“No,” she rushed on, not hearing me, angering me still further, going on as if he should have lived forever. It was that fall he took three weeks ago, or those lousy hoodlums who mugged him ten years ago, or how he worked his guts out for his sons. “If you only knew how much he loved you two guys.”
“I know Ma, but it’s not like this was a surprise.”
Failure is much commoner than success, though it has seldom been accorded even a small corner in the work of historians; it is also more endearing, and much more human. No death can ever be dismissed as banal, even if it cannot aspire to the proud luxury of a tombstone—a bold claim on the future.
It was two a.m. A flash of red light splashed across the familiar cracks in the sidewalk that were guiding me home. I looked up to see a police car, and a few feet behind it, a dead body. The superintendent’s son was lying in the middle of the street. Someone had removed his Mets windbreaker and thrown it over his head.
“What happened?” I asked a cop.
“He got into a fight and somebody hit him over the head with a baseball bat.” I cringed, feeling the dull thwack that smashed the life out of him, marking the moment that separated living consciousness from inert mass.
What, I thought, trying to bring a historical perspective to that moment, was today’s date? July 9, 1971. No, it was already July 10th.
A chill accompanied my realization that earlier that very day, while it was still July 9th, and no one knew what was going to happen in the early morning of the 10th, I had argued with him and his father about fixing the broken refrigerator in my apartment. He had stood in the doorway to his basement apartment wearing a T-shirt, holding a newspaper open to the racing page, explaining with excuses that were clearly lies why he could not do the job. How angry his arrogance had made me.
Now, only a dozen hours later, he was dead. Somebody else had confronted that arrogance head-on. Blood covered his T-shirt. The racing page he’d held would be the last he’d ever see. He’d never see the July 10th edition of the Daily News, nor the next day’s paper or the next.
Would the story of his own death make the paper? I wondered. I pictured the giant presses of the News somewhere in Manhattan, churning out their product. It was probably too late for this story to appear. Would it make tomorrow’s late editions? Or the six o’clock news? The 19-year-old son of an anonymous Puerto Rican superintendant: would the smashing in of his skull merit attention? Would the rest of the world slow down long enough to notice his death? And if it did, so what? Whether the item appeared as headline or filler, or not at all, he wouldn’t be around to witness it.
As I turned to go upstairs, I noticed the silent crowd, unusually large for this hour, staring aimlessly at his body. Another 20 or so surveyed the scene from windows overhead. Tomorrow our own lives, our own problems, would regain center stage, and we could once again forget the lesson of mortality that this motionless body was now teaching us. For now, a respectful quiet hung over the block.