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The phone call came early in the morning on the last day of February. The voice sounded raw, emotionally spent. “Hello, Jeffrey? Jeffrey, this is Charlene. Charlene R–*.” My mind drew a blank. “Robert’s sister.” It still took another few seconds for the names to click. Robert R. My old pal from Indianapolis. I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. I hadn’t seen Charlene in more than 30 years.
“It’s terrible, Jeffrey. Robert’s dead. They found him on the street in East St. Louis. They say he’d been laying there for a few days. They say Robert may have starved to death.”
Robert R. and I met in 1973 in Chillicothe, Ohio at a baseball academy run by former Cincinnati Reds slugger Ted Kluszewski. Robert was the only black teen in a cohort of about 50 promising young baseball players from across the Midwest. He was there on a stipend provided by the Indianapolis Indians, the Reds’ AAA affiliate.
Robert and I were both from Indianapolis. I grew up in the bone-white suburbs on the southside and Robert and his four sisters grew up with their grandmother on the inner eastside. Robert was known to his friends as Zipp, for his speed. But he was more than fast. His long strides were sleek and elegant.
After spending two weeks together in Ohio, Robert and I grew much closer. We played against each other in high school and with each other in summer leagues. We stayed at each others homes, went to concerts together, got high together, shot hoops in the alley behind his apartment until we were chased off by cops in the early morning hours.
Robert had a capacious and wide-ranging mind. He turned me on to James Baldwin, Funkadelic, and the great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, an Indianapolis native. He introduced me to the fierce work of the black poet Etheridge Knight, who had also grown up in Naptown, not far from the Robert’s place. Though never a believer, Robert also played a funky organ twice a week at the AME church.
The best I could offer in return was to take him to meet Led Zeppelin backstage after the band’s 1976 concert at Market Square Area. Plant and Page were too busy entertaining groupies and inhaling cocaine to do much more than nod their heads, but Robert, a devotee of the Hammond B4, launched into an animated conversation with John Paul Jones about playing the Mellotron, a quirky synthesizer used for those spooky, liquid chords on “The Rain Song” and “No Quarter.” I recall Jones telling Robert: “That was one wretched machine, except when it worked.”
Zipp R. was the best baseball player I ever took the field with–or against. I was a mediocre infielder, slow of foot and inept at the plate. Zipp could have made it to the big leagues. He almost did. Then his life fell apart.
In the spring of 1977, Robert received a full-scholarship offer to play baseball at Georgia Tech. That night we celebrated by driving up to Colfax, Indiana and eating a heaping mound of Robert’s favorite food, deep-fried catfish. We drove home in a brutal thunderstorm. It must have been an omen.
We didn’t see each other much that summer. I was in Scotland, hiking across the highlands following the footsteps of John Keats, while Robert spent his days mowing the lawns at the vast Crown Hill Cemetery and playing baseball for an American Legion team at night.
In early August, a few weeks before he was supposed to leave for Atlanta, Robert was pulled over by a patrol car as he was walking home from a party. The cops searched him, found a couple of joints in his pocket and hauled him to jail.
That same night a liquor store had been held up at gunpoint by three black teenagers wearing ski masks a few blocks from Robert’s home. The next morning Robert was put in a line-up, where he was identified by the clerk as looking “like” one of the robbers. He was interrogated for the next few hours, always denying any involvement in the heist. He didn’t have money for a lawyer and didn’t ask for one. Two days later he was charged with armed robbery.
For the next four months, Robert, who had no prior criminal record, sat in jail, unable to come up with bail. In those four months, his scholarship to Georgia Tech was withdrawn, his grandmother died, his sisters moved out of the old apartment and his best friend (me) had gone off to Washington, DC to college.
Eventually, the charges were dropped after the same trio were nabbed in the act of robbing another store. Robert was released without so much as an apology. He had no money and no place to stay. He was a brilliant young black man with an arrest on his record, now homeless and with no prospects for work. Thus began Robert’s descent into Hell.
Robert bounced around for the next decade, doing menial labor, dealing drugs, still playing organ in churches when they’d let him. He’d call collect from Chicago or Kansas City, once every six months or so. Then in 1990 he was busted for selling crack and went to prison in Joliet for 10 years. We corresponded a few times, then he stopped answering my letters and I lost track of him.
Charlene filled in some of the blanks. She said Robert had contracted HIV after being anally raped in prison and emerged from his term physically ruined and psychologically shattered. The remainder of his once-brilliant life was spent in and out of jails and halfway houses and scrambling out a meager existence on the mean streets of the American heartland, as his body steadily eroded until his heart finally gave out in that alley in East St. Louis.
Robert R. was one of the most talented people I’ve ever known. But in the course of one awful night, his future was cut down and discarded by a political system that has been fine-tuned for a sole purpose: to service the insatiable greed of the American super-elites.
(* At the request of Robert’s family, I have not used his last name.)
Jeffrey St. Clair is the editor of CounterPunch. He is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature, Grand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.