No Justice, No Peace
There is a song by an emo band called Saves the Day that goes, in part, like this: You’re two floors down/Getting high in the back room . . . and at your funeral/I will sing the requiem. Emo is short for emotive or emotional; its roots are in hardcore punk, where the driving emotion was almost always rage. Even in tears, the vocalists in first-gen emo bands were pissed off.
Translating or transmuting myriad emotions into hostility is a cottage industry in the streets of America lately. But I must go back to move ahead.
Requiem: a mass or worship service for the everlasting peace of a dead person’s soul.
Rage: a powerful reaction of anger and/or frustration to disturbing or upsetting stimuli; may be accompanied by symptoms of subordinate emotions like sadness, grief or shock.
Dontez Phipps was a gregarious fat kid who turned twenty-one, then slipped into a diabetic coma and died. I worked with him as a bellman for about six months, from Independence Day 2012 until just before the following Christmas, if I remember it right. He was goofy, loud, sarcastic and a giant sneakerhead.
“Dogg,” he said to me one night, “I got these Air Max joints. Nobody has these. Nobody except me and like three dudes you hear about but never see.”
“I’m sure they’re cool, man. How much did you pay for ’em?”
“Bruh, you don’t get the shoe game. You’re too . . .”
Whether I expected him to say old or white, I’m not sure, but I would have copped to either.
“Too what? Go ahead, young buck, finish that thought,” I said.
“Say what? Man, you wouldn’t know square if you slept through geometry and dreamed about it.”
“You, OG,” he said, “are too square.”
OG, defined by Dontez and a couple other young dudes at work: a male over the age of twenty-six.
I live in a city named after a saint, but it is the sins committed here that have made my hometown recently and regrettably famous. I live in the land of Mike Brown, a Black kid who had a whole clip emptied into him for stealing cigarillos and being a smartass.1 I live in the land of that Black body being left to rot in the sun while neighbors and news crews gathered around it. I live where the pronoun he is replaced by it as soon as the heart in a body stops beating. I live a few miles to the south of Ferguson, where the hatred of Darren Wilson and the rest of the St. Louis Police Department still smolders, long after the fires of the riots have been put out. More than half a decade after both Mike Brown and Dontez died2, there remains an invisible smoke hanging over my city—it’s palpable but not seeable, it has weight and mass and volume but it hides from the eyes, it hides in the cut, menacing. Mike Brown’s body isn’t in the street anymore but it will always be there.
There have been 144 homicides in St. Louis this year.
Of the victims, 116 were Black males. Fifty were younger than thirty years old.
I live in a city of expected atrocity, where a Black kid lost to violence is something we shake our heads about as we shift our weight uneasily in line to buy groceries and wonder out loud, What is this world coming to? Unless there are cops, cameras and excessive force involved, we go on with our days. Experience is lidocaine, it has a numbing effect.3
The difference between rage and righteous indignation is psychic distance. When Dontez died, I was enraged. In a town where senseless violence is so rampant it has formed its own logic, a kid like Tez dying in his sleep was unacceptable. In a world where turning eighteen was a milestone not only of maturity but survival, where living to be twenty-one meant not only that you could drink and smoke but that you’d gotten luckier than many, Tez should have lived into his dotage. I was mad beyond reason that I had no one to blame for the death of my friend. Unless I blamed him, which, for half an hour, I did.
I was sitting in a bar the night of his death, cursing Tez for what I thought of, briefly, as his selfish way of living. Never went to the goddamn doctor, I thought. Never worked out, never watched what he ate, never took insulin or baby aspirin or ginkgo biloba or whatever the hell could have kept him healthy. Alive. Always joking around, keeping plastic bags of chicken quesadillas in his uniform pockets like a damn clown. Drinking too much, but not really. Smoking weed, but I only kind of think I remember that. I hated him for being innocent, for a minute. And then I hated myself. I bought a pack of cigarettes that night. Marlboro reds, cowboy killers. I drove in figure-eights around my neighborhood, drunk, crying, and holding an unlit cancer stick in my lips. I chucked the whole pack out the window on my last loop before going home.
