Radio Raheem was a fictional character who was killed in a Spike Lee movie called ‘Do the Right Thing’ but there was a real Radio Raheem, a Radio Raheem who strode up and down my local streets during summer afternoons when the sun was merciless and everyone drew ice cubes across their foreheads and took cold showers in their clothes.
He heaved one of those old-fashioned boom boxes, speakers shaped like cheese graters, a beast that chewed cassettes, and blasted it so loud you could hear him from several blocks away as he marched around in his puffed-up Air Jordan’s. No one knew where Radio Raheem lived, if he had a home nearby or was just a vagrant who picked our area as his stomping ground.
You could talk to him but every time he would manipulate the conversation to focus on the battle of love versus hate. He’d say, love can only win if your heart is full of pins which you must gently guide to burst the bubbles of hate that float like toxic foam in the wind. Always the same. No one knew what he was talking about.
One time a group of local kids gathered around him at a social distance, bikes and skateboards laying at their feet in angular formation, and Davey, whose mum and dad were both lawyers, said to Radio Raheem, “What do you know about love? You’re just some bum who lives on the street and can’t escape the nineties.”
Radio Raheem didn’t betray a flicker of emotion, then said, peacefully, “You represent hate. I don’t fear you.”
Davey kicked his board and screamed, “You’re not even real!”
Radio Raheem lifted his boom box onto his shoulder and pumped the music so loud all the kids winced. He smiled and everyone dispersed into the slow simmering dusk.
One afternoon, I was alone on my street kicking a scuffed football up against a concrete wall, enjoying the dappled sunshine as it filtered through the trees onto my back. That’s when I heard Raheem’s radio explode into life from nowhere, injecting verve into the neighbourhood.
He placed his boom box on the wall and took a seat beside it, then waved me over. He turned the volume down somewhat, but we still needed to shout above the racket to be heard. Raheem was wearing a Run-DMC T-shirt cut off at the sleeves and he had a neatly trimmed pencil moustache. That day he wore a red bandanna wrapped around his forehead but most of the time he sported a do-rag that covered a closely cropped head of hair.
“I see you,” he smiled gently, adjusting his face mask so his mouth could be seen, “and I think you see me.”
“What do you mean?” I said, feeling strangely at ease in his presence.
“I’m a nuisance to most around here - an outcast - that much is clear. People don’t give me the props for the role I play. But it’s different with you and I think it’s because you recognise this neighbourhood is a safe place for many people but for someone like me, it can be savage.”
He took off his necklace, a chain with a logo that he’d snatched from the grill of a local car. He hung it around my neck and gave me a firm slap on my shoulder. After giving me a fist bump, he faked limped his way across the street, and as his boom box reached a crescendo of noise Raheem disappeared out of sight.
I was never able to figure out who Raheem really was, because soon after our chat he stopped showing up around our parts - no booming bass flexing the neighbourhood car windows, no lectures about love, no sermons about the glory days before the internet.
Turns out, Radio Raheem was murdered by a policeman outside Ray’s Coffee House just before the season changed and trees began shedding their leaves.
I guess things are different in the real world because when I watched ‘Do the Right Thing’ there were riots over his death and the whole neighbourhood was trashed. I guess hate overpowered love and Radio Raheem was powerless to change it, because in a neighbourhood full of bankers and accountants playing with their iPhones, everyone looked the other way as he struggled for his final breaths.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal. He tweets @TimFrankquill