Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | November 2018 | 19 minutes (5,320 words)
It was the third week in August 2004 when my best friend of 23 years, the screenwriter, playwright, and noir author Jerry Rodriguez, called me to blow off steam. Although he never told me the reasons, he and his girlfriend were breaking up. She was an attractive light-skinned woman from the West Coast, a respected editor, music critic, and novelist with hair that belonged in a shampoo commercial and a Colgate smile. A moody Cancerian who proudly represented “The Bay,” she’d known Tupac personally and could recite the lyrics to Too Short songs. Jerry was sick with cancer off and on throughout their three-year relationship and was still ill when his girlfriend decided it was over.
Diagnosed on Good Friday 2001, a few weeks after noticing a swelling on the top of his right foot, the disease steadily progressed. “She said I have to be gone by Labor Day,” Jerry sighed. “I’ve already started packing.” I sucked my teeth. “Well, that still gives you a few weeks to figure it out,” I answered, trying to sound reassuring. “It’ll be cool, man, don’t worry about it. I’ll come by and help you tomorrow.”
“Thanks, man.” Jerry’s voice was deep and serious. A lover of Sinatra, he sometimes carried himself in that stoic Frankie way. He’d watched a lot of tough guy movies with Bogart, Cagney, Lancaster, Widmark, and Mitchum as a kid. In the living room sitting next to his dad, he became a lover of film dialogue that he could recite verbatim.
That phone call came a week after Jerry turned 42. Born under the sign of Leo, he was a natural leader who usually had a big roar, but not that evening. I came over the next day while his now ex-girlfriend was at the gym. There were white moving boxes scattered throughout the beautifully decorated apartment. Outside, it was Hades hot, but the space was comfortably chilled by an air conditioner. Theirs was a dwelling I knew well, having been over for dinner parties, Sunday nights watching The Sopranos, Monday evenings viewing 24, and dog-sitting when they were out of town. Next to the front door was a long, wide cage containing Jerry’s furry white ferret Bandit. I could smell the Café Bustelo brewing.
Brooklyn Hospital was across the street, and the sounds of sirens were constant. Jerry would usually be talking about some new project or telling me about the folks from his day job at a Bronx drug clinic, but that day he was church-mouse quiet. Glancing at him, I sipped the strong coffee and placed familiar books in a box. I knew exactly what was coming next. After a few false starts, he blurted, “Look, if I can’t find a place right away, can I come stay with you for a little while?” I looked at him and smiled, knowing that in New York City, apartment-hunting-time “a little while” could mean anything from six months to six years.
For the previous few years, since my girlfriend Lesley passed away suddenly, I’d lived alone in Crown Heights. The last thing I wanted to do was share space with anyone. Still, how could I say no? He’d always been there for me, especially after Lesley’s brain aneurysm. The afternoon of her funeral, after everyone was gone, Jerry and I stood together in the empty New Jersey graveyard as my mind tried to process my plight. I was afraid to go home and face the empty Chelsea apartment Lesley and I shared, and Jerry understood my dilemma. “Let’s go to the movies and see The Iron Giant,” he said casually after we’d slipped into the limo back to Manhattan. I smiled for the first time since claiming her body at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For the next two weeks, he visited me every day after work.
All of that came back to me as I contemplated his question about moving in. “Of course, you can stay with me,” I answered, “but is the ferret coming too?” Then it was Jerry’s turn to smile.
* * *
Jerry and I met when I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Long Island University in Brooklyn. One winter afternoon in 1981, on a chartered bus ride headed upstate for a student government trip, I spotted Jerry sitting by himself reading Prevue magazine. Published by former Marvel Comics artist Jim Steranko, it was the kind of specialty movie magazine that, if you read it, put you in the completely different category of film fanboy. On the cover was a striking Steranko painting of the The Empire Strikes Back cast. We had bonded over movies, music, marijuana, and comic books by the time the rickety bus arrived at our destination.
