We didn't live on the same side of town. He was into sports. I'm not. He could sing. I can only croak. He liked hats. I'm afraid of balding. He could grill a mean pork chop. I use a George Foreman Grill. He was black. I'm white.
Alexander Pickett didn't know me. I didn't know him. But we shared a name.
That's why, last Wednesday, I got an early-morning call from the Creative Loafing HQ. Our HR director, a little panicked, explained that a 27-year-old Alexander B. Pickett had been found dead earlier that morning. I'm 27, and that's my full name, including the middle initial.
For the next few days, co-workers, friends and sources called my cell phone, hoping to hear my voice and confirm I was not dead. My death seemed entirely plausible to them.
"I thought maybe it was part of a story you were working on," one co-worker said.
The whole situation was a little surreal, seeing my/his name in print. I kept reading the news reports, my name popping out every time. I started wondering about him.
Did he read Creative Loafing? Had he seen my name? Did he hate that or use it to get the ladies? I wondered if we had some family ties, somewhere between Confederate General George Pickett and the "Wicked" Wilson Pickett. I wondered if I would've met him and whether we'd be great drinking buddies, just because we share a name.
I decided to find out.
Alexander Bernard Pickett was born on June 14, 1981 in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Friends say he had a rough childhood — no father, a single mother — and moved often, from Alabama to Louisiana to Michigan. He attended college in Michigan, majoring in business.
Five months ago, after reuniting with a brother he hadn't seen for 15 years, Alex moved to St. Petersburg to live with the family of his brother's fiancée, Aretishia Barker. He quickly grew close to Barker, her son Donell and especially her daughter Kimekeshia, 25.
A few days after Alex's death, Kimekeshia shared her memories of him with me as we sat on a bench in her front yard.
"He was such a nice, genuine guy," she said. "When he talked to you, he gave his whole self to you."
She described Alex as outgoing, friendly and deeply spiritual. He didn't smoke or drink. He wore hats and they covered his walls; his favorite was an Atlanta Braves cap with a big "A" on the front.
("If anybody asked, it stood for Alex.")
He listened to R&B, jazz and gospel. He loved singing, sometimes crooning into voicemail messages he left for friends and family. His other talent was cooking. He was hoping to turn the passion into his own business, but for now, he worked at a nearby Dollar Tree. He planned to go back to school.
He also loved fishing.
So on July 8, Kimekeshia, her mother Aretishia and brother Donell drove down to Gulfport's Williams Fishing Pier. They made a $5 bet on who would catch the first fish (Kimekeshia won). They stayed at the pier for a few hours, talking, joking, laughing.
"The sky got real dark," Kimekeshia recalled. "It started drizzling."
The rest of the family packed up and walked down the pier. But Alex wanted to jump off and swim back to shore.
"My mom is like, "You can swim?'"
"Yeah, I can swim."
"And he jumped in."
Kimekeshia says he got about 30 feet out and stopped. Sensing something was wrong, Donell stripped, jumped in and swam toward Alex. But he wouldn't let Donell help him.
"I guess he was still panicky," Kimekeshia said. "[Donell]'s like, 'You got to calm down. Calm down.' At one point, they both went under water. [Donell] brought them back.'"
Fearing they'd both drown, Donell swam back to the pier. Aretishia dialed 911.
By that time, three employees from O'Maddy's had jumped into the water, attempting to save the drowning Alex, but they couldn't find him.
"It just seemed so ironic," Kimekeshia said. "By the time the ambulance came, the clouds weren't there anymore. It just stopped."
The fire department, the U.S. Coast Guard and Gulfport police searched the waters for hours. Not until Pinellas County Sheriff's Office used sonar did they find Alex's body. They pulled him out of Boca Ciega Bay just after midnight.
In front of her house, Kimekeshia shed a few tears.
"He said we were the closest thing he had to a family in such a long time."
The day after meeting Kimekeshia, I visited the Gulfport pier. Some younger kids were fishing and horsing around. A family pointed to the boats moored in the Gulf. An older couple read to each other. I walked down from the pier and took a seat at the bar in O'Maddy's. I ordered a beer, paying with my credit card. The bartender didn't notice the name.
As I sat there, I recalled asking Kimekeshia what Alex would've thought if he'd met me.
"He'd get a kick out of it," she told me. "At the end of the day you'd probably say you got a new friend."
That must be why I have a sense of melancholy now. I've lost a friend, one I didn't even know I had.