Exit Ramp: A guard’s final salute

Exit Ramp: A guard’s final salute

And so, we went back to Newark. On a crisp, late March afternoon my husband and I attended services at the Independent Church of God on Jones Street. We were in an unfamiliar part of the city; we grew up in the Weequahic section. 

It is a rare occasion to find ourselves sitting in a pew in a packed church on a Sunday afternoon, but we were there to join their community and family in saying farewell to our friend David Irby. 

David was our crossing guard. His perch was the corner of Pleasant Valley Way and Woodland Avenue in West Orange; his job was limited to Shabbat and Jewish holidays, his mission to protect the many worshipers who crossed the street to attend synagogue. For those unfamiliar with the area, Pleasant Valley Way is a busy thoroughfare with limited stoplights. A street with a history of fatal pedestrian accidents is to be respected, and such is Pleasant Valley Way. 

We enjoyed an unlikely friendship. Ours was not the kind where dinners are shared and theater trips organized. We all have friends like this. These are the people we know from disparate areas of our lives — perhaps the man behind the deli, the librarian, the taxi driver, or the dentist. 

Thirteen years ago, David came to our shul communities to shepherd us to our places of worship. He was steady and reliable and always abundantly good cheered and friendly. We chatted with him at each crossing. The weather? Often a good topic. Great-grandchildren? We each have one. Our chevrah, other pedestrians, we all depended on David, and there was no messing around with him at the helm. If the light wasn’t green, it made no difference whether there was no oncoming traffic in sight. We waited, and he walked each of us across to the safety of the other side. With a smile. 

In September, two synagogues, Ohr Torah and B’nai Shalom, celebrated David’s bar mitzvah year in our community with a beautiful kiddush on the lawn of B’nai Shalom. Hordes of people from the shuls and David’s family were in attendance, and the Township of West Orange, by proclamation of the mayor, declared it to be David Irby Day. We expected to celebrate again at his chai anniversary. Sadly, it was not to be.

Last month, David, 67, husband, father of four daughters, grandfather of five, great-grandfather of one, did not wake up. 

And so we went to church the following Sunday. It is an African-American church and its ways were foreign to us. Still, we were welcomed warmly and affectionately, and we could hear and feel the depth of loss among David’s friends and family. There were even some laughs. One speaker said, “David had everything in life except a son. That man borrowed nephews to go fishing. All those daughters!” 

The singing was powerful and the sermons emotional. The congregation prayed for David’s soul and for the lives of those who survive him. And we were respectful onlookers, sharing their sense of loss.

I had never heard of a street called Jones in Newark. Only later when we returned home did I look at the map to see where we actually were. It was the old Jewish neighborhood near Belmont and Springfield Avenues. I should have figured it out earlier. The church was constructed with a balcony section. The exterior was the classic Newark synagogue design, a design I knew so well from my childhood. Plain frame building. This was a neighborhood built by early Jews in Newark before they left for more affluent neighborhoods like Clinton Hill and Weequahic. Perhaps the voices of my own ancestors echoed in the pews. I will never know.

As for David: May he rest in peace. He was a good man and he shall be missed.

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