I first met "Razorlip" (the handle he used) online over 20 years ago. He was That Guy on one of the forums I frequented, back in the expensive pay-by-the-hour-on-2600-baud-modems days of Internet usage.
Every Internet forum has a jibing provocateur like him. An antagonistic clown, brilliant and infuriating, sometimes funny as hell but always poking, needling, and trying to get a rise out of people. Nowadays he might be called a "troll," though back then we mostly stuck to the original, stricter use of the term, and while Razorlip was frequently out there, he generally believed the shit he said.
He was an African-American, a few years older than me, struggling to pay his rent in New York City. At the time I encountered him on the forums, he was a freelancer working for DC Comics. He wasn't a "big name" and never got to work on any of the flagship series, but he was the writer for some of DC's lesser titles, including the well-regarded Static. I think he may have had a few freelance assignments writing for White Wolf as well, but as with his comics gigs, these small assignments never became regular or substantial jobs.
Razorlip and I had quite a few run-ins. (He had run-ins with pretty much everyone on the forum.) There were some nasty flamewars, he called me a racist, I called him an idiot, we called each other a bunch of other things, and I generally did not like him much.
However, as regulars on a forum will tend to do, we kept finding ourselves in the same threads and frequently on the same "side" when arguing against people whom we both perceived to be even bigger idiots. Over the years, we achieved a sort of detente. I wouldn't have called him a "friend," but I didn't really dislike him.
Years passed. I no longer hung out on that forum, but I did still keep in touch with some of my old friends from that place. And it came to pass that I was living in New York (though not in NYC) and in touch with a friend-of-a-friend who also lived in the city, and we said, Hey, why don't we get together some time?
So I actually met Robert L. Washington III in the flesh. We got along fine. Our small circle of mutual friends organized a roleplaying game campaign which we tried to keep running off and on for a year or so, but it kind of petered out. However, I stayed in touch with Robert and now and then would go down to the City to hit a comics shop or game store with him (this was back when I was still into comics and games).
Now, during all this time, Robert was living a pretty precarious month-to-month existence. His freelance gigs had dried up, and he was doing whatever he could to pay the bills. He was frequently beyond broke. I always treated him to lunch and one time, as I got on the train heading back toward my neck of "upstate" New York (people in NYC consider anything north of Yonkers "upstate"), I handed him all the cash I had on me at the time as a "loan." This actually brought tears to his eyes. That's how struggling he was.
When I bought a house, and he was yet again on the verge of being out on the streets, I offered (I must admit, reluctantly) to let him couch-surf at my place. I was glad it didn't come to that, though I think he was very close to taking me up on the offer.
I only learned recently that he did in fact wind up homeless a few times.
Robert L. Washington III was one of those people who, despite being creative and smart, was rather bad at managing his life. He came from Detroit originally, where he told me his family might or might not still live, but suffice it to say that all ties there were long broken. He never graduated college. He'd managed to get freelance writing gigs because of his natural talent and enthusiasm, but he wasn't able to turn them into permanent gigs or maintain an industry network that could keep him employed, probably at least partly because of social and financial ineptitude.
He came to NYC because he really wanted to work in comics, and he refused to leave because NYC was the only place he knew now. I suggested to him, a time or two, that given that he had no career or family ties to hold him down, New York City is a really expensive place to live when you're minimally employed, and that maybe he should think about moving somewhere else where there were more job opportunities and a lower cost of living. (I.e., almost anywhere else in the country.) But he just wouldn't consider it. He'd rather be starving on the streets of New York than living anywhere else.
Not long before I left New York, I learned while talking to him that he was in desperate straits again — all his worldly belongings, which turned out to mostly consist of a very large comic book collection and a few items of furniture, had been put in a storage facility after his last disastrous forced move, and unable to continue paying the rent on the storage facility, it was all about to get tossed into a dumpster if he could not somehow transport it to his apartment, which was pretty much on the other side of the Big Apple. Like many New Yorkers, Robert had no vehicle or driver's license. He also had no friends with vehicles or driver's licenses. Except me.
So, I volunteered to drive a U-Haul to the storage facility, help him load up his stuff, and haul it to his apartment, then take the U-Haul back to the facility.
I should mention that at this point I had driven through New York City once in my life and it wasn't an experience I was eager to repeat. I hate driving in any big city, and driving in NYC is kind of like being the Millennium Falcon zipping through an asteroid field. And here I was driving a frickin' U-Haul, right into the Bronx.
So, I met up with him, we made our way by subway to the U-Haul place, where he paid for the rental but it was my name on the forms, and we drove out to the storage facility which for some inexplicable reason was somewhere out past Queens on Long Island, if I recall.
We loaded up his comics and junk (and also a fat stack of porn magazines - ahem - I just kind of rolled my eyes - like, seriously, dude, this is what you wanted to rent a U-Haul to save?) and headed for his apartment in the Bronx.
On one of those confusing Long Island expressways, a cop flashed his lights and pulled me off the road.
"Sir, didn't you see the signs on the on-ramp saying 'No trucks'?" the cop asked me.
"Er, no, I didn't," I said, looking at Robert. He shrugged.
Turns out a mile further on and we would have hit a low overpass that would have taken the top off the U-Haul. Oops.
This could have been us.
