I’m going to start off this week by putting the cover song right at the top, to save you from scrolling down if you don’t feel like reading a book.
"Waters of March" (Portuguese: "Águas de Março")mp3
I’m not sure if writing all this that follows here is appropriate. And I almost feel the need to apologize to anyone else close to the subject. But I am an expressive person by nature, and writing is one way for me to deal with life. However, I cringe at the thought of this being a confessional diary and overly personal. I have this conflict about keeping such things private. Maybe the Internet turned me into an exhibitionist (I already was a voyeur of sorts). But I feel there is a need for people to understand that we just lost a great man.
My song this week is "Waters of March" (Portuguese: "Águas de Março") by Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. It is a standard from the bossa nova songbook. It has long been one of my favorite songs, which I wrote about at allmusic.com about eight or nine years ago. The melancholy litany and cascade of Zen-like images cuts to the essence and cycle of life and death. March, of course, is the beginning of autumn in Brazil and the southern hemisphere, so it has an even more melancholy tone in Portuguese. Jobim also wrote the English translation, though. I know I have some readers in Brazil. If any of you are good singers and have good recording equipment, I can post this without vocals and you can send me some .wav files of you singing the Portuguese version and I will do a remix and post it.
I was going through some of my Uncle Vince’s CDs and noticed he had one by Susannah McCorkle, who sang one of the definitive English language versions of Jobim’s pop masterpiece. I dedicate the song to him.
I have a new charity suggestion -- and again at the bottom of the post. It was a cause Vince felt strongly about. I request that all regular followers donate to. That would be one of the most positive things we could wrest from all of this. I thank you in advance. I also post a video of a beautiful song my brother, Paul, wrote in the wake of this tragedy.
My life has been a source of amusement for friends, but more in a "Look, the cat's on fire and running through the convent" type of amusing.
-- My Uncle Vince
I am devastated.
Our 63 year-old uncle, my mother’s brother and only sibling, was murdered in his home in Miami on October 16, 2009. His name was Vince. He was single, gay, and lived alone with his beloved dog, Gracie. It would be revealed five days later that the killer was the 20 year-old son of Vince’s house cleaner. My uncle had known James A. probably since the boy was five years old. The kid had lost his father, whom I gather was not much to write home about when he was alive. What I understand, is that Vince had been trying to help the kid out a bit, give him odd jobs, make some introductions, and, most recently, writing him a letter of recommendation. James did not show up for the appointed time to pick up that letter. No one knows what happened after that, other than James has admitted that he stabbed Vince repeatedly. Then he took his credit cards and went on the kind of spending spree only a numb teenager is capable of, and did so after committing a murder.
None of this was immediately known, though. It took a few days for it all to come out. I know now what the kid has said, but no one is buying it, especially the police. In his desperation, he is adding another level of tawdriness to a depressing tragedy.
Friday evening, October 16, 2009, I received an email from Vince’s close friend in Miami, Vincent T., who had been Vince’s business partner in an import business for Asian antiques and home furnishings. He told me to call him. I called and left him a message. At about 7:30 or 7:45 as my kids were getting ready for bed, Vincent T. called me back.
“Billy, I’m on my way over to your uncle’s house. Something has happened.”
“OK,” I said, tentatively, looking up at my wife, at the top of the stairs with our young son. She looked in my face and saw something wrong.
Vincent continued, “It’s a crime scene. His friend, Jane, was supposed to meet him for dinner and when he didn’t call back all day, she drove over, late in the afternoon.”
In the 1980s, my uncle had been mugged in New York when he lived in the city. The assailant used the butt of a gun to strike him across the face. It busted his nose badly. He needed plastic surgery. He lost his big Italian nose, gladly. It was his excuse to get a nose job.
But he vowed after that horrible event never to get himself into another situation of vulnerability again, if he could help it. But this is what I thought of when his friend, Vincent, called me; a mugging, some injury or something. I mouthed “crime scene” to my wife, shaking my head.
“I’m on way over there now, Billy. I will call when I get there and let you know more,” Vincent said.
But then, shockingly, he continued. “Your Uncle Vince is dead, Billy.”
I am sure I gasped. I did not see it coming. It came so fast. “What?”
“Yes. I don’t know what happened,” he went on. “I...I will call you as soon as I know something.”
