May 2, 2014: Funkro: A regret left over from boyhood, by Brenton Phillips
“I stink! Therefore, I am!” The loudest laugh came from Funkro himself, trying to maintain his tenuous foothold as part of our neighborhood gang. He had no knowledge of Descartes (neither did I, for that matter, except for the “I think, therefore I am” quote I saw on a “Jeopardy”episode Mom was watching one afternoon), nor was he ever likely to.
Funkro didn’t have a proper name as far as we were concerned. None of us had bothered to ask his real name. He was just “Funkro” — the name a portmanteau of the stench that hovered around him like Pigpen’s dust cloud and his natty afro sprouting like a black Chia pet in the ashen remains of a burned-out house. A negative identity, however, was better than invisibility, so Funkro willingly ate the abuse.
We were six boys, two white and four black. My brother Brian and I had known the Taylor and Underwood boys for years. Their black skin never bothered us, and our white skin didn’t bother them. Before we learned racism at school, we boys on Comanche and Avenue E weren’t segregated by color.
We were segregated by smell, though. In the twilight zone between childhood and adolescence, the only outcasts were the unclean, separated only by funk. Not funk in the “Soul Train” sense. This funk emanated from the pores, not the soul. And Funkro dispersed his funk — a mixture of sweat, urine, greasy cooking — like the municipal mosquito sprayer that came down Avenue E on sultry August evenings.
Funkro and his family inhabited a decrepit basement house, the green shingles weathered to bare asphalt. Steps descended into the dankness of the cave-like living room, the concrete floor covered by threadbare carpet remnants and thrift shop throw rugs. No water heater, and therefore, no hot baths for Funkro and his kin, and I doubt there were many cold baths taken, either.
One afternoon when the July sun had beaten us back to a position under the Underwoods’ carport, we argued for the umpteenth time about who was the better race car driver, Mario Andretti or Al Unser.
Funkro didn’t have a TV, but he listened, fascinated by our ping-ponging argument.
“Hey, how come there ain’t no black Indy drivers?”
This attempt by Funkro to get some attention got it for him.
He usually remained silent during our conversations, but once he spoke he was no longer the invisible man.
“Funkro, what do you know about anything?” Doug scoffed. “You don’t even know the difference between odor and aroma.”
“Odor and what?”
“Aroma,” explained Doug. “Odor and aroma. You don’t know the difference, do you?”
“I never heard of no aroma word. What’s it mean?”
“It means,” said Ernie, “what you ain’t!”
We burst into paroxysms of laughter.
“Huh? I don’t git it.”
“Look, Funkro,” said Troy. “I hate to tell you this, boy, but you funk! Do you ever take a bath?”
“I can’t take a bath. We don’t have no hot water!”
“So what?” charged Howard. “You can take a cold bath, cantcha?”
“It’s way too cold!” protested Funkro. “It frozing. I can’t take no bath in frozing water.”
“Sure you can,” said Ernie. “It’s better than nothing. Wouldn’t you rather take a bath than have no one like you ’cause you funk?”
“Well, you guys like me, don’t you?”
We turned into mannequins.
Funkro had a slow epiphany. “Oh.” He looked away.
I offered him a way out of his humiliation. “Look, Funkro. How about we do this. We’ll give you soap and deodorant and after-shave. You go home, take a cold bath, then you can come back and we’ll say no more about it.”
And with that proposal, we mounted our bikes and pedaled off down the street like an Old West posse. I looked back and saw Funkro sitting on the concrete wall under the carport, probably shuddering at the thought of an icy bath.
Within 15 minutes Brian and I were back under the Underwoods’ carport, loaded down with a variety of fragrances. We’d raided our bathroom closet, the dusty resting place of countless bottles of after-shave and cologne Dad used once and decided he didn’t like, plus several bottles of scents he did like and so hoarded in case of a shortage of Old Spice or an embargo of Skin Bracer.
The others had looted a rich assortment of scented toiletries that looked like the inventory of a small drugstore: Zest, Irish Spring, Right Guard, Lifebuoy, Secret (“Strong enough for a man, but made for a Funkro!” quipped Ernie) and Palmolive, and for his afro, the Underwoods had cobbed their older brother’s Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen.
It was an aromatic Christmas in July. We shoved the items into a larger grocery sack and sent Funkro packing with instructions to spend at least half an hour bathing with the soaps and splashing on the after-shaves. Funkro hesitated until Ernie cried, “A half-hour from — NOW!”
Funkro was off. I’m not sure if he even knew where to begin.
Half an hour is an interminable time for boys melting in the summer heat, so we forgot about Funkro until Howard shouted, “Here he comes!”
We looked down the block. Funkro had emerged at full bore, charging down the street, ready to be accepted finally as one of the perfumed.
When he puffed up the Underwoods’ driveway, the fumes of what Dad would call a French cathouse assaulted our noses. Our eyes watered. What must have been massive splashings of Skin Bracer and Aqua Velva didn’t cover the funk. Funkro’s grin faded.
None of us wanted to start. We looked at each other. Then Ernie took up his leadership position.
“Funkro. You …”
“Don’t I smell better?”
“Well, yeah, I guess. But you still funk, too.
“I used everything you gave me! Except the soap.”
“The soap? Why didn’t you use the soap?”
Funkro bit his lower lip and looked down.
“We … we don’t have no water anymore.”
“What do you mean, no water? Everyone has water.”
“No, not us. Tilley says since we didn’t pay the water bill again, they come and shut it off. So I didn’t have no water to use with the soap. I just splashed the other stuff all over me. Don’t I smell better?”
Our faces must have given him the answer. The mixture of perfumes and his regular funk produced an even more noxious odor.
“OK, then.” He walked away, trailing his cloud behind him. By early fall, his family had moved away.
Thirty years later, Troy came for a visit at my parents’ house. During our reminiscence about the good old days, Funkro’s name came up. I realized I still never knew his real name.
“Oh, yeah, Funkro. Heard he’d been in prison a few times. But that was years ago. Don’t know where he is now.”
I pictured Funkro learning about soap and hygiene behind bars. I heard that prisoners get showers at least once a week. At least they have hot water.
At the end of the ’80s movie “Stand by Me,” the adult narrator says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12 … does anyone?”
Sometimes I think about my friends before our differences drove our orbits further apart. I pray for them occasionally, hoping they’re doing all right despite the tragedies that happen to us all.
One of the dumbest clichés we use is about living without regrets. How is that possible? If we had been better to Funkro, maybe we would have gotten his name. Maybe he wouldn’t have done time in jail. There are all kinds of maybes. Funkro is one of my regrets — a friend I didn’t make, because I didn’t even make the attempt.
— Brenton Phillips chairs the English-Communications Department at Cloud County Community College.