Looking at a Small Picture: Death of a Statistic

November, 1989

It’s a cruel crazy beautiful world
One day when you wake up I will have to say goodbye
It’s your world so live in it

-Johnny Clegg

On Tuesday, November 20 – two days before Thanksgiving – Robert Lewis, Jr., 34, was knifed to death in the parking lot of the Burlington Coat Factory in Raleigh, where he worked.

The man charged with the murder, Robert Leon Hill, is the estranged husband of one of Bobby’s co-workers. Hill apparently thought his wife and Bobby were romantically involved, but authorities have no evidence that this was the case.

In some places (New York City, for example) the press doesn’t even consider this sort of killing newsworthy. It’s routine, a statistic – just another day in paradise.

But this one matters – this one is a reminder that statistics have names, that the big picture is comprised of lots of small pictures.

My little sister was Bobby Lewis’ boss. Marty is the general manager at the Burlington Coat Factory, and Bobby was an excellent employee. Excellent employees in the retail business are often hard to come by, she says.

And, as it turns out, I knew Bobby, too – sort of. A few weeks ago I was in Raleigh to see a concert by Johnny Clegg & Savuka, a South African band currently touring North America. There’s something unutterably transcendent about Clegg’s music –its rhythms compel the spirit in a celebratory dance across the hell we live in, and its lyrics urge us, however different we may seem to be, toward common ground.

Clegg is known for tearing down walls and replacing them with bridges. His first band, Juluka, was the first racially integrated band in South African history – a brave experiment in a country where North Carolina values are written directly into the constitution. Savuka, like Juluka before it, is half black, half white. Bobby was black, I’m white. I guess that’s important, too, isn’t it?

Since I live in Winston-Salem, Marty had purchased the concert tickets for me. I stopped by the store to pick them up, and that’s when I met Bobby Lewis – nice-looking, sharp dresser, like most of Burlington’s employees, I guess. But I remember Bobby because he was familiar with Savuka. I took this as a good sign: Clegg & Co. have yet to break through commercially in the US.

We talked for maybe a minute. I was running late. Marty tells me that he liked me. Not many people, he said, are into new world music, and he hoped that next time I came to Raleigh we could all get together and go out. He thought we would really get along.

The evidence indicates that the jealous husband hid behind cars in the parking lot and waited for Bobby to show up for work. Then he snuck up behind Bobby and stabbed him. In the head, in the chest, 24 times. Marty watched him die there in the parking lot despite the paramedics’ best efforts.

Thanksgiving was probably subdued at the Lewis house this year, and the Christmas shopping season is off to a somber start at Burlington. Bobby Lewis will be missed – by his family, his co-workers, his friends. He will also be missed by those of us who only met him once, for sixty seconds.

I’m like a lot of people, I guess. I’m mourning the passing of a statistic – someone whose death has been reduced to a few faceless inches in the local paper. It happens to someone every day, but this time it’s our turn.

By the way, the new album by Johnny Clegg & Savuka is entitled Cruel Crazy Beautiful World. I recommend it highly.

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