he called me ‘the lawyer’

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The Rev. Curtis West Harris Sr.

Former Hopewell City Councilor and Mayor Curtis Harris called me the “The Lawyer” because of my interviewing style. I have this nasty habit of forgetting half of my interview questions, so as thing seemingly wrap up, I come back with a flurry of questions. In a way, I like that because it catches people off guard, like when Colombo did it.

Rev. Harris’ church was mostly behind the newsroom. It was the one that got caught in the crossfire about a week after the current pastor of my mom’s church in Hampton started there. Rev. Harris lived across the street from the church on what is now Rev. C.W. Harris Street, near the corner of a road now named Ruth Harris Way for his wife.

Mrs. Harris was his rock. There were countless times when he told him he couldn’t or should do something, like have another soda, and he would a boyish grin and try for it anyway. In one particular instance, he argued that he should have another one, despite the hour, because he once again was elected to the City Council.

It took a lot of effort for him to get on the council the first time.

Rev. Harris spent most of his life fighting for civil rights. He was discriminated against. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He marched arm-in-arm with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was threatened. There were two unsuccessful attempts to firebomb his home. He marched to Hopewell City Hall past a group of Klansmen. He was arrested 13 times fighting for rights.

After seven unsuccessful runs for the City Council and a lawsuit to cease at-large representation for the entire city, he won in 1986. He became mayor in 1998.

He was also fought for environmental justice in a city often known only for pollution. He fought through his resignation from the council in 2012 due to a stroke. He was a bottomless well of information. He never leaked information to me. He would only give me enough to point me in the right direction. Katy and I got to know the city we were covering better through his wisdom. His office next door to his home was a treasure trove of civil rights and Hopewell history.

The world lost that Sunday when Rev. Harris died at 93, but his legacy will live on.

There is a public viewing scheduled for Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. just outside the doors of the Curtis W. Harris Sr. Library at Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell. A second view is set for 10 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church, at the corner of Second Avenue and West Randolph Road in Hopewell, and the funeral will begin there an hour later.

XX

Sgt. Rudolph Tyrone Robinson, U.S. Army, died 20 years ago today at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Broad Rock Boulevard in Richmond.  He was four days shy of being 49.

My first time in this city was to see my father alive for the last time.

Years ago, I said I was going to stop noting my father’s death after 20 years. I don’t know why I picked 20 years. I don’t know if I’ll stop.

paisley park is in your heart

I’ve got 3 chains o’ gold
And they will shine 4 ever
If one of us has 2 go
U will go before me

I’ve pretty much stopped marking celebrity deaths here, partially because there was a point when I lost touch with pop culture and it felt a little silly when it was someone who didn’t truly touch my life in some way.

Prince is different.

As I’ve said many, many times, Theresa was an absolutely hardcore Prince fan. Sure, she loved New Edition. Yeah, Maxwell was great. Of course I never would have heard A Tribe Called Quest when I did without her (I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard Award Tour).

But then there was Prince.

She lived for Prince. At 15, she forced my mom to take her and her best friend to the movies to see Purple Rain. For years, my mom complained about having to sit through it. There was a battle over Theresa’s poster of Prince in chaps. I have faint memories of her singing along to Raspberry Beret.

Because of Theresa, I know every syllable of the Purple Rain album.

Because of her, The Love Symbol Album, despite it not being exactly how Prince intended it, is one of my favorite albums. Because of her, I knew Prince could play basketball before Charlie Murphy told the tale of him and his crew versus Prince and the Revolution.

He spoke to her, and because we were so close, he spoke to me.

As Theresa’s multiple sclerosis progressed, I got serious in immersing myself into the purple world. I already was screeching Prince’s lyrics at karaoke nights. One of the moments Shaunelle shares when telling people how she knew we were going to be friends was when the Purple Rain title track was playing at one of our parties and I slid across the hardwood floor on my knees at the start of the third verse: “Honey, I know, I know, I know times are changing.” By 2012, I had a good chunk of his discography. I still have a few albums to get, especially those in that weird period around 2000 when he mostly rejected traditional music distribution. What I do have is about 300 songs. I don’t think anyone comes close in my music collection.

