He was the first of my close friends to die and the circumstances were murky. He’d been hitch-hiking home from a resort job in New York State on a night when it was raining in solid sheets. A passing cop said he saw my friend give him the finger when the officer drove by. The cop turned around and went back to impose an arrest. At over six feet tall and built like a boxcar, my friend was not inclined to accept social injustice... And not on this night, apparently. There was an alleged scuffle and my friend got tossed into the road, where he was struck and killed by another passing car — driven by his boss.
As I said, the circumstances were murky.
It was a small town where everyone knew everybody else. My friend was regarded as a city kid, up to bus tables. As far as I know, there wasn’t much of an inquest or an investigation. Dennis was certainly the kind of person who would flip off a cop... But would do so looking him right in the eye, in broad daylight. He was an artist, a poet, a citizen of the world, and a voice against repression in labor and in politics. He was a bit of a fighter and not one to back down if he was right. (Even if backing down was the smartest thing to do.) It was the pure Irish in him. Dennis was the real McCoy, initially schooled in Ireland and brought to the United States. Simply stated, Dennis L. wouldn’t take shit from anybody.
I have asked this question over and over again in my mind... How closely could you see someone’s middle finger extended on a dark, rainy night from a passing car? And in the glare of the headlights, Dennis wouldn’t have seen it was cop until the car would nearly have passed. I remember Dennis telling me how he traveled the length and breadth of Ireland hitching rides. “Anybody would pick you up,” he said. “Rare was the day when I had to wait 15 or 20 minutes.” The cop was certainly within his rights — on multiple levels — to go back and investigate a hulking huge person walking on the side of the road in a drenching downpour. I believe the world is a worse place for the outcome, however.
I got wind of the funeral through the friends' network. I’d been sweet on Dennis’s sister for a bit, though I think she regarded me more as a blister than anything else. The word on the street was that she wanted me to be there... And wanted me to make her laugh at least once during this ordeal. Yet to me was also assigned the task of picking up Ray B., a close mutual friend who was studying as a Jesuit novice at Fordham University, in the Bronx, one of my least favorite of New York City’s five boroughs.
The Kawasaki H2 started on the first kick.
This would be a no bullshit run of about 48 miles through some of the most challenging traffic I would ever encounter. Looking back, I can’t recall I ever gave it a second thought. (I would have to take valium and steroids to pull this off today.) I rolled onto to US-1 in Jersey City, also known as Tonelle Avenue, and began a descent into hell. There were a handful of houses scattered between decripit businesses on this stretch, all covered with an inch of grime and solidified truck exhaust. I ran up to Fort Lee and crossed the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge, heading further north on the Major Deegan Expressway. It was the middle of the afternoon and traffic could best be described as the chaotic flight of millions of steel clay pigeons. The George Washington Bridge is two levels of four lanes — in each direction — with exits from right and left on the New York side. I had a rough idea where I was headed. Fordham Road is the major thoroughfare in the Bronx, and the fastest way to get to the Bronx Zoo, which is one of the finest zoological parks in the country. Fordham University is the imposing Jesuit run edifice of higher learning on the left. It appears to be about the size of Newark Airport.
The tach on the Kawasaki danced its full range as I flogged the gears going through traffic. While I can’t claim to have split lanes, I changed them a lot, running between 60 and 70 miles per hour. That ended at the Fordham Road exit. Here the traffic was bumper to bumper, and stoplight to stoplight. If I thought Jersey City was a dense mass of people, than Fordham Road in the Bronx was a neutron star of packed humanity. Turning into the university complex, I pulled up in front of Murray Weigel Hall. I was educated in the Jesuit prep school system and have a profound respect for these folks. It was like pulling up to the front door of the White House on a motorcycle. (I felt like I was stealing something.)
Ray B., one of my oldest friends (and the priest who would eventually baptize my daughter) stepped out in a black suit with a Roman collar. He folded a mass card into his jacket pocket, looked at the Kawasaki and said, “How do I get on this thing?” He had never ridden a motorcycle before.
Sitting ramrod straight against the sissy bar, he shortly found himself fired out of a cannon. I determined it would be faster to cut through Manhattan. We took the Deegan south toward I-95, headed west into Manhattan, then cut south on the West Side Highway. At the time, the West Side Highway was an elevated structure paralleling the docks on the Hudson River. It was notorious for the high speed of the traffic, it’s incredibly primitive ramps, the accidents that littered its deck, the battered nature of its pavement, and the fact that generations of pigeon shit had thoroughly rotted its cheap steel — so it was in the process of falling down. We exited at the collapsed part and rode over a stretch of exposed cobblestone, before turning into the Holland Tunnel.
I couldn’t help but thinking it was an odd life I led. The last time I’d ridden this bike in New York, I had picked up some bar floosie and rolled around with her in Central Park. Now, I was riding with the polar opposite.
“Are we taking a tour of the most dangerous and desperate places on earth,” yelled Ray over the scream of that two-stroke engine. As the oldest of the two underwater Hudson River crossings, the Holland Tunnel used to be the dimmest and the worst maintained. We surfaced in downtown Jersey City like a blue smoke belching barracuda coming up for air. The funeral home was on Montgomery Street, as I recall. Ray lurched off the bike, removed his helmet, and said with a grin, “Well that was taut and gripping.”
How different we looked... He in a black suit and Roman collar, and me in dress pants, with an oxford shirt under an old Army fatigue jacket that had belonged to my father. He was the personification of Christian solace. I looked like a character from the movie classic, "The Deer Hunter." We each traded a wan smile and went in to the business at hand. It was the saddest ride of my life, over 35 years ago.
Ray and I are so different now. He became a noted scholar and world traveler in the service of Christ and I became a world business travel writer in the service of Riepe. He is now in a wheelchair, and I gimp with a cane. Coming out of that funeral, he said to me, “Don’t get killed doing something stupid. I plan for you and I to be old friends in rocking chairs someplace, pissing our pants together.”
I recently reminded him of that statement, and mentioned that when he said it, I had thought it wouldn’t be this soon.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2011