Authors: Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers
To Beryl Banfield, for her contributions to multicultural literature
he way I see it, things happen on 145th Street that didn’t happen anywhere else in the world. I’m not saying that 145th is weird or anything like that, but it’s, like, intense. So when I heard about Big Joe’s funeral it didn’t take me by surprise. It was something that I remember, and that’s why I’m telling it. This is the way it went down.
The funeral took place on the Fourth of July, one of the hottest days of the year. People were sitting out on their fire escapes or on their front stoops trying to catch a breeze. If there was a breeze in the ’hood it must have stopped somewhere for an iced tea because I didn’t see or feel it. Nobody was doing any unnecessary movements unless their name was Peaches Jones, who was setting out to ruin Big Joe’s funeral.
Peaches was what you would call seriously fine. She was fifteen, about five feet three, a medium brown color, and definitely wrong. She was wrong because she was not giving Big Joe his propers, which means his proper respect. A person ought to have respect for other people all of the time, but especially at two times during their life. The first time is when they are born. When a baby is born you shouldn’t say discouraging things about it like “Hey, I seen prettier dogs than that baby,” or “Maybe he ain’t ugly, maybe he’s just inside out.” Give the baby a chance.
The other time you need to show some respect is when a person is going on out of this world. You know, like they’re dead and whatnot. Let the person go. Whatever will be their reward has got to be figured out on the other side. Even if they slip on out owing you some money, you got to bite the bullet, give up some slack, and let them be on their way. But Peaches didn’t see it that way when it came to Big Joe. She had her mind dead set on messing up Big Joe’s funeral.
Let me back up here and tell you: It all started when Big Joe, who owns Big Joe’s Bar-B-Que and Burger Restaurant, right here on 145th Street down from the Eez-On-In Cafe, decided to cancel his life insurance. He said he had been paying on his life insurance for twenty years. If he canceled his insurance he would get a check from the insurance company for eighteen thousand dollars. Now, that is some serious money. It sounded good when the guys in the barbershop were talking about it. So Big Joe canceled his insurance and sure enough, two weeks later, he was telling everybody that the check came just like he thought it would. That’s when he decided to have the funeral.
“I have always loved a good funeral,” Big Joe said. He was sitting outside his restaurant, peeling potatoes to make potato salad. “And when I went to Freddy’s funeral—y’all remember Freddy?”
“Yeah, I remember Freddy and his funeral,” Willie Murphy said. “He looked real good.”
“That’s my point,” Big Joe said. “He was looking better than I have ever seen him. He was clean, had his hair combed, and wore that dark suit with a carnation in his lapel.”
“He was sharp!” Willie went on. “And when Angela, that little Puerto Rican girl, sang ‘Precious Lord,’ everybody was crying.”
“Ain’t nobody was going to cry over Freddy when he was alive,” Big Joe said. “Funerals bring out the best in people. Am I lying or flying?”
“You definitely flying,” I said.
“I hate to talk about the dead,” Willie added, “but when Freddy was a walkie-talkie all he wanted to do was to hang out on the corner and ask everybody he seen if they had any spare change so he could take it down to the Eez-On-In and get him a beer.”
“Un-huh, but he still had him a nice funeral,” Big Joe said. “I’m going to have me a nice funeral while I’m still alive so I can appreciate it.”
Now, we didn’t exactly know what Big Joe meant by that but when he started explaining, it made sense. He was going to take part of that eighteen thousand dollars and throw himself a funeral the way some people throw a party.
“Nothing too fancy,” he said. “Just something nice.”
Now, this is what he did. He went over to the Unity Funeral Home on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and arranged things with them. At first Old Man Turner, who ran the place, was a little put out, but then he saw where live people having funerals would greatly increase his business and he said okay. He was going to supply the coffin, the hearse, which carried the coffin, and two limousines. The good part of this is that since I was there when Big Joe was first talking about his funeral I was going to get to ride in one of the limousines.
Big Joe asked Leroy Brown, who had a little band, to play the music at his funeral. Then he found Angela, that little girl who had sung at Freddy’s funeral, and asked her to sing a song.
Now, you’re probably wondering what Sadie, Big Joe’s girlfriend, thought about all this. Well, she didn’t like it one bit.
“You don’t mess with dying,” she said, her hands on her hips. “You go laying up in some coffin and death liable to reach out and snatch you right away from here!”
“Woman, you’re just superstitious,” Big Joe said. “Ain’t nothing to worry about.”
Sadie was a widow lady, her husband having been run over by an ambulance while he was on the way across Malcolm X Boulevard to buy a Lotto ticket. Maybe her being a widow was what made her touchy. But if she was a little upset it was nothing compared to what her daughter, Peaches, felt. When Peaches heard about Big Joe’s plans she was madder than a junkyard dog with fleas.
“He’s been asking my mama to marry him for the last year,” Peaches said. “If he’s going to be a good husband what’s he doing going around acting stupid?”
“Is she going to marry him?” I asked.
“She doesn’t need to marry him or anybody else,” Peaches said.
Big Joe had promised Sadie he was going to adopt Peaches once they were married. That looked like a good deal to me because Big Joe was really successful and everybody liked him. Not only that but the brother was handsome, too. He was tall and dark and had white hair at the temples, which made him distinguished-looking. Peaches and her mama argued up one side of Big Joe and down the other but he didn’t change his mind. He was going to have his funeral.
Big Joe was popular on 145th Street. If you were a little down on your luck and needed a meal, or a pair of shoes, or even half the month’s rent, you could go to Big Joe and he’d listen to you and more than likely help you out, too. So by the day of the funeral it looked like there was going to be a big turnout.