As my eldest sister approached the end, I knew there was something I needed to do.

I burned CDs. A whole fistful of them — my favorites and hers. She couldn’t speak by that point but I told her what I did and told my mom to play them for her. She heard most of them; my mom caught the lyrics of a song and couldn’t believe her little girl was given allowance that went to a record store that sold cassettes with songs like that to her. I called my mom Tipper Gore.

She didn’t get it.

But Theresa got to hear the Purple Rain soundtrack one more time.

When my sister died in May, I promised myself I’d listen to his new albums for her. He cranked them out like nobody’s business. I still haven’t gotten to HITnRUN Phase Two because it was first on Tidal and getting music from iTunes to my computer archive and the cloud is a few steps more than I’m sometimes willing to take.

I thought I had so much more than a year before I reached a world without both my sister and Prince Rogers Nelson.

In a strange way, I’m glad Theresa never had to live in a world without him.

I went through the motions at work after I heard the news. I was grateful that no one ratted out how much of a fan I am, and I was relieved that the only person who comes close to being as big of a fan as Theresa moved heaven and earth to get to the newsroom to write the sendoff. Otherwise, a variation of this entry would be what they would have gotten.

Before I left for the day, I knew what song I wanted to hear on the ride home. I’ve always felt 3 Chains O’ Gold was Prince’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Although When Doves Cry is my favorite song of his and Delirious had me from the second the synthesizer kicked in, I just love how big 3 Chains O’ Gold is. It’s one of those songs where I’d be OK if the artist vowed to sing no longer after making it.

I started it the second I started backing out of my space at the parking garage at work. It ended as I was shutting my car down in my parking lot.

The tears I shed while playing Paisley Park before I pulled myself together and played Love 2 The 9’s as my wife walked through the door were for both Prince and Theresa. They’re both gone, but the memories are just a few notes away.

hunter holmes mcguire

I have a weird relationship with Richmond, especially South Richmond.

When I was a kid back in the early 1990s (probably when Exit 265C still was Exit 67) there was a mileage sign nearby that said Richmond was 75 miles away. I was cognizant that Richmond was the capitol, and I wanted to see it. The prospect always got shot down because my mom was certain we’d be shot if we went to Richmond, because this was back when Richmond was averaging more than 120 homicides a year.

A few years later, in October 1997, I finally got to go. In a year that Richmond had about 140 homicides, a car I was in took the exit to virtually all of South Richmond then proceeded to the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. In that building, my father was drawing his last breaths. A few months before, I was in a hospital in Maryland, holding my first nephew as he drew his first breaths.

My father never got to see his grandson.

Although the path from Interstate 95 to the VA hospital is clearly marked, the path back is not. We wound up on Hull Street, across Mayo’s Bridge and onto 14th Street. That was when I first saw it: Shockoe Valley. The Fall Line. The place I would call home 12 years later.

I returned six years later. I saw The Roots in concert in Kanawha Plaza with a few friends. I tried to refrain from saying it was my second time in the city, and the last time was because my father was transferred to the hospital there in hopes that he’d receive a new heart and return to Hampton.

I think I failed. I forget. The years between when Renée and I were first apart and the beginning of the spectacle that was being the charter member of a fraternity chapter are a blur.

In high school, I went to the Moorefield Mines in Ameila, the State Fair and Liberty University by way of what was then Longwood College. I don’t count these trips through Richmond because I didn’t get out of a vehicle within city limits.

I also don’t count the drives I would take, often at night, from Christopher Newport University to Richmond. I never knew why I did until I found what I was looking for. One night, I vaguely mapped out a course. I was going to take U.S. 60 to U.S. 360 and then take Route 10 to either the Jamestown Ferry or the James River Bridge. (Gas was like a dollar a gallon back then, y’all.)