While I was an English major with dreams of becoming the next great American writer, Jerry was a media major determined to be a director and screenwriter. A born-and-bred Brooklyn boy an inch or two shorter than my six feet, he was a handsome Puerto Rican with an olive complexion, full beard, and, though he would bald early, a full head of thick hair. He wore a button-down shirt, and I noticed he had an extremely hairy chest. Later, he confessed that his ex-girlfriend Bebe affectionately called him “Monkey,” while the guys at his messenger gig thought he resembled fuzzy porn star Ron Jeremy.
Shortly after we met, Jerry moved into a one-bedroom, second-floor apartment at 1820 Cortelyou Road in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn with his jazz-loving, poetry-reading Communist older brother Antonio. Big bro took the bedroom while Jerry transformed the living room into a work space, leisure center, and sleeping quarters. There were piles of records, books, comics, magazines, and video tapes throughout. On the white wall near the window was a film poster for The Yakuza, while across the room hung the infamous Richard Avedon image of Nastassja Kinski with a boa constrictor coiled around her naked body.
Jerry’s place soon became my second home. There was an extra mattress for me to crash on as his two cats Lumet and Spielberg roamed through the night. His big sister Sylvia was five years older than me and became like my own sibling. She’d bring her two kids over, and we’d often watch movies together.
Back then, VCRs were a relatively new invention, and Jerry was the first person I knew to own one. Videos could cost up to a hundred dollars, but Jerry had copped a few of his favorite flicks, including the bugged drug film Altered States, written by his early hero Paddy Chayefsky. One night, weeded out, we tried to watch Altered States, but for obvious reasons I kept laughing even when there wasn’t anything funny, so Jerry turned it off. I kept laughing until I passed out.
While I was an English major with dreams of becoming the next great American writer, Jerry was a media major determined to be a director and screenwriter.
Jerry became the older brother I’d always wanted — someone who I could talk to about the real world and mysterious girls. Though I was 18 when we met, I had very little experience with women and, compared to mister “I used to live with an older woman,” knew nothing about relationships. I was a shy former altar boy who’d just started having sex. Jerry bought my condoms at the drugstore when I was embarrassed and taught me James Caan’s hard-boiled-romantic speech from the diner scene in Michael Mann’s exceptional neo-noir Thief (“So let’s cut the mini moves and the bullshit and get on with this big romance”) as a way of convincing a cutie-pie classmate crush to be my girlfriend.
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In those early days, I still lived in Harlem with my grandmother, so Jerry and I often met in the Village on West 4th and 6th Avenue. After smoking a joint in Washington Square Park, where, if lucky we might catch street comedian Charlie Barnett doing his act or some wannabe Dylan strumming an acoustic guitar, we’d go to Gray’s Papaya on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue and pig out on fifty-cent hot dogs. On other days, we’d head east and go shopping at vintage clothing stores Antique Boutique, Cheap Jacks, and Flip, where we bought long coats, strangely patterned ties and cool suit jackets made decades before. Jerry developed a weakness for vintage accessories that would later include a collection of cigarette cases, fedoras (both his dad and older brother were into that look when he was a boy), and pocket watches. In our minds, we were next in line for Rat Pack duty as we dressed like smooth criminals ready to make the city our playground.
* * *
I’d known about Jerry’s cancer since day one, but it wasn’t until he moved into my Brooklyn Avenue garret four stories up the stairs that I got to see the negative impact up close. It wasn’t until he was in the next room that I realized the true meaning behind the “good days, bad days” answer he’d give when people asked about his health. Sometimes just mustering the strength to get out of bed was a chore. But Jerry didn’t retreat from the world after his diagnosis. He kept his full-time job and began directing a documentary about salsa, as well as the off-Broadway play Chained Dog, written by Rob Santana. He also began rewriting his first novel, the Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) noir The Devil’s Mambo.
