Ferhat loved the trumpet. We played in Junior High band together and his passion was consuming him.
“Maynard Ferguson, man – have you ever heard him play? He is amazing!”
His excitement was infectious as he put on the record.
“Listen to those high notes – He is the best ever!”
Of course, I was just a trombone player. I really had no reference point for how high those notes were that Maynard was belting out. But I must have mentioned something to my dad, who told me that in fact, Maynard Ferguson was coming to town.
So a few weeks later, my dad, Ferhat and I are sitting in the 25th row watching Maynard do his thing, posing and preening like Elvis with the trumpet, hitting those garish notes to the delight of one Ferhat Onyak. Ol’ Ferhat sat in his seat, rocking it and moving to the cheesy pop jazz spectacle that was Maynard Ferguson circa 1980.
The next day, Ferhat pulled me aside.
“We should write a song,” he said to me, rocking from side to side as he always did, making me seasick. “Come over my house after school and we’ll write it.”
So I carried my trombone over to Ferhat’s house after school, and there in the Florida room we hovered over a sheet of manuscript paper and set about composing the greatest song ever. Of course we had no idea what we were doing. But Ferhat had the inspiration to start.
“We’ll call it ‘Smash!’,” he said as he penned in the title at the top, complete with exclamation point.
I think we wrote like 4 measures of gibberish before we had exhausted our junior high music theory knowledge. Shortly thereafter, we went outside to do something else.
From that time on, Ferhat and I were pals. Not a constant kind of friendship as we each seemed to drift in and out of other circles of friends. More like the kind of friendship where we could seemingly pick up where we left off, be it weeks, months or years later.
Truth is, Ferhat was always braver than I. Or perhaps, just more foolish. But his enthusiasm, his unabashed excitement for that next “big thing” was always there, driving him and anyone around him forward into that chaotic place where he seemed most comfortable.
So yes, the first time I tried to write a song was with Ferhat. The first time I ever rode in a car over 100 mph was with Ferhat. The first time I heard Black Flag was with Ferhat. And if I’m not mistaken, the last two happened simultaneously.
As we reached adulthood, I would run into him here and there, at clubs and concerts mainly. He would always have some new scheme by which he was going to “make it big.” An invention, a new business venture, something crazy. Most of the time, you knew it was hype and hope on his part. I would always nod and say something supportive and wish him luck. I hoped one day he would “make it big” with something, because I knew with that big heart of his we would all reap the benefits. But I also knew that his fearless, reckless nature could lead him down a path that would get him into trouble.
Which it did.
After he had done his time, Ferhat reached out to me. He told me what had happened and how he was trying to rebuild his life. The big plans were still there – rickshaws with light ups signs covering South Beach, hot dog cart empires, hairspray relabeld as bug spray (”Ever kill a fly with hairspray? They just drop to the ground frozen in place – kids love that kinda stuff!”). But mostly, he delivered pizza. We could still talk about anything, past, present and future. And each conversation would end with a hearty hug and a “I love you bro.”
When I heard the news yesterday that he had suffered another stroke, I wasn’t surprised. I had spoken with him after the first one a while back and he was struggling with his speech pretty badly. He was going to go to massage therapy school and become a masseuse. Damn – finally a reasonable course of action! But alas, the old boy’s failing health was an unfortunate reality. They will take him off life support later today and he will be gone before the age of 50. Like he always said.
I went to see him this morning to say goodbye.
“Damn it Ferhat, finally I get to have a conversation with you without getting seasick,” I told him as he lay there in the ICU.
Later today, about the time Ferhat sheds his mortal coil, my son will be playing an audition for the Florida Youth Orchestra. My son plays trumpet. There is just something wonderful about that.
So farewell Ferhat, my old friend, the underdog of 199th street. We’ll see you on the flip side….