FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Mean Streets

by

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 NatureGrand 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: sitka@comcast.net

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

January 23, 2017
John Wight
Trump’s Inauguration: Hail Caesar!
Mark Schuller
So What am I Doing Here? Reflections on the Inauguration Day Protests
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Trump and Isis Have More in Common Than You Might Think
Binoy Kampmark
Ignored Ironies: Women, Protest and Donald Trump
Gregory Barrett
Flag, Cap and Screen: Hollywood’s Propaganda Machine
Gareth Porter
US Intervention in Syria? Not Under Trump
L. Ali Khan
Trump’s Holy War against Islam
Gary Leupp
An Al-Qaeda Attack in Mali:  Just Another Ripple of the Endless, Bogus “War on Terror”
Norman Pollack
America: Banana Republic? Far Worse
Bob Fitrakis - Harvey Wasserman
We Mourn, But We March!
Kim Nicolini
Trump Dump: One Woman March and Personal Shit as Political
William Hawes
We Are on Our Own Now
Martin Billheimer
Last Tango in Moscow
Colin Todhunter
Development and India: Why GM Mustard Really Matters
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s America—and Ours
David Mattson
Fog of Science II: Apples, Oranges and Grizzly Bear Numbers
Clancy Sigal
Who’s Up for This Long War?
Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail