woke up the next morning and it was still dark out. I looked at my phone. There was a text message from Mike O’Malley from 5:41 am: “Text me when you wake up.”

I wrote back, “I’m up.”

“Breakfast at coconut grove?”

“u serious? Where are u?” I asked.

For his reply, he sent a picture of the hotel plaque in Coconut Grove.

I called him. “You’re unreal, man. What are you doing? You take the red eye?”

“Yup. I’m here in case you need any help.”

Now, I have written in this space about how we should all have friends like Mike
, the kind of guy who takes a red-eye, leaving his wife and kids across the country for a day, so he can literally come to the side of friend. We met fairly late in life, but there is no one I consider to be a better friend than Mike, and believe me, I have some astoundingly caring, gracious, funny, smart, and long-time loyal friends, many of whom I have been through the trenches with, including Chris and Tom and probably half of you reading this. And I wish I could say that I could just hop on a plane and do the same thing.

Mike did it. He had heard me on the phone the night before trying to stay stoic but breaking down from emotion and stress, refusing offers of help, refusing his offer to leave his family and come down to Miami. The phone calls were enough of a help to me. When I had still been back in Boston, he asked me if I wanted him to come down to meet me. He has a friend who lives and is working on a show in Miami. I told Mike he was more than welcome to come down if he needs an excuse to get away. But I was going to be busy with the nuts and bolts. He didn’t need an excuse, however; his wife, Lisa, is a saint. And he is away all the time. So there he was.

Not in some empty dramatic gesture; he was there to go to godforesaken Home Depot and pick up filters for the air conditioner that was being repaired. He came to drive me around while I closed out bank accounts. He came to buy me lunch and listen to me talk about my uncle. He came to provide comic relief, talking over the GPS lady and missing exit ramps, making truly terrifying U-turn maneuvers as if he was shooting an episode of “Miami Vice.” He was there to help me shoo away a television reporter, the first task he undertook -- after grabbing me a coffee on his way over to meet me at Vince’s house.

Handing me the coffee while I was on the phone, Mike walked in to take a look at the place. An air conditioning guy was there repairing a leak. The reporter was still out front after I had told him I could not talk at that moment -- I was on the phone and the house was chaos. I had developed a twitch in my eye that did not subside for two weeks.

“Is he still out there?” I asked covering the phone with my hand.

Mike nodded. “You want me to get rid of him? he asked.

“Yeah...I just can’t talk right now and...”

“Fuck him,” Mike decided, walking in and placing his coffee on the table. “Let him fry out there in the 90 degree heat and humidity in his suit and tie.”

Thus it was decided. This was the second television reporter to visit the house while I was there. On Wednesday late afternoon, a woman from the same local channel came by to see if someone was at the house to get a reaction to the news of the arrest and the statement the kid made in his affidavit. I had seen the first report the station had made on the first day after the incident. It had been so coldly anonymous, with no details. That was fine with me, though. When the first reporter and a cameraman showed up, my intention was to send them away. But she told me what was being reported, that the kid made his tawdry and flimsy self-defense claim. I decided, against my better judgment, that a “no comment from the next-of-kin” could lead one to believe that there was some truth to it, that Vince was some sort of lecherous old man caught in some sort of anonymous hustle.

So I explained, off-camera, who Vince was and how tragic this has been for his friends and family. She asked if I would state a few of those things on camera. I relented, with the intention of providing some balance and context to this story. Apparently I was at least correct that the story needed to be balanced; shortly after she left, I got a call from an outraged Vincent T. who said that station had just included a story on their early evening broadcast with just the details of the arrest and the kid’s statement. He had fired off an email to the station telling them they should be ashamed of themselves for telling only one side of the story -- that of the confessed killer.

I had gotten back to my hotel, waiting to see the new, hopefully more balanced report. No such luck; I sat there through 30 minutes of the sort of dreck Miami television news is legendary for.

I wrote the reporter an email:

Hello Ms. ___,

Just wondering why the 11 p.m. broadcast did not include the interview you taped with me today or why the report on your station's web site does not have an updated version with our side of the story, including the fact that the confessed killer was the son of my uncle's maid, whom my uncle was trying to help with letters of recommendation, getting him odd jobs, etc.

