Life's Great Safari
by Don Ndala Scott
As I glance at my cat, Safari, sitting in a breakfast-room chair Sphinx-like, it’s about 6:40 a.m. on a cloudy and cool early-May Saturday morning in 2003. That moment I couldn’t help but think about the mid-1990s’ day when I first picked the little fellow up from my old college buddy, Wayne, as Safari stared from a patio window out into my three-quarter-acre Melrose Park, Pennsylvania backyard. He casually searched for a chipmunk or something scampering among the trees and graceful slopes.
Wayne, who called me his best friend, lived about 30 minutes away by car in a deteriorating three-story twin row house in the rough North Philadelphia area ironically known as Nicetown. Little did I know, as I sat with him six or seven years ago among his blinking and fuzzy-screened television, very well used kerosene heater reeking of fumes and piles of clothes and rubbish, that my razor-thin Wayne-ski (as we sometimes added the word “ski” to addressing each other, connoting a certain urban cool ness and slickness) would develop a debilitating nerve-eating illness called neuropathy. The illness would render him virtually blind, often dizzy and with excruciating shooting pains that would hit him like a laser from the Star-Ship Enterprise. The cause of such agony, according to at least one medical source I spoke to, was very heavy drinking and the resulting nerve disease.
Sadly, Wayne’s spiral downward would end with a devastatingly hellish fire in an abode centered in a neighborhood being overrun by crack prostitutes, winos, mentally-ill group home residents filled to the brim with so-called mind-altering pharmaceuticals, illegal-drug gangs and marauding bandits.
Since Wayne’s horrifying death a couple of years ago, I’ve tried to make sense of it, but nothing seems to quite add up. He seems to be another dead black man swallowed up by the almost total despair of an inner city ghetto. Most agonizing, though, I keep wondering if my buddy Wayne, about age 50 when he died, could have been saved from his slow but steady descent into hell-on-earth by authorities, the church, his middle-class family and even so-called friends like me? It especially hurts when I t hink about Wayne’s multiple talents. He was an aspiring engineer and accomplished writer with superb carpentry skills; very well read and loved many of the classical philosophers and writers; a magnificent musician who could play several instruments by ear; and, he was a magnificent dancer and spell-bounding public speaker. But, by the time of his death, many of the brotha’s talents had dissipated in a setting that was so damned dreary, at best.
Although some of the streets in the area, also called Tioga, are well kept, many had fallen into gross decay. Huge chunks of the area had sunk – especially from the 1960s’ days when my family and paternal relatives lived there and my father owned several rental properties in the neighborhood, before opening his doctor’s office over on Erie Avenue, about six or seven blocks northeast from Wayne’s pad. As local factories began to close down and move to the suburbs with local fleeing whites, the resulting l oss of jobs by many neighborhood blacks led to defaulted mortgages and dilapidated properties.
Wayne-ski’s place, which had fallen into disrepair over the years, was also mighty junky with his old books on philosophy, religion and essays written by the likes of Poe, O’Henry and Charles Dickens, as well as with various interesting art relics that he had collected over the years. Wayne, although his grammar skills weren’t initially great, for what that’s worth, was a superb writer, philosopher and arrogantly witty. You see, Wayne, who majored in English with me at Cheyney University (south o f Philadelphia), but never did get his degree with only a few credits to finish, fancied himself as a writer, bent on collaborating with me on a book that would some day even make Hollywood and the big screen. We would rap about everything from designing advanced jet propulsion systems (a job his elder brother had for NASA) as they related to Star Trek and warp speed to some of the street characters he met in his neighborhood, such as Peanuts (who died a few months before Wayne of a drug overdose) and someo ne he called “Crack Girl” – a poor sister willing to do odd jobs around Wayne’s pad for a couple of bucks. A slightly buck-toothed, high-cheek-boned guy of medium-brown complexion and thick coarse hair and slender-built, Wayne pondered about a system that left so many young blacks destitute. He planned to write an expose about their condition, and his. In fact, mostly, we’d talk about politics and racism and how it impacted black families -- how we lived in a society that seems set up to suck away the bre ath of so many promising African Americans. In his pad too were also all kinds of handyman tools because Wayne was once a very skilled carpenter and plumber, as well as a huge litter of prowling kitty cats climbing over his junk.