I turned from Hull Street to Broad Rock Boulevard. Nothing registered until the light turned red at the northern intersection of Broad Rock and Belt.

I cut my drive short. I was fine until the CD I was playing got to What a Wonderful World. I don’t know why that song hit me. I was miles away then, at Route 10 and I-295. I took the ramp and took the interstate back to CNU. I wanted to be out of the car as soon as possible.

I avoided South Richmond for a while after that.

When I worked in Petersburg, there was an event at the hospital that was related to my beat. I politely declined it, but no one at the moment was able to do cover it for me. I continued to demur as I repeatedly was asked why I couldn’t do it. Then I yelled, “MY FATHER DIED IN THAT HOSPITAL, AND I’M NEVER SETTING FOOT IN THAT BUILDING AGAIN.”

The conversation was over.

When I considered living in Richmond in late 2008, I drove past the hospital a few times to see if I could do it without any problem. It’s fine, although it’s strange to me that I think about it every time I’m at that intersection. I never give Grandma’s death at Hampton’s hospital a second thought. Theresa expired in my mother’s house roughly where the dining room table is now. It doesn’t sting.

I guess it’s because I was 14, and 14-year-olds already have enough issues going on because 14 is so hard, and then my father dies. I guess it’s because I dreamed of going to Richmond for years and it took a grave illness for it to come true. I guess it’s because if you told me in January 1997 that my father wouldn’t live to see 1998, I probably would have called you a damn liar. Sure, he had problems, but he wasn’t going to die yet.

It’s fine, although I think about it every time I pass that hospital and I drove past it tonight after I heard that two children who woke up with a father are going to bed without one because a state trooper holding a conversation was slain in the city today and I sometimes wonder if the reason I’m so compelled to live in this city is because my father died in this city.

It’s fine.

It’s fine.

XVIII

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It’s been 18 years, Dad.

In less than a week, I’ll be living three miles from where you died. I remember when I couldn’t dream of driving through the intersections of Broad Rock and Belt.

I went that way last week. Like the first time I drove past it after your death, I didn’t intend on it.

I showed your daughter-in-law where you breathed your last.

I still don’t know if I ever want to set foot in that building again, though.

I miss you, dad.

I love you.

father’s day

Soooooo much wood paneling.

By my best estimation, 1986 or 1987.

This morning, I thought about the last time I spent an extended period of time alone with my father.

It was the last day of eighth grade. Because it was a variation on the magnet school format, the middle school I attended didn’t have buses. I carpooled in the morning with a kid who was an acquaintance at best, and either my mom or dad picked me up at 3:15 p.m.

When my dad got me in his shiny, black Lincoln Mark VII that day, he said we were going for a ride before we went home. My dad, the road and me — that was our thing. I’m beginning to see where I get this from.

We left Hampton and headed to Ocean View in Norfolk. We hung out on the beach for a while, and a baptism occurred while we were there. When I was in college, I met the person who was baptized that day. Because I’m living proof of the small-world experiment.

After leaving Ocean View, we went to downtown Norfolk then took the Elizabeth River Ferry to downtown Portsmouth. We got some food and then, finally, returned home.

Meanwhile, my mother was wondering where in the purple-spotted hell we had been for hours.

I’m beginning to see where I get this from.

* * *

The sunbeams were a surprise when I reviewed the photo.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Within a year, Dad was pretty bad off. Soon afterward after years and years of wanting to see Richmond, I was in a crammed car, saying my goodbyes as he was on a hospital bed in the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. It took me a very long time to drive on that stretch of Broad Rock Boulevard again.

Then it was that Monday in October. All I remember is that I was in social studies class.

His first grandchild was born that summer while he awaited in vain for a new heart. He never got to see him.

