Earl N. Collins, Jr., was born on April fools day.
But he was anything but that.
In his own way, he was shrewd. And he was never angry, or so it seemed. Some feat, huh? It would put him in class by himself. He still didn't envision what would befall him. Two life-takers would take their toll: obesity and diabetes.
Earl's undoing began way back.
He grew up in Hollis, a New York City suburb. Music mavens know that Hollis is home to rappers such as "Run DMC," arguably the world's first major hip-hoppers act. Earl was overweight, yet one those likable big dudes. He was exceptionally playful, and loved sports, watching or playing many of them. He was agile, both physically and mentally. Think of former NBA hoop-star Sir Charles Barkley, a 6'5'' guy who was overweight but played like a 7-footer. "He played above his head," as ballers say.
Earl also loved bowling, a holder he'd take with to adulthood. With all that physical activity, you'd think he'd be smaller. Does size matter?
Forget about size, Earl and we Hollisites talked plenty of trash. It didn't matter if we on and off the courts. It was part of our recreational stuff.
The verbal banter became especially intense when adults were scarce. A group of us would park ourselves on someone's porch, a grassy backyard or a school yard bench and talk ourselves silly.
Hollis seemed to have an unusual number of bar-b-ques, house parties and unannounced, co-ed get-togethers. It kinda felt at times we were the party capitol of Queens. Hollis is part of Queens, which has 2 million people and is a short ride from Manhattan.
Those were the days: they were idyllic, silly, carefree.
Nothing like the tension of these days. No under-the-radar threats like global warming, an oil crisis or terrorism. Heck, Communism was the bogey man that era. The news headlined it "The Red Scare," which all seems so innocuous now.
We were young, a crew or posse who knew little beyond our Hollis-centered universe. There was Vietnam, which was our Iraq. We only knew about Vietnam because of the young men from South Jamaica, Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn who went to war.
A few went from our 'hood. Oh, we were so happy. And oh-so out of touch.
Isn't ignorance is bliss? About war. About diabetes.
Earl's thing or obsession was eating. Like any addiction, he didn't talk about it, he just did it. No muss, no fuss. Just silent eating.
No arguing, no protests.
No anger, none outwardly anyway.
You certainly couldn't detect any static around Earl. If this doesn't tell you everything about him, nothing will. He had a perpetual grin, a real one. His temperament was like the "Unbearable Lightness of Being.You know, omelet-like. Most of all, he seemed angst-free. He kinda lived in a Never-Never land. I wish I knew why. Maybe it was his DNA, which originated in Africa.
Earl played a lot of hoops. We all did. For hours and hours. We watched a lot of roundball, too. The pros games, and our own contemporaries.
As with most African-American youth, then and now, we had these fantasies about playing pro ball. Pro basketball, pro football. Earl might have had them about being a pro-bowler.
Earl liked talking b-ball, but he seemed to get more out of running up and down that basketball court. In summer, it would get really hot playing on that torrid asphalt.
Afterward, Earl would cool things off with a soft drink. Usually, it was a Coke or Pepsi. Maybe two or three of them. They were Earl's Achilles heel. Sucking down the super sugared drink became a routine. His routine. It's not a hard habit to start. It's harder ending one.
Drinking sugar-based drinks is America's thing. Billions of us do it worldwide.
We're programmed to be big sugar consumers. "Obey your thirst," says the commercial about the soft drink "Sprite." B-baller Kobe Bryant hawks it.
Translation: drink this drink, become a super-star, fulfil a fantasy. We develop these elaborate mind-fillers.
It was a mind-filler that would befall Earl.
It didn't help that there's no escaping Pepsi or Coke. One or the other are served at virtually every birthday, outdoor or sporting event here in America and around the world.
Earl drank soft drinks for decades. Then one day his doctor told him to quit. So, did his wife of 26 years, Theresa McQueen. Earl said okay, but didn't stop with the soft drinks. He had no kids. Maybe that was a factor.
The doctor gave him a final warning. Quit the soft drinks --and drop the weight--
or face the consequences. Larry Collins, his younger brother, said that diabetes ran in the family. Everyone in the family had it but him, said Larry, shaking his head. "Earl suffered."
Then Earl contracted diabetes. I don't know which type.
The sweet cravings continued. Earl tried to change his habits, but couldn't. He hung in there for years, cheating on days he was weak. Winning on others. He received several more warnings before a New York surgeon finally removed a toe. Earl had one fewer toe, but oh what the hell.
Then a while later since Earl hadn't quit the sugar or changed his diet, a surgeon removed part of Earl's leg. The amputation made just below the knee. I recall seeing Earl right after that operation. The minute I walked in the room that winter day, he flashed his signature smile. It was real, but it was kinda forced. Yet, it disarmed me, and helped me calmed my own fears about him, and those about myself.
He looked drained but relieved sitting up there in that hospital. I could remember the old Earl, yet here was the new Earl. I hugged him and wanted him to rebound. Fast.
I wanted him to respond to me the way he did on the basketball court.
When you beat him or got a step on him and scored a basket, he always come back at you. He'd slap you on the ass in a congratulatory way. "Nice basket," he'd say, and meant it. You'd get a sense that he almost felt happy for you.
"So, big Rich'," he say afterward, "What do you have for me now'?"
Translation: "That was a nice move, but just you wait."
That would be Earl's way. He'd tease and tease. But no outward anger. Earl's persona was sweetness. Smooth like "butter," as some would say.
As I left the hospital, I recall thinking how things had changed him-- and us-- forever. How we could talk about getting on a basketball court until the cows came home, but how we'd never again be on that court again. Not on equal terms anyway.
He could barely walk, much less score a basket.
Earl wouldn't be able to show me any more of his moves. It was a hard moment for me to accept, probably a far tougher one for him. Wonder what it was like for him. We never discussed it.
Earl finished his rehab and would leave the hospital. I saw him once or twice moving around on that prosthetic leg. He seemed to take it all in stride. His movements were labored. And no more bowling, which had become his post-teen passion.
It made you want to cry.
He didn't see it that way. He just didn't seem to despair. Not outwardly, anyway.
He just didn't seem to be caught that way. No "Why me?" cry-baby stuff.
About 10 years later, Earl still hadn't won his battle with diabetes. It dominated him.
A friend called me one day with news about Earl. It was Rick Gittoes, another Hollisite from our posse. He was one of Earl's best friends. Unlike, Earl and I, they spoke all the time.
"Did you hear what happened? he asked.
"No, hear what?" I asked
"Earl had a second amputation," Ricky said.
"What," I said, hoping that I misunderstood.
Ricky repeated it, saying that surgeons amputated Earl's other leg, also just below the knee. He survived that second catastrophic it. He survived Sept. 11.
Yet, it was more news than I could bear. More than I could hear or fathom.
A few months later, there was another call from Rick, a San Diego resident. He was calling from Charlotte.
"Earl died," he said.
I saw Earl 6-days later in a casket. They dressed him in sweats, reflecting his athletic life. Oddly enough, he had a racing form in the casket with him.
We all chatted at his wake.
I spoke at his funeral. I didn't bring up his cravings for soft drinks, but I did make it point to recount is his sweetness.
It was nothing new. His family his wife, his friends knew who he was. I just affirmed what they already knew. They thank me profusely for saying so.
Now, the sweet man was gone to sweet heaven.
They say things about the person who died. Sometimes, they things about how they wished how the person had acted, not how the person as when alive.
Earl's sweetness was true. Everybody knew it.
"See ya," Earl.
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