I keep forgetting a key detail of this story. Although I refer to the night Tez died, I can’t rightly do that; he died in his apartment some time—hours or a couple of days, it’s unclear—before his mom and the rest of us at the bellstand got panicked and called the police to look in on him. I guess his roommate had called before anyone else, because Tez’s body was gone by the time his mom, Kim, a line cook at the hotel, got there with uniformed officers. She had to go downtown and identify the big Black naked body on the couldn’t-give-a-shit-less gurney as her son. So I got drunk the night we found out Dontez was dead, and probably the night he passed away, too.
Once Tez had dubbed me an OG, I embraced it; it made me feel strong, like I’d muscled or finessed my way into a secret society. I started calling Tez lower case, the small G to my senior status.
“Yeah, yeah,” he’d say. “Whatever. All that grey in your beard.” “Live long enough, youngster,” I said.
Eulogy: situationally, a white man of OG age memorializing a Black kid who died of natural causes while the family and friends of the deceased, who are predominantly Black, look uniformly puzzled at his presence.
I don’t remember how Kim found out I write. But she did, and she sent me a message4 on Facebook asking if I’d put something together for the funeral. I had never given a eulogy and I haven’t done it again since. But as I read and reread the message, I could see Kim: five-foot-nothing, stout, hair cut short and in twisty braids, a sheen of sweat from working in a kitchen with an ancient hood system, and eyes clouded with loss and fatigue. I could hear her contralto voice forever singing the deep timbre of burying a child. I don’t remember typing anything back. Don’t remember agreeing to do it. I barely recall drafting the speech.5 I just remember giving it.
I think it was December6; I remember wearing a coat into the funeral parlor’s nave, sweating through my shirt, feeling every fiber of the high-pile maroon carpet give way under my slick-bottomed dress shoes. I think I see Tez in a baby-blue shirt with no tie. I know he is pale, I know in my head I make a joke about him being ashy. I remember wanting to be back at the bellstand, where I could dig in a plastic bin for a bottle of lotion and toss it at him. Tell him to get himself right. Watch his thick paws form two middle fingers and his brown eyes giggle. It was early in the morning; I think I was still a little boozy. I think Kim was wearing a tight black dress with metallic silver lilies on it and a broach shaped like a heart. I want to remember a swirl of script on her chest, a tattoo I’ll never be able to read and I’m too chicken to ask her about it. I want it to be Tez’s name.
The preacher that day was another guy from work, my buddy Cory who’d been Tez’s boss when he was still in Event Set-Up, before he came down to work with me. I had never seen Cory outside of work, let alone at a raised pulpit surrounded by mahogany railings. He was every bit the charismatic Black minister, making a well-timed series of thumps of Bible-on-palm-of-hand and delivering a melodic, gospel-heavy homily. It wasn’t John Donne’s valediction against mourning or the biblical admonishment not to weep like one who is hopeless. It was a man telling his congregants they were going to be okay, and making them believe it. After he’d finished, he said amen and everyone—except for the smattering of White folks—said it too. It seemed to take us by surprise, providing a contrast to the somber and one-sided funeral proceedings we’d come to know.
“We would now like to welcome brother Andy,” Cory said.
There was no murmuration of Brother who? but I felt like there should have been. Cory stayed at the microphone as I counted the steps down the aisle. One, two, seven, fifteen. An older Black man with a grey mustache and thick brown glasses turned to see who I was, or at least how I looked. He was slender in the way older gentlemen are: effortlessly and not from lack of good eating. We caught eyes for a half-heartbeat and he smiled just a touch and I must have too. He nodded. I nodded then climbed the steps to the ministerial perch. By the time I shook hands with Cory I was winded and sucking in deep, wheezy breaths.
“Calm yourself, brother man,” Cory whispered. “I’m right behind you. Go slow. He’ll help you through it.”
