Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Last Conversation

by G. Jack Urso
 

“Jack! Jack Urso! Is that that you? Do you remember me?”

In the early 1990s,  I was standing in line at a convenience store around the corner from where I lived in a tiny, one bedroom apartment. The gentleman calling my name was a tall, elegant looking, elderly black man with a shock of white hair that made him look like a cross between Nelson Mandela and Morgan Freeman. It was Mr. Bryan, a family friend from my childhood. He was from Jamaica and had a soft, lyrical accent that matched his gentle demeanor. I recognized his voice before I even turned around to see who it was.

Ashley Bryan’s wife and children were close friends of ours on Norwood Avenue in Albany, NY. Both he and his wife, who matched her husband in kindness, worked in education – he as a math professor at the University at Albany (then SUNY Albany), and she as a librarian for the local school district. Since my father was also a principal for the district, this brought our families together. Occasionally, Mrs. Bryan would bring a film projector from the school library along with a movie to our house. We would hang a white sheet against the wall and watch the film together, both black and white families. I, in my youthful ignorance, was completely oblivious to the racial tensions around us.

Growing up in 1960s and 1970s, there was only one family on my block who was black, the Bryans. According to my mother, when Ashley was first offered a job with SUNY-Albany in the early 1960s, the college found them a home on nearby Providence Street whose residents quickly took up a petition to keep them off the block. Eventually, they settled on nearby Norwood Avenue where my family lived.

Welcome to Norwood Avenue

The Bryan home on Norwood Ave.
This was a better move. The home was nicer and there was a park right in the middle of the street that was ringed by tall maple and pine trees. Still, they had to contend with their crotchety neighbor, Chief. Chief was a former navy chief petty officer who worked as a football coach for the school district. Despite seeing Ashley walk to work every day in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, Chief, at first, assumed he was a janitor because he was black. He was eventually set straight by his religious Irish-Catholic wife Eleanor, who often played Edith to his Archie Bunker.

At the time, I was blissfully unaware of any racial issues. The Bryans had a young daughter my age, Lori, who was a constant playmate in my younger days, as well as my first crush. We were probably no more than five years old when I convinced her to go behind the garage with me. I think my plan was to give her a kiss, but once there my age kicked in and I decided that would just be gross and we hunted for butterflies instead. When my occasionally violent best friend Billy Dober gave me a black eye in front of her house, Lori took me gently aside, put ice on my eye, and told me I should go back and kick his ass – which I later did, employing that rare coup de grace of shoving his head in a pile of dog shit. Good times . . . good times.

By the late 1970s, however, our families had grown apart. Some of it was that their children went to different schools and were, frankly, higher achieving than us – or at least me at any rate. Most of it though was due to my parent’s rather loud arguments leading up to their divorce. Divorce in our little Catholic neighborhood was not as widespread as it later became, and was viewed as a step down in life. It made other families uncomfortable and I can’t say that I blame them. It was a bitter separation and the police visited on more than one occasion. Once, I had to go outside and explain to the cops that everything was alright. They made me take my shirt off and show them I wasn’t being beaten – which I wasn’t, but they made me do it right there in the street where all the neighbors could see.

The Dober brothers:
Billy and Johnny
The only kids on the block who continued to hang out with me were the blue collar Dober brothers who in the winter insisted on shoveling the snow for our mom for free after my dad moved out. Then one day came a knock at our door. My mom answered. We seldom got visitors anymore.

It was Ashley Bryan. He spoke respectfully to my mother about his regret over the recent circumstances in our lives and told her that if she ever needed anything all she had to do was ask. It’s one of those promises no one really gets called on, but is appreciated nonetheless. My mother recalled to her dying day that simple act of kindness – to come to our home, pay his respects, and, in his own small way, share our grief.

Crossing Lines

When Mr. Bryan approached me in the convenience store that day, I was dumbstruck. For one thing, my appearance had radically changed from the last time he saw me, which was about 15 years ago at that point. I had long hair and a beard, yet he was still able to pick me out of a crowd. Also, I was just a kid back then and while growing up I doubt I ever said anything more than hello to him.

It was no coincidence we were at the same store. I moved to an apartment two blocks away from my old stomping grounds on Norwood Avenue. Not for the sake of nostalgia, but rather out of sheer laziness – I worked one block away at the Junior College of Albany and I could roll out of bed ten minutes before I had to be at work and still get there on time.

I brought Mr. Bryan up to date on my family, and he did the same with his, instructing me to please call him Ashley. He took particular interest in my work at in the college’s inmate education program where I worked as a program coordinator. He paid for his items and we went our separate ways. It was a pleasant encounter and I thought that would be the end of that.