They were the products of Wayne’s feline domicile partner, a mixed breed, short-haired tabby, whom had obviously been screwed by a quite virile alley cat. That love-dance could have happened in the very alley that ran along side Wayne’s Victorian-style house – a place consisting of two empty apartments – one above him, and the other below, which he perpetually claimed to be fixing up and rent in order to supplement his sporadic income as a handyman. For a while, he seemed to make excellent progr ess, until he started drinking heavily again, partially due to the hellified domestic situation he had gotten himself into – having children at an early age via relationships that never seemed to work out.
“She’s done gone out there and got herself all plugged up,” Wayne unceremoniously said to me by phone several days earlier about his live-in feline partner, urging me to come down and grab one of the kitties in an accent that portended roots to Virginia or one of the Carolinas. That’s although he was born and raised in North Philly’s Nicetown, and later lived in the Mount Airy and West Oak Lane sections of the city for many years with his middle-class family of his mother, step-father, several sisters and a couple of brothers.
I was suspicious because Wayne, who was now perpetually unemployed, often wanted a damned handout, although it certainly wasn’t that way when he drove a new Corvette while in college and worked part-time at the Philadelphia waterfront as a longshoreman during the mid-1970s. In fact, he hobnobbed with the likes of the powerful Philadelphia Councilman Lucien Blackwell who was also the leader of Wayne’s union. But, in recent years I would give him a few bucks because I had seen his health decline – especially after he was nearly beaten to death by the owner of a local business over some spate about Wayne’s pay.
Well, by the time I decided to take one of the kittens back to my duplex apartment that I then rented across town from my near-retired dad, there were only two of the critters left. I looked at them carefully, quickly ascertaining that one was very withdrawn acting, while the other was a furious green-eyed bundle of white-and-black fur.
“I don’t know Wayne,” I said, as we sipped on some of his cheap wine or whiskey in the dimly lit second-story front room. “One of them seems half-dead, like it’s got a super-duper hangover. The other seems like it’s on speed and going berserk. Tough choice man. Tough choice.”
But then I began to think and remember that a sign of intelligence is activity while eyeing the black-and-white ball bouncing around the room and shadow boxing with nearly everything that moved – including our feet – with its swiping razor-sharp mini-claws. I took a deep breath and swallowed. “I’ll take that one, the crazy thing runnin’ all over the place.”
I glanced into Wayne’s worried brown eyes and knew that he really did not want me to choose that live wire. He wanted that rambunctious chump. It was clear the brother wanted me to snatch up the zombie cat, the one that appeared to be on the downside of a heroin hit. “You sure you don’t want the other one, Don-ski?” asked Wayne, now revealing a gruesome grin because his top-front two teeth had been some years earlier smacked out by a bottle-wielding motorcycle-riding white racist in some bar of Connect icut where Wayne briefly stayed after college in the doomed pursuit of his college sweetheart, Wanda.
“You see what he did to me?” often spit out Wayne, who was several years earlier a bionic man of superb strength and quite bluntly, a brotha capable of kicking mucho ass – like the time some unwise African dude at our alma mater, Cheyney (the oldest black institution of higher learning in the country with roots to the 1800s), mockingly called him the “great grandson of a slave.” Wayne guaranteed that the Connecticut white boy after the fight was “surely missing an eyeball.” And the African sport ed a nice thick arm cast for a spell, compliments of Wayne and a whirling thick-wooden chair. Brother Wayne more than practiced an “eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
Yet, that autumn day my own eyeballs were on the cat that I’d soon name Safari because of its prowling tendencies. “I’m real sure that I want that bonkers cat, man,” I replied, wondering if I was ready for such a rampaging critter to come into my relatively sedate life of a divorcee living with my teenaged son, Don, Jr. Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to let old Wayne-ski out-slick me. “You heard me man; I want the lively one.”
