Two lives, cut too short

DARRIN FRANCIS, THE GUY IN THE CAR

It doesn’t take long into the phone conversation with Kevin before I realize he was the other motorcyclist riding with his friend on the highway that night. “Yes, it was me,” says Kevin over the phone in Saugerties, as I listen from the couch in the hotel’s hallway to his steady voice. “We did a lot together. We worked out together. We bought our bikes together. And a part of me died with Darrin on the highway.”

They met, he tells me, when they were both working as aides at a nursing home near Saugerties, though only became friends after they’d both moved on. They were a couple of jokers: Kevin, part-Irish, part-Polish, part-Dominican; Darrin the black Grenadian from Brooklyn, but they were both ripped, body-building whenever they could. They worked as delivery drivers at the same pizzeria. In the summer of 2007, Darrin was 22 years old and had been out of high school for a few years, trained as a mechanic but not really doing anything with his life except partying, and not yet too concerned about it.

In the late afternoon of July 26 that year, Kevin and Darrin chatted for a few minutes on the street, then Darrin drove off in his old red Corolla to collect his next delivery at Riverside Pizza, which is just half-a-mile along the same highway from where Andrew and I had seen Erich J. Rothe’s vinyl memorial banner on the side of the truck. Somebody out of town had ordered something to eat and Darrin set off to deliver it; minutes later, Erich and Zack decided to come into town for ice cream. Such a normal day.

“He called me then,” remembers Kevin, his voice quite steady. “He said, ‘there’s been an accident – someone’s run into me on a bike.’ I thought he meant a bicycle, so I didn’t really hurry over there. But when I got to the scene, the police were there and keeping us all back. The helicopter had already left with Erich. Zack was still there and I heard some of his comments about how the cops should check Darrin for drugs and stuff – he was obviously upset. Darrin had bruised up his arm so was staying in the car, which was a good idea.” The driver’s door of the Toyota was crushed shut by the impact and Darrin had to be helped out of the car through the passenger side, then was taken to hospital to have his arm checked out.

The two friends never really talked about the accident. Kevin says Darrin told him once that “I was just driving down the road and I thought, holy shit, he’s coming over the line…” The road is known for having patches of gravel scattered on its asphalt, and they thought perhaps Erich’s bike might have slipped on some loose stones on the right-turning curve, as he came up the small hill and over past the centre of the lane. Kevin also says Darrin wanted to go to Erich’s wake, but cancelled at the last minute – he was worried he would be blamed for the death, but even more worried he would have the only black face in the room. Same thing for the funeral. So he just stayed away. He got on with his life, and even started dating Kevin’s sister.

Later that year, when Kevin told him he wanted to get a motorcycle, he says Darrin showed no interest. “He said, ‘You can get one, but I’m not going to kill myself,’” his friend recalls, and I hear a slight hesitation come into his voice. “But he came with me to Brooklyn in October to look at a bike and then he just turned to me and said, ‘So – when are we getting mine then?’” They didn’t buy a bike that day, but sometime over the winter, Darrin went to his mother and asked for some money from his trust fund to buy some mechanic’s tools, because he said he wanted to start working for himself. She gave him the money and in early May, he took $4,800 to Albany, where he paid cash for a second-hand Yamaha R6 sport bike, bought at auction and with an uncertain past. At the same place, Kevin found a Suzuki GSX-R 600 sport bike. The two motorcycles were well matched: small, light and very, very fast. Their riders were well matched, too: both had just beginners’ licences.

“His sister asked him why he’d bought a motorcycle after what had happened the last year, but he just shrugged. He was an easy-going guy. He didn’t tell his mom. She and his dad live in Brooklyn, though they’re separated, and when she came up to visit the weekend before, he had to hide the bike under a tarp.”

“Before” means before June 29, 2008. In the early, dark hours of that morning, the two young men were riding home to Saugerties, heading north on the thruway from an evening at a bar in New Paltz. Kevin admits he’d had a few drinks; he won’t comment on Darrin’s state. “We’d taken off and he was a little behind me. I remember looking down at my speedo and I saw I was doing 95, so I slowed to maybe 75 so he could pass easily and he just blew right past me. He had this pipe on the bike that sounded like a jet fighter. I could still hear it after I lost sight of him.”