One day, while working at my desk at the college, my secretary tells me a “Mr. Bryan” is here to see me. Ashley walked in and we had a long conversation about my work. I tried to get him to open up about his work at SUNY-Albany. He was a bit reticent to share much, but we both found common ground on the inanities of college administration and the petty bureaucrats that plagued our existence.

For about the next year and a half I would run into Ashley around the neighborhood. He spent the fall and winter in Jamaica, where he grew up, so I only saw him in the spring and summer. He had this way of laughing at the end of every sentence that was both endearing and occasionally odd.

“Jack! It is good to see you! Ha, ha, ha!”

“I hope your mother is doing well. Ha, ha, ha!”

“I do not speak with Chief very often. Ha, ha, ha!”

My last encounter with Ashley took place in the summer of 1994. I dropped some acid and was tripping balls to the wall so I went out to walk it off. It was one of the most humid days I can ever remember. Walking around outside felt like being inside some sweaty t-shirt – an experience intensified by the LSD.

I made a turn down Norwood as a shortcut to my apartment and was walking by the Bryans’ house when I heard, “Jack! Jack!”

Ashley stood in the dining room window and waved to me, indicating that I should stop. He came out at a quick pace, almost running. I noticed that despite the hot and humid weather he was wearing long pants over pajama bottoms. We spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes catching up. His eyes were red, much as mine were after smoking too much weed, and he laughed at the end of each sentence, as he usually did. I wondered who was higher – him or me. 

It was probably me. 

I loved Mr. Bryan, I really did. His gentle demeanor and studious nature actually were a great influence on me. During that year and half we were friends he took the time, in a quiet way, to sort of mentor me, not so much in our common professional field – higher education – but rather as an older man at the end of his life to a younger man at the start his.

I never saw Ashley Bryan again.

The Black Funeral

A month or so after our last meeting, Ashley Bryan returned to Jamaica and on October 18, 1994, he passed away. I learned this in the spring while reading the obituaries. The notice announced that a reception in his memory would be held at their home on Norwood Avenue. I mentioned it to my father. I told him about my recent acquaintanceship with Mr. Bryan and that I strongly felt I should attend the reception. I tried to convince my father to join me, but, although he reformed his ways in the days since he knew the Bryans, he burned too many bridges and wasn’t anxious to go back. Besides, if he did go that would be a cheat. Ashley was my friend. I had to honor his memory myself.

On the day of the reception, I put on the black suit and tie and drove over. Although their home was only two blocks away from mine and I could walk there, I wanted a quick getaway. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I am shy by nature and I hadn’t seen any of the family since I was a kid, but I remembered his visit to our house after my parents' nasty break up. I wasn’t sure if I was going in his memory or just for my own inbred Sicilian sense of honor. Whatever the case, I stopped over-thinking it. It was simply the right thing to do and I got on with it.

I pulled my little blue sports car in front of their home. Dozens of people were already there – at least 50, probably more. They were in the front yard. They were in the back yard. They were in every room of the house it seemed…and everyone, everyone, was black.

White people in America have no idea how African-Americans feel living in our society until the shoe is on the other foot. Despite my liberal attitudes, I felt a distinct unsettledness, as though I was on unfamiliar ground, even though I had been to this home many times as a child. I walked through the yard and into the open house. Every eye was on me and all were asking themselves the same question, “Who is this long-haired white boy and why is he here?” I knew I was intruding, but the obituary said the reception was open to the “friends and family of Ashley Bryan.” I had to go. I had to be there.

I made my way to Mrs. Bryan, who was arranging food at the dining room table. I walked over to her, standing in about the same spot her husband did when I last saw him run out his house to greet me. I told her who I was. Mrs. Bryan’s head went back and cocked to one side as her memories kicked in and she recognized me.

“Oh, Jackie! How nice of you to be here!” She exclaimed as she greeted me with a hug.

During the past year and a half or so I had never met Mrs. Bryan and as we spoke it became clear that her husband never mentioned me to her. She had no idea that we had recently become reacquainted. I explained to her why I felt I had to come and I think it overwhelmed her a bit. I asked about Lori, but she hadn’t arrived yet. I was invited to stay and eat, but it was awkward. I felt awkward and the others felt awkward. I wasn’t a member of the family or circle of friends. I was intruding. I was disappointed not to see Lori, but I paid my respects and left.

As I walked out of the house and across the street to my car, I looked over to the spot on the lawn where Ashley and I shared our last conversation. Over twenty years later, I can’t recall more than just a few words that passed between us in that year and a half, but even if I forget everything we ever said to each other it doesn’t matter. I remember everything that is important. 

Ashley M. Bryan: Born April 29, 1917 Died October 18, 1994.

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