Three years ago, when I turned 50 years of age, I wrote a poem in the tradition of Ginsberg’s “Howl!,” talking about what had happened to some of the best of my generation. I titled it “Celebrating Fifty Years of Life.”
Nine days ago I turned 53. Someone I know said I should re-post “Celebrating Fifty Years of Life.” It made me think of how far I have come, and how many I know, the best and the brightest and the boldest, didn’t make it this far.
I want to talk about the Three Erics, three people I know also named Eric, that I grew up with, people who lived in the same neighborhood: Marcy Houses. Before Jay-Z put Marcy on the map, there was the Three Erics. Eric T. – the boldest. He was physically precocious, at 16 could’ve taken on and beaten the future Heavyweight Champ, Mike Tyson. The thing that distinguished Eric T. was his big head. His head was so big one would think it was an easy target to hit when he was boxing street battles royal. He would bob and weave that head like Joe Frazier, adding a snake move, and was nearly impossible to hit. Three attempts on his life, before aged 18, failed. The fourth attempt, a bullet to the head, he couldn’t bob and weave. A year later I would meet his killer, like most killers, unremarkable, unassuming. Eric T., the neighborhood bully, finally met his match. Dead before 20.
Eric H. – the brightest. He was smart, probably thought he could outsmart the world. Had the cunning of a politician, the street smarts of a philosopher. He also epitomized cool. He was one of the best dressers I knew, and I took a few tips from his style book, and I knew that he had something when my oldest sister, a fashion maven, commented on my style. He’s the one who gave me the nickname Easy, Easy Waters, probably because there were too many Erics in our neighborhood. He was also lucky, always one step ahead of everyone. But his luck ran out. He died in a Federal prison, a “hole in his heart.” Dead before 30.
Eric W. – the best. He had the benefit of a father who was present, a father who raised him as a Nation of Islam (NOI) Muslim. He oozed that NOI confidence, that confidence you saw in “Black Muslims,” epitomized by Malcolm X, that made them glow – clean cut and clean shaven, no nonsense. There was a little bit of Malcolm X in all Black Muslims post 1965-1978, and less so thereafter. Malcolm X’s story, one of the classic redemptive tales. Some of his immortal words: “There’s no shame in having been a criminal, only in remaining one.”
So today, I remember the Three Erics. I miss them – the youth that grew up and old fast – but they are still alive in me, in that in my teens I emulated them and the best they had to offer is embodied in me.