Salvador Jaramillo used to tease his best friend that they were too old to be out and about so early.
“Maybe we should sleep in a little longer,” he’d say.
But Jose Noriega liked to be up before the sun.
He would say goodbye to his wife, walk past his bougainvillea and his church, and head out to wait for Jaramillo at the usual spot — a bench in front of Don Manuel’s snow cone shop.
There, at 6:15 a.m., the two would begin a half-mile walk to grab coffee at a fast food restaurant.
They had done so for 31 years.
Then on Wednesday morning, as Noriega crossed Lorena Street in Boyle Heights to meet his friend, he was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. He was 101 years old.
Jaramillo, 93, arrived at the intersection as the neighborhood baker and two drivers chased down the suspect, 41-year-old Ricardo Avalos. (He later was arrested on vehicular manslaughter charges.)
Someone yelled Jaramillo’s way, and he saw Noriega splayed in the street next to the gutter.
“My legs went numb,” Jaramillo said. “This was my friend on the floor … my old friend. All I wanted to do was fall down next to him.”
Instead, he willed his legs to cross the street and walk to Noriega’s house. Someone had to break the news to Lupe, Noriega’s wife of 67 years.
She had been a young woman when Jaramillo met the Noriegas in the 1950s.
Their house was on Opal Street, next to the rectory at Resurrection Catholic Church. The Jaramillos bought a home on the same street, across Lorena Street.
The two men saw each other almost every week at church; they’d shake hands and make small talk. Noriega was a diesel mechanic raising four kids. Jaramillo was a shoemaker raising nine.
As the decades went by, their hair turned gray and their children grew up. One by one, they got married and moved out.
When the two men retired, each began to walk in the mornings, alone, up Lorena Street.
“We’d run into each other so much, eventually we figured, why not walk together?” Jaramillo said.
So they began meeting on the corner every day, taking breaks on the weekends.
Jaramillo would tell Noriega about his childhood in Guanajuato, Mexico; he’d listen to his friend’s stories about growing up in Douglas, Ariz.
They joined a few senior clubs and took their wives dancing. Twice they traveled to Europe. Now and then, when the ladies weren’t watching, they would sneak in a few shots of tequila.
Jaramillo looked up to Noriega for his energy, how he’d still climb on the roof at 100 years old to nail down shingles. When his own wife, Lucita, died 13 years ago, Jaramillo’s walk with Noriega was one of the few distractions that helped him get out of the house.
Along the route everyone knew them: the tamale vendors, the women selling fresh juice, the kids headed to school and the ladies who waited at the bus stops.
They’d walk in the morning darkness and settle into a booth with two cups of coffee to talk until the sun came up. (Three years ago, they moved from McDonald’s to Burger King after a customer began picking on them for being too old.)
Lately, Noriega had to stop and catch his breath during their stroll. He couldn’t hear much anymore, so much of the way the two friends would walk in silence, cars and trucks roaring alongside them.
A day before the accident, Noriega had missed a curb a few blocks into their stroll and fell to his knees. Jaramillo scooped him up and swept the dust from his pants. “He shook himself off and kept walking,” Jaramillo said. “Nothing would stop him.”
The morning after the accident, Jaramillo put on his black sneakers and set out in the darkness.
When he reached the intersection where their morning ritual had begun, he paused at the candle memorial honoring Noriega.
Then, he headed up Lorena Street, alone.