But, as I said, I wasn’t sure at all. Not too long before that, Don, Jr. and I had bought what we thought to be a lively and cute kitten from a local pet store. But, when we got the itty-bitty thing home, it sprung out like a full-grown lion. We couldn’t understand how a petite long-haired velvet ball easily held in the palms of our hands could be so demonic acting by clawing and pissing up our pad, arrogantly dismissing any orders with hissing and growls, and ready to carve out hunks of flesh and skin if given one-tenth of a chance. But the day my pop came over and the thing ran clear up doc’s pants leg, ending up on his shoulder and boxing his ear, amid my gasps and stretched eyes, I knew it was time to get rid of the thing. Don and I looked at each other that evening and spontaneously scooped it up, slam dunked it into a box, and raced back to the shop like an ambulance carrying a heart-attack patient (which I almost literally was at that point) as the little thing made noises and gyrations in the sh uttered box that would have made the little girl (Linda Blair) starring in spell-bound film, “The Exorcist,” look like the kitten our little feline friend certainly was not. My worse fear was that the creature would pop right out of our increasingly fragile box and cause such hellfire in the car that we’d end up in the grill of an 18-wheeler as kitty cat scampered down the highway with a menacing I-got-you-back grin.
In a strange way, that little kitten and my Safari, remind me of my slick, tough, but beloved friend Wayne. He could be very cantankerous and would certainly try to get over on you if given the chance. Yet, for many years, he was what I believed to be the ultimate survivor. I used to call him “The Terminator,” because no matter what adversity he bumped into or faced, it seemed he could rise right back from the proverbial ashes – similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger's epic robot-like character gracing movie screens with sequels running even today. But eventually, the sequels in my buddy Wayne’s life would end.
I first met Wayne when he walked into my newspaper office while I served as editor of the Cheyney Record in 1975. I had seen him around campus and in a couple of my English classes. We bumped into each other while walking across campus one day and he escorted me back to my second-floor newspaper office in Burleigh Hall.
As I sank back into the editor’s cushy chair, we conversed before I gave him a writing test. Although he was expressive, Wayne’s grammar was poor. I was shocked to see that he spelled the word “I” as a lowercase “i.” Yet, there was something very communicative and intelligent about the dude. And since I was in terrible need of reporters, I gave him an assignment – and a job as a reporter and columnist.
Virtually all of Wayne’s initial articles required very heavy editing. And that was a job during days when only typewriters were available. It would be several years before I’d put my hands on a computer during a reporting internship with The Philadelphia Bulletin that was coordinated by the legendary columnist and editor Claude Lewis.
It wasn’t long, though, before Wayne was a regular contributor and writing an off-beat column that was humorous, if not a bit hard to decipher at times, about a mythical character that would make observations about campus conditions. The column became a hit.
Wayne and I became quite close and even co-authored a couple of articles together, including one based on us interviewing one of the college’s greatest presidents, Dr. Wade Wilson, let’s say about 1975 or 1976.
We were both apprehensive as we waited for Dr. Wilson in a reception area. Suddenly, the tall, dark bespectacled president with stark-white hair opened his office door and beckoned us. My heart was beating wildly. But, Wayne seemed much more at ease, even making small talk with Dr. Wilson. I was a bit more formal as we began to talk about various issues, including the upcoming student government elections.
Wilson remarked how pleased he was with the newspaper because we had begun to publish regularly, had started a campus radio station with the primary help of my twin brother Dave, an assistant editor, and moved towards improving the paper’s editorial integrity.
I questioned Wilson about his impressive management style with respect to ability to get massive funding from the state capital, Harrisburg, for a variety of capital-improvement projects – including a new administration building, social sciences center and campus hospital. He explained, in a slew of what Wayne believed to be big words designed to throw us off track, that his job was very complicated, but rewarding. Dr. Wilson elucidated that he had to balance the needs of the students, faculty and admi nistrative staff with playing politics in Harrisburg. Wilson, an industrial arts expert and long-time professor at Cheyney, explained that his most important attribute in achieving his goals was “strategizing,” as he pointed to a set-up chessboard and its pieces on a table in front of his desk.
Taking copious notes, Wayne asked him exactly what did he mean by “strategizing.” And that’s when Dr. Wilson explained the meaning, but added, “Young man if you want to know the meaning of words, you should make sure that you carry a dictionary.”
That’s when Wayne retorted, “But Dr. Wilson, I do carry a dictionary,” and promptly produced one from his suede jacket. I did everything I could not to laugh.
“Then, Mr. Johnson, I’d make sure to use it,” the president said, obviously a man used to having the last word.