Looking back at the last day of eighth grade. I think he knew he was dying and there was so much he was going to miss.

But that day with him was a good day, and I’m glad that day is one that has stuck out in my mind.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

theresa

I love you, sis.

Theresa. May 13, 1969-May 6, 2015.

You big-headed galoot.

My eldest sister, Theresa, and I were watching Looney Tunes one day, and Yosemite Sam called Bugs Bunny a “long-eared galoot.” We thought the phrasing was hilarious for some reason.

It also sounded like a Robinson-worth insult. Before the day was over, one of us called the other a big-headed galoot. It stuck.

For years and years, we called each other that. Depending on the situation it was the beginning of the fight, the escalation of an argument or a greeting.

On Wednesday, my big-headed galoot left me. Theresa died of complications from multiple sclerosis a week before her 46th birthday.

Although we were 14 years apart, we were incredibly close. She named me while my mother was still out of it and my dad wasn’t at the hospital yet. I was almost always invited to tag along whenever she hung out with her friends. It’s part of the reason why I know so much about ’80s culture and identify more with the Xers. She loved anything that was purple and, of course, loved Prince and his “Purple Rain” — the film, album and song. I co-opted her love of Prince, because I really had no choice, and you can see me on occasion singing Theresa’s favorite song at karaoke.

I proudly crashed her prom photos to the point that, 14 years after I was born, she had a kid and, 14 years after her prom, she drove over to our mom’s house and plopped that kid front and center for one of my prom photos. For us, it never was about winning the battle, it was about winning the war.

I was an exceptional tattler, but I could play being the innocent one. I once slipped and fell into a pond. After being pulled to safety, Theresa got me somewhere to take a shower and all my clothes were washed. The entire time, I swore, I absolutely swore that it was between the two of us. As soon as we got home, I told my mom that Theresa didn’t watch me well enough so I fell in a pond.

I was grinning the entire time I wrote that previous paragraph.

Because of Theresa, I am the silent treatment champion. I can guarantee I won’t crack first because I discovered that she couldn’t bear the thought of her baby brother never speaking to her again.

Because of Theresa, I can be sneaky as all get-out. Ask me how to get down a creaky staircase, out the front door and into the car without making a sound.

Because of Theresa, I can not only keep a secret, but be loyal enough to rub it in your face all day and all night and never tell. She once told me a secret. It will go to my grave.

Because of Theresa, I always had someone there for me.

There were times that you would think we were twins because of how much we thought alike. You would think we already had 14 years of stories and adventures by the time I was 4. But, despite learning every conceivable way of annoying her in the greatest possible way, I considered her my second mom.

She not only saw me off to my first day of kindergarten, she sobbed at the bus stop because her baby brother was growing up. Whenever our parents weren’t around and something happened, she could switch gears in a flash. It was obvious when she was in Mom Mode. Sibling fun and games were definitely over.

But she was also irresponsible enough to think letting a 10-year-old drive her car because she was hungover and wanted some seafood. I promptly steered into a ditch because I didn’t realize you really, really had to turn the steering wheel.

That was another tattletale moment.

One day, Theresa met a boy and moved with him to Maryland and then got married. I was despondent for days because my sister left me. But, thanks to the wonders of 1990s technology, she was only a (short) long-distance call away. I got used to her being the disembodied voice and looked forward to every summer.

Not long after school let out, we’d pack up some of my things and we start the long, three-hour drive up U.S. 17 to U.S. 301 and then to Lexington Park, Maryland. Sometimes, we would meet halfway at the Burger King in Tappahannock to switch cars. After years and years of it at least being a food and bathroom waypoint, it took me until 2002 to take a look around the town.

In Lexington Park, in those apartments that are now called St. Mary’s Landing, it was like we’d only been apart for a day. But, as I got older, it fully sank in that she was an adult and I couldn’t expect her to pause around age 26 until I caught up.

