Thursday, December 27, 2012

There and Back Again: In Memoriam

As far as I was concerned, December 11th, 1992 was going to be just like any other Saturday.  Per my usual routine, I took in the sights at South Dekalb Mall.  I’d usually start out by perusing the rap section at Camelot Music.  If nothing caught my eye, I’d sometimes walk across the road to Turtles.  After that, I’d give the magazine section at the bookstore a once over.  Then it was off to Champs or Foot Locker to check out the newest athletic gear.  Around noontime, I’d meet up with my mom (and sometimes my grandmother) for lunch at the Piccadilly Cafeteria.  Since my mom was a good listener, our lunches often turned into therapy sessions.  That day, I was especially concerned about my friend Avery.  Little did I know, he’d had been killed the night before.

Just like all of my other so called “friendships” at the time, my relationship with Avery was somewhat contentious.  Looking back, that made perfect sense.  We didn’t exactly get along when we first met, despite the fact that we had certain things in common.  Like me, Avery was of Jamaican descent.  Also like me, he was a New York transplant, born in the Bronx.  We eventually warmed up to each other.  As teenagers, we regularly visited each other’s houses and played basketball together. 

In the winter of 1991, we attended Southwest Dekalb High School together.  Our parents weren’t impressed with the quality of education there, and eventually sought out other options.  They settled on Tucker High School.  Tucker was a considerable drive from Lithonia, which required us to take two school buses every morning and afternoon. It was all part of a program called “Minority to Majority,” which allowed Black kids to attend better (IE Whiter) schools.  Avery felt right at home at Southwest Dekalb, and hated the idea of attending school with a bunch of lame White kids.  I hated Southwest Dekalb, but I never let Avery know that.  I was happy for the change of venue, White kids be damned.

Andre 3000 with the Southwest Dekalb High School Marching Panthers circa October 18, 2006.  Andre attended Southwest Dekalb for a time, but never graduated from there.

Though Avery and I became closer during our time at Tucker, our experiences there made our personality differences all the more apparent.  I was an introvert.  Avery, on the other hand, was a largely ingratiating soul.  Though he was mostly quiet, he exuded a subtle confidence.  He also had an understated sense of entitlement.  In his mind, he belonged, no matter the company or setting.  He could slip quietly into the midst of the “cool” kids, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  Though they barely seemed to notice him at times, they often grew to respect him.  I had no such abilities.

Long before the phrases of pimping culture entered the popular lexicon, Avery lived by the mantra “Get in where you fit in.”  He was able to do this by overcoming any perceived limitations.  He wore glasses.  His arms were too short in proportion to the rest of his body.  One of them even had bone deformities, as did one of his legs.  Despite this, he was an exceptional basketball player who shined on the court.  His abilities were even recognized by his private school.  He didn’t have matinee idol looks, yet the girls at our school never seemed to mind.    

Another key difference between Avery and I was our taste in rap music.  By 1992, I had rediscovered my New York roots.  I began to seriously look down my nose at southern Hip-Hop, particularly Bootyshake and Miami Bass.  Avery imposed no such limitations on himself.  His car stereo playlist reflected his sensibilities, as did the car he drove.  His father had a silver, old model Cadillac which he eventually passed down to Avery.  Upon receiving it, Avery dropped it low to the ground.  He also made sure to keep it in pristine condition.  He installed a Kenwood sound system, which he kept stocked with local hits.  Aside from various mixtapes by King Edward J, His 1992 playlist looked something like this:  

·         Mc Nas-D & Dj Freaky Fred - “It's My Cadillac (Got That Bass)”  
·         MC Breed - “Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin”
·         Gangstarr – “Ex To The Next Girl”
·         The Hard Boys – “Street Mutha Fuckas”
·         Cypress Hill – “How I Could Just Kill A Man”
·         Son of Bazerk – “What Could Be Better Bitch”
·         Eric B & Rakim – “Don’t Sweat the Technique”
·         Luke – “I Wanna Rock” aka “Doo Doo Brown”
Scarface's 1991 debut LP Mr. Scarface Is Back, one of Avery's very favorite albums at the time of his death.
Above all else, Avery had an undying affinity for Scarface and the Geto Boys.  He always referred to Scarface as “Mr. Scarface,” per the title of the lead single from his 1991 debut Mr. Scarface Is Back. Avery’s love for the Geto Boys ran so deep, he even embraced Bushwick Bill’s 1992 solo album Little Big Man.