My knees buckled. I had not felt this feint or nauseous in years. I felt like it was an actual, physical blow. I slid down the wall to the steps. Laura shuffled the kids out of view. She peeked back, hand over mouth. “Oh my God, what happened?”
Then the emotions swept over me. I was shaking, breathing hard, then the waves came higher, knocking me. And I started to sob.
Frank and Vinny, Kew Gardens, circa 1949. Check out those kids in the background. It is like the Bowery Boys or something.
My uncle was a huge influence in my life. He was my godfather, yes, but he was largely absent until I was an adolescent. He suffered, in the closet, as a teenager in Kew Gardens, Queens and Garden City South, New York. His mother’s family had come from Turin, and a father who was a second-generation Sicilian. That man, the guy who I knew as my grandfather, worked his way up through the civil service after serving in World War II, from garbage man, to the level of Deputy Chief of Sanitation for the Five Boroughs of N.Y.C. He was a softy, a sweetheart, the perfect Italian grandfather who would teach us swimming, growing tomatoes, how to play poker, and the joy of "The Honeymooners" reruns. But that was not the guy my uncle remembered. Vince remembered a guy who did not understand him and whom he did not understand. His memories were more painful than that, but it is not my place to speak to the memories of others.
Vinny (as he was known then -- he was Uncle Vinny to us) told me he had felt tormented at home. He joined the Navy and served in Vietnam. After his stint, he landed in San Francisco, got his degree, and spent the late 1960s/early-‘70s in one of that era’s counter-cultural center. He moved on to work in human relations in Hawaii and eventually back to New York. He moved to the East Village in about 1979, when I was 13 and just about old enough to start to be able to take the train into the city on my own. He quickly made an effort to become more of a presence in our lives. He had my brothers, sister, and me in for a trip around the city -- a horse & buggy ride around the park, a shopping trip to the new wave Fiorucci’s, burritos at Tortilla Flats on the west side, and hot dogs at Nathan’s in Time Square. He had always been the cool uncle, the young guy popping in for a holiday or summer visit every couple of years. But now, here he was in New York. I looked up to him and his glamorous life. I only had a subliminal understanding that he might be gay; it went unspoken. He had a good-looking younger “room mate” named Neil. Neil was shy. Vince was bold. Both were handsome and youthful. Neither of them was particularly effeminate, which is how gay guys were depicted on t.v. I have always been slow to realize such things. It was a gradual comprehension. It never seemed particularly important, even to a kid coming from the frighteningly homophobic suburbs of the Island. In fact, it even probably added to some pride I had in him being so “cool” and somewhat exotic.
I had no older siblings, so he was sort of an older brother to me. When Vince bought me gifts, they were so unbelievably thoughtful and spot-on, that I cherish them to this day. This is a trait I have discovered that he carried though his whole life and into all of his friendships. For my 14th birthday, he bought me three records that had just come out: Talking Heads Remain in Light, U2 Boy, and a 10’’ Nina Hagen record. No one had heard of the latter two. My friend, Danny and I stared at the U2 record for a while, thinking the band was called, “U2 Boy,” as in, “you too, boy.” He called one evening and told my mother he wanted to take me in to CBGB to go see the Dead Kennedys, on a school night. He wasn't familiar with, nor do I think he would for a second enjoy their music; I think he just liked shock value of the name and I’m sure wanted to get a rise out of my mother. When I moved to Massachusetts, I would take the train down for a weekend to stay with him. Early 1980s East Village was a very cool place to be visiting at ages 14-18. When I graduated high school, he got me one of the first sleek Walkman models. It was how I listened to music all the way through college.
One of the seminal moments of my life, though, came in the summer of 1986. This was a huge year for me. Later that autumn, we formed Buffalo Tom, and I met and fell in love with the woman that became my wife. But that prior June, I was looking at another summer of painting houses, smoking pot, and watching rented movies with my buddies -- admittedly not a bad existence. But Vince called me and told me he had a cushy job waiting for me in his office at Citicorp in Manhattan for $15/hour. Would I like it? I did not hesitate.
I called Danny, who had recently moved to New York from the Island, along with another friend who had played in bands with us in early high school, before I moved. “Hey,” I said, “my uncle offered me a job for the summer. Do you guys have any space for me?”