It sank in more when we learned she was pregnant with my nephew Tré. I was there that summer in 1997. I was in the hospital in Leonardtown, Maryland, the day he was born. I held him in my 14-year-old arms.

Although that was a great day, it was the beginning of the end. Unbeknownst to us, Theresa was beginning to show the symptoms of MS. Once we figured it out, we were told not to worry because, although it wasn’t treatable, it was manageable to the point that she could live a long, relatively healthy life. It was helpful that she had the relapsing-remitting form, they said. Never mind that one of the first bouts effectively paralyzed her for a while. So we went about our business: Theresa moved back to Hampton in 1998. My niece Shonda was born a year later. The new family had a house built. My nephew Michael was born. Although I had no idea where I’d go for college and where I’d be beyond that, I began thinking about how I’d stop by one day, watch the kids play and tell my sister about some ridiculous college story as we sipped on beers.

Instead, the disease turned malignant. She tripped and fell one night, breaking her ankle. She was in a wheelchair while it healed, but that night was the last one in which she was able to walk. We still kept our spirits up. It would be nothing for me to stop by while I was in college at Christopher Newport University to push her out of her house on Allison Sutton Drive, guide her into my car tell her some ridiculous college story and head to get cheesesteaks, a Smitty’s Better Burger with cheese, Dairy Queen or, our nostalgia food, Taco Bell.

But, by then, she was losing the ability to use any of her limbs.

Back in the early ’90s, when she got married, I was to keep her from stress eating to the point that she couldn’t fit in her wedding dress. I was still in Fat Elliott mode, so hells yes, let’s go to Taco Bell at 12:45 a.m. She barely fit in her dress.

By the time I was packing up to head to Petersburg, she was effectively bedridden. And her husband was headed to Stafford and then Hawaii with the kids. Theresa wound up at my mom’s house in what was our dining room/den because my mom doesn’t have a first-floor bedroom. One of my first memories is of her celebrating her 16th birthday roughly in the spot her hospital bed occupied.

It was strange. This time, I was the one in a different area code calling the sibling in my mother’s house. She had a custom-made wheelchair by then and my mom had a hard time transporting her for anything more than doctor’s visits because of it unless she made arrangements with someone to haul it. In retrospect, a van wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

That didn’t stop me. When I came to visit, I would sometimes wheel my sister out to my car and we’d at least go for a ride.

Then things worsened again. Not long after Grandma died in 2008, MS struck Theresa’s vocal cords. My sister — who, after fighting, was best known for yelling and cussing — was silenced. After nearly 25 years of feedback, I didn’t know what to say to her beyond idle updates. My time with her was reduced to sitting by her bedside in silence as the TV blared.

For about seven years, my trips home have been to see nearly every trace of my sister disappear into that atrophied shell. I didn’t start mourning her loss when Ma called while I was driving on High Street between Park and Seventh streets in Charlottesville — I’ve been mourning my sister for all those years.

Despite that, I still wasn’t ready for her death. Before her diagnosis, I thought I’d be at least 70 when I had to think about burying Theresa. I hoped for the chance that someone, somewhere would find at least a partial cure. Instead, I’ll see her in person one last time on Thursday, the day after her birthday.

I miss my sister. I’ve missed my sister with every ounce of my being for years, but she’s now free of that damnable disease. And we made the most of the short time we had together.

I love you, Theresa.

You big-headed galoot.

1897: XVII

Family

PHOTO BY RYAN M. KELLY

Dad,

It’s been 17 years without you. I wish you could have been there at this moment the day before my birthday.

I made a point to have the following on the programs:

On this special day, we remember the late Rudolph Robinson, father of the groom.

When I was at the house last October, I found your vanity plate from the 260th Quartermaster Battalion. I don’t have a good place to put it, so it’s been in my car ever since. At some point, it’s going to be impractical, but, in a way, I like that it’s in there.

I miss you, Dad. I love you.

Dad

Sgt. Rudolph T. Robinson