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Blood Brothers

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Over the months, his bad luck continued. He lost his apartment in Harlem after construction next door created cracks in his building’s exterior. He moved in with his mother in the Bronx but found he couldn’t stay long; it was too upsetting to watch her self-destruct day after day, liquor bottle in hand. And all the while, his own health was deteriorating.

Being homeless only added to the stress. He spent nights stretched out on a friend’s sofa or squatting in an abandoned apartment inside his old building. Though he still reported to work every day, he found it increasingly hard to muster the empathy necessary to do any counseling. Six years after he started at STRIVE, he quit.

Rob’s hunch had been correct: Felix had indeed been arrested again. On New Year’s Eve 2005, he’d stabbed a bouncer during an argument at a club on the Lower East Side. That night cost him nearly three years of freedom. By the time he got out at the end of 2007, he was 26 years old. Moving to a different state, away from his old contacts, seemed the best strategy for staying out of trouble—and so Felix took off for Florida.

While sifting through old papers in early 2008, he came across Rob’s cell number. They hadn’t spoken since before Felix got locked up.

“Who is this?” Rob said.

“It’s me! Felix!”

He explained his long silence: He’d been in Sing Sing, moved to Miami, and now desperately needed a job. To Rob, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t heard from Felix in three years. Once somebody was his client, he was a client for life. Rob tracked down the name of a friend of a friend who ran a used-car lot in Florida, and he told Felix to go see him.

By now, Rob was 39 and had been contending with kidney disease for more than two years. After one horrific year, he’d finally begun to piece his life back together, securing both a new job and an apartment. He filled Felix in on his health problems. Every time they spoke, Felix asked the same question: “Have you found anyone to donate a kidney yet?”

One day, when Rob revealed he still didn’t have a donor, Felix said in a casual, offhand way, “Yo, I’ll give you one.”

“Are you for real?” Rob asked. “Don’t be goofing around.”

“I’m dead serious.”

Felix hadn’t told Rob, but he had been researching kidney donation on the Internet for weeks. It took a while for Rob to digest Felix’s offer, and at first he was not altogether certain it was a good idea. “We’re not related, you’re young, and you’re full of strife,” Rob said. “I don’t want to add to what you’re going through now.”

But Felix was resolute. When Rob asked why he wanted to give him a kidney, Felix told him: “For the first time in my life, I want to do something right.”

Before long, Felix and Rob were roommates. Rob was now working as the director of Diligent Dads, a fatherhood program run by the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. And he had a one-bedroom apartment, which he shared with a black cocker spaniel named Sissy, in a doorman building on the Grand Concourse. The plan was for Felix to crash on his sofa while he looked for a job—and while Rob looked for a hospital that would do the transplant.

Three days a week, Rob left at 5:30 a.m. to go to dialysis, then spent the next three and a half hours hooked up to a machine that cleaned his blood. Before dialysis, he was bloated like a balloon, ten pounds over his usual weight. Afterward, he was so wiped out that he had to lie down before doing anything else. He’d allow himself just twenty minutes in bed, then pull on his work clothes and head off to his job.

At first Rob liked having Felix around. Some days Felix would cook dinner, and when Rob was too weak to move, Felix would help him into bed. But there were plenty of spats, too. One night Rob threw a party, and Felix got so drunk—and so obnoxious—that Rob tossed him out. At 5 a.m., Rob heard the buzzer, and there was Felix in his doorway, sporting a black eye, mumbling something about getting jumped by a bunch of guys in Times Square. Rob laughed and let him back in.


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