Friday, February 6, 2009

"Uncle James" ("Uncle Pete")

I know, I know, it's been a minute. And it's not because folk haven't been dying, it's just that along with my grind I've got a hustle and family issues. I ain't had time to go to no funerals! That's all the explanation I'm going to offer.
Gwen, my girly-girl is also the supervisor for my hustle. She's 10 years my junior but from the time I met her (some 15 years ago?) she's always impressed me with her sharp mind and even sharper sense of humor. She gets it. On Thursday, December 4, 2008 I had to call her to dot some i's & cross some t's regarding time cards and she was instructing me on the fly. Her mom's brother, "Uncle" James Abraham had been living with her and her 10 year old son Blake for the past 3 years or so. A polite gent whom you seldom saw, but certainly smelled - the man smoked like a chimney which resulted in Gwen's home smelling like "The Dirty Bird" at 1am on a Friday night. We jokingly called him "Uncle Pete" from the movie, 'Soul Food' - tucked away in his own room, coming out for meals or to use the facilities and presumably, to get a fresh pack. Just cool.
Uncle James would often hold down the fort for her when she was out on one of her many missions: adjunct professor at the local community college, choir director at her church, co-director for a community choir (which I also sing in), her grind for the city of New Haven, sorority meetings, DJ'ng a local gospel radio show, helping to take care of her sick father and the list goes on. Thinking about what Gwen does makes me tired. Knowing he was in the house with her son gave her a sense of security when her missions kept her out later or longer than expected. It is hard work being a responsible single parent. It really does take a village.
As we wrapped up our business on the phone, she called out: "Uncle James? Uncle James? - Willie, I've been calling him all day and he ain't answerin' his phone." I hear her making her way through her house to his room. "Damn Willette, he's dead".

Monday, December 8, 2008

9:55am: The funeral is being held right at Howard K. Hill Funeral Services on Chapel St., a converted Georgian manse that used to be home to a white funeral home back in the day. This section of Chapel St. has undergone several re-inventions starting in the 60's after the riots. The stretch has been home to church's, bars (the Swingin Doors!), beauty salons, a furrier, chinese take out, community outreach centers and homes. Howard Hill is a young man who by all accounts and my own observations does an absolutely stellar job in body prep not to mention his level of professionalism and courtesy to the bereaved. As a bonafide funeral-goer, he gets top grades from me. He's recently begun renovations on his facility and was at the door personally greeting as I stepped into the foyer on this bracingly cold New England December day. Someone tapped me from behind as I extended my gloved hand to Howard and from every angle my eyes could take in, the place was near capacity. I turned to see who'd tapped me, thinking I was in someone's way already. It was AJ, Gwen's BFF, who like me, had dipped out of work to come support G and her family. He blew me a kiss as he huddled near the door and whispered he couldn't stay because he had to get back to work/court. I signed the guest book and started picking my way through the maze of doorways until I saw a free seat. Sticking my head into the main parlor/viewing room I caught Gwen's sister Debbie's eye and asked if it was too late to view the body. She said I still had time and although I don't really need to look at dead people, I really did need to take a look at Howard's handywork. Uncle James in a natty light grey suit and tie, eyeglasses and a crisp edge up looks like he's taking a nap after (or during) Sunday morning service. Another Howard Homerun!
I lean over to Gwen's mom, Ms. Janie to offer condolences. Ever the lady, completely composed and rocking a ranch mink wide brimmed cowboy hat, she thanks me and pecks me on the cheek. She is class. I want to be like Ms. Janie when I grow up. I skidaddle to my seat because Howard's on the scene closing the casket and the Busch women's pastor, Daylan Greer of the "Great Beth El AME", is about to get started.

10:05am: There's no processional, Pastor Greer is following the very succinct program per Ms. Janie's instructions, offering a pretty loudmouthed prayer of comfort then introducing "Minister Jenkins" who proffers Old (Ps. 23) and New (John 14:1-6) Testament readings.
10:10am: Gwen's singing! She's a trooper and like her mother, totally composed. She's a better woman than me on two fronts: she's been able to sleep in her house (with company) and she's got her heart far enough out of her throat to sing. And sing she does - the "new" funeral classic, "I Won't Complain". It's the new millenium version of "His Eye is On the Sparrow". She begins a capella and whoever's on the keyboard plucks around until they find her key - which is - different. As any singer worth their salt does, she "personalizes" the lyrics (i.e.: changes the words) for Uncle James. I listen contentedly while taking in the new Howard K. Hill Funeral Services decor. Off- peach stucco walls with white trim and either dusky mauve or brick-colored drapes. Hmmmm. Not sure I would've put that color combo together. A candle burns a scent on one of the fireplace mantles that's making my stomach do a slow flip.

10:15am: Greer picks up the John 14 thread and uses it as the basis for his eulogy. I'm perusing the tastefully printed 2-sided card-stock program. Again, very concise and without any embellishments: no photo and no biography (other than a brief paragraph detailing his age, address and those left to "cherish his memories"). I look over the "family" section and realize that the only ones on the "family row" are Ms. Janie, Gwen, Debbie, their kids and a young woman I don't know. Hey, wait a minute - where are the sons? Where's the brother? (He's in a nursing facility). Grandkids?? Awwww SHOOT! Ms. Janie done sliced up the guest list!