“Sure!” Danny said. “Come on down. We don’t have a huge place, but there’s plenty of space for you.”
When my uncle came to get me from the way-station of my grandparent’s house, I told him the address, 99th Street and Broadway. This was a borderline neighborhood back then. If he had any reaction, I don’t recall what it was. But when I lugged all my shit out of his trunk, he declined to help me move it up to the “apartment,” offering his hug and a “see ya in the office on Monday” sort of good-bye.
The sidewalk and the lobby of the building was a bustle of the Haitian, Indian, and Pakistani cab drivers who made up 99% of the inhabitants. There was a little sort of box-office kind of window with a dude behind it and a small old-fashioned elevator. When I got up to the door, my buddies welcomed me with smiles an open arms. They did not tell me that they lived in an S.R.O -- single-room-occupancy hotel called the Clinton Arms. And they had a single room. No bathroom. Not a studio with a kitchenette. No open-floor loft-style single room. They had a single room, right out of William Burroughs’ Junkie, which I ended up reading that summer. They had one bed, which they took turns with, the other guy taking the floor on alternate nights. It was like the “alternate side of the street parking regulations” that the radio guys would announce. But that place inspired me to write some lyrics, including the words to the Buffalo Tom song, "The Bus": "Went home and listened to Billie Holiday/Stared down to Broadway."
We would go out to bars and clubs every night -- King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Downtown Beirut (Huskers and Dead Boys on the juke), CBGB, Nightingales, the Ritz, the Cat Club, Billy’s Topless, wherever we could go being slightly underage. We would straggle back in at 4 a.m. to the smells of creole cooking and curry scents overpowering the whole place. I would crash on the filthy floor and get up at 8 to take the subway to midtown for the job by 9. I would awake in a hungover stupor, sickened by the ingested liquor, lack of sleep, and the overpowering smells of the place. I would make my way down the hall to the disgusting single bathroom shared by the whole floor. A giant roach died a long painful death that hot and sticky summer on the threshold of that bathroom. For over a month it lied on its back there, kicking its legs helplessly as we all walked over it. Just when I thought it had given in, it would kick feebly once again.
I could often barely make it to work, but I always did. Often, I had a Pepto Bismal bottle in a brown bag at my desk, sitting there in my clip-on tie and bad Macy’s permna-press pleated slacks trying to key data entry, results of employee surveys, in the early days of the desktop. I had no idea how to work on computers. I don’t even think I had even typed papers yet on a word processor. Needless to say, I was unqualified for the job, often requiring the programmer-consultant to come to the office to straighten out whatever I had done. I could see the knowing winks and looks at my uncle from the people in the office that could see right through the patronage. We didn’t tell anyone I was his nephew, so I am not sure what conclusions they had drawn. But he had leeway to hire someone to do this job and pay them “up to $15 an hour.” He had given me the chance at the full rate.
Near the end of my tenure there he took me out to dinner at one of the many Indian joints between 1st and 2nd Avenues down near his place.
“Can I tell you something?” he asked, not that would have any say in the matter. “Don’t ever work in an office. You can’t do it. It’s not you. You will never work in an office.”
“Um, OK,” I mumbled in my 20 year-old fashion.
“What do you want to do?” he asked. “...with your life?”
“I guess I want to finish college and... I dunno. I’m majoring in communications, studying literature as a minor...”
“No, I mean, what do you want to do, to be?”
I told him I wanted to play music.
“Then play music. Don’t worry about money. Money will always come when you need it.”
With those simple words, spoken by an adult to a kid who already felt support in his family, I felt confident to do what I wanted to do, to not be forced into conservative and safe choices.
“Look at me,” he continued. “Here I am in some windowless office doing something I never wanted to do, trapped by rent, by safe choices.” He was then in his early-40s, the age I am now. He told me how it had taken him years to admit to himself that he had made compromises he now regretted. He had no kids, no one else to be responsible for to answer to, and yet he chose some middle-corporate path that sapped his soul, in a job that he had no passion for. It took him years to realize and admit to himself what he wanted to do. I asked him what that was. He told me he wanted to design furniture. He had always been artistic. And he was already making plans in the back of his head for the life switch that would eventually bring him to Miami, to buy a house, and to open up his own high-end home furnishings place on the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. This lead to designing his own pieces, then a business and partnership that imported Asian antiques, and concurrent to a lot of this, an interior design/decorator business.
