It is hard to describe that day.
The day I buried my old friend, who could not stop injecting heroin and cocaine into his veins, no matter what anyone did or said, no matter how hard The Man came down on him, no matter what.
I hate funerals. I guess no one enjoys them, but I really hate them. Even the couple I have been to where I did not know the person especially well.
But this one…. Miles, thirty-seven years old, lying next to his father, also dead by heroin, at thirty-eight, in the cold ground, there in Springs. November 27, 1935-December 2, 1973. “Musician, Husband, Father,” it said on his father’s tombstone. I had never seen it before, didn’t even know he was buried there. But now there were two of them, side by side in the ground.
I got to East Hampton at twelve-fifteen, a bit early, and went to the Golden Pear to pass some time and get my tie on straight. I walked up Newtown Lane and into the funeral home a few minutes before one and damn, I have such a hard time even going into those places. Too damn creepy, and I knew this one was gonna be especially weird. Slowly, I made my way down the hall into the chapel. Soon I saw his mother, in a long and tight embrace. She saw me standing there and came over. Oh shit I could not stand this scene.
I saw who I thought must be his younger sister—I hadn’t seen her in ten years—and said hello and hugged her. She was very composed, mostly.
The service was conducted by a young rabbi from the Upper West Side—Miles was half-Jewish. It turns out Miles’s mother had a childhood friend named Stephanie. They met at age nine at a camp, a summer camp in the Catskills or the Berkshires or something.
Anyway, Stephanie’s kids—the rabbi was her son—and Miles and his sister were all close when they were young, like Miles and my brother and I had been, and this young rabbi was roughly Miles’s age and had many memories to share.
He was very, very good at the whole thing, crying, laughing, comforting. There was a whole lot of laughter, a whole lot of sobbing, and I hated every second of it. I was angry with Miles. You asshole, I thought. You’re still putting us through hell. But then, a profound sadness.
When I’d first learned of his death, there was the sudden shock, and then the shrug of “I’m amazed he made it this far,” but also a deep understanding that another link to childhood had been lost, another manifestation of the innocent days of yore, forever gone.
One after another got up and stood before the assembled to share a memory or two, most of them breaking down. Miles’s stepfather, also a musician, tried to read something but could not complete it through the tears. His sister came up to read the rest, and she quickly broke down too, so her husband came up to read the last two sentences, and he could barely finish it. And for every memory offered, I thought of one of my own, and for a moment thought about going up there myself, but so many people had already covered it.
Miles the character, the wise guy, the boy who always had everyone in hysterics. Miles the lover of sports, of movies, of games, of all sorts of play, and especially of music. The Who, the Clash, the Police. Limitless potential, unbridled imagination, endless fun.
They did not gloss over the drugs. One of his uncles who, Miles once told me, had been taking methadone for decades, stood up and said a brief thing about drugs and the need to reach out or whatever. And that, whatever happened to finally snuff out his life, it was just a stupid, fatal blunder. No one should think he did this intentionally, he said.
And one after another looked at his mother and said this in no way reflects upon you as a parent.
One guy, a friend of his from Springs that looked pretty strung out himself, told a crazy story about catching crabs with Miles when they were kids.
This, after another friend had referred to “The Crab,” a hysterically perfect impression he would do at the dinner table, snatching a Cheerio. Cheerios, one after another would recall. He was always eating those Cheerios.
Anyway, the guy from Springs said they were catching crabs, and they killed one, accidentally, I guess. Well they pulled an electrical cord from a lamp, tore the two shielded wires apart, plugged the other end in, and touched each wire to the crab, like in a science fiction movie. “And we brought the fucker back to life,” he said, still in disbelief.
I wondered if he would try it on Miles, lying there in the coffin in front of us. We all got in the line of cars with the headlights on and all, and drove out to Green River Cemetery, and parked and walked up to the big hole, and the pallbearers put the coffin on these straps that were on a rectangular frame over the big hole, and they lowered Miles into the ground.
And the whole time this dog was barking his fucking head off, just past the cemetery fence, and he never did stop barking, and the rabbi had to yell over the goddamn dog barking, and now Miles’s mother was practically deranged, and lots of people were sobbing, and the rabbi went on with the “dust to dust” or whatever, and they took the plastic tarp off this huge pile of dirt next to the big hole, and one by one we took a handful and threw it onto Miles until you couldn’t see him anymore.
I stood there for a long time, looking at Miles’s father’s little tombstone, looking at Miles’s big hole next to his father, looking up at the cloudless blue sky, the bare trees in the dead of winter, the sobbing old people, his mother clutching her husband and barely able to stand, his sister’s head buried in her boyfriend’s shoulder, and Annabelle, his fourteen-year-old half-sister, surely feeling awkward as hell with all these strangers crying and her big brother, whom she barely knew but for this fucked-up junkie asshole who’d occasionally show up and turn everyone’s life upside down before disappearing into the world again, disappearing for good this time, finally.
Miles was the most charismatic guy I knew, for sure—something he would use to very negative ends later on. Having Miles around could only be fun, though, when we were kids—exhilarating, barely-able-to-breathe-from-laughing fun.
When we were very small, Miles would come and stay with us in Montauk, sometimes for days on end. He and my brother and I were the Three Musketeers, and even had, at one point, our own plastic rapier swords my dad had bought for us at White’s Drug Store. We spent endless hours traipsing through Hither Hills, or roaming the dunes by the ocean. Boundless imaginations set free, we’d careen from one incredible adventure to the next. Miles was always the ringleader, though, and I was grateful for it. I’d have followed him into any “battle,” done anything he told me to do. Miles was the best.
But you cannot trust a user, it turns out.
When I went up to Harlem a few years ago to visit him in the psych ward of this crummy hospital, signed all the papers and wandered through labyrinthine hallways, finally finding him in the lockdown, the first fucking thing he said was, “Can you get me cigarettes?”
And I did, even though it was against the rules. I went back through the labyrinthine hallways, down the elevator, outside and across the street to the bodega, bought a pack of his favorite brand, back into the hospital, told the guard some lie and smuggled his damn cigarettes in. Was I enabling him? If it was just smokes he was addicted to, I probably wouldn’t have. But I don’t know, I sat there with him at a table and bullshitted for an hour or so. I guess it was the Christian thing to do, in the whatsoever-you-do-to-the-least-of-my-brothers way. And by then, Miles was the very least of my brothers.
And yet, and yet. His final act, now that it had ended, lifted the clouds. Junkie Miles was gone, and the sweet, precocious, mischievous boy everyone was talking about was back. That’s the Miles I remember.