My upstairs neighbor died a few weeks ago. I realized it had been seven or eight years since I first met him. It's funny how you can know someone for several years and not know their full name, with some people names just don't seem all that important, it's who they are as people; that's what's important. That's sort of the way it was with my neighbor. His name was Edwin Howell, but no one ever called him by that name, in fact I never knew that was his real name until a couple years back; nope, to me he was always just Shorty.

His nickname fit him pretty well since he wasn't very tall, 5' 6" maybe, I'm not really sure, but he was a big man. How do I mean big? He never bullied people or built a bridge or a hospital or made a million dollars or was a broker of power or a deal maker, no those things didn't hold much interest for Shorty. Simplicity was important to him. He was a kind, generous man who cared little for controlling the lives of others, and that makes him a big man in my book any day. He lived his life his way; he simply minded his own business and lived. He was a meticulous housekeeper, he was particular about what he ate and was an extraordinary cook.

Shorty was born on the Caribbean island of Jamaica in June of 1929. He moved to the States when he was a young man. He was a working man, a farmer, worked with agriculture in the orchards; he knew his fruit trees. I'm going to miss coming home during harvest season and finding a large bag or basket of apples or pears or peaches outside my door. Shorty always got a fresh baked pie or bread or cake in return as a thank you for his generosity, for his kindness.

When Shorty cooked it was an occasion. Shorty's cooking would always stop me dead in my tracks on the stairs of our building, my nose shooting upward, nostrils filled with the aroma of goat stew, Shorty's specialty, simmering on his stove along with a pot of red beans and rice. I found it impossible to consume only one helping of Shorty's red beans and rice. I remember those days particularly well because no matter what my mood, a huge smile would instantly slather itself all over my face. "Shorty's cookin'," I'd say to myself. Shorty could make you smile by cooking; you just have to like that. I always hoped he would teach me his way of cooking, but that was one of those things we never got around to, we just never seemed to make the time and I'm sorry for that.

Shorty's birthday parties were special. He'd make goat and red beans and rice, plantains, and sometimes a cabbage dish that, although I have no idea what was in it and have never tasted the likes of it before or since, leaves me ravenous at this very moment. His friends would arrive with special dishes of their own. They'd always make their best and favorite for Shorty's birthday. Now, you wanted to eat light for a day or two before one of Shorty's birthdays, in preparation for a feast that was guaranteed to leave you stuffed and licking your fingers.

For his birthday, Shorty would often tape photographs of his friends on the walls of his apartment, photos taken at previous parties. It was a tribute to have your picture up on his wall, he loved his friends deeply and it was an honor to be considered his friend.

I have expressed here on these pages my adoration for those individuals who laugh openly and with ease, laughter that originates deep within their soul. I find them always to be honest people, perhaps blessed. Shorty was one of these people. He was a quiet man except for his laugh; a high-toned skyrocket, ignited and shooting skyward, bursting into a fountain of pure joy. Shorty usually tacked a small giggled chuckle on the end of one of these laughs, sort of his private comment to himself on how much he enjoyed the laugh.

I thought Shorty would outlive us all, he was alive and vibrant and looked ten or twelve years younger than he was, but that's not for us to decide. It is always difficult when one of the truly good souls departs our midst, but the leaving is as much a part of life as the arriving or the living of it.

Next Sunday Shorty would have celebrated his 72nd birthday. There won't be a party this year, but I think this year I'll hold my own private celebration. When I come home that evening I'll stop on the stairs and sniff the air, see if I can smell goat and red beans and rice cooking and hear the reggae beat and the laughter of his friends. Once I've done that I reckon I'll hear Shorty's delicious laugh soaring high above it all. Then I'll smile and whisper, "Happy Birthday Shorty, you were a good man. I'm glad I had the chance to know you."

We'll talk next time, From The Road.

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