He also asked me, “do you want to get married and have kids?”
I hemmed and hawed and said, “nah.”
He asked why. I answered with vague assertions of my mythical independence and claims that I saw no need for adherence such convention. Bear in mind that I had probably gotten laid a total of five times at this point, and you have to take even that with a grain of salt; you know how guys exaggerate. And it was about two months before I met my one-day wife. But he kept asking, smiling, “why not,” insistently.
In an ill-considered attempt to end the interrogation, I blurted, “Well, how about you?”
“Me?” he asked, somewhat stunned.
“Yeah, you.” I knew that I had now put him on the spot and was putting myself in a position of awkwardness, potentially revealing that I did not know he was gay, something we had not spoken about.
“Well...I’m a different story,” he said, sheepishly. I had never seen him blush before nor did I ever see him do so afterward. He was not one to embarrass easily; he was the one to embarrass others, not the other way around. But I swear he blushed this time.
“What do you mean?” I insisted. I wanted him to just say it I guess. I really just wanted to steer it away from me. I was successful at that.
He just kept repeating, “well, I’m a totally different story.”
I relented, “I know, I know.”
I went back and finished school. When Buff Tom passed through New York in our early days, he would stay out late and come see us at CBs or the Pyramid. He got a kick out of this, I could see. He was proud of me, even if he did not find much in our music.
He eventually moved to Miami. His relationship with Neil in NY ended. He had a brief rebound relationship in Florida, but after the 1990s, he stayed more or less single and unattached. He devoted himself to his business and to friends who were his family. He took care of my grandmother in her waning years, moving her into a house next door to his as she was increasingly seized by dementia, until her death in the early 2000s. We would visit when we could, but with my band, my marriage, and growing family, getting down from Boston was tough. And he didn’t get the chance to come up to Massachusetts much either. We talked a lot, though. At least a half-dozen times a year and for hours at a time. When email came along, we kept in touch that way as well.
I don’t know for certain, but the last time I saw him was probably in 2003, in Los Angeles. He was there opening a west coast branch of his import business, renting a small apartment, not as brilliantly cool as his mid-century-modern/Asian-influenced ranch in South Miami, but as cool as a Hollywood glorified-efficiency pad could be made. I came to town for the production of Mike O’Malley’s play, “Searching for Certainty,” for which I composed the score. Vince came down to the show and cast party and really enjoyed it. I had never seen him so enthusiastic for something I was part of. He really loved Mike and the friends of mine he met. He had a biting and sardonic sense of humor and he would always let you know what he was thinking. But he really dug the play.
When Vince was murdered, I tried to remember the last time I saw him. I think this was it. When I told Mike what had happened, he reminded me of the play by asking if it was the same uncle he had met. I am so thankful that he reminded me, as it hurts me enough that it seems to have been this long ago; it would feel far more acute if it had been as far back as my grandmother’s funeral. There had been a recent estrangement with him and some of our family -- not with me or my wife. But it seems now sort of like he became only a voice on the telephone from that point on. Though it had not felt like that before. The years just fall away so quickly.
I spent the night Vince died, October 16, on the phone until the early morning hours -- detectives, friends of his, my family, the medical examiner’s office, and his lawyer, who informed me that I was the executor of his estate. I now had a to-do list to distract me from the shock and grief. I had no idea where to start; should I fly down now? Is there anything I need to do down there that I can not do here first? I started to feel guilty about not just hopping on the first plane. But what else could I do down there immediately? Luckily, Vincent T. was a friend who was helping me out immeasurably in those first days.
But the pain kept hitting me. The detached surreality only would last a few minutes before actual reality came swooping back. My uncle was dead. The detective told me it was definitive homicide. That made me think immediately that it was a stabbing; how many gun deaths would be immediately and clearly declared homicide, shutting the door on any possibility of suicide? (Anyway, he was not the suicide type). He was killed. He had struggled. We want the ones we love to die a peaceful death, in their sleep in their old age, or in the arms of their loved ones. He died at the hand and in the presence only of some pathetic loser who then took his credit cards and cash and went to Wendy’s, a bar, Best Buy (to buy a Playstation), KFC, etc.