The longer this incomplete information that is on the web site is up, the more potential damage it does to my uncle's reputation. The reason I agreed to speak with you on camera was to provide more facts and context to an incomplete story. So you can see why I might be disappointed.

Any information you can provide would be helpful.

Thanks,

Bill


She wrote right back, within minutes explaining they ran late on time, but that the clip was on an earlier broadcast on their sister station, and that they would update the web site, which they did very quickly.

The next day, when I had finally seen the clip and read the report online, of course I was dissatisfied. They took one out-of-context remark from me and, well it doesn’t matter in the end. Nothing I said on air or off can do much more than to possibly steer the sensationalistic story slightly more back to the center. I have dealt only with music journalists, really. And who really cares what story they want to tell? Mike had a lot more experience dealing with people looking to tell a preconceived narrative, regardless of possible damage to the reputations of the subjects of their stories. He took some pleasure in making the guy sweat, literally. I have to say, though, that the resulting story the guy filed was a far more nuanced version of the event, with a comment from a neighbor who really shed light on who Vince was, probably better and more objectively than I could have.

So Mike was there to run defense, pick up coffee, run errands, and just listen to me. You need to be reminded that dignity is still an attainable and worthy goal in the face even of such desolation as a pointless murder of a loved one in Miami, Florida, U.S.A. 2009. Mike was there to provide some dignity.

And he was there to take me to pick up my uncle’s ashes.

*****


You pull of the highway near central Miami into the outskirts of the “Design District,” an upscale redeveloped area that is home to high-end interior design businesses, art galleries, and the businesses like bars and restaurants that serve the clientele that shop there and the people who work there.

But before you get there, you are still faced with a rather industrial, down-at-the-heels sort of neighborhood close to the highway. You pull up to a really beautiful, simple, and authentic art deco building that does not draw attention to itself the way those in South Beach do. You park on the side there, and walk in, in broad daylight, to a darkened hallway smelling mildewy. Mike and I were seated in a conference room immediately to the right once we stepped in. We waited for the funeral director. In this case, there would be no funeral. We were just dealing with someone coordinating a cremation, arranging for picking up the body from the medical examiner’s office

We had brought a blue-and-white antique Asian vase from Vince’s collection of them. I had the forethought to bring a roll of electrical tape to fasten down the wooden lid. These are the sorts of things that systematically get added to a mental to-do list. The plan was to scatter his ashes over the waters of Lanikai, Hawaii some time in the future. So I had originally just opted for a basic travel-ready box. It felt so wrong. But Vincent T. suggested one of the blue/white vases, which seemed perfect. The travel part of it would have to be worried about later. Vince’s friend John recalled to me that Vince had considered his 5-year birthdays (55, 60, etc.) worthy of extra observation. So his 60th had been held with a gathering of friends in Carmel. For his 65th, he had an idea and called John to run it by him.

“I know what I want to do for my 65th,” Vince had explained.

“”I thought, ‘Oh Christ, what’s this gonna cost me?’” recalled John.

“I want to gather everyone in Lanikai.”

“So that’s what we will do, if you agree,” John told me. “On his 65th, we will arrange for whomever can come to be there and we will bring him home.”

*****


There’s nothing like an over-air conditioned, outdated, and moldy conference room in an old funeral home, surrounded by shelves of ash urns -- including a teddy bear next to a child’s blocks -- to bring a conversation around to the nature of mortality. Mike and I spent the next 10 minutes or so doing just that, not that we have ever needed such obvious and sobering impetus to get into matters of life and death in our conversations. Generally, “sobering” is not the word that would describe the conversations we have, which usually take place over drinks.

Bringing my uncle’s ashes -- heavier than I had anticipated -- from the funeral home, out into the midday sun, into Mike’s waiting minivan rental, just pretty much made me laugh. It was so absurd. The whole thing -- Vince would have laughed, I am sure. What a bizarre site. This is like Chris Farley being in charge of something ponderous, I thought; me, carrying out my uncle’s ashes; there should be pomp and circumstance, a 21-gun salute for a guy who came up feeling so alienated, gay in the 1950s and ‘60s, through the Navy in Vietnam, had survived New York City in the 1980s.

