Jon Simonds 

Old Friends-Bookends

Growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn during the turbulent 60s was an education. It was an experience classrooms of Ivy League schools could never hope to achieve. Ours was a neighborhood encompassing everything America could be: a melting pot of blue-collar dads chasing the American dream up and down every street; in and out of every alley in the city. It was as if a man could actually snatch the illusion right out of mid-air and hold it in trembling hands. Could you even do that? Would you ever do that when after all is said and done, it's the thrill of the chase that really matters.

Those caught up in the chase were men with names like Schetzen, Berger and Nemkowitz. There were tough guys like Emil Baliestrieri and Spanish dudes like Rodriguez and Gonzalez and Mr. Thompson, Brown and Choi. They did things like drive oil trucks, limos and yellow cabs. They ran restaurants, tax services and worked in schools. On summer nights they sat together in front of apartment buildings with wives talking, and watching the lot of us lost in games of punch-ball, touch football or plain old tag. These were the games of my old neighborhood, played until the sun settled into the darkening sky and the day melted into memories. Most of those memories were bright. Some were dark.

There was the time when the limo driver stepped out of his four-wheel office and into the path of a speeding car. The car struck the driver like Willie Mays attacking a fastball launched deep into the Shea Stadium night. The baseball was, "Outta here!" The limo driver was not but there were months of recovery to follow.

It was the first time I ever heard the term, "Safety Net." It had something to do with short-term disability designed to keep a soul afloat because there's nothing rapid about quicksand, and sudden riptides are a horrible way to go, but more importantly; more meaningful than any government assistance was the neighborhood. The moms who bought extra food for the family in need and shared in a temporary adoption of 2 kids because their mom spent days glued to a chair beside the hospital bed of a man who never really knew what hit him. Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. None of that mattered. We were neighbors. We stood united in our desire to overcome life's hardships in the same way we shared in life's joys.

Johnny Thompson was one of life's joys. Of all the kids in the neighborhood, none could touch the inspiration of little Johnny Thompson. Johnny had a smile so full of warmth we'd put ice-cubes in front of his face just to watch them melt, but Johnny was different than the rest of us. While he grew up with all of us he didn't grow. I remember the summer he went in for a surgery and came home in a body cast from the waist down in a failed effort to convince his body to catch up to the rest of us. We visited him regularly that summer. He suffered from a condition known as dwarfism, but it wasn't his only handicap. Johnny was black. Though we didn't know it then, being black was another handicap in America, though neither proved hardship enough to keep Johnny down.

His dream was to become a doctor and cure cancer. It was a good dream. All of us grew up with childhood dreams. Most of those dreams went unfulfilled. I could never master the guitar. Jeff was a two-pitch pitcher. Jay never made it to the Olympics and Johnny never got all the way through medical school. Instead, he settled into the back of an ambulance as an EMT in a city that never slept. He chose a life of racing up apartment stairwells and through the open doors of heart attack victims surrounded by loved ones in hysterics. He ran into alleys for gunshot victims crying and begging for him not to let them die. He dealt with drunks, overdoses and accident victims like the limo driver of our childhood, and speaking of childhood he brought his share of children into the world. I often wonder how many lives he lost? How many more did he save? Did he see the differences in people, or did he just see people the way we looked upon one another in the old neighborhood? Where we stood united.

I wonder what kind of neighborhood fellow EMT Breonna Taylor grew up in? I wonder how many lives she saved during her short tenure in the back of an ambulance, ended by a salvo of bullets served with a no-knock warrant in the middle of a Michigan night.

We are fulfilling the dreams of men like Osama Bin Laden. They can sit back and laugh with pleasure at a nation drowning in ignorance. They can gaze from far off lands at cable news stations, raising glasses of wine in unison with the smoke and flame reaching the skies of a country embracing the flood of bull spit residents of neighborhoods all across America are drowning in.

Johnny isn't with us anymore. Some days he would drag us to Brighton Beach because he loved to swim. We were afraid he'd drown, but there was no wave too big for Johnny, who stood above us all in spite of his stunted growth and blackness. Whose dreams and abilities inspired us and whose life reminds us of how united we stood, because divided?

Well. You know how that goes.

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Jon's previous stories:

Dear Mr. President
Are You an American?