A friend indeed

Sometimes these human interest stories from the Star Ledger are too good not to be shared. I think both friends needed each other.

Illness turns old acquaintances into lifelong friends in West Orange


Reginald Sims and James Longo didn’t know each other in high school in the 1970’s. They became acquaintances as adults and then lifelong friends when James had a stroke. Reginald visited James in a nursing home, and for some reason, he’s kept coming back for the past two years. In that time, the two have grown close like brothers. James lives in a group home and Reginald is 15 minutes away. Reginald sees him twice a week at the group home. (Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger)

By Barry Carter/Star-Ledger
on June 21, 2013 at 7:00 AM, updated June 21, 2013 at 7:16 AM

West Orange – Lunch was at TGI Fridays in West Orange, their regular spot for outings away from the group home.

James Longo ordered the turkey burger, baked potato and a Diet Coke. Reginald Sims went for the sizzling garlic shrimp and a piña colada.

Sims does most of the talking. Answering is difficult for Longo, his speech a series of starts and stops that sometimes forces him to write down his thoughts.

But his words are a bit more fluid this day, two years removed from the stroke. He even surprises Sims with a query that brings us into the lives of two old acquaintances who have grown to become dear friends.

“Why did you keep coming to visit me?” he asked.

The question is a good one.

They never really knew each other back at Livingston High School, where they graduated a year apart in the early ’70s. And when they started talking after crossing paths at Newark Penn Station back in the ’80s on the ride home to Livingston, well, “it was like Archie Bunker meets cousin Maude,” Sims said. “Let’s just say we agreed to disagree.”

And that’s how it went for several years. Two guys from different worlds arguing and needling each other whenever they ran into each other.

Longo, who taught English as a second language, is a 59-year-old white, conservative Republican. Ronald Reagan is his guy and he reads Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. He speaks Japanese, Russian and Spanish. He loves country music and singing Japanese pop songs at Karaoke lounges.
Reginald Sims, left, and James Longo didn’t know each other in high school in the 1970s. They are shown in their yearbook photos.

Sims, an assistant Essex County prosecutor, is a 60-year-old black, liberal Democrat cut from Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson politics. He admires the work of Rep. Frank Pallone and former labor secretary Robert Reich. He listens to Ella Fitzgerald.

Neither of them ever married.

It took Longo getting sick to draw them closer. It also made Sims realize, “I couldn’t turn my back on him. It just didn’t feel right.”

Perhaps it was the death of Sims’ own mother that drew him into Longo’s recovery. She was a stroke victim and he knew what Longo was up against. Maybe it was seeing Longo cry when he visited him at a West Orange nursing home after the two hadn’t seen each other for eight months.

Whatever it was, one visit a week became two. Then sometimes three if Sims took his pal out on weekends.

Longo gradually improved. He started walking better, he taught himself to write with his left hand. Some Spanish words and phrases such as “La proximo semana” — meaning next week — came back.
And Longo didn’t cry as much, an emotion common with some stroke victims. Now Longo has moved into a group home run by Universal Health Inc. in Livingston. Sims said he helped Longo get a bed there last year.

“I can always count on him,’’ Longo said.

David Bedward, who shared a room with Longo at the West Orange nursing home, doesn’t know how Sims does it.

Sims doesn’t drive, but he takes the bus after work to bring Longo snacks or notebooks so he can keep a journal. He’s around so much, you’d think he’s a staff member.

“James is alive to this day because of Mr. Sims,” Bedward said. “There’s a lot of good people in this world and he’s one of them. He’s a helluva man.”

It’s a good day for Longo at TGI Fridays. He’s in a good mood and he’s smiling as he finishes his lunch.

Sims wants his friend to get better. He’d like to see him get to a Yankees game, maybe join a support group. And one day, sing again at a Karaoke bar.

“Into each life a little rain must fall,” Sims said.

And it doesn’t hurt to have a friend like Sims. How many of us have them?

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