(As I wrote that last sentence, Van Morrison came up on iTunes singing Woody Guthrie: “Well it’s a hard road, dead or alive.” Tell it, Van.)

*****

Mike helped me roll up the stained rug and bring it out to the trash. We had some lunch. He had barely gotten any sleep, so it seemed like a good time for him to go back to his hotel and get some rest while I attended to the details of getting the estate organized. We reconvened around eight for dinner down in Coconut Grove. We stayed up late at the bar in his hotel. We had hours of conversation that just added to the years of conversation we have already had.

He had to be leaving early the next morning but did not want to get to sleep, as he was afraid of adjusting to eastern time. I went back to my hotel, decidedly more basic than his, crashed, and got up the next morning, Saturday, to find another text message from him:

“Here’s a good one. I am at airport now. Wake-up call came three hours early and I never bothered to look at clock. Flight leaves in six hours. I have time to threaten TSA, get the FBI down here, investigate me, and have me released on bail before flight leaves...I was like a drunk uncle sleeping in the airport...my flight was at 825. I got to airport at 240. That is not a misprint. 2:40.”

*****


I at least started Saturday in a fairly busy way, with a meeting at the attorney’s home. He has an amazing 3-story penthouse in a tower on the bay, decked out in a sort of rococo style one would not normally associate with Miami: classic busts, tapestries, oil paintings, antique furniture... Clearly this estate was relatively small potatoes for him, and yet, here he was, so on top of it and devoting such a level of attention and care that he was meeting with me at his own place on a Saturday morning.

I spent the rest of the day organizing papers, tracking down contact information, and meeting with a real estate appraiser and a real estate agent, which is what do for my day job. It was one thing I felt I could actually tackle with some authority and sense of control, finally. We talked about prices -- I wanted both a “sell it tomorrow” price and a “not-quite pie in the sky, but optimistic” price. The short version of the story is that he called on Monday, when I had gotten back to Boston, and told me he had mentioned the house at his sales meeting. Someone else in his office had a French couple ready to buy something, cash, and could they see it that evening. They saw, they liked, the bought, full price, cash deal, huge deposit, no significant contingencies.

As an agent and seller, I could not help feel a little charge from this. And everyone I told also reacted with joy. After all, everyone has heard about how bad the real estate market is in general. It is not as bad up in the towns I work. But this is Miami, pretty much ground zero for all booms and busts. Four years ago and this same house was almost definitely worth twice as much.

But such happiness was short lived. How could one feel happy about the fast liquidation of someone’s life? As I mentioned, Vince was a designer and had just finished this dream project, an addition of a master bedroom and bath suite. He had maybe gotten about two weeks of enjoyment from it.

You take whichever small victories are handed to you.

*****


Saturday night was the loneliest of all I have spent in Miami. You know the song, “Saturday Night,” which goes, “Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week”? Frank used to sing it. But when most of the tasks of the day were completed, I felt no real sense of accomplishment, only slight relief that some of the major work was being chipped way. Mike had left. Vincent was with his family probably for one of the first times since the incident. He was trying to manage a new job while helping me in my role as executor. He knew so much about my uncle’s life and business that I, quite literally, would have been lost without his guidance. On top of it, they were due to have his daughter’s eight birthday party the next day, and the poor girl was sick with the flu.

While I was dreading being by myself, I also knew it had to be done. I needed to clear out my head. I had talked all of this out with Vincent, Mike, my uncle’s friend, John, my family, and all the other friends of mine who had called over the past several days. I headed out to a new tapas bar in Coconut Grove. It seemed like the perfect solution -- I could eat small dishes at the bar and watch the Angels/Yankees game. Maybe I would chat with some strangers at the bar. Well, I had a martini and some great food and wine, but the game was rained out and the bar was blaring the fucking Gypsy Kings at obnoxious levels. It felt like a hangover and I got down to drinking-while-texting with about five of my good friends scattered around the country. This was post-modern grieving at its core.

The most important thing I have taken from the aftermath of this whole incident, is the support of people -- friends and family, yes, but also new friends, Vince’s, whom I now counted among my own. Their absence was felt conspicuously that night and I felt quite alone, adrift from the moorings of home.

