My friend and neighbor, Abdullah passed away last week. The email bearing the sad news said he had been in the hospital for a couple weeks before succumbing to leukemia. He died a lot like he lived, with a lot of dignity.
He was the first person I met on Hancock Street, and literally the last person I shook hands with when I moved. I remember looking down from that 26-foot moving truck and waving to him, as he sat in his doorway on the milk crate, where he spent most days. Since the news of his death I’ve learned about a man I thought I knew, but apparently not as well as I thought. Who was the real man behind those kind eyes, the portly figure and winning smile?
For starters, he was a close intimate with Malcolm X, the final year before his assassination. For crying out loud! Are you talking THE Malcolm X? When I read that, I was dumbfounded. The obituary said along with many of his accomplishments, that he was the last person living to know Malcolm intimately. The more I read, the harder it was to believe. My neighbor, the guy who I spent most time with on Hancock Street, was by association a famous person. I should have known. By any standard he was a great man, intellectually, a sermon whisperer, a person who never missed a chance to put seeds into the mind of anyone who would listen. More than once, I’d leave him shaking my head with a smile over subjects he had brought to my attention.
Young black men would come and sit for hours at his feet. I thought he was dispensing the same pearls of wisdom he threw at me every time we talked. Something tells me the hushed conversations were more about convictions, and history than stuff like the final brown stone query closing, or current affairs. A wise sage, steeped in history giving the current generation nuggets of counsel, wisps of revolution and whispers of knowledge. I remember watching that unfold one day, a young man staring like a statue into the eyes of Abdullah, as he gestured and spoke on. I thought then, and still believe it’s a perfect picture of what this generation needs; solid men giving back to a younger generation.
Abdullah always greeted me with flowery salutations like, “greetings your excellency,” and would bow in mocked homage, which never failed to lift my head, my spirits, and bring a smile. He had a sense of humor, a fantastic one! One day I was on the stoop watering my dying flowers. In a sudden impulse, I said, “My good book says that ‘those who water, will themselves be watered.’ He shot me a whimsical smile, and then recited a longer section of his book, a pointed blurb of inspiration. We might have crossed swords, but instead, deep respect aligned our hearts. On this occasion, as in many others, we doubled over laughing. When it came to our respective Good Books, we knew them all too well, and were not compromising an inch. Didn’t have to, and I respected him for that.
The night before Ginnette and I moved out of Brooklyn, the block threw a going away party. Abdullah slowly made his way there, and sat down heavy on one of the few iron seats. He was smiling and just looking at me the whole time. One woman sang, a couple of others said nice things about how they would miss us. Then Abdullah recited a lengthy scene out of one of Shakespeare’s plays, which spoke of a journey, missing love but, ‘what has been shared will never end.’ It was a fitting eulogy to our friendship. Abdullah taught me how to live next door to someone whose ideals were worlds apart, but whose love built a bridge to one another, so that our respective wisdom and convictions could rest side by side without severing a friendship. A rare wonderful gift.
I’ll never forget the day we moved into Brooklyn, he sat on that milk crate and watched 20 young football players carry our boxes, bags and few items of furniture into a much too small apartment. When the bookshelf wouldn’t fit, we put it out for the garbage man. He asked in his humble and unpretentious way if he could have it. “Of course, yes please take it.” I thought he was doing me a favor. But that night he climbed our stairs and rang the doorbell. Who could that be, I thought. No one knows we’re here! It was Abdullah holding a white envelope. “This is for the shelf,” he said matter-of-factly. I refused, but lost the battle of wills. I thought to myself, God, thank you for planting us next door to a man of principle. Little did I know he was so much more. Where does greatness come from except from the character that does the right thing repeatedly under no man’s guise?
Abdullah, you ever did the right thing.