It’s funny how life really can come full-circle. A week ago, my wife and I attended the Rev. Tony Washington’s 70th birthday celebration at a small Pentecostal church on the east side. The Rev. Washington is the father of one of my closest friends. His son Salim and I go back about 30 years, to when we attended high school together at a prep school on the East Coast.
It had been nearly six months since Salim first asked if my wife and I would attend. After telling him that we would be there, then hanging up the phone, my mind became flooded with memories. …
The first time I saw Salim was from a relative distance when we both were headed to some mandatory function at our predominantly white school. It was my second or third day at school, and a friend I’d known from back home in Denver had convinced me that one should always wear a coat and tie; he’d learned that was the best way to make the right impression.
So we were walking to this particular event when I looked over to my left, and there, about 10 yards away, was Salim with a bunch of his pals. He was wearing tight-fitting, green-and-black double-knit bell-bottom slacks complete with 6-inch platform Flagg Brothers shoes, a black top, and one of those black knit hats with the balls dangling from the side that were the style back then. He looked like he was stone from the hood. The minute he saw me he narrowed his eyes, then offered a somewhat evil grin. I may have gulped. It wasn’t until nearly three months later during the start of indoor track season that our friendship began. I was pretty fast and so was he; that sparked a conversation on the way back from practice that wound up nearly two hours later in someone’s dorm room.
By the time graduation came around three years later, we had been through quite a bit together, both good and bad. We had also shared quite a bit about each other’s family, most of which will remain between the two of us. However, one thing I can share is the rather serious tension between Salim and his father. We talked about that more than once back then, and it resurfaced in lengthy and emotional discussions we had over the many years afterward.
Salim went on to Harvard, and I returned home to attend Colorado College. His first few years at Harvard didn’t quite work out, so he dropped out, which I think just about killed his father. During his time out of Harvard he pursued his musical ambitions at full speed. It was also during this period that we drifted apart. Our lives were heading in distinctly different directions, and sometimes our conversations seemed strained. I started to wonder whether our friendship had run its course.
Then, one week after getting my diploma, I moved to Chicago to chase my own dream of being a musician. I had a job waiting at a bank where I had worked every summer throughout college, but I politely turned it down. Things got tight enough in Chicago to the point where I knew I had to disappear for a while if I was going to keep my head together.
By then Salim had left Boston — and jazz — behind. He had moved back in with his father in Detroit. Salim had become a born-again Christian, and his father was a minister in a small church — the same church where I would be attending his 70th birthday celebration two decades later. After listening to my near-frantic ravings for close to an hour, Salim instructed me to catch a bus and come immediately to Detroit. Just come, he said. Don’t bother with packing a whole lot or anything else. Just get on the bus.
I arrived several days later a little past midnight, and Salim picked me up. Later, when I met his father, I realized I had forgotten how big a man he was, and how he and Salim looked almost exactly alike. I could sense the tension, and I could certainly sense that he was a tough man, but an evil man never would have taken me in as a family member in trouble. And I was family — because I was his son’s good friend.
I stayed for two weeks, during which time I performed with the church band. I met the woman who was soon to become Salim’s first wife and the mother of his oldest son. She later became his ex-wife, when he tossed aside his born-again faith and returned to the jazz world.
For the first time I got to see where Salim had grown up. I met his younger brother and three sisters, giving me a chance to put faces with names I’d heard for years.
Salim eventually returned to Harvard and received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. When he got out of Harvard undergrad, I flew out to witness the event and to show him how proud I was of what he had done. By then he had met the right woman, fathered two more children, weathered more ups and downs, and had just recently moved into his long-held dream: a brownstone in Harlem. Today, Salim is both a professor at Brooklyn College in New York and a professional jazz saxophonist who continues to perform and tour with Pharoah Sanders, Lester Bowie and other respected names in the industry.
When Salim delivered his remarks the other day, he said that having young children of his own had made him much more aware of the fact that “parents are people too.” He has become much more aware of how difficult it must have been to work as many as three jobs at once to support five children and a wife in one of Detroit’s tougher east side neighborhoods. He has never forgotten that his father bought only the barest of necessities for himself because everything he earned was going toward supporting the family. And he is still amazed at how far his father has come: from a dirt-poor upbringing in Shelby County, Tenn., all the way to being awarded a master’s in math education-administration from Wayne State University in 1987. He also worked for 30 years on the Detroit Board of Education, and now is pastor of his own church, Holy Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, although the tribute was held at a fellow pastor’s church.
As further tribute, Salim performed a solo saxophone rendition of one of his father’s favorite songs, “How Great Thou Art.”
When it came time for the Rev. Washington to speak, he said that he had always wished he could attend Harvard University as a young man because it was the best there was.
“I wasn’t able to make it, but my son got there. My son got there.”
Salim smiled and took a small bow.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org