Vincent T. invited me over to his house for pizza on Sunday night. I would be leaving very early the next morning, and returning the next week for the memorial that we finally planned. His daughter’s birthday party had been postponed due to her flu. So Vincent, his wife Renee, and I caught up on everything. It had been 10 years since the last time I had seen Renee, the first time I had met she and Vincent. Vincent grew up in Miami after his Chinese immigrant parents moved the family from California. Renee is from Memphis. I started talking about Memphis music. She told me about working at a dry cleaners where Al Green would take his lime green suits and silk shirts. She told me about hanging out with Alex Chilton at Shakey’s Pizza when they were young. Her sister came over for a bit and I listened to them talk to each other in those spellbinding Tennessee accents. We talked about the investigation, about family, back stories. I felt like I had two old friends in Miami that I hadn’t known about.

I would be back the next week to get the house ready for the memorial, sell the car, and meet the buyers. It would also be the first time I had seen John in five or six years. We had been speaking every day since I first called him that first weekend. I had been nervous. I had only met him twice in my life, that I recall -- that last time, while he owned the house next to Vince in Miami, and when I was a little kid in New York and he had come from San Francisco with Vince to visit at our house. When I called, he seemed to have girded himself. We all had to take this in as small portions as we could handle.

He didn’t really know who I was now, as a 43 year-old man. But there certainly was this inherent trust that came from both of us -- all of us -- being so close and important to Vince. But that trust did not mean we all had a basis for automatic communication; we all have individual friendships and other relationships that don't necessarily move in the same circles. Perhaps there is even animosity between a person's separate relationships. Vince seemed to have a few of these independently operating circles. These were not gears that sometimes come around to groove together; they were different machines altogether.

But we had no such issues between us and quickly and steadily found ways to talk about all of it. When we finally saw each other again, the day that we had a memorial, it felt like we were old friends. These past weeks have seemed like ages anyway. As I write this, it has been exactly a month. Driving together to go pick up ice and beer for the gathering, John recounted meeting Vince back in San Francisco when they both worked in the same department store as young men. The fact that they remained best friends for over 40 years will tell you everything you need to know about the strength of the bond and the loyal character of both men.

Vincent, John, and I were down in the trenches together on this one. Vincent has done more leg work than even I have. But we all had things to do, including planning this memorial event.

It was Vincent and Jane’s idea, I believe, to have something at the house, to “reclaim it from being a crime scene.” It was a perfect idea. Vince would have been tickled to see us all in the same place -- friends, family, neighbors, clients, contractors, politicians, and so on. My brother, Scott, had come down with me. My sister, Kristine, came down from Atlanta, meeting up with my parents in Naples, and driving over. Like an Irish wake, we ate, drank, told stories, admired the house he was so proud of, and got to know each other. The ice was broken with a big hammer, a friend speaking about the charity set up by Human Rights Watch, which Vince had recently adopted as a personal cause. Friends who knew of his dedication to this spoke with clarity and passion regarding the nature of the fund -- to aid homosexual Iraqi refugees escaping the brutality, mutilation, and murder for simply being who they are in a country that has no real protections in place. It was a highly emotional moment. And we all choked up as each person who wished to -- quite a few -- testified to what Vince meant to them. Then we ate, drank, and the night started to wind down to just a core few of us, sitting around and listening to music as we chatted into the night.

*****


Each time there was some hubbub in the house, it kept me out of my own head. But, on the flip side, every time I was left alone again, I felt hollowed out and pining for Vince’s return to his empty house. Or even for his dog, Gracie, to come back home and reclaim her toys. The poor dog had witnessed something awful. When I met her for the first time, at Vincent and Renee's house, she could smell her old house on me and would never come close enough for me to pet her. I am reminded of the statue we saw when we went to Tokyo outside of Shibuya station of the dog, Hachikō, who would escort his master to the station and arrived and waited loyally for the master's return each day. One day the master died while at work and never returned. Still, Hachikō came back each day at for the evening train and waited for his master. That went on for 10 years.

The next day, Scott headed back to Boston on a midday flight. Vincent met me at the car dealership to pick me up after I had sold off Vince’s great convertible Audi. Within a few weeks, there would hardly be any trace of the guy.

