“La amistad sincera es un alma repartida en dos cuerpos”
(“True friendship is one soul shared by two bodies”)
* * *
“Hey Pee Wee!” When my father-in-law, Ray Gonzalez, was sick and dying of cancer, his friends “The Dukes” were right at his side, calling out their friend’s familiar childhood nickname since the group formed when they were thirteen years old, hanging out on the streets of New York City. And when my husband’s beloved father finally passed away, it was the Dukes who carried his coffin at the funeral and electrified the air with their mere presence, their sadness. From the Irish Duke to the Dominican Duke to the Puerto Rican Duke, Ray was their leader, helping to maintain the thread that held the close knit group together for over fifty years. And when he died, a little piece of each of them died with him.
Ray was born in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. His parents were born in Puerto Rico and moved to the United States in the 1930s. Despite his surroundings he excelled in school. In fact, he was accepted into the best private school in the city. However, due to financial circumstances he could not afford to attend. Rather, he attended a public high school.
While growing up he became affiliated with, for lack of a better term, a hodgepodge of friends. There was Ray, the Duke they named Pee Wee (since he was short), Whitey (since he was the only white guy), Flunky (since that was he was), Shadow (since he was the only black guy) and many more. Also, you must realize that at the time, the city was somewhat segregated from city block to city block. Certain ethnic groups lived on certain blocks and crossing the street onto another block could get one in serious trouble. Despite this reality, Ray and his mishmash united to create a gang known as the “Dukes.”
The Dukes were, quite literally, like the gang in “West Side Story”. Straight from the movie and of course with fewer dance numbers, they had the humor, the mixture of races and came from all different walks of life. When they went out on the town it was like mixing both sides of the movie together.
Like any gang, they fought with other gangs over territory, girls and dominance. Or just fought to fight. Unlike in “West Side Story” where the brother of a gang (Puerto Ricans) leader falls in love with the sister of a rival gang's (Irish) leader, Ray befriended an Irishman, Sidney (Whitey). They became the best of friends. They were so close that eventually some forty years later he became my husband’s godfather (when the concept of being a godfather meant something). The relationship Ray and Sidney had is one many envy, including me. It was the ultimate relationship. I have never seen a straight man have such respect, love and admiration for another man. It was genuine. It was awesome. It was like they were blood related. This example explains why my husband is so close to his friends.
As poor kids on the streets, as teenagers decked out at all the New York clubs, through the military service and jobs, various Dukes moving away across the nation, sticking by each other through wives, kids, and grandkids – their friendship was always the most important thing. I have never met any group of men or women with such deep admiration and affection for each other. They were each other’s bridge over problems, since many of them did not have the support of their families growing up. They were a family unto themselves who supported and loved each other. These are men who kissed each other on the mouth with machismo pride. Even when most of the Dukes moved on, Ray was always the catalyst to get everyone back together. They were once again re-united and remained as close as ever. They would get together with each other every weekend and in some cases on a daily basis. At my wedding they made my own father Dario an honorary Duke, and to this day they still call Christopher “Duke.”
Can you imagine such a friendship these days? My advice to you is to go find your own “Dukes!” Keep them close and never let them go!