From a Basement in the East

On Tuesday, if my friend Mike were still alive, he would have turned 37 years old. It’s been almost three-and-a-half years now since he died. And most days I catch myself thinking about him in one way or another — like the time he tried to convince me that we wouldn’t sound like fools if we talked like Doughboy from Boys N the Hood; or when, as an adult, he sometimes confessed his frustration over finding his right place in the world. As a way to remember him this week, I wanted to share the eulogy that I gave at Mike’s memorial service in October 2010.

I met Mike in junior high. We sat across from each other in civics class. He would draw funny cartoon characters in the pages of his notebook and flash them at me when the teacher wasn’t looking. In response, I’d scribble some asinine phrase in huge block letters, and hold it up from across the aisle. We’d both laugh like hell. Then our teacher would yell at us. Eventually she had to separate our desks, sticking us at opposite ends of the classroom. But at that point it was too late. We were already fast friends.

That was back in 1990, our initial encounter. And in the twenty years I knew Mike, we experienced so many fun, fulfilling, and important moments. We shared a mutual obsession with music, art, and movies, and spent untold hours discussing the nuances; together we endured high school and the unparalleled joy and heartache of adolescence; we performed and recorded in a band, an experience that brought us closer than before; and we eventually had the opportunity to dance at each others’ weddings.

To boil down all we experienced together, and all that Mike meant to me, is difficult. But that’s because his friendship and his influence were profound.

Mike gave me my first non-barbershop haircut. He took a pair of clippers and buzzed off the mountain of hair that had stacked up on my head (a mess he referred to as my coonskin cap). For a minute, he desperately wanted us to become fluent in slang, but I was terrible at remembering all the new vocabulary. He took me to buy my first pair of Vans, and he also introduced me to the glory of Ralph’s Army Surplus, where we spent way too much money on military issue clothing.

One of the first times I got drunk was with Mike in the basement of my parent’s house. We attempted to make screwdrivers, mixing vodka and Food Club brand orange juice. The only problem: we had far too much vodka and nowhere near enough orange juice. We couldn’t get over how bad it tasted. It was like drinking orange-flavored rubbing alcohol. But we drank it anyway, mainly I think so we could brag about it later. And that night we drunkenly spilled our guts to each other, talking about music and girls and school and all the great things we were going to do. We watched Yo! MTV Raps, fell asleep late, and woke up the next morning with terrible hangovers.

As an adult, Mike came into his own. He was a talented, self-taught bass player and strong collaborative musician. His skills as an illustrator were sharp, though he rarely talked about it. And his artistic pursuits were both unconventional and imaginative—proof of this was evident in the masterful art exhibitions and publications he put together with Unicorn Mountain.

To look at Mike, you would never characterize him as a tough guy. He was warm and loving and funny. In fact, his generous nature and one-of-a-kind sense of humor were the antithesis to such a characterization. But as he battled cancer all these years, a strong and resilient Mike emerged—an individual so brave I was consistently in awe. He became a man defined by his undaunted optimism. No matter how bad things got, he was always able to find the upside. And at the times when the burden of his illness became too daunting, he would step away for a bit. But never for long, and when we’d see each other again he’d apologize for his absence, even though he had no reason to do so.

(Photograph: Michelle Newton. Caption: Mike circa 1992, mugging for the camera in the halls of Plum Senior High School.)