10:20am: Greer is passing the baton back to Howard Hill to wrap this one up. HH quietly gives the directives for the processional to Evergreen Cemetery. Everybody up, coats on, c'mon let's move it, move it.

10:25am: I'm on my way back to the Maxima which has scarcely had time to get cold. That's right folks - a new black people's funeral record has been set - 25 hot minutes from beginning to end! This made a Catholic funeral look like a wait in line at People's Bank on payday! I'm not even mad at 'em though. If I'd played my cards right, I could've just parlayed this one into my morning 15 minute break. But it's all goody. Uncle James deserved the time - and Gwen absolutely does. I put an imaginary cigarette to my lips and blow a plume of cold "smoke" into the chill air. This puff's for you Uncle Pete.

.....As an addendum, in honor of this funeral and it's perfunctory nature, I've been informed that Howard K. Hill is going to offer this type of service and call it: "The Janie Busch Package." Sign me up.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Cool Carl"

Carl William Bascum Pullen
Sunrise August 15, 1916 - Sunset, January 27, 2009

Uncle Carl Pullen or "Old Carl" to distinguish him from his son or "Cool Carl" as I'd christened him was one of a kind for real. He married my great-Aunt Ruby Turner in 1935 when they were both mere teens, the year after my mother was born. Aunt Ruby was my grandpop's sister and by the time my mom was grown and moved to Connecticut, Carl and Ruby were already established, working and having kids of their own. Now there's a bunch of Pullen's up this way and although I am not a Pullen by blood, God knows I've got enough blood relatives who are. THAT was evidenced by the packed out funeral for "Cool Carl" last night at his home church, Rehoboth COGIC, pastored by his second son, Augustus "Butch" Pullen. What? You don't know Butch? Well then you're the only person in the Western Hemisphere who doesn't! But I digress.

Old Carl told me some years ago why there are "2 sets" of Pullens here in the New Haven, CT area. Something about a couple of Pullen cousins in Virginia who were in love but the family squashed the romance so they ran off to No. Carolina to "explore their love" (my words!) and that's how the North Carolina Pullen's came about. True story. Cool Carl was full of 'em.

Never one to back down from an argument - I'd witnessed him and my Aunt go a few rounds before he'd wave her off or start his high pitched giggle or roll his eyes like: "this nut". He and my grandpop would go head up too over at the old house on 26 Salem St. They both liked "the grape" - my grandpop was a "Thunderbird" man - you couldn't get more rot gut than that! He'd hide his in the cool water of the toilet tank when he came over. I'd peeped Cool Carl's stash a couple of times out on the front porch when he and Aunt Ruby lived in the first floor apartment of my mother's house years later. Just chillin'...

Monday, 2/3/09:

6:50pm: I've got to preface this blog entry by stating that I am almost ashamed at what I did at this funeral . I got here for the last few minutes of the viewing and almost had to park on Stratford Avenue. Rehoboth COGIC in Bridgeport, CT had been Cool Carl's home church pretty much since Butch had been pastoring - along with a whole lot of our family. Living to the ripe old age of 92 guarantees you one of two things: either you're going to have a whole lot of folks at your funeral since you've met/made a whole lot of folks or ain't nobody gonna be there since you've outlived them all. I'd say Rehobie holds 150, maaaaaaybe 200 comfortably. It was firecode violation packed.

I view the body. He looked dapper and asleep. Just chillin. Cousin-in-law Renae Kennedy was one of the many ushers and immediately approached me with a program and a plan to find me a seat. "Family or somewhere else? Upstairs or downstairs?" Downstairs??? Why would I want to be downstairs? Does this girl know what I do?!? Does she not realize that a professional funeral-goer must be as close to the action as possible?? Lord Jesus...She squeezed me on the end of a pew after making one of Tina Pullen's kids or grandkids (who can keep up?) get up and go sit with her and Dina Pullen. I have no idea who the child was that was sitting next to me. She never said anything to me nor I to her. But I bet she was a Pullen!

7:00pm: Roger Wilkins is officiating. He's from the Trinity Temple/Bishop Brewer ministerial farm-system and Butch's contemporary. He'd just funeralized his older brother the week before. God love him...He steps to the pulpit and announces that there are going to be reflections given by Cool Carl's oldest grandchild, Khris Everson Crenshaw, one of his "grandson's", Pastor Joel James and nephew Keith "Big Butch" Pullen. In that order. I think. Apparently the family color-code for the funeral was all black and Khris had on a black/white knit with lots of Chanel-style chains/pearls/necklaces. She looked as though she'd been crying for days and with her only makeup appearing to be a slash of red lipstick on her Cool Carl-thin lips. She was actually quite composed and gave some touching and humorous anecdotes about her "grandpa". Joel James - "Greetings from Cincinatti", Shayla Pullen's (Butch's oldest child) husband followed with a very brief reflection of how awed he was at Cool Carl's huge family/legacy after spending his first Thanksgiving with us a few years ago. Mmmm hmmm. I think he's still just a wee bit overwhelmed by us.