Forerunners of Nuyorican writer’s school include Piri Thomas (Down These Mean Streets), Judge Edwin Torres (Carlito’s Way and After Hours), Miguel Piñero (Short Eyes), and Abraham Rodriguez Jr. (Spidertown). Jerry’s debut was an excellent addition to that streetwise canon. Set in the late ’90s, it tells the sordid story of former New York City homicide cop Nicholas Esperanza living the high life with his beautiful girlfriend, Legs, after winning the lottery for 30 million bucks. Between running his salsa club Sueno Latino, having crazed drug parties, and making passionate love to his lady, life is great until it isn’t. After Legs’s niece Alina goes missing, Esperanza goes in search of her and slowly slips into a sexual netherworld of child porn and a crazed S&M–loving villain named Mistress Devona Love.
From Uptown to Downtown to underground black strip clubs and chain-dangling dungeons, The Devil’s Mambo was the kind of nasty noir that few American writers were doing anymore. “The squeamish may wince as Esperanza does his desperate and dark dance down the wild side,” Publishers Weekly warned. The book began 24 years before as a screenplay called Hunting the Innocent. There were photos of sinful New York after dark on the cover that also included blurbs from crime-writing heavy hitters Jason Starr, Kenji Jasper, and Ken Bruen, whose brilliant book The Guards was a favorite. “I met Jerry at Bouchercon in Madison, Wisconsin, and he, Jason Starr, and I hung together for three solid days,” Bruen said in an email. “It was, I swear, instant friendship, and we had the same noir outlook, warped humor, and similar experiences. Never before or since have I felt such a bond with another writer; it was like we’d hung out all our lives, wise cracking and riffing. Then I read The Devil’s Mambo and was blown to hell and back; it was that good.”
* * *
When we were in our early 20s imagining ourselves as a couple of arty outsiders, young turks, real mavericks breaking down bourgeois barriers, Jerry and I frequently clubbed in the city at the Ritz, Danceteria, or the Peppermint Lounge. Jerry danced hard to the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven” or “Rock the Casbah,” as well as anything made by his favorite group, The Police. Besides being shy, I had two left feet, and it was Jerry who encouraged me to dance no matter how crazy I looked on the floor. Danceteria became our favorite club after the owner Rudolf gave us lifetime memberships because I’d interviewed him for a Black Beat magazine article, with Jerry serving as my photographer. Picture-taking was another one of his loves; he sometimes wore a 35 mm Nikon around his neck as though he were the son of Avedon. The camera also served as an instant conversation starter with interesting women who sometimes became lovers after having their portraits taken.
From Uptown to Downtown to underground black strip clubs and chain-dangling dungeons, ‘The Devil’s Mambo’ was the kind of nasty noir that few American writers were doing anymore.
Drunk on Long Island Iced Teas and ideas, we talked endlessly about the Beats, Alfred Hitchcock, Andy Warhol, or the latest new wave acts (Culture Club, Flock of Seagulls) as we stumbled to the subway after last call. One night in 1982 we’d gone to the Mudd Club, but realized we’d missed the Basquiat/Fab Five Freddy scene by a year. Dejected, we roamed through the dark streets of a mostly deserted Tribeca and eventually stumbled on a different club that we decided to check out. After having us sign a piece of paper stating we didn’t work for the vice squad, we ventured into the spot and walked down a flight of steep stairs.
It was then that we realized we were in an S&M club. Entering into a massive room, there were white male “slaves” tied up and being punished by high-heeled, whip-welding dominatrixes. Jerry and I stared, puzzled and delighted by the spectacle. Years later, as I read the intense S&M scenes in The Devil’s Mambo, I wondered if the seeds to the dom villain Mistress Devona Love were planted that night.
