I used to live in a room full of mirrors
Where all I could see was me.
But then my love came and saved me,
She set my poor heart free.

– Jimi Hendrix

There is no way to write about this without feeling that I can never do him justice. A few years ago my sister and I decided to get in touch with our old friend on his 25th birthday. We only had his momma’s phone number, where he lived when we lived back in St.Louis and all went to high school together.

His momma scared me even then, but I got myself together and dialed the familiar number.
– Hello?
– Hi, may I speak to Jamaal please?
– He don’t live here anymore. He moved down to South Carolina to live with his granma.
– This is an old friend of his, Anya, I’m just trying to find him – wanted to wish him a happy birthday…
– Oh yeah, I remember you. Well Miss Anya, his number over there is:…….
– Thank you.
– Take care now.

My sister and I hung up and dialed the new number. Now it was her turn to talk.

– Yes?
– Um…hello. May I speak to Jamaal please?
– He ain’t here. He wenover to his cousin’s. Who is this?
– This is an old friend of his…could I have that phone number?
– Well…alright. It’s……..
– Thanks.

We dialed the next number, the phone rang and I could hear my heart beating in the receiver. Jamaal picked up.

– Hello.
– Hey man, happy birthday!
– Heeeeey…duuude. Anya….and Liza too?…..wow.

Like I said, could never do him justice. Could never describe those dreds, that hunched-over posture of someone who’s been beaten by life, it seemed, for much too long. The sway of his ape-like arms and his wide gait as he crashed through the air around him, leaving a powerful impression of terror, pity, and awe.

His soul was a brilliant fire which breaks out of the form and lurches towards the sky when doused by fuel. He was that tragic hero, that bright, falling star that burns as it enters the atmosphere….Certainly not meant for these days, he seemed to come from the 1970’s, when all of American culture was rocked by convulsion and rebirth.

Jamaal lived Jimi Hendrix, talked in quotes from the Doors and the Dead, breathed in menthol cigarettes and out self-fulfilling prophecies. There was never a person who saw through others clearer: his verdict was always dead on. In the end it was as if life bubbled out of his and scorched him from the inside. He would not be sedated and rebelled, but the everyday tedium proved too powerful. Like a giant, callous steam roller it annihilated the energy that once was.

* * *

Strange that I am here at work, surrounded by pictures of my children, Houston summer heat, the International Space Station and office supplies, a million light years away from those times and that life. Our friend Jamaal turned 30 this year. We didn’t call him. Didn’t try to find where his lair is (that’s what he called the many places where he was always “staying”). Maybe we should, just to say hi. Or rather, to say heeeey, duuude.

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