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.”