Uggie danced his way into Newark's heart

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on November 11, 2016

Eric "Uggie" Bowens, a popular Newark resident who loved to dance, was shot and killed. An entire city is angry and in pain over his death because "Uggie," who had a developmental disability, never bothered anyone. He's pictured here at a MMA gym.

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If you don't know Eric "Uggie" Bowens, it's likely you're not from Newark.

He is, perhaps, the city's most recognizable resident, who could walk anywhere in this town without a hassle.

Ask anyone.

Once Uggie — that's what everybody called him — reached his destination, the people there never forgot him. He'd dance at a frenetic, nonstop pace, working up a sweat to House music.

It's what he did best. He could be in the street, at a club, a high school football game or somewhere challenging his rival – DDogg (Shawn Gregory).

Many times, Uggie would be by himself, with radio in hand, bopping to rhythms in his heart — a habit that endeared him to an entire city.

But that image was erased Monday night. Some heartless fool shot Uggie, ending his life at age 44.

He was found, with a gunshot wound, on the ground in front of an empty house on Bergen Street, near Fourteenth Avenue, about 10:40 p.m. Thirty-five minutes later, he died at University Hospital, leaving this community paralyzed with anger.

With hurt. With pain. With confusion.

What could Uggie have done? Likely nothing.

"He was like a baby in a grown man's body,'' said Norman Stevens of Newark, who met Uggie at a local bar in the city.

His killer could have figured out that Uggie had some sort of developmental disability. He walked with a limp, his movements a little jerky, his thoughts a bit challenged.

Beyond his personal struggles, Newark residents said, Uggie was a friendly, kind soul, a hyper bastion of celebration at any occasion. He got the party started and had a nose for a cookout, even if he wasn't invited. Uggie just showed up and people accepted him.

"By the end of  the cookout, everybody would be his cousin,'' said Theresa Ellis of Newark, who grew up with Uggie.

In Uggie's world, every day was his birthday, that is until a bullet robbed him of his next one. He was just 45 minutes away from turning 45 years old.

Newark lost a good one, a man who always had a hug for you and a moment to make you forget about your problems. Maybe his lovable ways came from his mother, the late Lula Bowens. She was the "Katydid Lady," who everyone remembers selling the chocolate-covered caramel candy from a chair on Bergen Street and Muhammad Ali Avenue.

Newark was her family and Uggie's, too. This city's residents cared for him. That's why he could walk anywhere. If he got turned around, someone always drove him to wherever he was living at the time.

Manny Loureiro, owner of the Ideal Lounge in Newark, met Uggie seven years ago, after someone attacked him, and gave him a place to stay above the bar.

Despite his injuries, Loureiro said, Uggie was undeterred, and surprisingly full of energy and life. The two of them bonded. Loureiro's family, did, too, with Uggie, nicknaming him "Beetlejuice.''

On outings, he made them laugh, like the first time Uggie went fishing. A large striped bass flailing on a fishing line scared the heck out of him.

"He thought it was Jaws,'' said Loureiro, referring to the 1975 shark movie thriller.

Loureiro's daughter, Jenny, an MMA fighter, cracks up when talking about the day she took Uggie with her to train.

"He had everybody doing, 'Head Shoulders Knees & Toes,' '' said Jenny, singing the children's exercise song.

Memories of Uggie are plentiful and not hard to find. He loved to bowl, listen to old-school Motown music and play pool. If you weren't watching him, he'd knock the balls in the hole with his hand. Spaghetti and meatballs was his favorite meal, and he couldn't get enough of watching Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Uggie knew all of the moves.

Stanley McElroy of Easton, Pa., still remembers the time he and Uggie went to a New Jersey Nets basketball game at the Meadowlands Arena.

McElroy, a Newark resident at the time, had gone to the men's room but told Uggie to stay seated. When McElroy returned, Uggie had the place rocking. His image was up on the giant screen, dancing.

"The crowd thought he was part of the Nets crew,'' said McElroy, a longtime friend. "The kids came down to his section and wanted to get his autograph. I'll never forget that.''

My Uggie episode occurred this past summer, during the 24 Hours of Peace event in downtown Newark. Uggie was doing his thing, wearing a brown vest and matching pants, a shiny medallion swinging around his neck.

When I looked away for a moment, the dancing machine was gone. He had changed his clothes — now wearing a white vest and white pants — Uggie was on the stage with the dancers performing with DJ Lil Man.

All I could do was smile.

Uggie touched many people that way. Search his name on Facebook and you will see 84,000 comments, pictures and videos in response to his death.

People stopped by the crime scene Monday afternoon and turned it into a Uggie shrine. They placed candles on the ground and tied birthday balloons on a fence. A truck driver got out his vehicle, shaking his head. Others honked their car horns as they rode by.

By nightfall, Newark police closed off the street for a rally organized by the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition.

The crowd listened to speakers call for an end to senseless killing.

They danced to House music and they called Uggie's name, stretching the letters phonetically so he could hear them.

"OOO-GAY! OOO-GAY!"

Somewhere, at a dance hall in the sky, I'm sure he heard them, too.

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