Roland was an angry black man. Not just angry: the man was furious. He haunted Broadway between 82nd and 84th streets, where he made a habit of accosting white people. “Hey, help me out? You, give me some money?” he’d shout at them. He ignored the bourgeois conventions that encourage people to keep their distance. He was in your face. This was at a time in New York City when such encounters were not uncommon. The American Civil Liberties Union fought heroically for the right of insane people to live on the street, which also meant their right to harass people and to piss and shit on the sidewalk.
Roland was an exceptionally handsome man with strong features. He was the color of sable and had an athletic build. He could have been a model for Robert Mapplethorpe or even Ralph Lauren, it was bad luck that Roland never met either man.
One day I came across Roland terrorizing an ancient couple. I went to their aid and asked Roland why he was yelling at them. He was surprised and left them alone. He turned to me and asked, “Are you going to give me some money?” I told him no and he answered, “Then get the fuck away from me before I hurt you.” For whatever reason, I held my ground, “I don’t understand. If you want people to give you money, why do you yell at them? Why do you terrorize them?” To my surprise he answered, “Because I don’t like having to ask for it.”
That’s how my friendship with Roland began.
For a year or so I’d buy us sandwiches at Zabar’s. We’d sit in the center meridian and discuss the films of Sam Peckinpah and Akira Kurosawa. We both thought The Wild Bunch was an elegiac masterpiece. We both thought Seven Samurai was magnificent. Roland had wept when Kikuchiyo was killed. He even wept when he described the scene.
Roland was an educated, thoughtful and articulate man. He had a degree from Brooklyn College, an ex-wife, a daughter enrolled at the University of Texas (whom he hadn’t spoken to since he was paroled in 1995). It was an old story: he had been a successful drug dealer, first marijuana then cocaine. He became an addict. Then he became a thief. He was arrested for armed robbery. He served his time and was released. He stored his clothes with distant relatives. He slept in flophouses when he had the money and on the street when he didn’t.
The street would kill him, but it took its time. When the weather was brutal, he’d stop at my building and I’d get a nervous call from the doorman. I’d come down and give him $20 to get a room. One particularly stormy night, he arrived after midnight and asked to come up. I told the doorman it was okay. The doorman asked me, in deference to my neighbors, to come down and bring him up. Roland was drenched. He was also sick with that harsh street cough. He had long ago lost his sable sheen and was now a scuffed brown. I made him a cup of coffee. He asked if he could stay the night. I had just begun to see Charlotte and she was waiting for me in the bedroom so I told him no. I told him no 20 times. He finished a second cup of coffee while I went and got him a heavy sweater and an umbrella. As I walked him out I gave him $20 to get a room.
The next time I saw Roland was at Saint Luke’s. He weighed next to nothing. He was a gray man. He laughed at his predicament, but he wasn’t happy.
He did like his room though, a private room in the new wing of the hospital. Roland had stomach cancer and it wasn’t going away.
One day Roland called. “I’m bored.” He then asked if he could live with me when he was released. “It won’t cost you a cent. In fact, you’ll make out like John Gotti.” He explained that once he was released the state would pay his rent and expenses. “I’ll sign it all over to you, and you’ll live rent free.”
I told him no. I told him no. I told him I’d think about it.
He called me the next day. “Did you think about it?”
“Well think about it.”
“I’ll think about it.
“We’re friends, right?”
“Then think about it. Are you coming to see me today?”
I told him I would and he said, “Do me a favor. When you come up, bring me a Big Mac, a pack of Kool Menthols and the Post.”
“You want cigarettes?”
“I’m bored to death, man, and don’t forget the Post. And make it two Big Macs.”
A few hours later I went to see Roland with two Big Macs and a pack of Kools wrapped in the New York Post. He had shrunken to the point that I almost didn’t see him. I helped him up from his bed and watched him limp into the bathroom dragging his IV stand with him. He smoked a couple of cigarettes behind the closed door.
I asked him if they would mind that he was smoking.
“What would they say to me? I’m one fierce nigger,” he sniggered. “Man, I’m dying. All they want is for me to vacate the room.”
I left and promised to return the next day with a Big Mac and an apple pie.
A week later, Roland called to say they were moving him to a hospice in the Bronx. “I told you, man. I told you I was dying. This is it. You’ll come and see me.” I think he was crying. A few days later I went to LA on business, and when I returned home there was no message from Roland. I got caught up in things and another week passed. Another week. Finally I called the hospice and asked to speak to Mr. Roland Green.
“Oh, Mr. Green,” the nurse answered. “Mr. Green is no longer with us.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m a friend of his and was wondering if you could tell me how I can get in touch with him.”
She replied, “Mr. Green is no longer with us.”
“Yes, I heard you. He’s no longer with you, but could you tell me …”
She cut me off. “I’m sorry sir, the man is dead. Mr. Green is dead. He died last week.”
Robert Sawyer is a brand strategist, creative director and the author of Kiss & Sell: Writing for Advertising.