So, that was a hefty ticket for me. Despite getting directions from the cop, me and Robert ended up getting lost a couple times trying to find a non-truck-demolishing route to the Bronx. (Robert kept pointing at on-ramps, and I kept saying, "Dude, look at the sign with the picture of the truck crossed out! That means no trucks!") But eventually we got there, after another truck scraped us and the driver acted like he was about to pull out a gun before speeding on, and I had to weave in and out of traffic running at crazy obtuse angles interspersed with support pillars for the elevated subway overhead.
Robert's apartment was a one-room roachtrap with shared bathroom facilities and what passed for a kitchenette, the sort of place that is basically one step above the YMCA or a homeless shelter. It was also on Pot Avenue.
I had never actually hung out in, you know, a drug-dealing neighborhood. Me, the suburban boy from California, looking around with touristy curiosity, and in a neighborhood where the only white guys are cops or buyers, so I was very much aware of everyone watching me and thinking Which one are you, homey?
The dealers (these were strictly pot dealers; the markets for harder stuff were elsewhere and not so out in the open) just stood there on the sidewalk, plain as day, waiting for a buyer to approach. Every so often one did (as often as not a nervous-looking white guy), and the dealer would amble across the street to one of the shuttered, barred houses and stand at the door. Money would be passed through a slot, a package would be passed back, the dealer would amble back, hand over the product, and the buyer would be on his way. It was a perfectly chill business transaction, about as tense and dramatic as watching someone order a hot dog, then standing by waiting for his order to be prepared.
About every ten minutes, like clockwork, a police car would appear. You always knew when the police were about to make another circuit because the dealers would quietly slip out of sight just before the car came around the corner. I never heard or saw the signal, but it took the dealers about two seconds to disappear. Then the cops would roll on by, giving me the eye as I unloaded boxes from the U-Haul in front of Robert's apartment, and as soon as they rounded the far corner, the dealers would be right back where they'd been moments before. It was all very kabuki.
At one point I asked Robert, out of curiosity rather than any actual apprehension, if the dealers were armed and if anything ever went wrong. I.e., shootings, drive-bys, whatever. He patiently shook his head. The pot dealers are always unarmed, because if they get picked up carrying dope, they'll spend the night in jail, but if they're carrying a handgun, in New York City that's an automatic prison term. I have no doubt that if someone were to try something stupid there were men with guns not far away who would show up in a hurry, but this little drug corridor generally had about as much conflict as a row of hot dog stands.
Now, I've been joking about how naive and out of place I was in this neighborhood. But as an illustration of the obliviousness that Robert was capable of, perhaps the same obliviousness that made it so hard for him to function in more professional areas, despite his greater street smarts and experience; while we stood on the sidewalk taking a break, right next to the dealer, Robert took out a bundle of tobacco. He was a smoker, and being poor, he hand-rolled his own cigarettes.
"Oh, well, that's okay then."
Right out on the street, where pot dealers are plying their trade and police are driving by every few minutes, homey is unwrapping a bundle of leaves (not those kind of leaves, but from five feet away looks awfully alike), and rolling it into a paper joint to smoke.
I looked at him. The dealer looked at him.
"Um," I said.
The dealer made a casual gesture with his hand. "You should probably put that away, man," he said.
"Oh, it's just tobacco," Robert said.
I swear, for a moment the dealer and I exchanged a look. I said, "Might not look like tobacco from the street."
"Oh," said Robert. "Good point." He put it away. Just then the dealer strolled away, and a police car came around the corner.
Eventually, we got all his stuff unloaded. Actually, we unloaded it in the tiny courtyard of his apartments, and he was rather distraught about having to leave the boxes there without getting it all inside, but I had to return the damn truck, which was another saga because the place was closed and finding a legal place to park a U-Haul and leave it in New York City? Not easy! I don't know how he did fit all that junk into the tiny room that was all he had for himself.
We stayed in infrequent touch by email, and I think I made a couple more trips down to the city before I left New York. That was years ago, and I lost touch with Robert, as one tends to do with acquaintances who are friends but live far away and are not in your "inner circle." I heard through the grapevine that his financial difficulties continued; he had at least one more episode of needing to ask friends for money to keep him from winding up on the street. I suppose he never was able to get his feet underneath him.
I just learned the other day that he died of a heart attack last year. And after doing a little Googling, that he had been homeless, that he was struggling to the last, and that if not for the Hero Initiative, he'd have been given a pauper's burial.
He wasn't much older than me. He was living pretty rough and probably without much in the way of health care, and he was a smoker. So who knows — maybe his heart attack was the result of a decline in health directly traceable to his reduced circumstances, or it might have been a congenital heart defect that would have gotten him no matter how well off he was. I just don't know.
I do know that I'm not that old, my friends and childhood acquaintances haven't started dropping dead routinely yet, but it has happened a time or two now. It is perhaps one of those early signposts on the road to your own mortality, before you reach All my friends are dead.
I regret that I didn't stay in touch with him, and that I know so little about the details of his last few years and his death. Robert had potential and talent which never had a chance to shine. He was a good guy who was never quite able to climb past the knocks he'd been given. We weren't close, but we were friends.
I didn't know about his later troubles, or I would have helped him out, and I would certainly have contributed toward his burial. So I'm going to make a donation to the Hero Initiative, and also buy Static Shock, which he co-wrote with Dwayne McDuffie, which I regret to say I have never read.
Rest In Peace, Razorlip.