* * *
Most of Jerry’s large family could draw and, inspired by them and fellow Brooklynite comic book artist John Buscema, whose macho drawing style defined ’70s-era Marvel Comics, he too started making art. While his older brother Frank as well as his sister Sylvia gave him some tips, it was during that time that Jerry decided to sign up for real art classes. “In the ’70s, there was an ad in the comics to study comic book art with one of the Marvel guys,” Jerry said. “I was hoping to get John Buscema, but instead I got Don Heck.” Although Heck didn’t have the same vibrant style as other Marvel masters (Neal Adams, John Romita Sr., Gene Colon), he was a premier visual storyteller, which I’m sure Jerry appreciated years later when he began processing and storyboarding images for his own projects.
Jerry went to Midwood High, which, as he often told me, was where Woody Allen had also gone. In ninth grade he became buddies with future comic book artist/writer superstar Jimmy Palmiotti, who was also one of the blurbers on The Devil’s Mambo. “He was a better artist than I was when we were in high school,” Palmiotti told me in 2007 when Jerry introduced us at the Big Apple Comic Convention. While Palmiotti left Midwood the following year for the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, Jerry remained.
After graduating, Jerry took a year off before going to college. He was living with Bebe, who was five years older than him. He sometimes worked as a bar bouncer, but later quit to become a messenger at Bear Stearns. While working there in 1983, he became friends with a rapping coworker who called himself the Great Peso. He’d overheard Jerry talking about wanting to make movies and offered him a gig directing a video for his hip-hop group the Fearless Four. Their song was “Problems of the World,” and they were produced by Kurtis Blow and managed by Russell Simmons.
Using school friends and family both in front of the camera and behind it, Jerry shot the entire video in two days on the wintry streets of Harlem and Brooklyn. Decades later, the “Problems of the World” clip is a cult classic and a cornerstone of hip-hop’s history, but Jerry never directed another video. It was Jerry’s first professional gig, and its vividly drawn themes of domestic strife and senseless violence would recur in his works regardless of the medium.
* * *
When both Jerry and I dropped out of LIU, his older sister Jeannette got us jobs as institutional aides at a downtown homeless shelter called Catherine Street. It was a family shelter, meaning mostly women and kids. We were both janitors in the building. After working midnight to 8 a.m., we’d punch out and take the subway to Sylvia’s, where she’d make us banana pancakes and strong coffee. Jerry was later promoted to the recreation department, where he worked with the children, taking them on day trips and teaching art classes.
The shelter building was a massive old school with many empty rooms that I could duck into to read. I started stuffing paperbacks in my pocket and began devouring Black Lizard pulp novel reprints of writers Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Charles Willeford, and others. When I was done with one, I passed it on to Jerry, and Goodis soon became one of his early noir-lit heroes. A decade later, Jerry wrote a crime film, El Deseo, and in its production notes, he said that what attracted him to Thompson and Goodis was “their colorful, tough, and rhythmic dialogue [that] captures the nuances of their characters complex and tormented inner lives.” When Jerry got signed to William Morris years later and worked with late agent Manie Barron to try (unsuccessfully) to sell a manuscript of The Devil’s Mambo, an editor complained that Jerry’s violent, sexually charged book was too much for him. “I think Rodriguez has a lot of talent but while reading the book, I felt like I was blinded by sin,” he wrote. We both laughed. “You should make that a blurb,” I said. He later started writing a new screenplay and used it as a title.
The year after leaving school, we got the wacky idea to collaborate on a play about (what else?) a bunch of complaining college students that was inspired by our love for the ensemble films Diner, The Big Chill, and The Breakfast Club. Over the course of two months of weekends, we used old metal electric typewriters to click-clack our way through the play we’d titled Victims of the Live Wire while swilling whiskey, gulping coffee, and puffing cigarettes. We wrote as though we were crazed characters in a Sam Shepard production. We slept little, but never got into any arguments or fights. When we finally finished a draft weeks later, I had no idea what was going to happen with the work.
‘I think Rodriguez has a lot of talent but while reading the book, I felt like I was blinded by sin,’ he wrote. We both laughed. ‘You should make that a blurb,’ I said.