So how do you process something like this? How is one supposed to react? Am I supposed to break down or stay steady and stoic for others? Lots of calls for days between the family members. What do I tell the kids? It is obscene: Murder. It is nothing new, and we live in a violent country, but you really don’t think something like this is going to happen to someone close to you. You just don’t.
Vince and I would invariably joke about aging. While he was aging gracefully, he was not going to go out without a fight. He stayed in top shape, ate extremely well, was never one who could drink, and smoked exactly one cigarette a day since he was young. But I would always tease him and he would give it right back. The thing that made him feel the oldest was watching me hit my 40s, his nephew and godson.
“Who’s gonna be around to take care of you when you’re too old” I would ask. “I’m going to have to put you in a home. Have you saved up enough money?”
“I am spending every dime,” he would reply. “You’re going to have to take me in.”
“You’re gonna have to live in the garage, then. Maybe the basement. And you’ll have to cook for us.”
And we’d go on like that almost every time we chatted. But at the end of the calls, I would turn more melancholy and tell my wife that I really was concerned for the long-term. He had very dear friends, but none were as young as I am. He had lost a lot of old friends as well. AIDS took a bunch of them. What if he made it, as his mother did, into his late 80s and developed dementia as well? I sure as hell was not planning on moving to Florida.
A violent premature death was nothing that I counted on. That brought deep and painful grief. Vince was a peaceful guy, full of love and compassion. He had a meditation room with a big old Buddha in his house, where he sat in silence every day. He had a sedate life with his young dog, Gracie, a small hound whom he loved immensely. He took almost no risks. He worked, had dinner and game night with friends, took in movies, and traveled. Years ago, he had a regular poker game with a bunch of old straight men (like I do). He served on an advisory board for an independent film festival. He read. We saw the same movies, liked the same books, shared some of the same music.
The focus of the phone calls veered from the grief to trying to figure out who was capable of doing this. The detective told me it was probably someone he knew, since there were no signs of forced entry. I scrolled back into my memory. He had just finished an addition on his house, his dream master suite. I mean, he had just finished it only a couple of weeks prior. He had no time to enjoy it before this happened. I had just talked to him on his birthday, September 19. I remember him complaining about some contractor. In phone calls with Vincent T. I learned that there had been a supervisor for the general contractor whom Vince had a falling out with and requested be removed from the job. But Vincent T. told me that he highly doubted that the animosity had been to this level. It was a very easily handled situation. The supervisor was not a menacing sort, apparently.
But we could think of no one else aside from contractors who had access to the interior of the house. The detective talked all of this over with Vince’s friends, Jane and Vincent T. The only other conflict in his life recently had been an argument with his maid’s son, James. But he was thought to be harmless, if a bit of an oafish numbskull.
The cops were at the house all Friday night into Saturday morning. They took his computer and “a lot of evidence,” I was told. I had to talk to the medical examiner, to a funeral home, and -- this is something no one should ever have to deal with -- a biohazard cleaning company that specialize in crime scenes. Thankfully, I had Vincent T. there to let them in. All I had to do was talk to them and arrange payment.
I realized I had to attend to prior commitments. I was thankful for them. Saturday afternoon, I went and played a matinee set at the Middle East in Cambridge for a benefit show. Saturday night rolled around. We had tickets to go see Aretha Franklin downtown. My wife and I went out to Montien, a Thai place we love in the Theater District. I had a martini and sobbed off and on, through dinner. We had a giggly flamboyant Thai queen for a waitress. I just kept thinking of how Vince would get a kick out of him. As I said in one of the earlier blog posts, I didn’t expect Aretha to be so good. She was unreal. She played tons of soulful vamps and gospel numbers, torch ballads. I was in heaven. She started to heal me. She opened the night with one of Vince’s favorite songs, Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” I remember him driving me around Miami with the song on repeat. Aretha helped bring me through. On Tuesday, I had a gig at the Brattle Theater. The two sets I had that weekend/week, plus the Aretha show -- and the Exile show we played a week later -- the music really helped deliver me through this all.
