Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Koolest of the Filter Kings ...

Maybe it’s old age steadily creeping up on me but I find myself these days thinking a lot about departed loved ones … I think about them and I feel sad for the time {sometimes minutes, sometimes days} it takes me to bridge the gap between remembered grief and cherished memory. But I’m reminiscing here … not self-analyzing so –

Today I was thinking about my cousin Skip. I chose this picture:

Because those are the kind of cigarettes he used to smoke.

Skip himself was perhaps the coolest cat I ever knew. Confident, funny and just COOL … I’m talkin’ cool enough to spell the word with a “K” and seventeen “O’s.” If anybody was the Kool Filter King it was Johnny “Skip” Owens Jr. Here are some memories of Skip …

He introduced us to James Brown … he loved the song, The Payback{“I don’t know karate, but I know KA-RAZY!”}. He would listen to the forty-five (that’s a vinyl record with a single song on each side for all you youngbloods} for hours … cigarette dangling from the lips, bouncing up and down as he sang and danced along with James. Listen to the song here .

…I am parenthetically reminded that we once went to see James Brown at The Playhouse in the Park – and outdoor venue that used to be in Franklin Park in Dorchester. We were pretty close to the stage and James had on a fire-engine red suit with red patent leather shoes, lookin’ like the Devil himself … and he DID NOT sing The Payback. I remember thinking it was a good thing for James that Skip {who, himself was quite capable of KA-RAZY, as you will soon see} wasn’t there …

Skip lived with us for a while in the mid ‘70’s and during that time he was always very respectful to my father and especially to my mother even though they were probably only a couple of years older than he was. He loved my mother’s spaghetti … one night, somebody had loosened the cap on the extra large bottle of Frank’s Red-Hot Hot Sauce {my father and Skip ate that stuff on just about everything} and Skip spilled a whole bottle of it on his plate. Rather than disrespect my mother’s cooking by throwing away an otherwise perfectly good plate a spaghetti, Skip sat there and ate the whole fiery meal. Now dude had the quintessential 1973 soul-brother afro … but by the time he finished that the spaghetti he had just about sweated that bad boy straight!.

When we were about 8 and 9 years old, our older cousins Jonathan, Billy and Adam decided it was time to teach us how to fight. They did so by taking us outside and kicking our butts in the front yard for what seemed like a good long time. After a while, I decided it was best to stay down but Darryl kept getting up and the guys kept hitting him harder and harder … you know, to teach him a lesson … make him tough. Right about then Skip pulled up. He asked my cousins what they were doing. “Teachin’ Van and Darryl how to fight, man. You know, so they won’t be a couple of little punks.”

“A’ight,” Skip said, taking off his shirt. “Why don’t y’all teach me how to fight.” They were scared, but the dude-code wouldn’t allow them to back down. I tell you, they made a very valiant attempt to do to Skip what they had been doing to Darryl and me. But their failure was colossal … and quite entertaining to behold. I mean he beat ‘em bad … beat ‘em till the tears and snot flowed freely … made ‘em look like three ragdolls wrestling with a rotweiler. And all the while, that Kool Filter King dangled between his lips as he trash-talked, belittled and beat the crap out of the hapless boys. “Now look at them,” Skip said, pointing to us on one side of the lawn (by now smug as all get-out) “and look at you” pointing to them sprawled on the other side, two of ‘em spread-eagled on their backs and one rocking back and forth in a fetal position. “Who looks like punks now.” We walked tall for a good little while after that one.

The last time I saw Skip, he came to visit us at my mother’s house in Mattapan. He was getting older … the afro was gone. He had that still-makin’-it-but-just-barely look about him. At this point my father had been dead for ten years or more and the distance between us and most of our Owens cousins had grown steadily during that time. I had begun to reject the inner-city tough guy machismo that dudes like Skip exemplified. But much as I had come to resent that lifestyle and as much as Skip seemed like a relic from a time long passed … dude was still inescapably cool. As he was leaving the house, he asked me to step outside with him for a minute.

“I just want to ask you something,” he said to me, while lighting a fresh Filter King. “And you can be straight up with me.” He took a long drag – hesitating, I think. “Do you think I’m a good man?”

The question took me by surprise … how could I answer that? He must have sensed my struggling. “A’ight, put it this way … do you think I’m a bad man? You don’t think I’m a bad man do you?” I told him no. “Good enough, cousin. ‘Cause you know I tried to be good to y’all.” He hugged me. Promised he would come by again soon. Never got a chance to.

I sometimes wonder if he knew at that time that he was dying. I wonder if he was reaching for something by asking that question. I wonder if my answer gave him what he was looking for.

And I wonder if, wherever he is now he can hear the answer it’s taken me all these years to confidently affirm. “Yes, Cousin. To me and mine, you were a good man. The Koolest of the Filter Kings!!”