“If anyone would give the shirt off his back to help you, it would be Carmelo…”. A man with a generous heart who never failed to provide for his family, friends in need, nor decline a helping hand to his tenement neighbors and stand up for the community he loved and lived in - I have vivid memories of him wearily returning home having spent hours helping people locate their loved ones in the aftermath of 9/11.
Born and raised in the Bronx, NY to Ana Ruiz and Carmelo Diaz (Sr). Chichi, as he was nicknamed, lived with his mother, elder brother David, half-sister Miriam, and the camaraderie of his cousin Charlie. He avoided physical confrontations that occurred growing up in the neighborhood. For added protection, he loved training dogs with his cousin under a police K9 trainer. He recounted tales of “Sundance” his bush coat German Shepherd remembered for “shredding Freddy’s, favorite shirt” and leaving the remnants scattered across his bedroom, when they returned from basketball.
Immersed in Catholic school from 3rd grade, Carmelo rebelled against the rigid disciplines under the Dominican Order of Nuns. Altar boy duties were not on his mind. Instead, he looked forward to the joys and freedom of playing stickball, or paddleball with his cousin and the melting pot of the Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic community.
College days, Carmelo would run in the Bronx Botanical Gardens, training for the Fordham football team as “wide receiver”. In his last game, knowing mom and Freddy were amongst the crowd cheering him on, the impact of a side tackle landed him in hospital with concussion ... he never lost his love for the game nor his favorite team - The Giants. Graduating from Lehman, Carmelo took his cultural experiences into making a documentary on “Graffiti Art” for the Bronx Museum of the Arts, curated art shows, was enjoying moving in and out of the art scene downtown, the clubs - dancing to soul and salsa was an exciting bohemian venture that led him to meet and represent a group of artists for both Charas and El Barrio.
Constantly working, his search to fulfill stability was balanced by practicing Martial Arts Kung Fu Wu Su in the temple and playing touch football or softball in Central Park with his group of Italian and Puerto Rican friends ... favorite team, “The Mets”.
“Carmelo was an innovator, leader and team player always hustling to find an outlet that would serve purpose in his work.” Living in a tenement building directed his energy into years of construction renovation. He became a tenants’ rights activist, tenant leader and worked closely together with a friend organizing his neighbors into a tenant association. His passion for history, building conservation and restoring landmark brownstones inspired him to renovate an old factory in Nagoya, Japan that was to become an artist’s residential loft space. The proceeds of an art show there went to children who had lost their parents in the Hanshin Earthquake. This partnership caught wide attention and led to an opportunity to renovate part of the Consul General’s Residence which had suffered structural damage from the Kobe earthquake.
On returning to NY, he rented part of the Design Studio on W57th from a long-term friend and colleague. This is where I first met Carmelo. Having recently lost my mother
to cancer, I would go riding at 6am as part of my bereavement therapy before heading to work. Carmelo would turn up at the stables, watching, armed with fruit from the Farmers Market and, “..fresh carrots for your horse…they’re good, no pesticides...” For as long as I have known him, he was always concerned about our planet, being green and eating healthily in support of local farmers. Favorite color – green.
Shortly after our marriage, Carmelo travelled to London where my family welcomed him into our home before setting him off on a train to Exeter with instructions, “ not to fall asleep (owing to jet lag) lest he end up in Cornwall..”. He arrived with a bouquet of roses at the hospital, where our son Jasper, was born early. Those days of being reunited, watching him actively enjoy the paternal duties of a father during our stay are golden, his early morning runs discovering the rich history of the ancient Roman city and remembered as “the American who got lost, getting directions in a pub with a bunch of locals and a pint.” The trip was brief, and he returned to NY where projects awaited. A devoted and active father, ensuring that whatever he missed in his own childhood, he would replace with his own self of being the best husband and dad that he strove to be. In times of struggle, he never gave up hope nor his faith in God. The space that we needed of being apart merely bonded our hearts more, colored with love, admiration, humor and respect for one another’s professions and commitment to raising our son, dog and building our home.
Carmelo eventually found his niche working for Tenantracers, where he took great pride and purpose in his work. The passion and intrigue of scouting often dangerous sites, immersed him back into familiar neighborhoods and scenes of the city he grew up in. Building intricate cameras, leading, and collaborating with his fellow colleagues was a responsibility he carried to dawn on his last day.
Some of you who read this may have spent a good portion of your lives with Carmelo, others not having met him, or some knowing a smaller fraction of that timeline which ended so abruptly. His battle with cancer in the last two years was remarkable. “.. a diligent patient who did everything that was asked for, 110%, he went above and beyond, working with the medical team whether it was turning up for treatments, diet, exercise, appointments, tests.” Carmelo opted for a clinical trial, in the hope of finding remedy for himself and others. This last part of our journey when I held his hand each day in the hospital, he reminisced of the time when we were sitting in the audience listening to our son perform a violin recital for the terminally ill at MSK and to thank his surgeon, having been a pediatric patient of his. Carmelo whispered to me that never did he ever consider, how one day would he be one of those patients. For him, this fight against cancer was like the endurance of a run. He talked of this desire to run again, picnic as a family along the E. River, travel to places we dreamt about. “One day we will, you are my best friend, I don’t know what I would do without you, I love you so very much, I want you to be strong and wait, you’ll see..” Some of the most endearing qualities of my husband are his kindness, a positive zest for life, integrity, and faith seeped with love. We will see each other one day.. meanwhile, may you rest in peace.