Then I flew to Miami Wednesday morning. I hate the nuts and bolts of travel as much as anyone. But I was too beaten down to feel the ordinary stress. This stayed true through an hour-long line at Budget rental, which had apparently just laid off most of their force. By the time I got to my car, I had no fight left in me to contest the assignment -- a fire-engine red (technically “Victory Red”) Chevy HHR. The juxtaposition of driving this ridiculous vehicle around sunny Miami to attend to such sober business was not lost on me. And so I was somewhat thankful when the little fucker got a flat on my way to the attorney’s office at 8:30 the next morning. First order of biz was to use his phone to call “roadside assistance.” They came to switch the tire -- 2 hours later. I had to get myself back to the airport to switch out the little fucker, which of course meant dealing with understaffed Budget again.
Before that privilege, however, I had to make the now-rescheduled appointment I had made at the office of the detective, which was on the outskirts of Greater Miami, in Doral. This is a city, like L.A. and Phoenix, that was designed almost exclusively around the automobile. So, here they have this police and justice campus, with television news vans stationed outside for “breaking news,” and they have about 20 public parking spots. I ended up parking in a strip mall across one of those shopping-plaza-fast-food highways that I have railed about in this space before.
I somehow made it across, life intact. What I thought was just going to be a cursory courtesy visit from the point of view of the detective, brusquely and bluntly became something else. I was seated in the sort of conference room you would expect. Detective L. brought in her partner. They offered me “cop coffee,” which they then congratulated me on my choice in refusing it.
“Well, we made an arrest,” she told me.
The results of the fingerprinting came back, dovetailing with the discovery of the maid’s last name. The detectives rushed over to her house, blowing off an appointment with the general contractor (they also had appointments set up with the pool service, the landscapers, etc. It was the latter crew who had rung the bell for Vince to move his car, got no answer, peeked in through one of the walls of glass, and saw the body, alerting the police.)
When the detectives rang the bell at the maid’s house, James answered. His prints had come back from the scene. The prints had been on record for a recent small grand larceny/pot bust. The detectives were expecting to interview the maid.
James, though, talked right away, from what I understand. I don’t think he told them about the odd jobs he had been doing for Vince, or the letter of recommendation Vince had just written for him. What he told them was that my 63 year-old uncle made “unwanted advances” on him, this taking this down an all-too-easy path, a path where if there is a gay man who is murdered, it must have been because he was making advances on a younger man. As Vince's friend's reminded me, there was a reason Vince was single: he had idealistic and exacting standards that did not allow attraction to an oafish and “retarded looking” kid he has known since he was 5. Even if the kid looked like Enrigue Iglesias at his prime, Vince would not have gotten hustled by a kid he had known since childhood, the son of his longtime house cleaner, whom he cared a great deal for. James has desperately grasped a self-defense tact. In his version, 63 year-old and 165-pound Vince was overpowering 20 year-old, 220-pound James so he had to stab him to death. And then James didn’t feel the need to call police; he stole Vince's wallet and ran up charges on credit cards at Wendy’s and KFC.
Apparently, the kid was always asking his poor mother for money and was getting in trouble -- no job, some community college. People I have spoken to have invariably used some form of “he looks retarded” to describe him. This is followed up by some form of, “but apparently he has some brains and might be kind of smart.” People that had met or known him said he has a hard time looking you in the eye, shaking hands, and seems kind of slow and detached. But Vince saw potential and wanted to try to help him as a favor to his house cleaner.
As with his helping me with a job when I was the same age as this kid, Vince offered his help to my siblings around that vulnerable age, a time in many peoples’ lives when they make life-altering decisions. He remembered his own struggles at that age and recognized this vulnerability. He searched for the potential in people. But he was black-or-white in every aspect in his life. He either saw it or did not. He either liked you or did not. He gave you a chance. If you fucked up, you heard about it. When this kid decided to blow off an appointment to pick up a letter of recommendation that Vince had gone on out on a limb and produced in order to help the kid get a job, I’m sure the kid heard about it. And somewhere during the next week, he made one of those life-altering decisions. It could have been made earlier or it could have been instantaneous, in the moment. He is charged now with second degree murder.
I will probably write more next week about the time in Miami, but more importantly, the people who have helped me through all of this: my family and friends, Vincent T., Mike O., John, Jane, Sam... I just got back from a second trip. I will also keep on top of the trial, if it comes to that. In the meantime, I ask you to donate to this charity, from Human Rights Watch, which Vince cared deeply about:
Article in New York Magazine
A report on executions of homosexuals in Iraq