Sunday, May 5, 2019

my uncle raymond

My Uncle Raymond always referred to himself in the third person, as if he was detaching from himself, because he was going to be fine, he wanted to know how you were, if you needed money, if you needed food, how was my mother, how was my brother. Was my brother still in school? Did my brother and I know how proud Uncle Raymond was of us? When we spoke on the phone, before he hung up, he reminded me: Take care of your mother, okay?

Uncle Raymond (center) and my Uncle Dennis fixing my brakes out behind Second Street. Photos by the author.
Uncle Raymond taught me that love comes in a multitude of forms, and sometimes it comes from behind the wheel of a car. He taught me to parallel park after I'd failed my driver's test three times and was convinced I would never, ever drive. He pulled out the cones he kept in his trunk one afternoon in the parking lot of Carter Barron Amphitheatre, and I still hear his voice every time I have my side mirror lined up with the rear of the car next to me, yelling CUT IT CUT IT CUT IT OKAY STOP and yanking the imaginary wheel to the right.

Uncle Raymond was a DC cab driver for 37 years. He knew where to find every broken parking meter, every remaining greasy spoon diner downtown, every shortcut that Waze hadn’t uncovered. DC cab drivers don’t have an equivalent of The Knowledge, but if I wanted directions I called him, and I gave the exact address for where I was going - never the intersection - and Uncle Raymond would tell me how to get there depending on the time and the weather and if they were doing street sweeping that day.

Uncle Raymond would stay up driving drunk kids home from Adams Morgan well into his 60s, falling into his own bed at three in the morning and sleeping until noon, before he finally gave it up. Uber was taking all of his late night business, but the taxi medallion he owned was now worthless, so he kept driving, this time during the day, for the people who didn't trust Uber or more likely didn't have smartphones or didn't have credit cards.

Uncle Raymond did want to take credit cards, and for a long time DC cabs didn't have them, so he got a Square so he could process credit card payments. I found the little plastic tile, still in its package, in the glove box. How do you take people's credit cards? I asked him. Well, I give them my phone and have them punch in their credit card number. So I showed him you could plug the little tile into the phone and have people swipe their cards, and honestly, I'm not sure if he ever did it.

Uncle Raymond also gave rides for free if you needed it. If your flight came in at 3:30 in the morning, he was there to pick you up from Dulles. If I was coming home from a work trip, he gave me a taxi receipt so I could expense it anyway. He’d fold it up and remind me to put it in my pocket for safekeeping, just like when I was little and he'd slip me a $20 bill at Christmas.


Uncle Raymond lived with my Aunty Mapy on the second floor of the four-unit apartment building in Petworth he and my grandfather bought in 1977, not long after he came to this country from Guyana. We call it Second Street because that's the street it's on. My mother lived there with her 12 brothers and sisters and some of them stayed there when they grew up and now my Uncle Raymond rents the other apartments to what he called Spanish people, like Aunty Mapy, who is from Panama. I asked if he was going to flip the apartments and rent them for more, as so many people were doing in the neighborhood, and he said no, the Spanish people need them more, and I make enough money.

Second Street, Christmas 2006, with my mother and my brother in the yard. Photo by the author.

Uncle Raymond never asked anyone for help - except when he called me to ask for help with technology. Every time the phone rang I knew it when I heard the nickname my family gave me: 

DONNIE. THIS IS YOUR UNCLE RAYMOND. I NEED YOU TO LISTEN. Your Aunty Sandra asked me for fifty dollars and she paid it back and Uncle Raymond needs to deposit it in the bank but the bank is closed. Can you put cash in the ATM? Do you need an envelope?

I say, No, you can just select the option to deposit cash and you put it in.

Okay, can you meet Uncle Raymond at P-N-C Bank? Where are you? Are you in Silver Spring? Listen, I come and meet you at P-N-C Bank on Fenton Street. What time will you be there? At 7:30? I’ll see you then. Bye. *Click.*

Uncle Raymond met me and my partner William outside the ATM. I’m not out to my family, but he saw the person with me and his face lit up. YOU KNOW HIM? HE’S MY NEPHEW! he said, grabbing me. I AM SO PROUD OF HIM.