Vincent and I and some leftovers from the memorial for lunch and then he, John and I cleaned up the house for the buyers. They were nice people, though I am sure they felt tenuous about the nature of this sale. Additionally, there was a slight language barrier. So both sides mostly kept to themselves. They left, and eventually John and Vincent did as well.

I still had a few hours before I had to go to the airport. I had finished up most of my tasks there at the house and in Miami. I knew I could not just stay at the house and wallow. I started to go for a drive, figuring I could finally get over to South Beach for the first time since this all went down, to go have some coffee, and maybe a walk and a drink. But the traffic looked to formidable and I did not need any more stress to get back in time to get to the airport. I pulled over in the Grove again and went for a long walk.

When I finally got back, showered, and was ready to leave, the afternoon sun was setting, daylight savings having fallen back to shorter days that past weekend. I went around locking the place. It was too quiet and I began to feel heavily emotional again, so I went with it, the quiet and the emotion, and sat down and meditated in Vince's meditation room, his ashes in the urn next to the Buddha.



My sister, Kristine, took the shot.

Here is Scott, the night of the memorial:





*****

I met all kinds of characters during these past few weeks. Miami is everything it is made to be in fictional accounts. I have not read and Carl Hiaasen, but I imagine he writes about these sorts. Russel Banks' Continental Drift is populated by some of them as well, I recall. I often felt like I was on "Miami Vice," or meeting characters out of Starsky and Hutch or some other bad 1970s cop show. For instance, I needed an appraiser to get the items inventoried and priced to settle the estate. I was referred to a guy who had been described with a caveat, “a bit full of himself.” This comes nowhere close to describing the man I had a phone conversation with when I stepped back off the plane back in Boston after the first trip.

“Bill, this is ___, how may I help you?”

“Hi___. Did you hear about my Uncle, Vince?

That was all I said for about the next 15 minutes, while this guy went on some caffeinated (giving the benefit of the doubt, here) soliloquy -- about how he had heard the news; how he had known Vince; had given Vince his start with his shop on Miracle Mile; about the person, let's call him “JJ,” who had “broken (my) uncle’s heart” as an employee, stealing money from him at the shop; about how JJ had been telling some convoluted story about the murder; and, basically, just about himself. I just sat there, listening, stunned at the hubris of this guy, who seemed unable to control anything that came out of his mouth. He told me how he himself was part of the gay community there, how he had become the best appraiser in the business, and anything else that popped into his head, apparently. When I heard a bit of a breath after the salacious-gossip part of it, I found a chance to briefly interrupt.

“Well. That is all very interesting,” I said.

“Oh, well, of course, I am sure you want to know what is being said and about how I knew your uncle and how I want to help the estate, because I am here to help in any way I can...”

He was still in mid-sentence when I stopped him again. “No, that is interesting,” I said again. “It is good for me to hear how ridiculous shit like this gets started. You know, for example, that this kid is the son of my uncle’s long-time house keeper, right?”

“Well, no! I did not know...” he started, in a dramatic display of surprise.

“Yes,” I interrupted again. “And you do know he was someone my uncle has known since he was a child, and was trying to help by writing a letter of recommendation.”

“Oh, no! Well, that is all very important to know and it certainly squares with the person...”

He seemed genuinely let down at the less sensational facts I was telling him.

He was still going, but I had lost my patience about 8 minutes prior and I stopped him again.

“Mr. ___, you know that this is not the reason I am calling, right? I was just wondering if you are an appraiser with experience in this sort of estate.”

Then he went on for God knows how long, telling me about how great he is, how in-demand, how “only millionaires” can afford his fees, but how he would, in his largess, be willing to take on this estate, partially as a favor to Vince, whom he knew “was a man of modest means,” but, I guess as a side benefit, he would also like to work with and get the future business of the attorney, “who currently works with some old guy” he went on to disparage personally.

I had long ago decided there would be no possible way for me to do business with him. There was way, way more said, with even less discretion than I am letting on. It was like a Benzedrine-jacked informant spilling his guts to Barretta, or a coke-fueled pimp boring Sonny Crockett. A week later, he sent me a proposal filled with British spellings of such words as “honour” and “colour.” His follow-up phone message included the desire to make room in his “shed-jewel,” as if he were a Minister of Parliament. English people may have no idea why Americans find this pretentious and funny, but trust me. Vince would.

