NEWARK, NJ — The makeshift motorcade winding its way down Keer Avenue in Newark on the last Saturday of April carried not the body of NJ Transit bus driver Kendel Nelson, but his spirit.
More than 100 cars, trucks and motorcycles went past his home in the city's Weequahic neighborhood to say goodbye to Nelson, killed by the coronavirus at only 51.
For transportation workers like Nelson, part of the frontline defense forces fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, April was not just the cruelest month - it was appalling, with more than 100 transit workers now dead nationwide. But going into May, Nelson's family, coworkers and neighbors, stunned by the loss, weren't thinking about statistics. Instead, with no normal funeral possible because of anti-virus precautions, they honked their horns and flashed their lights. They prayed for Nelson's soul, and for salvation from what took his body away.
"We drove together. He was a good man, the best man. He was beloved," said Dave Jackson, who worked with Nelson out of NJ Transit's Oradell garage, as he took part in the vehicle caravan passing before Nelson's porch, his family waving back. "That's why we're here driving for him now."
The circumstances surrounding the last days of Nelson's nearly 30-year bus driving career were three times unlucky. He lived in Newark, which has suffered more than 5,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and 440 deaths as of Sunday morning, a number that has helped push Essex County to the top of the death statistic tally by county in New Jersey, according to official numbers. His garage is located in the heart of Bergen County, which has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. Nelson also drove one of the bus routes into the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan, the center of New York City, which has suffered more than 13,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest by far of any city in America.
The pain that fate delivered was evident as members of Nelson's Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 825 coworkers and family members stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, offering support to his wife and children from a safe distance.
"You don't understand. He babysat me as a kid. Such a go-to guy. So reliable. He was a god to me," said Blane Phifer, Jr., Nelson's cousin, his eyes rimmed with tears above his mask. "For him to die from this out of thousands of transit workers, my Kendel, that's hard to take."
"Hindsight is 20/20, but they should have had some form of emergency equipment for situations like this," added Phifer before he turned away to remove his mask and wipe his face. "Now it seems like changes are going to be made after my cousin passed away, as if he's a sacrificial lamb. It's crazy."
While all NJ Transit employees will have access to COVID-19 testing starting this week, frustration was evident among Nelson's coworkers.
"We need more protective gear, more masks, more buses with back doors, hazard pay, all of it," said Kenneth Rogers, who came down from Paterson to honor Nelson. "We need people to respect us as essential workers. People forget us until now, when somebody dies."
"They're not giving us what we need as essential personnel. The buses have to have some sort of protection barrier between drivers and riders," said longtime bus driver Jeff Evans, from Hackensack, who survived the coronavirus along with his wife. "I've seen some drivers use shower curtains."
"We're the bus drivers. We're the correction officers. We're the maintenance guys in the subway. We take garbage out of the projects," said Craig Williams, a signal maintainer for the Metro North commuter rail system in New York. He lives down the block from Nelson. "I come home, take off my clothes in the sun room, and my wife sprays me with Lysol. Then I get up and go back to the railroad the next day."
Olivia Travitt has lived on Keer Avenue between Leslie and Wainwright streets for almost 50 years, more than 20 of those years as Kendel Nelson's neighbor. She raised three children with her late husband, Kenneth, in the house next door, watching Nelson raise his own family of four children.
"He was my son, too," Travitt said. "When my husband died, my neighbors helped me. Now, we're all going to support her, and each other, through this, no matter what. For now, crying is good. It has to come out."
As the vehicle parade faded away, a few more neighbors lingered in the street. A member of Nelson's extended family held one hand on his wife's head and the other in the air in prayer. She spoke of the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, even when the sad scene witnessed on Keer Avenue is being replayed everywhere.
"We thank you for this great display of love that has gone on in this neighborhood. We thank you and praise you right now for a life well lived," she said, stifling sobs. "Touch as only you can touch, heal as only you can heal, protect as only you can protect, move only as you can move. You are the mender of broken hearts."