My mind has been fairly unfocused when it comes to writing this week. Nothing specific. No traumas to speak of. In fact, mostly in the zone. Work outs going well, things at home in a stable place, nice talks with my daughter. Still, there is something unsettling and a word that keeps circling around in my thinking … courage.
As a kid growing up on East 12th Street in the early 1960s, courage seemed to be equated by its assumed opposite: cowardice.
As young as seven, kids called me out for this or that thing. I was, however, the child of young, idealistic, radical pacifists suddenly thrown into the maelstrom of a working class block — in the low rent mini-Little Italy area of what became known as the East Village.
On the First Avenue end, there was an Italian Men’s social club, wink, wink, where men sat outside rain or shine playing dominos under the stripped awning, or so it seemed to me. That end of the block and its six-story tenements was mostly Italian, with kids that looked like shrunken versions of their parents: girls with teased hair, pencil skirts, sweater-sets, and boys with gold saints’ medallions showing through their open-collared shirts. These boys never seemed to wear dungarees or sneakers — the uniform even then of play time on the block. This was the north side of 12th Street between First and Second, with a giant nine-story social services building dominating the middle, where kids taken from their parents were processed. The looming building that seemed to instill fear in every one was the demarkation point between the Italian kids on one end and the mostly Puerto Rican kids, plus my brother and me, living in the tenement buildings trailing towards Second Avenue.
In attempting to tease it all some more, I realized that in the background, I have been tied up in the sense of grief and loss I felt at the death of actor Michael K. Williams. And more to the point, the release of the New York City Medical Examiner’s report a few weeks ago noting that he’d died of acute drug intoxication from a mixture of entanyl, p-fluorofentanyl, heroin and cocaine.
At first glance one could ask why I would be so affected. After all, our lives never intersected and yet, in his words, and actions, and struggles, they did. Always. From the first time I watched him perform as Omar Little on screen on The Wire.
Now what would the character of stone cold killer like Omar have to do with me? I mean it’s no secret. I am a 67 year old Jewish woman from New York City. I reek of privilege, right? I can go anywhere. But … and it’s a big one, I’ve spent a good part of my life passing. Not acknowledging that I’m a street kid too. A shorty. And a lonely one who fended for herself. Who had her own code. But who later in life used language and appearance to cover a multiple of early traumas.
As I think of it, that pesky 12th Street “c” word comes through too, but not the one about courage. No. The one about cowardice. And that’s where Mike from East Flatbush comes into the picture. Because he never passed. He always wore his scar with pride. With a truth to power, the power of those who hurt him over the years in his rear mirror, until the moments came when the dark meanies came back and they went up his nose or into his veins. But still with his chin out the next day. Figuring out how to live his best life. Showing us clearly and explicitly that this was who he was including his frailties.
Seeing Omar was seeing what I wanted to be as a kid. A fire fighter for justice. In my games with my pal Mara when we were nine, it was all about fighting nazis. We’d crawl through the culvert that connected my building with the one next door and in our minds, crossed behind the German lines to infiltrate and free prisoners from concentration camps. Many years later it occurred to me that coming through the culvert was also about finding my own authentic self. About owning all the parts–the good ones and the bad ones and pushing those truths forward no matter the consequences.
As I think of it now, it occurs to me that it’s one thing to be a spy in the shadows and quite another to push through with guns blazing. And that’s the intersection. That was Michael K. Williams to me. A purveyor of truth and authenticity in a world hell bent on crushing him. I’m sorry I never met him or had the chance to tell him that his story and the way he lived his life as Mike from East Flatbush touched me deeply, but he’d have understood.
May his memory be a blessing.
Spotify playlist: Trouble Man, For Mike from East Flatbush