*****


No, it is more important to focus on the people I have connected with on this. So many friends and strangers have reached out during it all. But I will leave you with the words I wrote to Vincent and John. I thank you all for indulging me though this all. It is just one guy’s story of dealing with grieving the loss of another guy. You all have stories as well. The fact that you’ve taken time to hear mine means a lot to me. Grieving and memorials are not for the dead, they say, they are for the living. But telling stories is how we keep the memory of people alive.

Each time I leave the house, and as I leave each of you, it feels like I am -- we are  -- leaving our friend with more and more finality and so the grieving starts to close in and I am left to face it in increasing solitude. I lost it in the car for a while before I could drive to the airport the other night. And then I couldn't find a decent place to eat at the fucking airport so I got cranky on top of bring sad. I should have just eaten the fucking leftover ham. I am a sentimental sort by nature, so the idea of not having you guys there as everyday presences is a reality that makes Vince's passing more difficult to face.

....I have not yet had to deal with a whole lot of loss of very close people in my life, just the usual grandparents and a few scattered old friends with whom I had mostly lost touch. I just feel the need to keep talking about it to help work it out.

Anyway, it means a lot to me that you guys have both given me so much support through all of this, and I have quickly come to think of you as family. I really, honestly, sincerely have no idea how I would have done any of this without you. Vince was always perfect at choosing just the right gifts for the people he loved. I would like to think that the intense friendship I have felt from both of you is Vince's final gift to us.

9 comments:

Randy Reichardt said...

.: Dear Bill: In this very moving and well-written Part 2, you wrote that we too have our stories to tell. But this is your story, and Vince's story, and as you say, "telling stories is how we keep the memory of people alive." Your eloquent and at times painful words have brought Uncle Vince to life for those of us out here on the periphery of your world, who follow you on your blog and FB. Paul wrote recently on FB that it took him two hours to get through Part 1. It took me the better part of an hour to read Part 2, and it was worth every second. I had to pause often and catch my breath and my thoughts. There is so much rich detail here. It's more than we deserve, and reading it all has enriched me in a way I can't define here in the wee early hours of the morning.

When you wrote about Mike, I was reflecting on his character on Glee, and how that character seems like the kind of guy would do anything for his friend, and I was left wondering if Mike is perhaps playing himself on that show - and I wonder that not knowing him at all. But what a true friend he was at a time when you needed it the most.

I continue to hope you and your family find strength and support from those close to you all. I can't help but think Uncle Vince is smiling down on you from above somewhere, so proud of your heartfelt effort to keep his memory alive. I will never be able to listen to your music again without thinking of him.

It's almost an afterthought to talk of the CotW here, but it was lovely. I want to ask, what is that "squiggly" effect that haunts each chorus? Thanks again for taking the time to do this, especially in light of how drained you must be at this time.

Peace. - Randy

nervousonion said...

bill,

i've been reading you blog for a while and enjoying your CoTW installments. they are something i genuinely look forward to.

i thank you deeply for sharing the story of your beloved uncle. i'm sure writing this was heart wrenching and difficult, but it does not go unappreciated. uncle Vince is certainly very proud of you.

ned said...

"say goodbye to madame george...dry your eyes for madame george"-van morrison
so sorry to hear about your loss.-keep the faith

Bill Janovitz said...

Thanks.

Squiggly effect is some sort of flange plug-in on Pro Tools.

Randy Reichardt said...

.: Thanks for the info on the ProTools effect, Bill. I will seriously look into that purchase sometime in 2010, and finally begin teaching myself how to make music with it on the computer.

Eddie said...

Your eloquence and sincerity continue to blow me away, my friend. Again, my sincere condolences on the senseless loss of your uncle. And thank you for Cry Baby Cry (I had requested it). My donation will be to Human Rights Watch in his memory.

jshastany said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this moving story with us. It sounds like your uncle was an amazing man who made meaningful impacts in many lives. You are already keeping his memory alive by sharing yours with those of us who didn't know him. I'm very sorry about this tragic loss and hope that each day finds you somewhat more at peace--although I'm sure it is near impossible to accept that something so senseless could snuff out the vibrant light of your uncle's life. Take care.

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