Orlando Valle worked in the mailroom of the publishing house where I have worked as an editorial assistant for the past two years. We weren't just coworkers. We were also comrades. When you're one of only a handful of black employees at a company, a bond is either strengthened or complicated by race. In our case, it was the former; we were dear friends. The picture at left was taken at my birthday party this past November. Orlando, wearing his signature newsboy hat, was one of the many people who bought me a drink that night, but he was also one of the few who saw me into a cab at night's end. That's just the kind of guy he was.
The ongoing series I have on this blog called Harlem’s Lingering Hatred of Brooklyn was heavily inspired by the conversations I would have with Orlando in the mailroom. In between slapping UPS labels on packages, he would wax nostalgic about his childhood growing up in East Harlem. One story he told me, about how he had outsmarted a crew of Brooklyn hoodlums back in the early 90s, was so incredible I had to write it down. You can read it here.
From Orlando and his friend Gary, who was Orlando's supervisor and mentor at work, I grew fascinated with how deep the animosity between Harlem and Brooklyn ran, and how complex its roots. For me, who had grown up far away from Harlem, where I've lived off-and-on for four years now, it was a fascinating bit of firsthand history. Said Orlando during one of our sessions, "It don’t matter how fine she was. She could be Halle Berry! But if the girl was from Brooklyn, Mik, you couldn’t mess with her."
That's a Harlem cat for you.
When he came to a particularly hilarious or idiosyncratic moment in the story, his voice would reach this high, raspy register. Think Sexual Chocolate in "Coming to America." His face would scrunch up into a puckish smile, teeth upon teeth. By now the package labels would have been forgotten, and the bar code scanner would be dangling from the computer by a cord. And Orlando would be looking past me, deep into his own boyhood, perhaps, marveling at how quickly time had passed since then, or how he still had a lot of years left, how he still wanted to change little things in his life - as most of us tend to want.
I found out Saturday night when I called Gary. We’d made plans, Gary and I, to grab dinner sometime this weekend. I was feeling good for some reason, so I decided tonight would be the night if Gary was game. I’d just finished my laundry and taken a long, hot, rejuvenating shower. In the cold air, I felt light, invincible, inspired.
Gaaaary, I said, sniffling. What’s up, man.
Hey, what’s going on, Mik.
Yo, I wanted to see if--
Bad news, Mik...Bad news.
Orlando got killed.
A car horn bleated at the intersection. My pulse quickened. I asked Gary to repeat himself, though I’d heard exactly what he said. Three words. Subject verb predicate. I asked a string of expletive-laden questions, feeling suddenly the way I guess a dog feels after barking at the moon. There were no questions good enough to bring him back, to change the plain fact. My friend and colleague was dead.
With what details I've heard so far, Orlando, following an altercation at the posh nightclub B.E.D, where he was celebrating his 35th birthday, had been thrown down an elevator shaft by a club employee and died hours later at St. Vincent's Hospital from injuries to his head.
Confusion, as to how anyone could want to hurt a man so kind, so good, will haunt me at a later date. Rage, at this and other senseless acts of violence that have become all too common in New York’s night life, especially at the hands of club employees, this rage I will save for another time. All I'm capable of doing now is thinking about Orlando. The man "of the Bronx" whom the NYTimes spoke of in their article as trying to calm everyone down during the altercation (yep, that's Orlando) was also the good-humored man who joked about lingering beef between Harlem and Brooklyn; was also the jubilant man who threw his hips around during the electric slide at the company's holiday party last month, a ten kilowatt smile beaming from his face, an apple martini glowing in his hand. This was also the stoic man who, unbeknownst to many of our other colleagues, was hospitalized for an extended period earlier last year after sustaining a gunshot wound to his neck, the victim of a botched robbery. The bullet barely missed his spinal cord, but he was back at work in a month's time. And he told none but his closest friends at work.
It seemed that, after this near-death experience, after which I remember giving him one of the longest hugs I've ever given another man, that he would be exempt from future near-death experiences, that he had paid his dues, that the laws of kharma would spare him from their cold, metallic cycles for many years to come. For Orlando's life to end like this, at the end of a party, his party, it's all the more painful. He had a new lease on life. He was turning thirty-five. And despite what the Times article said, he wasn't from the Bronx. Orlando Valle was a Harlem man down to his socks. And he was a damn good man. And I cannot tell you how this loss hurts me.
May he rest in peace.