The He in question was God, I am sure, but I took it to mean Tez at the time.
I exaggerated one last breath out.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
After I finished giving a speech I no longer remember, the congregation applauded. I don’t mean they simply put their palms together with a polite smack, I mean people in that room on the day we buried Dontez gave me an ovation. There were a few stray Amen’s and Yes Lord’s. There were tearful smiles. I remember Kim’s arms, bare in her sleeveless dress, around my neck and her perfume, comingled with cigarette smoke, dancing into my ears and eyes. I remember, rightly or otherwise, a kiss on the cheek. And I remember an overwhelming guilt at feeling proud of myself.
A week or so later, Kim sent me a message to ask how things were at work. She’d quit the hotel almost immediately after Tez died and went to work for a ritzy bistro inside the art museum.
We’re holding each other up, I said. How are you?
This gonna hurt forever, she said. But I’m here. Thank you for your good words. My family was so happy with you.
I want this to have weighty sociological implications. I want Kim to be a cultural emissary teaching me a lesson in how Black folks grieve with gratitude rather than the simple machinery of sadness. I want her inviting me to speak for her son to be part of James Baldwin’s vision of racial healing: Black folks wanting White folks to partake of their world, participate in it. I wish my friend wasn’t dead. Rage, requiem, eulogy. There is no saving the day. As Dontez would have said: Bet that.
After the funeral, doing eighty on the freeway with the stereo thumping out old school rap from a CD mixtape, I kept seeing Tez. He used to spit rap lyrics to himself without realizing it. Sometimes they’d be from a track I knew so I’d throw out the next line.
“What you know about that?” he’d ask.
“Plenty. Where’d you hear it? Daycare?”
Like emo, hip-hop is a transmutation of anger into other felt things.
I didn’t know it when Tez was alive but the rhymes, bars, and cyphers we swapped were a coded language, one that could speak truth to power.
My first day back to work following the funeral, my boss’s boss Erik, Director of Hotel Operations, cornered me in a service hallway and asked if he could have a copy of the eulogy for the company newsletter.
“A damn fine speech,” he called it.
“I’m not sure I’m cool with that,” I said.
How do you tell a White middle-aged man in a power suit that some things just cut too close to the bone to be put in the public domain?
As a means of translation, I spit back a line from the rapper Ab-Soul:
“This the realest shit I wrote,” I told him, “on my mama, homie.”
1. And it’s George Floyd, murdered hundreds of miles north of here, who made me think of these events: of Michael Brown and my man Dontez. Strange how the current event becomes a footnote and the old news is new in an instant. ↑
2. Google searches and a review of my Instagram feed prove that Brown and Tez died less than a year apart, but it feels like a lifetime. After Tez there were tears, hugs, doughnuts. After Brown, the city was thrown bricks and a boombox playing NWA “Fuck Tha Police” on loop. I have to check myself before I wreck myself, to make sure the dates line up when I mention them. ↑
3. Until some time goes by, some calendar pages get flipped. Then a remix of the old hurts drops like a heavy beat and we have to face everything again—an amalgam of what makes us rage.↑
4. When Tez died, his mother reached out to me. As George Floyd was being asphyxiated by knees on his neck and back, he cried out for his mother. Crowds of mothers in all black, gnashing teeth, holding signs begging Stop the Violence and Black Lives Matter. My own mother, little clouds of cataracts but she still sees. Oh Mothers. All y’all. ↑
5. Except that now, at 2:11 am Central Standard Time, it comes back to me: When I got a version down that I felt okay about, I sent it to Kim for review. “How long will this take to read?” she asked. “I’m not sure, about ten minutes?” “Maybe not that long, baby.” I can’t swear I got it under seven but it feels right. George Floyd was subdued and forcibly suffocated for just under nine minutes. Too long, baby. Too long.↑
6. Mike was in August, George was in May, Breonna was in March. Different years, but damn if it all doesn’t bleed together. Whole calendar of it didn’t have to be like this. ↑