I think it was in Cheyney’s Marcus Foster Student Union Building when I ventured to a dance party one Friday or Saturday night and stood in the midst of a gyrating, sweating crowd jamming to some Funkadelics’ composition of a heavy baseline with a tremendously funky beat. Wayne was in the midst, with a large group of mostly giggling sisters encircling him, as he worked the crowd, gliding on the floor, twisting his skinny hips and stepping high and low with his long lanky legs. His show was no less reminisc ent of James Brown or Jackie Wilson working an audience into a soulful frenzy. Plain and simple, Wayne was the ultimate dancer, a skill he developed as a leader of a North Philly rhythm-and-blues band when he played the bass and another instrument or two while attending Gratz High School, not far from the place where he’d eventually die.
Yet, dancing and playing instruments was not the only gift he had when it came to manipulating a crowd. Wayne was a tremendous public speaker. I remember the time when he filled in for me during an all-college meeting concerning such issues as proposed state budget cuts at state universities like Cheyney and the need for a student-run radio station.
Wayne started off slow and easy, but within a couple of minutes, had the audience shouting and clapping, as he walked back and forth like a Baptist country minister, raising his voice to crescendo highs and spellbinding lows. Within 10 minutes he had the crowd on its feet as they clapped and roared with delight. His oratory power was almost frightening.
And so were his local political ties. For instance, he had befriended a legendary Philadelphia councilman, Lucien Blackwell, during his late-teenaged years as a part-time longshoreman on the Philadelphia waterfront. Blackwell, in fact, was the leader of Wayne’s union – a union that his father had belonged to for many years. It was odd listening to Wayne talk to Blackwell on the phone, promising that he’d visit his home the next day or so to fix a pipe leak or broken door. “Lou, if I told you I’m gonna be there, I will,” he’d say to a man that was often the center of a story on the nightly news for fervently defending the poor and downtrodden. Blackwell, in fact, seemed almost like a second father to Wayne, whose real dad had broken up with Wayne’s mom – a nurse by profession who had remarried and at one point maintained a very close relationship with my buddy. In fact, during college, Wayne would brag that she his mom was very instrumental in helping him to get a Corvette and a set of the fanciest 1970s ’-era clothes I had ever seen, including leather pants, high boots, fur coats and the like. The brother even had a shaggy dog who would often ride shotgun with him in the summer, that’s when he didn’t have some extremely shapely sister next to him on their way to his dorm room. Sometimes I wonder if he had been given too much, too early, and became spoiled or shielded to the world’s realities. Other times, I thought that he used such excesses to run from or shield some kind of guilt, perhaps related to his parents’ break up or the couple of children that he had sired out of wedlock.
Meanwhile, as I said, Wayne could hang out with some very interesting characters. For instance, there was Wayne’s extremely close link to a very powerful and rich black doctor who had spent some time in prison for alleged fraud. Wayne had often done handyman work for the doc at his huge Mount Airy mansion. And sometimes, Wayne would drive the doctor to his fox farm – no kidding! – just outside the city limits and do various odd jobs out there. Wayne even showed me a few prison letters from the physicia n, renowned as a real booty kicker back in the day. It was no wonder that Wayne-ski could get along with an old tough doctor with grit as strong as some kind of miracle glue. Wayne was tough as hell too.
He loved to tell the story of how the state police caught him speeding down one of the highways near Cheyney and how he out sped them quite niftily. Yet, several days later, he received a visit from the campus police who warned him that when he was nailed, they would make sure his expulsion from campus would be swift and immediate.
As Wayne’s writing dramatically improved, he took over the school newspaper, virtually routing an editor that I had appointed shortly before graduating from Cheyney in 1977. Some reports indicate that he intimidated her – a shy-acting chick with superb writing skills – but no match for Wayne’s political acumen and hellacious attitude. I received reports that many people were threatened with retaliation in the paper. I counseled Wayne and eventually convinced him to resign.
Still, his attitude only seemed to get worse after he broke up with his college sweetheart, Wanda. He even began to drink more and left Cheyney with only a few credits to complete.
He tried to reconcile his differences with her, even moving up to her Connecticut town and grooming a relationship with Wanda’s parents that only soured over time. Wayne was one persistent guy. Yet, she would not take his hand in marriage. He seemed totally devastated. And returned to Philadelphia after several years, making a primary friend the bottle.