“I think he crashed”

Kevin sped up to catch Darrin but didn’t see him, so pulled off at the next exit in case he was there. He wasn’t. Now Kevin was worried. He’d been riding so fast, he reasoned, that surely he would have caught up with Darrin. At the second exit in Saugerties, he asked the toll-booth operator if a bike had come through earlier but says he already knew the answer. “The operator told me, ‘I hope you find your friend.’ So then I called my sister to see if he was there, and I wasn’t really thinking about it, but one of the first things that came out of my mouth was, ‘I think he crashed.’”

Kevin rode over to his sister’s house then, and together with Darrin’s nephew, who was staying over, the three of them drove in her car back down the 25 miles to New Paltz to scour the highway. But they could see nothing in the darkness, so returned to Saugerties and called the cops. The police alerted officers on the thruway; they could also find nothing in the night.

Given the speed he’d been riding to catch his friend, Kevin figured Darrin must have gone off the road within three miles or so of entering the thruway at New Paltz, so once the dawn arrived, four of them, now including Kevin’s ex-girlfriend, got back in the car, drove down to New Paltz and started returning north on the thruway. This time, they parked the car beside the road and got out to walk in the grassy ditch to look for evidence of the motorcycle. A police cruiser pulled up and the officer asked what they were doing; when they told him, he said he’d drive ahead and look for himself. Within five minutes, he called Kevin’s cell phone. Reception was bad, so the phone didn’t ring and instead, the officer left a stern message: “Listen Kevin, when you get this, you give me a call. You get that? We found your friend.” Kevin tells me he was crying when he drove to the scene a couple of miles up the thruway at a right-turning curve in the road, where the lone cruiser was parked on the hard shoulder. From the edge of the asphalt, he could see scattered bits and pieces of motorcycle in the ditch. The cop came up to the car and told everyone to stay inside.

“They say he died right away”

“There were no skid marks,” Kevin says. He pauses for a long time. He knows Erich also died at a gentle right curve in the road. “It’s not that big a turn on the bike, but when I do it at speed in my car, I start to drift. I don’t know if he went off the road just because he was going too fast, or maybe because there was something wrong with the bike. It was bought from an auction – it could have had issues we didn’t know about. The sides of the bike were okay after the accident but the front and back were wrecked. I think he hit the front brake and flipped it. He broke his neck and his back.” Another long pause, then: “They say he died right away.”

Darrin Francis had planned to go back to school and was already enrolled for the fall at a community college up in Hudson, NY, where he’d taken the mechanic’s course; instead, his body was taken to a hospital where his friends gathered in the hallway, together with his parents, up from Brooklyn. At one point, a nurse told them they could go upstairs to see the body if they wished and everybody clustered into the room. “He was still laying there with his helmet on, and with his clothes on that he had crashed in. He had blood on the helmet and some blood on his jacket sleeve, and then everybody went back downstairs and I think I just went home.”

In fact, Kevin went back to work that afternoon, delivering pizzas. In the evening, a friend asked if he would take her to view the body, to say goodbye, and he did so. Darrin was still in the same room, laying as he’d lain earlier in the day, clothes and helmet still not removed, untouched. “The visor wasn’t on the helmet, so I could see his face. I think his eyes were open a little bit. He didn’t look like someone who’d been in an accident, not at all. I just couldn’t believe it had happened. At least when I saw him with the helmet on and everything, he looked like I remembered. At the funeral, it really didn’t look like him to me.”

Darrin was taken from the hospital to the same funeral home in Saugerties that handled Erich Rothe’s death eleven months before, and their visitations were held in the same building – the same room, even – just one winter apart.

I’m not quite sure what to say to Kevin. He’s just telling the story of his friend over the phone to a stranger because he doesn’t want the memory to go away, but I feel like a voyeur, curious about the details of the death. He tells me he sold his motorcycle: “I rode it once up to Albany – it just wasn’t the same.” He also says that on the week of Darrin’s death, his friend was going to get a tattoo, but wouldn’t say what it would be; afterwards, Kevin learned of the design and had it etched into his own skin on his left arm, the only tattoo he carries: God with a gavel, and the phrase “Only God can judge me.”

**

Kevin mentions where to find some online photos and I write down the web address, and after the call ends, I go back to the hotel room. Andrew’s writing in his diary about his day in the capital. I search for the photos and they come up quickly: a happy, confident, good-looking young man with friends, pictures taken at parties where there’s plenty of liquor, faces of all colours, and action, action, action.

I sit still, staring at the snapshots on the screen. Very, very still. Behind me, I can hear the sound of Andrew’s pencil sketching the sights of the day, scratching against the paper of his diary, recounting the story of his young life so far. The diary has many empty pages yet to fill.

Andrew and Mark in 2009, at Lake Placid, NY.

 

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