Jerry used the play to jumpstart a small theater group that included young method actors and Strasberg students Kelly Curtis, Tony Welsh, Scott Plank, and Rich Goteri. With Jerry as director and ringleader, we workshopped Victims for months at Curtis’ brownstone apartment in Greenwich Village. Many rewrites and rehearsals later, we finally rented a theater at a local college, and Victims of the Live Wire was performed over the course of a few nights. Although I later wrote a few other one-acts, I realized that the theater wasn’t for me. Jerry, on the other hand, would write and direct numerous off-off-Broadway plays throughout the ’80s, mostly damaged romancers with titles like Moondance Cafe and Facade. The wonderfully sharp dialogue on display in The Devil’s Mambo, where there is a naturalistic flow and dark sarcasm, was honed during his decades writing for theater and film.
* * *
Jerry’s relocation from his ex’s apartment to mine took place a few days before Labor Day 2004. “Back in the ghetto again,” he said a few nights after moving in. Although Crown Heights was a few years from full-blown gentrification, it wasn’t “ghetto.” Jerry’s comment ticked me off. I sucked my teeth. “If you don’t want to live in the ghetto, you’re welcome to leave,” I said. Jerry raised his eyebrows and laughed. “You’re so sensitive,” he said. “I would think you’d know my humor by now.” Jerry and I living together was a classic Odd Couple scenario, with him as the neat, organized Felix Unger character while I was the sloppy Oscar journalist for Vibe, XXL, Complex, and other pop culture sites. We took turns getting on one another’s nerves, but we were cool.
I’d moved to 302 Brooklyn Avenue in Crown Heights five years before, and it was a quiet block with friendly neighbors and a church across the street. Having lucked onto a decent-size space on the top floor of a two-family house owned by Mrs. Glover, the apartment was bigger than any I’d ever lived in and there was an extra bedroom. After five years, there were still boxes in the hallway I hadn’t unpacked. I deliberately disappeared the weekend he moved in (I’d already given him the keys), and by the time I returned a few days later, Jerry had already hired a housekeeper and scheduled to have the apartment painted.
Jerry dragged me into the 21st century kicking and screaming. Within a few weeks, the apartment was wired with cable and Wi-Fi, and Jerry had been instrumental in getting me a new desktop computer for a hundred bucks from one of the clients at the clinic where he worked. His room was blue and white, and he had his desk sandwiched between the two windows that looked into the small yards of our neighbors. On the roof over his room, some birds made a nest and in the mornings we could hear their tapping and singing and welcoming in the brand new day.
In addition to the ferret, desk, computer, bed, and books, he also brought a giant television set that was set up in a small area between our two rooms. We spent countless hours in there watching black-and-white crime flicks on TCM, Asian horror/action movies from Netflix, and Batman the Animated Series, perhaps the most noir cartoon ever. Sometimes I would come home and Jerry would be watching his favorite yesteryear joints The Terminator, Robocop, or The Godfather II, and I must’ve sat through John Cassavetes’ brilliant Shadows about ten times in one week. Jerry used to joke, “I like movies, Michael likes films.” Truthfully, though, we each liked both.
Jerry never spoke ill of his ex, and the only sign of his maudlin mood was the repeated plays of Prefab Sprout’s heartbreak album Two Wheels Good, whose standout track, “When Love Breaks Down,” became his anthem. He bought a new aqua blue Apple computer and threw himself into once again rewriting The Devil’s Mambo. Over his desk he hung an autographed pen-and-ink reproduction of a Jim Steranko illustration, a still from his gritty detective graphic novel Chandler that I’d bought for him years before at a comic book convention. On the other side of the room was a framed photo of Frank Sinatra in front of a Mexican divorce court. Leaning coolly against the wall, over Frankie’s head was painted in bold black, “Divorce Your Loved One With Dignity.”
