in memoriam: James E. Davis (1962-2003)
He always came on with a bounce, the way a sparrow hops on pavement. His psychic elasticity, as much as those granite muscles bulging in the sleeves of his suit, grabbed you in a lung-shriveling embrace and you knew he was 24-carat when he said, “So glad to see you, Brother!” Even on the hottest days he kept his jacket on, for it concealed the firearm that as a retired police officer he was licensed to carry. Once when someone taunted him, asking why he needed to carry a weapon, he shot back an answer: “I’ve been a policeman, still authorized to carry a gun, and if I meet up with a really bad guy, I don’t want to say, ‘Hold on, hold on, a minute, Buddy, let me run home and get my gun!’”
So much like a Greek tragedy it was, anciently declaimed at Aspendos, that he shepherded his own assassin into the City Council chamber and had no chance to say, “Hold on, hold on, a minute, Othniel Askew… ” That both men lived in Fort Greene, James Davis at his sister’s home in Cumberland Street and Mr. Askew in South Elliott Place, leaves our beloved district and city in a perpetual conundrum—how to deal with a man who has a definitive force for life and a man with a derangement toward death.
Each area of James’s 35th Brooklyn Council district will conserve its own thoughts, yet we in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill of Brooklyn shall keep special his admonishments about our cantankerous issues. “Hey,” he would recount time and again, “this is not an issue for one position alone. Let’s remember we could be black, white, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, gay, straight, young, old… ” His arms and fists butterflied the air, and, as one Fort Greene resident said the other day, “He could talk! You just couldn’t get around him.”
James E. Davis, a friend of Fort Greene? No question. James responded to our concerns for Fort Greene Park and the creation of a new South Oxford Park; he took up our efforts toward community facility reform to alleviate the over-saturation of shelters, clinics, and recidivism centers in downtown Brooklyn. Yet he still felt strongly that deserving programs must be supported, particularly those at schools as well as his campaign to “Stop the Violence.” He defied New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller by contending that too many people in his district couldn’t afford an 18% property tax increase, but he’d go along at 12%. He lost that round, but as we once said to him, “You buck the barricades, yet you always bounce back.”
James is a man to remember. School kids on the day he died came to his office on DeKalb Avenue, bewildered why this should happen to a man they liked, who had spent time with them at curricular functions and grammar school graduations. And, when he came to an event, invariably late, he did not just say hello and air-kiss the crowd, but stayed till it was all over. On a Fort Greene Association house tour he viewed all the houses, chatting up the owners as well as attendees. At our FGA holiday party, he stayed the full evening. (As a handsome young dude, who gathered a little coterie of pretty women around him, why should he say goodbye?) Yes, he stays with us.
Howard Pitsch is the author of Images of America: Fort Greene, a pictorial history of the neighborhood published by Arcadia Publishing.