Now, besides Sadie and Peaches there were some sisters from the church who thought the idea was a little peculiar and they made sure that everybody knew it, but even some of them showed up because they appreciated a good funeral, too.
Well, the Fourth of July was hot but the undertaker’s parlor was air-conditioned. There were only two funerals scheduled for that day, Big Joe’s in the afternoon and a funeral for somebody named Calderone later that night.
When we came into the funeral parlor there was Big Joe, lying up front in his casket. It spooked me out. Big Joe wasn’t moving a muscle and you could see he had on some of that makeup they put on dead people. Sadie was sitting in the front row with her arms folded and her jaws tight.
When it was my turn to file past the coffin I did so real slow. I knew that Big Joe was alive but I didn’t know what I would do if he suddenly sat up. I was glad to sit back down again.
The funeral director’s wife played some songs on the organ and then Angela sang her heart out; there were real tears running down her face. Then some of Joe’s friends stood up and said good things about him.
Leroy’s band, the All Star Stompers, played “Amazing Grace” and “One More River to Cross” and before you knew it we were deep into the funeral. I looked over at Sadie and she was getting a little misty, too.
When the inside part of the funeral was over the undertaker shut the coffin. I watched to see if Big Joe was going to move. The dude didn’t even twitch.
When we got outside, the hearse and the limousines were waiting, and so was Peaches. She and two of her friends, LaToya and Squeezie, had painted these big signs. They read,
BIG JOE IS NOT DEAD.
Mother Fletcher, who might be the oldest woman on the block, was just passing by and saw them. She went over to them. I went over, too, because I wanted to know what she was going to say.
“You’re right, child,” Mother Fletcher said. “The flesh fades but the spirit lives on to its eternal reward!”
“That’s not what I mean,” Peaches said. “I mean he’s really not dead!”
“Suffer the little children!” Mother Fletcher said as she started walking away. “Glory, hallelujah!”
Peaches and her crew held up their signs across the street and people on the block looked at them and looked at the funeral and most of them didn’t know exactly what was going on. Chops Peterson came over to me and said, “Peaches should mind her business.”
“If Big Joe is supposed to be her daddy someday, maybe it is her business,” I said.
“He’s not her daddy yet,” Chops said.
By then they had loaded Big Joe into the hearse and the rest of us got into the limousines and we started up to Jackie Robinson Memorial Park.
Jackie Robinson Memorial Park was a playground on one side, and on the other side were just benches and a few trees. We were going to pick out a spot in the park and have a ceremony there like it was really a grave.
“I want to hear some dirt falling on the casket,” Big Joe had said.
Now, to me that was going a little too far. I didn’t think I could lie in no casket, even if it was cracked some so I could breathe, and hear dirt being tossed on it. I was glad it wasn’t me in there.
I might have split right then, but I knew the last part of the funeral was going to be okay. After the ceremony we were all supposed to leave feeling good. Leroy’s band would play some jazz and the whole thing was going to turn into a party that would end up in Big Joe’s place.
When we were pulling away from the funeral parlor I saw Peaches and her girls taking down their signs. I figured they knew they had lost the fight. We were going over toward Malcolm X but they were headed in the opposite direction in a big hurry.
First the cars went down to 141st Street, where Big Joe lived, and we went past his house real slow, showing respect to where he had spent his life, then we turned and went up to 145th and past the restaurant real slow. Some brothers playing checkers on the corner took their hats off when we went by. Then we went up the hill to the park.
When we got there the undertakers pulled out the coffin and put it on a roller and rolled it right onto the grass. That’s when I saw Peaches and her crew again. They waited until we reached the place where Mr. Turner, the undertaker, had set up a little shade tent. Then they turned on the boom box they were carrying, and blasted a song called “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You!” all over the park.
Peaches had the boom box right up close and it was going as loud as she could get it going. LaToya was dancing and people heard all the commotion and started gathering around. They were looking at each other and trying to figure out what was going on. There was this girl dancing to this old-time song and a funeral going on right in the middle of the park.
Two winos drifted over to see what they could see and a bunch of kids stopped playing and gathered around.
“Yo, brother, y’all going to bury somebody right here?”
I turned around and saw this short dude carrying a hot dog in one hand and a book in the other. He tilted his head down and looked over his glasses at me.
“We’re not really going to bury him,” I whispered. “We’re just going to throw some dirt on him before the party starts.”
The brother took a giant step back from me and shook his head. “You
I just shrugged.
Right about then I thought the whole thing was going to come to a quick close because I saw two cops coming over.
“What you mean I got to move on?”
“You better get your hands off me!”
This is what Peaches and Squeezie were saying to the cops.
“It’s against the law to have your boom boxes turned up like that,” one cop said. “And you should have more respect for a funeral.”
Now I could see the cops eyeing us and looking at the coffin and one of them was talking on his radio. They weren’t sure if what we were doing was right, but they knew what to do about a loud boom box. So they took the box, and Peaches, LaToya, and Squeezie went after them.
Leroy’s band broke into “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and then they lowered the coffin onto the ground and threw a couple of clumps of dirt onto it up near the top so Big Joe could hear it. The funeral was officially over. The undertaker reached down and knocked on the wood to let Big Joe know. For a while nothing happened and I held my breath. All eyes were glued to the coffin. Then it popped open and Big Joe sat up. People who didn’t know what was going on moved back in a big hurry and one of the winos took off running.
Big Joe got out of the coffin and shook everybody’s hand.
“Let the party begin!” he said.
Leroy’s band broke into a reggae number and we started bopping on out the park.
We piled back into the cars and headed on down to Big Joe’s place with the horns going and people waving out the windows.