Fans For Fair Play
Challenging Bruce Ratner’s Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Lee Houston, 1945-2005 

Fans For Fair Play remembers Lee Houston, who died last month just a few months short of his 60th birthday.

Lee was a regular at Freddy's Bar, the priceless community haunt that, if Bruce Ratner gets his way, will be destroyed to make way for his 17-skyscraper compound in Brooklyn. Lee split his free-time between Freddy's and another local joint, Mooney's, just a few blocks down Flatbush Avenue.

Lee was Brooklyn in ways Ratner will never, can never, understand. He was born in South Carolina in the waning days of World War II, parlaying his marching band chops into a moderate career as a trumpet-playin' man, sharing the stage with Miles Davis, Lee Morgan and various touring jazz ensembles.

Later in his life, after his jazz-bopper's gorgeous wind took flight, Lee taught special needs students at Winthrop Intermediate in Brooklyn, and if that weren't tough enough, worked with autistic kids in an after-school program.

Renaissance man that he was (and Freddy's is filled with renaissance women and men), Lee was a published poet and novelist, and one of his two plays will be produced this year. Wordsmith to the core, Lee would sit at Freddy's on his time-off, completing the New York Times crossword puzzle. In ink. Red ink. Never crossing out an entry.

And, oh yeah, Lee served in Vietnam and won a Bronze Star.

Lee's roommate, Frank, who happens to own Freddy's, found Lee's mortal coil after the man failed to make his rounds. Word spread through the community on a hot circuit that all of Forest City Ratner's p.r. dollars can never equal, never capture, never be. By the time the paramedics showed up, Freddy's was filled with grieving and laughing regulars -- for at Freddy's, the two are inextricably linked.

When Lee's body was guerneyed out through his building's front door -- remember, he lived above Freddy's -- the paramedics slowly pushed through a cortege of Freddy's regulars hoisting their drinks for a last walk from the brave little bar. One regular, Ian, splashed Lee's favored spirit, Dewars, on the sidewalk behind the guerney. After that, the assemblage returned to the bar, where Lee's trumpet, found on an old cassette tape he'd left behind, wafted up to the old tin ceiling, mingling with five generations of Freddy's memories.

Lee's phone book was found among his belongings. It was stuffed with contact info penned on every imaginable format of paper slip -- receipts, napkins, cards, torn scraps, newsprint. There were only two phone numbers actually written on the phone book's pages. There in neat, precise hand, were the numbers for Freddy's and Mooney's.

Lee was a tough scamp with a giant, kind heart -- albeit filled with mischevious proclivities. He had the amazing gift of putting people at ease while at the exact same time forcing us to confront serious issues. Race, for one. Every year, on a particular day, he would pull this stunt, most recently with Matt Kuhn, a Freddy's bartender and a lovely character in his own right:

Lee comes in sits down, signals for his usual. Matt detects a certain taciturn mood from Lee. Putting the drink on the bar in front of Lee, he asks "what's wrong, man, you seem a little down." Lee fixes him a stare, shakes his head, and goes back to his crossword. This is odd, Matt figures, for Lee is not his usual gregarious self. (And Lee is always his usual gregarious self.) Matt tends to his bar-tasks, and the minutes pass. Lee continues with the quiet affliction. Matt tries again, offering a comment about last night's ballgame, the weather, or what a scoundrel Ratner is. Again, Lee looks up and with his eyes, demures. Matt shakes his head and continues stacking glasses, working the taps, filling other customers' orders.

Finally, Matt can stand it no more. This is not like Lee. Even in his down moments, Lee is full of information as to the reasons for the moment's blue state of affairs. "C'mon, Lee, what the hell's up? What's with the silent treatment?"

Without breaking the gaze he's fixed on Matt, Lee reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a tattered index card, and slides it across the bar to Matt. It reads: Today is Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, and in celebration of Dr. King's life, I'm not speaking to any white motherfuckers for the entire day!

When Matt told this story at the wake Freddy's hosted for Lee on a sunny spring Sunday afternoon, the audience that was packed into Freddy's back room -- white, black, Latino, Asian, old, young, gay, straight -- roared with laughter.

Donald O'Finn, Freddy's manager, bought everyone's drinks for the duration of the wake. Normally, Freddy's on a Sunday afternoon, especially one that springtimey and nice, would by lazy and slow. On this filled-to-capacity day, though, Donald couldn't fathom making money off of Lee's death. So he did what Bruce Ratner could never comprehend -- he lost money because it was right. It could've been a big day for Freddy's till. Freddy's needs them, laboring under the constant pressure of destruction and Ratner's slow dismantling of the neighborhood, which wasn't "blighted" 'til the mega-developer came along.

A couple of Lee's old childhood friends from down south made it up for the wake, swapping Lee stories (there are thousands) with his special-ed cohorts, and regulars from both Freddy's and Mooney's. There was gospel and Irish music, and enough testimonials to make a Friar's Club event seem the model of brevity.

It was, in short, the Brooklyn that Bruce Ratner is killing. For events like Lee's wake do not occur in T.G.I.Friday's or Chuck E. Cheese. And people like Lee do not haunt bad ideas like Ratner's Atlantic Yards project.

But they will haunt Ratner, Markowitz, Bloomberg, Schumer and Pataki. That is, if these five have hearts to haunt.

Lee's last public appearance came the Thursday after he died, when Newsday ran a piece on the changes being wrought in Prospect Heights. Lee's photo was there (see above), with those eyes clawing at the lens. From the other side of the dusty road he was finally done walking, Lee blasted Mayor Bloomberg for not having a clue how the other half lives...a spirit's words hard and fast in newsprint and ink.

That bastard always did have to have the last word.
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