7:20pm: The ministerial processional includes, Butch, all 5 of Cool Carl's grandson ministers/elders, nephews Rick and my brother Rob, Pastor Dewitt Stephens and Cleve Johnson?!? WTH?!? I'm gonna assume he was an add on since he was out of "uniform" (they all had on their formal habits - except for Dewitt, maybe he was an add on too!) Now, I could stop right here and blog for about a GOOD hour on this subject but since this was EASILY the longest funeral I'd ever attended I won't - but I will say this: the last time I saw THAT negro I had to stop him from running Butch down to me. And I repeat, WTF - I mean, H?!? At this point I fully expected friggin' Wilbert to jump out from under a pew and say "HAAAAAAAAAA - I'm baaaaaack!!!"

7:30pm: Pastor Rick Kennedy gave the Old Testament reading, Rob, the new. Duper gave the prayer of comfort. Heather's beau Deon Kipping ("Praise Him in Advance") sang a little, original made up just for the occassion sounding ditty that segued into a congregational hymn. Listen, trust me when I tell you that all the normal funeral pomp and circumstance that's supposed to take place, took place. And then some. There were remarks from the prelate bishop of the CT COGIC 1st jurisdiction (Brewer), the bishop from Vermont jurisdiction (Ivory Holden), the prelate bishop from the 2nd CT jurisdiction of the COGIC (Hester Bordeaux). Old Deacon Bordeaux who Cool Carl served with back at Trinity came and set it off with some old school "How I Got Over". Condolences by the church secretary, more remarks/reflections from grandsons Joel Pullen ("Grandpa, I salute you!") and Page Reynolds. Son-in-law Dennis Daniels representing the Deacons of Rehobie. Obituary read by niece Tracy Pullen Overton. And singing. And more singing. And more singing. Ok. Anybody that knew Cool Carl knew he loved music/singing. They even convened a "Pullen Family Choir" featuring Monte Reynolds and a cousin/nephew(??) James Pullen on lead singing: "God Is". So either have a concert, a memorial or a funeral. But please, not all three. Not on a Monday night. And not when I've got to be up at 5:30am...

9:00pm: I'm not quite sure who set this agenda/program but they need a firm talking to. Somebody came up with the bright idea to have little (old) Aubrey "Babe Bro" Pullen, Jr. and Roger "Blowhard" Everson, Sr. back to back!!! When I tell you I wanted to rip my eyeballs out of my head!! Dear God in heaven!! I took a nap with my head in my hands during Roger's meandering diatribe until Dina shook me awake. I awoke saying, "If this nigga doesn't SHUT UP!" before realizing how loud I was. Whatever. At a couple of points during Babe Bro's babblings (and that's just what his "remarks" had devolved into) the church started applauding (Roger Wilkins had stood to give him the old pulling of the coattail) - but he kept talking! In-credible! Talkin' about not being able to take a hint.

9:30pm: Yes, I said 9:30 - 2 1/2 hours later and still no eulogy. Why oh why did I think that I was going to make it home in time to watch the UConn-Louisville game? Note to self: Get a DVR.
His youngest daughter Jackie Pullen Daniels rocking the ultra-wide black rhinestone trimmed beret offers a moving version of "Safe In His Arms" but even with help from the "back up" singers can't pull it together to finish it. She'd taken care of him in her home for the last few years of his life. Believe me when I tell you, a totally new bond forms when you have to wipe/wash a parent's hind parts. Her grief will be different and probably last longest.

9:45pm: And now dear readers, I shall reveal my "shame". Naw, it wasn't falling asleep or wearing brown when everybody else was wearing black (I DID have on a leopard print newsboy!) or even calling Roger the "n" word when I woke up. I left. Right after Jackie (didn't) finish her song and before Butch got up to do the eulogy. I COULDN'T TAKE IT A MINUTE LONGER. I know, I know - that's like a movie critic getting up and leaving in the middle of a film. Please forgive me - I'll try to be more patient and professional in the future. And take a little pillow to sit on and a Red Bull.

When I was 14ish and had just moved to New Haven from New Jersey to live with my mother/sister/brother I too was awe inspired by the family connection here. As a kid I always knew I had a huge family with a bunch of aunties and uncles and cousins throughout VA, CT, NJ, Kansas and although I didn't see them often but when we got together - Oh Happy Day! And that's how it should be with family. As I've got older I see where that feeling has slowly leaked away it sometimes makes me melancholy for what used to be. I can remember starting to feel myself spiral out of control as teens sometimes do. I pulled MYSELF up and asked Aunt Ruby if I could come stay with her and go to school from her house on Salem St. To me her house represented stability. Something I didn't have a lot of growing up. There was always someone there and I figured not being left to my own devices I'd be more accountable. She said sure - she was used to folks coming and going in her house - what was one more set of feet under the table, right? And God knows my mother had taken in her fair share of wayward relatives over the years as well. It's what family does. My mom nixed the idea for whatever reason and that was that. But I always wanted that 26 Salem St. expereience. Something was always going on there - laughter, music, gossip, arguments, life. And Cool Carl, just chillin'.