Most days, Jerry would come straight home from work, prepare a pot of coffee and close himself in the room, tapping on the computer keys for hours. Occasionally he’d ask me questions about rap songs, or we’d rehash the days we roamed the so-called dark side with our drinking, sniffing (hey, we met in the ’80s when cocaine was cheap and the quality was high), and other forms of decadent behavior that we believed made us into postmodern Baudelaires — drunk and full of passion. Though we’d mostly chilled with our wicked ways, many of our memories became scenes in The Devil’s Mambo: visiting the neon-lit porn palaces in Times Square, the trans bar Sally’s Hideaway, the strip club Billy’s Topless, and the underground locked door private strip/sex parties at the Marc Ballroom became the crime drama’s foundation.
Finally, in June 2005, Jerry gave me the book to read, knowing in advance that I hated reading other people’s long works, even if that other person was my best friend. It took me a month or so to get to it, but when I did, I wasn’t disappointed. Since I was a boy, I’d always been a sucker for a New York City crime story and Jerry captured my favorite murderous metropolis so well. In addition, there was extra attraction of knowing firsthand the references, nom de plumes, mutual friend’s names, and landscapes. Part Jim Thompson, part Henry Miller, part Hector Lavoe, part Marvel Comics, The Devil’s Mambo was also a dark love letter to the city that had been his primary home since birth, a town where anything could happen at any time, and the sky was constantly falling. Textually, his prose was as vivid as a movie flickering on the screen of some Times Square theater.
“This is dope, man,” I told him, keeping to myself the other part of my sentence, “but, who is going to publish it?”
Jerry had been through a decade-plus of rejections, so I couldn’t believe he was going to put that book and himself back on the block. A few days later, I came across a listing on a writer’s website that read, “Kensington Publishing seeks Hispanic Writers.” I forwarded the call notice to Jerry, and he in turn put together a package to send to the inquiring editor, Sulay Hernandez.
Before the envelope could be posted, and though his health had been good for months, Jerry got very sick and wound up in Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, on the Upper East Side.
* * *
The number of doctors and nurses smoking cigarettes outside every time I visited the leading cancer hospital amazed me. Usually I’d stop at the newsstand for magazines or at the Jewish deli for overstuffed sandwiches. Jerry had, as expected, lost crazy weight and was paler than I’d ever seen him. Years before we’d had a discussion about religion, and Jerry told me he considered himself an atheist, which was surprising. Having gone to Catholic school, I didn’t know many Spanish-speaking folks who didn’t believe in God, and I was taken aback.
Sitting beside his hospital bed as Law & Order played on television, I asked, “Since you’ve been ill, have your beliefs changed?” He was in pain but managed to snicker. “You think just because I’m sick I’m going to start believing in God?” he mumbled. “You should know me better than that.” Detailing this period in his blog a year later, Jerry wrote:
I ended up getting major surgery. I was supposed to be out of commission for about a month. Then I got an infection. Ended up back in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Another surgery. Antibiotics central. It turned into a painful three-month ordeal.
Jerry didn’t mention I’d accidentally killed his ferret while he was away. Well, I didn’t exactly kill it, but the fuzzy bastard died on my watch, a death I’ve felt guilty about ever since. I called Sylvia, and she said, “Put him in a paper bag and bring him over to the house. We can bury him in the backyard.” Jerry didn’t find out about the creature’s death until he came home, but he was so drained he simply shrugged it off and retreated to his room.
Though it was a slow process, Jerry got stronger by the day and returned to work. I noticed that the manuscript was gone. One day, as he sat in the pharmacy getting a prescription of Dilaudid filled, the editor from Kensington called Jerry personally to tell him she’d read a few chapters of his book and loved it.
“Sulay was quite pleasant and very enthusiastic,” he blogged the following year.
She was also warm and down to earth. I warned her that the book was very dark and she might not feel the same way once she finished it. She promised she’d read it over the weekend. Yeah, sure, I thought. The weekend passed. Phone rang on Monday morning. Sulay wanted the book. Thought it would make a wonderful thriller series and Nicholas Esperanza had the potential to become a popular character. Had to talk to her boss first. It was all happening very fast. As promised, she called back and offered a three-book deal.
