His neatly knotted tie looked out-of-place over his soiled and torn shirt as he spoke to the rag-tag, tie-wearing participants who had done their best to look presentable. The disheveled speaker was conveying a story at a memorial for Hank, a homeless man known for wearing a necktie.
A colorful wreath with a picture of the deceased was at the head of the picnic table where Hank was a regular. Donated food graced the table and shadows danced on the newly mowed lawn in the warm Ocean Beach sun. In the distance, children played in the sand, oblivious to the solemn occasion. Several police officers kept a watchful eye on the group, suspicious of the weary band of ne’er-do wells that had congregated in one corner of the park.
I didn’t know Hank as well as the other homeless people who frequented the area. He stayed mostly in the park alongside of the beach, sitting at the same picnic table nearly every day. Hankster the Prankster, as some called him, was always ready with a kind word, practical joke or food if you were hungry.
As I stood in the midst of society’s castoffs at this simple farewell, my mind did one of those theatrical morphing things and traveled back in time. My mental curtain rose on the scene of a more elaborate funeral that took place during a bitter cold New Jersey winter. My mother had died, and I left Ocean Beach to fly to the East Coast to say my last good-bye.
Unlike Hank’s memorial, my father had spared no cost in giving my mother an extravagant sendoff amidst family and friends – the thought of whom caused me to have a panic attack somewhere over Iowa during the flight.
My mother’s side of the family hails from Abruzzi, Italy and my father’s from Calabria. My mother’s family enjoys the opera, fine dining and exquisite wardrobes. “Colorful” describes my father’s kin. My mother’s family initially refused to speak to her after she married the Calabrese. Now they were all forced to sit together in a stuffy, dimly lit room.
“You know the funeral cost 12 large,” my brother whispered in my ear as he stood beside me at the open casket. Twelve thousand dollars seemed excessive considering the result was a body being buried in the ground, but I wasn’t about to comment.
One of my aunts inched her way to the casket and was straining to look up at me. She decided this was the most proper time to voice her dissatisfaction with her fifty-something-year marriage to one of my uncles.
“I’m glad your Uncle is dead. He was a louse.”
We stood stone-faced at the announcement, letting the words evaporate.
“And your father is a loner,” she added, pointing her crooked finger in my face, and then in my father’s direction as she wobbled away.
The sound of everyone applauding the latest orator caused my mind to snap back to the present ceremony. The backdrop of the Pacific Ocean had a cleansing effect. I rubbed my eyes and breathed in the salty air as I looked to the heavens. A Rastafarian drummer softly tapped out a rhythm that synchronized with my heartbeat; and I wondered if Hank could see us. I wondered if he was with my mother, who was probably redesigning his attire and stuffing him with her famous pound cake.
A new speaker began reminiscing about the time he spent in jail with Hank. This time the eulogy turned into a duet as a member of the audience decided to simultaneously join the commentary and give his own loud account of life on the streets. It was almost like one of those blues songs where the audience provides backup by testifying; only instead of waiting for the proper lull, the backup was fiercely competing with the lead.
Hunger made the participants fidgety and frustrated. The bounty, laid out on the table, gave off a fragrant aroma under the warmth of the sun making the problem worse.
My mind drifted back to my mother’s viewing, where, over the years, American culture rendered this once dramatic event mute. There were no loud performances that I remembered as a child. No one was screaming in Italian, starting a fight or crawling into the casket. Only one person spoke in a shrill voice as she used her walker to race around the funeral parlor showing off pictures of her grandchildren.
“Please just take one item,” was the request made as the last speaker finished at Hank’s soiree. “This is not a feed.”
At that point, I was cursing myself for not bringing more food. Earlier I stopped at the seaside restaurant, Newbreak, and bought all their breads and pastries for my contribution to the refreshments. It wasn’t nearly enough and my heart broke to watch so many starving people limited to one piece of food each. But they complied, and were thankful for whatever they were given.
Back in the New Jersey memory, I recalled everyone convening at a restaurant named The Jersey Diner following my mother’s burial. Limousines that my father hired filled the parking lot, making it look like a meeting of the Mafia’s five families. There was so much to eat that everyone went home with shopping bags of food filled to the brim.
Hank loved to eat. His ample body was a testament to that as well as his lack of a proper diet. Hank had diabetes, and his poor diet, along with the lack of medical care, hastened his death at a relatively early age.
Diabetes also killed my mother, and although she too failed to heed the warnings about her diet, she lived until the age of 83.
I find it completely natural to circulate among the fringe element of society and look completely out-of-place. With them, but not of them, my civilian status has long been forgotten as I listen to their stories, accept them as they are and help when I can.
Not so with my relatives. I was never able to be like them. I don’t care if I have a big fancy house or drive an expensive car. I don’t know how to cook. I know I don’t want a twelve-thousand-dollar funeral. And I can only take so much of the opera.
I think when I go – I’ll go like Hank – surrounded by seagulls, surfers and sidekicks – but with a cool rendition of Herby Hancock’s Maiden Voyage playing on somebody’s sweet saxophone.
And I’ll make sure there’s plenty of food.