July 6, 2020
Back in spring and summer of 1989, the flight of families from my neighborhood in Yonkers, NY was jarring. In that one year alone, a huge chunk of my friends moved away. Virginia. South Carolina. Florida. One friend’s family moved to Montana. People wanted out of the “City of Hills” as they yearned for lower taxes and better schools. Retirees fled in droves, hoping the Villages in Florida provided more comforting surroundings and golf courses.
Included in this bunch of fleeing families was a family who lived on the other side of William Street. They had four kids, a boy my age, Hank Jr., and three younger siblings. I didn’t play much with him because he was always off doing some kind of extracurricular activity that was supposed to up his chances of getting into Harvard or some other fancy college. He rode horses in Bedford. I played baseball in Yonkers. He always studied. Me, not so much. He watched golf on TV with his dad. I watched “Battlestar Galactica” with mine. When I was accepted to St. John’s University in Queens, Hank Jr. laughed because St. John’s was known as a working man’s college. As Yale came calling for Jr., I didn’t care.
Then one day the moving van arrived at the front of their house. They packed up and moved to Virginia. Our dads talked every now and then on the phone. And then as time went on, they didn’t. It wasn’t that my father disliked the guy - we all just went our separate ways. Honestly, I didn’t miss them. By the fall of 1989, I was going to college and started caring about real life. Neighbors who moved out of the old neighborhood weren’t high on my priorities list.
Thirty-one years later, I don’t think I thought of this family many times, if at all. That is until Sunday night at 9. Sitting in the bedroom trying to unwind from my week, my phone rang. The unknown number was from Melbourne, Florida. I stared at the number for a bit and then slid the ringer to answer the call. The voice on the other side wasn’t familiar. He called my name and told me who it was - Hank Sr. It took a moment to link the name to the memory.
Hank Sr. told me that he and his wife are now retired in Melbourne. They find it relaxing walking on the beach every morning at sunrise. That’s nice. I told him that I was a pastor in New Jersey. He said my mother would be proud.
His kids are doing good. One of his daughters is a marine biologist living in the Caribbean. His eldest daughter is a mom living in Pennsylvania with her family. She was a school teacher, just like her mom, but set aside her profession to be a fulltime mother. His youngest son owns a supermarket in Dade County. As he told me stories about his kids, there was one he didn’t mention - Hank Jr.
As we chatted and told stories, I built up the courage to ask about Hank Jr. The phone call went silent.
“Well, I should have kept in touch,” Sr. said. “But my son died eleven years ago. Committed suicide.” Stunned, I listened to the story about Hank Jr. In college, he took up partying. Alcohol led to drugs which led to him failing classes and eventually caused his expulsion. “If there was a degree in partying, my son was summa cum laude.”
After being kicked out of Yale, he ended up moving back home for a bit and tried to clean himself up. It didn’t work. He moved back to New York to live with friends. Eventually, his drug problem let him to rehabilitation. It failed. Time and again he promised his dad that he’d clean up. Jr. lived on the streets of New York City and in homeless shelters. For a while, he had sex with men for money.
Money that bought his next high.
One night in 2005, he showed up at his parent’s house asking for help. Of course, his parents let him in. Sr. said his son slept for days after arriving. What startled his dad was looking at his son’s arms, filled with needle marks. Jr. said he wanted to turn his life around. All he needed was a helping hand. And his parents gave it to him.
Jr. cleaned himself up. He attended meetings daily and found a job. He started eating nothing but fruits and vegetables and drinking water and tea. Sr. said after a few months of eating well and exercising, Hank really looked good. After about a year, he saved up enough money to move out into an apartment. Life was going in a good direction for him. A few years later, Hank Jr. was still clean. Added to his work responsibilities was a volunteering stint at a local drug counseling center. Then came that day when he was invited to the wedding of a coworker. At the wedding, he stupidly had a drink. A few hours later when he left the wedding, he stopped to buy a bottle of liquor.
The next morning, Jr. hanged himself in his apartment.
He didn’t leave a note. But the half-empty bottle of booze told the story. The evils of drinking had got to him and Hank Jr. wanted nothing to do with it anymore. So he killed himself.
Sr. let out a sigh.
I apologized for not keeping in touch. But Sr. said that wasn’t necessary.
I started wondering why he reached out in the first place, first to my dad’s house where he spoke to my brother and asked for my phone number, then to me, a call that lasted over an hour.
“A few years ago, my daughter digitized all of our photos. I flipped through the digital album and came across a picture of the graffiti-covered water tower at the top of the hill from the old neighborhood.”
He was just wondering how my dad was doing.