Initially the advance was so low Jerry wasn’t going to accept it, but Kensington brought more chips to the table and the deal was cut. It might’ve taken more than 20 years, but when it happened, it happened quickly, and there was no time for mini-moves or bullshit. “Can you believe this shit,” Jerry said after returning from lunch with Sulay. “Finally, finally.” We celebrated that night with a couple bottles of Korbel champagne and spliff of primo weed from our dealer Lando. “You can’t go wrong buying weed from a dude named after a character in The Empire Strikes Back.” It was a movie moment with a swinging soundtrack by Count Basie and Sinatra singing “The Best is Yet to Come.”
* * *
For the next few months Jerry not only worked hard revising the book, but he also started plotting the next two Esperanza novels, Revenge Tango (2008) and the unpublished Rumba for the Dead. With The Devil’s Mambo slated to be published in April 2007, much of 2006 was spent choosing covers and coming up with a title. In yet another blog post, he wrote:
I came up with eight titles and nervously read them over the phone. One by one they were rejected and my heart sank lower with each rejection. When I reached title number seven, the voice on the line was suddenly ecstatic, and thought it was perfect. She checked with Amazon. No book with that title. She called the publisher, who absolutely loved it, and I breathed the biggest sigh of relief of my life. My novel is now called The Devil’s Mambo. That’s a title I can live with, indeed.
On April 29, 2007, Jerry invited his many friends to Bar Sepia, a favorite spot on Underhill Avenue that was owned by his friend Delissa, for a book party. He looked happy and healthy as he threw back a few Glenlivets and classic Fania Records artists blared over the stereo. With a beaming smile, Jerry wore a suit that was sharp as a bag of razor blades. He signed books and danced until dusk to “El Cantante,” “Vamonos Pa’l Monte,” and other salsa jams. It was one of the best days of his short life.
Several months later, Jerry became very ill again. Although he rarely complained, it wasn’t easy, and he fought through more chemo, medications, and depression. While I was in Baltimore during the Christmas holiday, he was hospitalized, and by January he had moved in with his sister Jeannette who cared for him during months of physical pain and struggle. On a Sunday afternoon, June 22, 2008, two months after his second novel Revenge Tango was published, she checked him into the hospital. Jerry had bounced back so many times I just assumed he’d be fine. Hours later, he was dead. Weeping, Sylvia called me. “He’s gone,” she said. “He’s gone.” I took a deep breath and laid in the old bed he’d left behind and stared at the ceiling, sad without tears. The next day was my birthday, which guaranteed that I would remember the anniversary of Jerry’s death for the rest of my own life.
A year and four months later, many of the familiar faces from the book party were gathered in the same bar for his memorial service. In classic noir tradition, the August afternoon of the memorial service, it rained heavily. That gloomy day, as thunder and lightning clashed in the sky, we paid tribute to the filmmaker, brother, movie lover, comic book artist, wonderful writer, dancer, sensei, and friend that we all loved. After the crowd finished sharing memories and crying into their cocktails, the storm suddenly stopped and the sun peeked through the clouds as a vivid rainbow crisscrossed the Brooklyn sky. The sentimentalist in me loved it, but I knew in my poisoned heart that noir novelist Jerry Rodriguez would have thought that shit was corny as hell.
* * *
Michael A. Gonzales writes The Blacklist book column for Catapult. He has written for The Paris Review,The Village Voice, Pitchfork, New York magazine and the upcoming Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop edited by Vikki Tobak. A former hip-hop journalist, his articles, essays and reviews have appeared in The Source, RapPages, Vibe, Ego Trip, XXL, Complex and Mass Appeal. In addition, he is the co-author of Bring The Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991). Currently he is working on a hip-hop novel.
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