Right after our Cheyney years during the late 1970s, Wayne and I would sometimes end up walking the paths along the Wissahickon River, where Edgar Allan Poe once traversed the banks. Wayne had always been a great admirer of Poe. He loved the bizarre plots of horror and irony, as well as enjoyed quoting Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens and even Hemmingway.
After moving away to Florida and writing for several publications, including the Miami News and Fort Lauderdale News, I returned to Philadelphia and reestablished contact with Wayne who had increased his handyman work and even wrote periodically for a city weekly.
He had begun to get some notoriety as a writer focusing on social issues as he still relied more and more on the bottle, I suspect due to his sometimes acrimonious relationship with relatives and depression over a younger brother arrested for a violent bank robbery. Further, one of his close sisters died suddenly of cancer, leaving two daughters and a husband. He also had a couple of run-ins with the mother of one of his children. And, I believe he was heart-broken still over the departure and ultimate marr iage of Wanda to someone else.
It didn’t take long for Wayne’s place to really start deteriorating. He accumulated so much junk that I felt it was dangerous to enter his abode, especially with the kerosene heater and the constant chain smoking of my pal. I tried unsuccessfully many times to help him clean the place or get some kind of service to clear things out as he began to dramatically loose weight.
For a while he did seem to try and rise from his dilemma by attending church with a fellow trades’ man, but a violent altercation of some kind happened over money. Wayne found himself in the hospital after allegedly being jumped in front of his own house. Physically, he never seemed to recover from that beating, and surprisingly refused to prosecute.
Sometimes I’d pick Wayne up and we’d take a trek to the Italian Market on Ninth Street in South Philly where – when he was running short on change – I’d buy him a few bags of groceries, not that I had a lot of money as a news reporter and then editor who sometimes worked office jobs to make ends meet.
As I gained weight, bought the duplex that I had been living in, remarried and progressed in the media, as well as landed a college-teaching job after attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1989 to 1990, Wayne’s health got worse. Sometimes Wayne would call me fat. I’d call him skinny. But, I became very concerned about the dude.
During our time together, Wayne would begin to complain increasingly about the neighborhood and even an older male friend trying to bring crack-addicted women into his place for sexual favors. And as Wayne began to loose his eyesight due to the neuropathy likely caused by the liquor, he convinced a neighborhood guy that he called “Peanut,” to help him with cleaning and running errands. It wasn’t long before Wayne accused Peanut – under some kind of legal and illegal pharmaceuticals residing at a nearby group home – of stealing from him.
Several weeks later, Peanut was dead of an overdose, Wayne said, in a mocking tone indicating that the guy got his just deserts.
I tried to convince Wayne to move into clean housing since he was obviously eligible for economic and healthcare aid, as well as other social programs. He assured me that the situation was under control and that he was working with a social worker and doctor regarding such issues as I still gave him money from time to time. His stepfather and mother, he told me, would also bring down food and clothes. Yet, Wayne continued to become emaciated and began to have seizures, he told me. He also became legall y blind and carried a cane and walked in special shoes due to his neuropathy. He looked like an 80-year-old man instead of someone in his late 40s at the prime of his life.
Then his behavior became very bizarre with me. He’d call my home and even job repeatedly, urging me to collaborate with him on some cartoon-writing project for a television movie. He seemed incoherent. I convinced him to give me the name of his social worker and briefly tried contacting her, to no avail. Then one day, when I visited him, Wayne asked me to give him a ride to a local gas station to get kerosene for his heater. I complied, but told him that it would be the last time, in hope of convincing Wayne to move to a safer environment. I even kept away from him for a while and called the city at least twice to get someone from licenses and inspections to his home. After a couple of initial inquiries, and not gaining access to Wayne’s place, he perhaps convinced them that it was a false alarm. My tactics did not work.
After spending some time away from Wayne, perhaps several months, I ventured back to him during a late summer about three years ago. He looked as bad as I’d ever seen him, walking with a cane with a face so gaunt that he could have played a starring role as some creature in a Rod Sterling flick, a writer that Wayne adored. He teased me because I had picked up some pounds, giggling that I had grown to look like Al Roker when he was fat. I told him that he looked like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. W e ended up in my car because by then I could not take it in Wayne’s dilapidated place that seemed extremely dangerous with rotting floors and a leaking roof. I had avoided taking him to my new Melrose Park home, partially out of guilt and not wanting to cause bad feelings. I also feared that in his state of mind, he might become a total nuisance.
