Twenty-one years ago tonight, my buddy Adam and I witnessed the death of our friend, Leo Layton. It’s hard to believe it has been that long. It’s even harder to believe that neither the driver who hit him, or the other motorists who witnessed it, stopped to help. The crime remains unsolved.
Leo was a guy many would refer to as mentally challenged. It’s true that he was a little slow, and sometimes couldn’t quite be sure what year it was. But he also had a huge heart and was such a funny guy! He washed the windows of your house, took your garbage cans back, and even handed out dollar bills to kids around the neighborhood so they could get an ice cream at Liberty Cone & Deli. Once, he even tried to set my little brother up on a date with a random girl Leo had met on the bus. Yes, he was practically a pimp!
Because of Leo’s mental condition, there were people who were cruel to him. It was common that people would say nasty things to him and, unfortunately, once even hurt him enough to send him to the hospital. I’m ashamed to say that, early on, I played a stupid prank on him as well. It was pretty harmless, but I still felt so terrible about it that I hopped on my bike the next day to go looking for him and apologize. It was water under the bridge to Leo, and we became fast friends.
How can I describe that friendship? Sure, there were the hours we spent watching automobiles drive down the street with Leo calling out the year and the manufacturer, for instance. “That’s a ’89 Chevy ,” he would say. Or maybe it’d be “a ’92 Olds.” We were never quite sure if he was right or not, but we didn’t care. Besides, it was funny when he wasn’t sure of the make and would just say something like, “’94 black car.” We would holler laughing.
Other days we would just sit around together having a milkshake, talking about whatever. Admittedly, there were times he seemed confused during those conversations. He would get to talking about something that might have taken place decades before, but that he believed happened just the other day. I would just nod, and maybe tell him I understood. Just that he was opening up was more than enough for me.
But nothing was better than the day I found him sitting at a picnic table with his grade school yearbook. He waved me over, and showed me a photo of himself when he was just a child. It was touching because I know he didn’t just let anyone see that. This was special, this was friendship. “That’s me,” he said, laughing to himself. “That’s little Leo.” His tongue hung out of his mouth slightly as he smiled. I smiled back. We laughed together.
Adam and I saw him outside of Mom and Dad’s Nite Club on the last evening of his life. He had on a new jacket, a blue and grey blazer-style leather getup that replaced his everyday red and black flannel coat. He was cleaned up a bit, looked good, and we told him so. After a few minutes of chatting, he put his cigar back in his mouth, said goodbye, and stepped off the curb. He never saw that Chevy pickup speeding right towards him. We didn’t, either, really. Not until it was too late.
Time really did seem to slow down. What all took place in a matter of seconds felt like several minutes. One moment, Leo was crossing the street right in front of us. The next he had disappeared in a field of orange sparks. We saw him get hit. The impact was so great that he appeared at first to almost be holding on to the hood, the driver having ample time to look directly into the face of the man he had struck. But then the momentum eventually catapulted Leo’s body over the top of the vehicle and down onto the asphalt, leaving him motionless in the road a couple hundred feet away. We watched the taillights of the truck get smaller and smaller before they disappeared altogether into the glare and the distance. It was like a dream. I don’t know how long we stood there, completely frozen in disbelief, before we came to and ran to the nearest payphone to call 911. Nor could I tell you how quick the EMTs arrived at the scene. All I can say is that it was all too late. There was nothing to be done. Leo was dead.
Adam and I gave statements to the police. The local news interviewed us as well. It’s mostly a blur now. I remember writing down what happened in the back of a paddy wagon. I remember the light of the news cameras in my face. I was scared and flustered and the thoughts in my head weren’t translating properly into words from my mouth. I just wanted it to be over, and once it was, I stumbled home, my mind in a daze, and told the story all over again to my parents.
A few days later, we were at the funeral home for Leo’s viewing. We didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I wanted to pay my respects, but I also wanted to just be a wallflower and stay out of everyone’s way. I was worried that we somehow didn’t belong. We weren’t there long before one of Leo’s cousins came up and introduced herself. She asked if were the boys who were with him the night he died. We said we were. She hugged us and told us how appreciative they all were that we had come.
She introduced us to Leo’s father, and his other relatives in attendance. It was a whirlwind of emotion. I was overcome by the outpouring of love and gratitude I received from his family, many of whom even expressed how honored they were to meet us. I didn’t understand it at first. Honored? To meet us? But it eventually became clear as Adam and I spoke to more and more people. They were honored not only because we had been there with him in his final moments, but because we treated him as an equal. We were his friends.
The days after the funeral don’t come as easily to mind, but I remember that the neighborhood felt somehow emptier after Leo died. I kept expecting to see him come around a corner, or show up passing out dollar bills to everyone at Liberty Cone. Maybe if I looked quickly enough I’d catch him napping under his favorite tree. Of course, none of that happened. Leo existed only in my memories, and in the stories I’d tell about him to my friends for years to come.
It’s strange now looking back after all this time has passed. One of these days I’d like to write a book about Leo and the times we shared together. I honestly believe it would be an interesting read, as long as I don’t screw it up. Because the truth is, in a lot of different ways, Leo taught me about life. He taught me compassion and forgiveness, yes, but he also taught me the value of friendship. It’s been over 20 years, but I still think about him all the time. I’m sure that I always will.
*A shorter version of this was posted on my Facebook page last year. I have edited and expanded it for use on this space. As I did then, I invite readers to leave a comment in remembrance of a person or a friend who has inspired you.