Uncle Raymond one day asked me to come by Second Street to help with the computer, and when I got there he asked if I had heard of something called "YouTube." I said yes, and you can use YouTube to watch any video you want. "Can it play songs?" He asked. "Type this in. I'll spell it: B-E-E-G-E-E. Bee Gee." I did as I was told and a selection of Bee Gees songs appeared and he picked one and his face lit up when Maurice and Barry Gibb appeared on the screen. “I haven’t heard this song in decades,” he said. “So now, type in this name.” I forget the name, but it was some 60s teenybopper, like Fabian or Frankie Valli or something. And for the first time in my life, even after my grandparents died, I saw my uncle cry. It’s been so long, he said.

Uncle Raymond (right) in the living room on Second Street.
Uncle Raymond fixed me a tuna sandwich when I came over. It's what he ate every day, and before he asked me to do anything he would ask me to sit down and watch TV - sometimes football, usually telenovelas.

Uncle Raymond was fluent in Spanish because he watched Sabado Gigante every Saturday morning, and Aunty Mapy she said her doctor learned Spanish from watching that show. When Uncle Raymond watched telenovelas he hunched over on the couch with great intent as I struggled to follow. "I don’t understand," I'd say. "There was a scene in a hospital, and the last scene had cowboys, and now we’re watching pirates. What’s going on?"

Uncle Raymond replied without hesitation: "They’re going back and forth to show that these things are happening in different places at the same time."


Uncle Raymond was a mechanic before he was a cab driver, at a place called Action Al’s off Bladensburg Road NE where the walls are covered in pictures of every famous person who ever set foot in there, most of whom seemed to be Skins cheerleaders, before he opened his own place in the basement of my aunt’s grocery store at Georgia Avenue and Ingraham Street. This time, it was the bathroom walls that were covered in scribbled jokes, added over the years, all of them filthy, building up to the message over the toilet: DON’T LOOK ON THE WALL FOR THE JOKE, IT’S IN YOUR HANDS.

Uncle Raymond always helped me change my brakes, and by helped I mean I would hand tools to him and his younger brother, my Uncle Dennis while they fussed with my car out behind Second Street, the entire driveway broken and heaving concrete, four or five cars, some of which were operational - Uncle Dennis had bought this 2000 BMW at a police auction, the only catch was it was locked and he didn’t have the key. Two men, both in their sixties, yelling and laughing over oily hands next to my busted Honda Civic, same as it ever was.

Uncle Raymond followed DC politics closely, and he loathed Tony Williams, and Adrian Fenty after him. One day in 2004, he drove my mother and I over the 14th Street Bridge to the airport so I can visit colleges, jabbing his fingers at the cranes over the Potomac, grumbling, TONY WILLIAMS IS RUNNING ALL OF THE BLACK PEOPLE OUT OF DC. I used to brush it off, until the last time he fixed my brakes out behind Second Street and I watched a white gentleman in a new Audi slowly roll through the alley, perhaps because he lived on the block now, just frowning at the sight.


Uncle Raymond was driving his cab down Columbia Pike in Arlington two Saturdays ago, probably after he had dropped a fare off, when he started feeling sick. He pulled over by the side of the road so he'd be out of the way, and put the hazard lights on. Somebody found him slumped over the steering wheel and called 911. The paramedics say his heart had stopped beating; at the hospital, they were able to get it started again but he was in a coma and, one by one, the organs began to fail.

My mother called me to say they're going to take Uncle Raymond off life support and she's going to the hospital in Arlington and, added: I’m going to take Route 29 to 16th Street to Military Road. I said, you know you can take Beach Drive to Arlington, follow it to Rock Creek Parkway, turn left at Virginia Avenue, get on 66.

Do I have to pay tolls? My mother asked. No, I answered, fighting back tears, it's not rush hour, but you can also follow the signs to Route 50 instead. My mother and I went back and forth until finally she said: I know how to get there from I-66, take exit 71. I'm going to do that, because it's too important for me to get lost.

Otherwise I would have just called Uncle Raymond to ask, she said.

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