But, I finally convinced myself that he’d feel good about the pad and my movement from a duplex apartment on a crowded avenue to suburbia. Plus I hoped to be a motivating force for him. Perhaps I could still inspire Wayne into moving to a better environment, I thought. In retrospect, perhaps I also felt that it might not be long before something happened to Wayne, a dude that I had practically loved as a brother. The day was cloudy and threatening to rain by the time we reached my street, a pleas ant cul-de-sac with about five colonial and split-level-type abodes on it. I pulled into my huge driveway as Wayne stretched his eyes. I could tell he was very pleased after I showed him around the four-bedroom pad and we settled into my yard on chairs and sipped wine. “Don, I’m proud of you. You got your piece of the rock,” Wayne said, grinning wildly. He lit a cigarette and I fired up the grill to cook fish and vegetables.
No sooner had the gas fire ignited, then the rain fell. We pulled our chairs under the metal awning in the yard near the back patio door and pulled down the tops to the twin gas grills. We were two friends lost in conversation and clinging on to the glory days as the aroma of the grub hit our nostrils. There was a peculiar joy, but also sadness as the raindrops began to tap loudly on the awning. I couldn’t help but think of days when Wayne seemed much happier and healthy, with him often recitin g how life sometimes made him feel like “a cat on a hot tin roof,” but he looked forward to winning life’s battles. That day, though, he seemed to be so weary. I was afraid that he had no more fight in him for battling. I couldn’t help but wonder if the heat on the roof’s tin was growing too hot for Wayne’s sore paws. Yet, we persevered that day, just as our friendship had over the years, and still had fun and good conversation under the adverse conditions. A couple of hours later I drove Wayne home. As I pulled off, from his Nicetown home, the sadness became almost overwhelming under the dark gray heavens.
After months of keeping away, I decided to visit Wayne. But, as I pulled in front of his home, I noticed a top window was boarded up and black soot around it. I became alarmed after spotting a padlock on the door. I knocked and yelled Wayne’s name, but there was no answer. As I returned to and sat back in my car, I saw a neighbor come out of the next store home and asked him about Wayne’s whereabouts. And that’s when he told me Wayne had died in a fire. I was numb.
A day or two later I called his mother. She seemed to blame me, at least partially, for Wayne’s fate. Why weren’t such so-called friends more aggressive in helping him, she asked, pointing to her own deteriorating health and inability to substantially help. I tried to explain that I had helped as much as possible, but her tone was still accusatory. To say the least, we didn’t talk long. But, she did tell me that apparently a fire had erupted from some kind of faulty wiring. The autopsy indicated that W ayne had died fighting because his arms were burned almost completely off, indicating that he did not want to give in to the fire’s fury. I hung up feeling incredibly guilty, although realizing that Wayne was the ultimate fighter to the end.
Should I have been more aggressive in making sure that Wayne was removed from his home? Should I have worked with his family more to assure that he was moved to a safe place? Or, to what degree must you allow a person’s privacy, despite their situation? In this case, I wish that I had moved more aggressively.
Yet, I know that Wayne furiously guarded his privacy and could be elusive. I remember several years before his death he’d have brief relationships with a woman or two, but never allowed them to stick around long in his abode. And the chick was surely a gonner if she brought up the issue of marriage or living together.
Yet, he sometimes would let a stray dog stay with him. Although, he did not always treat the critter well, like the time Wayne said he had been in a deep sleep and began dreaming about making love to one of his women. After making love, in the dream, Wayne said she slept beside him with an arm resting across his neck, as they snuggled tighter together. But, Wayne heard a strange noise and opened his eyes. To his alarm, he stared into the eyeballs of his dog who had crept into the bed with Wayne in the drafty room some time during the night. Yet, the poor thing had broken one of Wayne’s cardinal rules: no pets in the bed. Wayne said he quietly reached down to the floor, picked up his stick, and jumped up, beating the canine’s behind with surprising fervor.