Avery’s ingratiating nature certainly had its less endearing side.  By the summer of 1992, he started hanging out with the popular crowd from our subdivision.  Among them was my former best friend “Dizzy- (pronounced Dee-Zee) D”.  At the time, Dizzy was touting a .25 caliber pistol everywhere he went.  He smoked weed and got drunk on occasion.  He also dabbled in crack sales until his supplier got locked up.  Such activities greatly tarnished our friendship.  Also included in this same group was “T.”  Like Avery, “T” was athletically gifted.  He was also a petty thief and an occasional bully.  The more I got to know him, the more I despised him. 

While at Southwest, Dizzy, T, and a couple of other kids had begun trekking to different neighborhoods and kicking over mailboxes for fun.  As an outsider, I could see things gradually escalating from the mischievous to the truly dangerous.  I began to steer clear of them whenever they embarked on such excursions.  Noticing my apprehension, they regarded me as a coward.  Avery had no such hang ups about their behavior, and at times would tag along with them.  Though I had a certain amount of disdain for “the crew” (as I’d begun calling them), I also envied them to an extent.  They became sexually active much earlier than me, and seemed to be making a smoother transition into manhood, or so I thought.

All of the aforementioned concerns were on my mind on the morning of December 12th, 1992.  Upon arriving home from the mall, my mother and I received some horrifying news from my next door neighbor.  My next door neighbor approached us and simply said “Avery dead.”  My mother’s shocked response mirrored my own feelings, though I didn’t vocalize them.  It was the second time that death had visited Stratford Farms that year.  Months earlier, Avery stood in the exact same spot and told me about how his next door neighbor had been killed during a drug deal in downtown Atlanta.  Now, my own next door neighbor bore equally bad tidings about Avery.  

Internally, I was overtaken by a mix of emotions.  I was numb, but I also felt as though someone hit a release valve somewhere in my psyche.  I accompanied my neighbor over to Dizzy’s house, after which we all drove up to T’s crib.  I was shocked to see T hobbling along on crutches.  One of his legs was badly damaged as a result of the incident that took Avery’s life.  After a quick stop at the gas station, we finally made our way to Avery’s house.  Cars filled the driveway and the streets.  All of the neighborhood kids were there, as were many of the parents.  Inside, we all did our best to comfort Avery’s mother.

In the basement, we all conferred with Avery’s father.  That’s when the story began to take shape.  The details varied a bit from person to person, and certain aspects are still vague.  On the night of December 11th, Avery, Dizzy, T, and another kid who I’ll call “Herb” went to a high school Basketball game.  On the way home, they stopped at a video arcade on Panola Road called Great Games.  While Avery, T, and Herb entered the arcade, Dizzy went to get some refreshments.  Once in the arcade, Avery had a run-in with another young man.  Words were exchanged, and the young man produced a pistol.  He shot Avery dead, after which a panicked crowd of onlookers scattered.  As T ran off, he was pursued by a plainclothes cop who stomped his leg.  Avery later died at Dekalb General Hospital.  His killer was eventually sentenced to life in prison.  

As we talked to Avery’s father in the basement, he began to cry.  The room got amazingly quiet, as though all of us were afraid to move for fear of breaking the stillness in the air.  As I looked at Herb, a feeling of suspicion came over me.  Standing there in his Starter bomber jacket and unkempt high-top fade, he seemed as though he was hiding something.  Herb was T’s sidekick, and knew of T’s penchant for instigating fights.  I have no idea why my mind went in that direction, but it did.
Throughout the following week, my peers at Tucker High School all expressed their condolences.  I largely was taken aback.  In school, I felt like the invisible man.  As it turns out, I was actually a blip on the social radar.  Everyone recognized me as Avery’s good friend, and realized that I was hurting.  

