I got off the No. 6 train at Brook Avenue, and began the three-block walk to the Ortiz Funeral Home. Again. Another one of my South Bronx buddies from back in the day was dead. Suicide.
The year was 1995, the August day hot and muggy in the distinct New York City way, dirt and grit and glazed heat seeping its way into your pores. Walking west on 138th Street, new housing developments rose among the still plentiful empty lots and boarded up storefronts. Sounds of salsa, rap, and reggae music blared from hand-held boom boxes and open tenement windows, the smell of fried everything in the air.
I had come of age here in the 60s and 70s, when the South Bronx ignited into infamy as the arson capital of the United States, transforming my neighborhood into an epicenter of daily muggings and rising poverty, where new street gangs formed by the week and heroin flowed like an oil spill. Yet, we had survived, launching, among other victories, the hip-hop revolution.
But many did not survive, and that’s why I was back in my old Mott Haven stomping grounds, a section of the South Bronx that’s about as far south as you could get before ending up in the Harlem River.
I entered the Ortiz Funeral Home on 141st Street and Willis Avenue and found the parlor where Louie Santos was laid out; only a few people milled in the dimly lit room. I walked to where Big Danny stood, near the open coffin. A wreath of crème roses, lilies, and purple carnations was placed at the head of the coffin. To my left was a glass candle with the image of the Virgin Mary. Big Danny and I hugged. I looked at Louie.
“Man, look at his face. So thin,” I said, stroking the mahogany coffin’s polished edge. “Remember when we used to call him Fat Louie?”
Big Danny stared at the corpse. “Not anymore,” he said.
Louie Santos was only 43 years old, dead from a self-inflicted 38-caliber bullet to the skull. The superintendent of the Bronx tenement Louie lived in found the body after neighbors complained of a foul stench coming from the fifth-floor apartment. Predictably, no one admitted to hearing a gun shot.
“Been to too many of these funerals,” Big Danny sighed as we walked to the back of the room to join the handful of fellow mourners. “So many of the old fellas from the block are gone: Little Stevie, Hippie Ray, and now Louie. And most of the funerals have been held right here! I’m telling you, the Ortiz family is making sick money off us.”
Sad to say, death in the inner cities was a very lucrative enterprise. The parlor we gathered in held a special place for the ghosts of Mott Haven, and was, to my recollection, one of the first Ortiz homes to open in the borough.
“And whoever isn’t dead is in the joint,” Big Danny continued, shaking his head. “Soaky, Chino, coño, it’s hard to keep track of all of them.”
“I stopped counting a long time ago,” I said.
During our teenage wonder years, Big Danny was an amateur light-heavyweight boxer. One memorable day in the Big Park, the creative name given to the largest playground in the Millbrook Houses, he fought an exhibition bout with then little known but later to become light-heavyweight champ Eddie Gregory, who eventually changed his name to Mustafa Muhammad. The three-round match ended in a draw, much to Big Danny’s relief since he was fighting in front of his fellow Social Seven gang members, as well as his girlfriend. Losing, he confided later, was totally out of the question.
Big Danny was more heavyweight now, although I too had gained a few pounds. We had stayed in touch and enjoyed a laugh together. But Danny was right. Too many of our reunions were about mourning.
I thought of the guys Danny mentioned who were either dead or in jail, how we hardly ever referred to them by their given names. In fact, often we didn’t know their real names until a funeral, or, on a less common occasion, a marriage. We both discovered Fat Louie’s last name was Santos from reading the memorial prayer card printed by the funeral home.
Actually I preferred nicknames. It kept the guys vibrant in my memory, a sign of community in an area where identity equaled self-preservation, a way to overcome the challenges of life in the ghetto. Long before Survivor series and the Australian Outback there was the South Bronx. Home.
Nicknames were markers of character, a sign that we actually saw something in each other, a membership card for belonging to “the block.” Hustler got his name because he would borrow a dollar and you would owe him five; Hippie Ray because he was always tripping on Blotter Acid; Smokey because he looked like Smokey Robinson; Fuji because of his Fu Manchu mustache; Tarzan because he sported chiseled arms that reached his kneecaps like a gorilla.
Unfortunately, Tarzan, like many others, became an addict, using his long arms as pincushions for skin-popping and mainlining. By the time he reached his twentieth birthday, Tarzan traded in hard drugs for Night Train and Thunderbird—or nitroglycerine and cat piss as we called them respectively. He died of liver failure at age 35. His younger brother and fellow tecato, Cheetah, beat him to the grave by several years after getting himself shot by a dealer he had mugged in broad daylight. Carlos, as he was rarely called, was 19 years old when he was blown away.
Danny joined me outside, along with Jackie, Louie’s cousin. She was in pretty good spirits, all things considering.
“Thanks for coming, you guys,” she said.
It had been two decades since I’d last seen Jackie, and I didn’t recognize her. Her short Afro was sprinkled with gray, and she wore a tailored beige pants suit and cream leather heels. A far cry from the late 60s when she was Crazy Jackie, dancing topless to Santana’s Black Magic Woman as the aroma of pot and hash enveloped whatever apartment we happened to be in. I would gaze at her Nubian skin and feel intimidated as hell. She seemed confident and powerful in her raw sexuality and none of us, to my knowledge, ever groped her or said anything disrespectful. We’d just stare and say, “Damn.”
“I wish more people could have been here for Louie, but you know how that goes,” Jackie continued. “Remember how he fancied himself this smooth Latin Lover after he lost all that weight?”
“A regular Ricardo Montalban,” I said.
“His pickup line was ‘Yo, baby, are you a movie star?’ Used it all the time and it never worked!” Danny laughed.
“Good times,” Jackie said, smiling.
“I’ve been thinking about all the nicknames we had,” I said. “How it was a kind of affection.”
“They weren’t always nice, though,” Jackie said. “Remember Chumpy? Hands down the worst nickname ever.”
“Did you like being called Crazy?” Big Danny asked.
“I was crazy!”
“I didn’t really have a nickname, at least not one that stuck,” I said. “I was Brainiac for a while, the genius villain in Superman.”
“He had a head like a mushroom cloud,” Danny said.
“Hey, you guys wouldn’t believe who I saw the other day,” Jackie said. “ Cookie Man. Twenty years and he’s still on the methadone, can you believe it?”
“Does he still has those black specks on his teeth?” I asked.
“Yeah, like he just downed some Oreo cookies,” Jackie said. “James laughed when I called him Cookie Man; said he hadn’t heard that name in years.”
Danny remarked that at least James was still alive. “But if he doesn’t get that monkey off his back, he’s going to join the lost souls too,” he added.
A week after Louie was buried Jackie called to say that Cookie Man’s body had just been found in the back alley of his apartment. Apparently, he was on his fire escape when he got a dizzy spell and fell to his death.
“That’s the official story, anyway,” she said. “The funeral is going to be at Ortiz, of course.”
“I’ll be there,” I said.
David Perez is a writer, journalist, editor, actor, playwright, radio host, and theatre performance teacher. He is the author of two memoirs: WOW! (11B Press, 2011) and WOW! 2 (Nighthawk Press, 2016), both of which chronicle his multi-faceted coming of age. David was a staff writer for The Taos News and wrote feature articles for New Mexico Magazine. As an actor, his roles have ranged from Othello to Santa Claus. His “Read Your Writing to Life” workshops have drawn authors, actors, visual artists, natural healers, schoolteachers, and physicians. Of Puerto Rican heritage, David was born and raised in the South Bronx in New York City and now lives in Taos, New Mexico. He is married to award-winning poet, Veronica Golos.