It wasn’t long before Wayne made cats his primary choice for companionship, often giving away litters to neighbors, and fortunate friends such as myself. Today, one of the only tangible reminders that I have of my old friend is my cat Safari that he passed on to me about seven years ago, as we sat in his abode and drank cheap booze. The cat, for sure, has Wayne’s mischievous nature and the vigor, as well as supreme curiosity he once exhibited as a student at Cheyney. There’s not a day that goes by whe n looking at the cat do something funny, such as running full speed around my house, curling around my feet and playing with my shoes or even boxing me between the banister spokes as I march up the stairs – that I’m not reminded of Wayne’s playful nature and wit. The cat’s intelligence and teasing even seem to be uncannily related to Wayne’s elusiveness, like when he comes to me when I call his name, and then moves quickly away as I try to grab him.
For instance, I’ll never forget the time when my son and I looked furiously for the cat one afternoon in our apartment and even took to the streets, riding around the neighborhood calling its name. After giving up, I drove home and looked up at the top window, only to see the damned cat staring down at me, seemingly with a vicious chuckle mindful of Wayne’s laughter after pulling my leg about something.
Most of all, I think of Wayne when Safari sits on top of my computer and stares me straight in the mug as I write my newspaper columns and work on other various writing projects. It was Wayne who always admonished me when I slowed down in my writing. It’s sometimes a bit eerie to realize that Wayne could be still telling me to do so through the calm green eyes of Safari purring on top of my whirring machine.
Still, there are times when I feel the tremendous guilt return. It was especially bad before I had a dream because I had worried that Wayne was in some kind of discomfort after he had expired. I hoped that he was in a place where he was at peace and able to satisfy his insatiable curiosity. I hoped that he might be able to meet some of the very people he loved to read, including Poe and the other classical greats. But, I wasn’t at all sure. Sometimes I agonized about my old buddy.
Then, one night, in late May or early June, in 2003, I fell into a deep sleep after Billie, my sweet, sweet wife, came home from a business trip and dreamed about Wayne. It was a brilliant day, in the dream, when I found myself driving down a local road that I believe to be Tookany Drive in Cheltenham, not far from my home. The road is right next to a meandering creek that bears the same name with beautiful trees and a park running down its sides, punctuated with an array of split levels and even moder n colonials with hefty plots of land.
The day was sunny, and my twin brother Dave and I were carrying on some kind of conversation in the dream when my cell phone rang as I drove. Up to that point, my guilt about Wayne’s death had continued to be quite troublesome. So, when I heard Wayne’s voice say, “Hey, Don-ski, it’s me Wayne,” I was flabbergasted, but at the same time overjoyed.
I turned to my brother, Dave, and said, “It’s Wayne!”
“I thought you were dead,” I told Wayne. “You died in a fire. You burned.”
“I’m OK,” Wayne said. “I’m down the street – a couple of doors down.”
I didn’t completely understand that statement, at first. But, as we talked, he calmed me and convinced me that he was not in pain, and that he was indeed OK, after his death.
And the more I think about it, Wayne was telling me in that dream that he was some place nearby, checking things out and keeping an eye on the likes of me.
In the dream, my buddy chose to contact me to tell me not to feel so guilty, but to carry on, and to tell his story – the story of a friend who was only able to expose a bit of his own magnificent and true genius while trying to overcome some monumental obstacles. And although Wayne never used drugs as far as I knew, many of his struggles for survival near the end of his life were the same as Crack Girl and Peanut, including from time to time accepting food from a nearby church. With both of us c oming from middleclass black families, how could I end up so fortunate and my friend Wayne so unfortunate? The short answer is it takes extraordinary effort to keep your head above water as a black person in America, no matter if you come from a relatively well-off family.
In the end, I wonder sometimes if Wayne’s departure was somewhat intentional. Did he have too much of the joy and then pain of this world? Did he have enough of his hunt, or, shall I say personal safari on earth? Had his curiosity for the wonders of the hereafter overtaken him? Is that why he tried so much to escape our planet through wine and alcoholic spirits? Near the end of our earthly relationship, he would say to me, that he did not expect to live long. Something seemed to be eating him aliv e. Was Wayne’s gift of my feline Safari more than a half-decade ago an indication that my visionary friend realized that he was at the beginning of his end, but that his essence would survive beyond the hunt? Was he in his own way urging me to continue the intrigue of my life’s safari or hunt? The warm and joyous emerald eyes of my cat Safari tell me that this was probably so.