As we rounded the corner to 80th Street last evening, a large congregation of people were gathering outside of All Angels Church, a mainstay for the less privileged in this Upper West Side community for many, many years. We parked the car and joined them, as we were all gathered to say goodbye to our friend, Ronald, the other half of what was always known as the inseparable “Ron-and-Diane” couple. In their younger days, Ron and Diane occupied a spot in one of a few tunnels in Riverside Park, or downstairs in the Rotunda, contributed by Robert Moses, New York City’s master builder of the mid-20th century. They were homeless then, but happy and judging by the stories told at yesterday’s service, tales shared by those who occupied the same sleeping spots, theirs was a tight community of friendship and a vision clouded by crack, in a city that had no idea what to do with the burgeoning numbers of people in poverty. So many of my friends here had moved on to leave the cardboard pallets and rotting sleeping bags behind. So many made the efforts to get beyond the dope before it got too bad. As I listened to the testimonials and declarations of friendship and love they had for Ron and his wife and children, I went back in time to twenty five years ago when I first met these friends of mine, in the deep shadows of the night, gathered around the cars we drove down down to the city, filled with clothing and food and blankets. What started as a volunteer opportunity for me and hundreds of my students, my own young children and my friends, became a distinct and deliberate part of my life: the third Saturday night of every month, of every year, for twenty five of them was reserved to do this homeless outreach. The reality for me truly was far less antiseptic. Those Saturday nights were reserved to be with a group of people who accepted me – us – into their lives as friends. Genuinely and sincerely, they allowed us in.
And so, we sat in the front pew of All Angels Church yesterday because Diane, Ron’s widow, escorted us there, saying,”You’ll sit here, Jeanne, because you’re my family.” As I type this out, the tears of two decades suddenly find their way down my cheeks; tears I have not wanted to shed, fearing that if I do, I’ll lose effectiveness and objectivity. Tears of joy and sorrow, rivulets of hope lost and hope found, are now breaking the dam that held them in for so many years.
There was passion and deep belief within this strong community of mourners yesterday that is strikingly absent in my life, I noticed. The barefooted Indian priest asked, “Can I hear an Amen?” and I found myself responding. The service and my memories of Ronald poured over me, and I was right there in the moment, watching the joy in celebrating this fallen angel’s life spread throughout this room, upstairs in the church on the Upper West Side.
Ronald’s ashes were strewn across the water of the Hudson, Diane told me when she called me very late last night to see if we had gotten home safely. She was checking in with me because her too-filled heart has always been that way. We will see each other again soon, she said. She and her sons will share Thanksgiving Dinner with us again when we have our annual dinner in November and although Ron is somewhere else, his presence as her forever partner will be there.
The day moves forward. There are chores to do and tasks to complete. But, as I go through this day and perhaps the next few, the images of my old friend Ron will make an appearance as he rests gently and in peace.