Later on that week, my mom accompanied me to Avery’s wake.  I had never been to either a wake or a funeral before, and I wasn’t looking forward to either.  When we approached the room where his body was being displayed, my mother asked me if I wanted her to accompany me inside. I said no.  I then pulled my hood over my head and walked into the room. I walked up to the casket in which laid the body of my friend.  His dark skin was ashen, yet the red tint of his high top fade remained untouched.  He looked as though he would crumble to dust if I touched him.  Everything began to seem dreamlike and surreal.  I distinctly remember a weird fog being present in the room.      

As I turned to walk away, I saw Dizzy sitting amongst the mourners near the back of the room.  He sat in his chair with his head in his hands.  His hoodrat girlfriend rubbed his back and comforted him.  He might’ve been crying, but I never got close enough to see clearly.  Though I should have been sympathetic, all I could feel was contempt.  As I looked at him in his weakened state, I thought of him as a coward.  There I was, the guy that everyone thought of as being too “scared.”  Yet I was able to endure the pain of viewing my friend’s dead body without anyone holding my hand.  Though Dizzy’s girl glanced up at me, I didn’t approach either of them.  I simply turned and walked out.

Avery’s family asked me to be a pall bearer at his funeral.  I saw it as my responsibility, even though I dreaded doing it.  A week after his death, the community of Stratford Farms laid Avery Pennant to rest.  Half of Tucker High School showed up to his funeral, which was a bubbling cauldron of despair and sadness.  Though I didn’t cry, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.  Dizzy and T were noticeably absent at both the service and the burial.  They may have been in attendance, but I didn’t see them.  They certainly didn’t help me carry my friend’s earthly remains to their final resting place.  I can’t remember if either of them were on the list of pall bearers.  What I do remember is that the kids who helped carry his casket weren’t members of “the crew.”  We weren’t the popular kids or the beautiful people.  We were just guys that knew Avery.      

My family moved back to New York in July of 1994, a couple of months before my senior year of High School would begin.  By that point I had made a new group of friends eventually became like family to me.  On the eve of the big move, I met up with Dizzy and another kid from Stratford Farms, J.  They shared a bit more with me about the night Avery was killed.  I made a comment about how Avery had always been relatively cool headed guy.  Dizzy quickly corrected me, and related a story that T had told him.  According to T, Avery reacted in anger when the gun was initially pulled on him.  “I ain’t know what was wrong with Avery” T had supposedly said.  While that didn’t alleviate any of the animosity I felt towards T, it actually made sense in retrospect.  Though outwardly humble, Avery wasn’t one to back down when challenged.

Now, 20 years later, I still don’t know how to feel about Avery’s death.  I often wonder how different my life would have been had he lived.  I was pretty harsh and judgmental toward both T and Dizzy back then.  Intellectually, I know that we were all just kids, and had very little grasp on the consequences of our actions.  They were dealing with their growing pains differently than I was.  Still, I harbor a bit of resentment towards them.  I’m honestly not sure why.  Dizzy didn’t seem to feel any ill will toward me when I moved back to New York.  I’ve never forgotten any of those guys, especially Avery.  I wanted to put my copy of Scarface’s album in his casket as sort of a going away present.  I never worked up the courage to do so, but I at least managed to properly say goodbye.  Rest in Peace, Avery W. Pennant.


  1. Not much to say in this article, except that my thoughts and prayers are still with Avery's Family. I'm glad I was there to help you get through the drama that ensued back then, as you to me. It's a horrible tragedy that shouldn't have never taken place. I never knew that the young man who killed him received a life sentence.

    Related to your article is this:

    More details after this tragedy, that unfortunately leads to another. God bless these poor parents...

    1. Wow...this brings back crazy memories. I still remember going to his funeral with Marquis that day. For some reason I remember that weird "fog" in the room like it was filmed in black and white. It's kinda ill to look back on our friendship...all the laughs and craziness and growth we shared as all kinda started at Avery's funeral. We made a choice to not let you go thru that pain alone and it forged a family bond. While it isn't as close as it once was, it still holds 20 years later. God bless Avery's family and may he continue to rest peacefully until we join him...

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