It’s been twenty-seven years and five and a half hours since my idiot ex-stepfather literally whipped me with a belt and gave me a concussion because I hadn’t succeeded in finding a teenager who had stolen $10 from me. But this post isn’t about what happened to me on this date back in ’82. At least, not directly. I want to concentrate on all the things I learned about how not to be the worst stepfather in the history of stepfathers.
My stepfather was an everyday example of what can happen to you if you’re seriously love-deprived. Born in August ’50 in Richmond, Virginia, Maurice spent most of his growing-up years as a semi-orphan, shuttled between grandparents, aunts, and uncles in Richmond and in Trenton, New Jersey. Maurice didn’t know his father, and rarely had contact with his mother before he turned fourteen.
Because of the lack of maternal attention, Maurice used his imagination to make himself into the ultimate pretender. He gained a reputation in his extended family and among his friends as a smooth-talking, often boastful man who could talk as if he had a PhD and could dream up “get rich quick” schemes faster than the $700-million, junk-bond-scamming Michael Milliken. Despite his size and physique, Maurice didn’t try to become “like Mike” or, more likely, Jim Brown. His grades were good enough for him to attend Montclair State University in New Jersey in ’70, only completing one semester. He also spent a year in Uncle Sam’s service as an MP at Fort Bragg before he was discharged.
Maurice lacked a clear sense of direction for his life, as well as an understanding of who he was. My mother met Maurice when he came to work at Mount Vernon Hospital as an orderly in ’75. She’d been working as a supervisor in the Dietary Department since ’68. This wasn’t exactly love at first sight, as Maurice came into Mount Vernon Hospital with the reputation of an adulterous womanizer. He already had a five-year-old daughter from his failed first marriage.
My mother’s marriage to my increasingly alcoholic father was slowly swirling around the toilet bowl when they met. After a platonic courtship that began that summer, they had begun seeing each other on a more serious basis by the end of ’75. My mother began an affair with Maurice several months before officially filing for a divorce from my father in July ’76. Not exactly the best way to move into a new relationship.
My father’s drunken awareness of my mother’s infidelity led to a number of nasty incidents. Jimme once destroyed a glass-topped coffee table by stomping into it—in front of my mother, Maurice, Darren, and me. This happened on my seventh birthday, and left me hiding in the corner of our second-floor flat on South Sixth Avenue. Jimme had also put about $3,000 worth of my mother’s clothes and shoes into a bathtub full of hot water, thrown a thirteen-inch color TV out of a window, and had repeatedly cut up the new furniture my mother had bought in the months after filing for divorce.
This stress was more than my mother could bear. She ended up in Mount Vernon Hospital for almost two months with a serious kidney ailment that turned out to be stress-induced. Darren and I stayed with our usual babysitter, one of my father’s drinking buddies in Ida. By the time my mother came out of the hospital, which was in April ’77, Maurice and my Uncle Sam had moved us into an apartment at 616 East Lincoln Avenue on Mount Vernon’s North Side. But not before my Uncle Sam, also a big man at six-foot-four and about 230 pounds, clotheslined Jimme over a fence in front of our old place as an act of vengeance.
Moving in together was the next mistake for Maurice and my mother, along with marriage and kids between ’77 and ’81. As their relationship evolved and devolved, so did Maurice’s propensity for pretending. He tried to convince me and Darren that he had fought and killed Viet Cong, carried a briefcase because he was a doctor and a lawyer, and was a writer because he had a typewriter and would occasionally write poetry and short stories. All of this while driving a cab for Reliable Taxi. Only the part about being a writer was true, except he never attempted to do anything with it besides brag about it to his friends. I was gullible, not stupid, and when I found some of his official papers in my mother’s closet a few months before their wedding in ’78, I began to wonder who Maurice really was.
But Maurice’s biggest pretending project of all was attempting to play the role of father for Darren, me, and eventually, my younger siblings. His definition of discipline was a belt for a “whuppin’,” and his idea of play-time was teaching us how to be “men” through karate. When we first moved in at 616, Maurice declared that Darren and me “would be [his] house servants.” As few and far between my visits with Jimme were after the divorce became final in ’78, I’d always seen an inebriated Jimme as more of a father than Maurice could be if he really tried.
I witnessed Maurice on too many occasions in which his role as a father was to lie to me and abuse baby Maurice. My stepfather once beat the six-month-old boy to keep him quiet because he was trying to sleep, and would forget to change his diapers while we were in school. My mother eventually found a babysitter to watch baby Maurice, but the damage was already done. We just didn’t know it yet.
So when Maurice came back into our lives in April ’81 as a Hebrew-Israelite, had made up with my mother, and began training us to walk as proud Sons of Judah, I worked extremely hard to convince myself that his conversion was real. At eleven, I wanted a father I could talk to about God, life, school and becoming a man. With Jimme temporarily out of the picture, I decided that I’d give Maurice another chance at being a father.
Boy was I such an idiot back then! If I had possessed just a tiny understanding of the world outside what I knew about Mount Vernon, New York City, and from reading bunches of books, I would’ve known the whole Hebrew-Israelite things had nothing to do with religion. Maurice was in search of an identity that would magically transform him from the creep he was into someone successful, like Bob Johnson (founder of BET, for better and especially for worse) or Reginald Lewis (the late one-time owner of Beatrice Foods). My mother didn’t want her second marriage to fail, and wanted Maurice to be the man in our family. It was so simple, and yet, I didn’t see it for nearly a year.
By that time, I was virtually friendless, one of the weirdest folks out of a group of nerdy wackos. I had to grind for three months just to get back to par, and would spend another three years finding enough of myself to have some semblance of a life outside of 616 and school. Most of all, I was beat-up, bruised, and felt betrayed on this day. I knew for sure that there was no chance in this universe of ours that Maurice could ever be a good stepfather or man, assuming he had a clue as to who that was.
The worst thing about getting beat-up that day and off and on for the rest of July ’82 was that the mugging was a set-up. About a year after my summer of hell, I saw my stepfather and Pookie in the middle of a conversation near the Pearsall Drive projects. I was on my way home from grocery shopping in nearby Pelham. I saw them from a distance, and figured that they didn’t see me. So I hid behind a tree across the street from the Getty gas station and a closed grocery store, where Maurice and Pookie talked. They were laughing and joking around, having what appeared to be a friendly conversation. I thought that I was mistaken, but how could I forget who my mugger was? My stepfather, who knew where we were that day in June ’82, had paid Pookie with my mother’s money to mug me at the pool. My carelessness had only made it easier for Pookie to do his job. It was my stepfather’s warped way of making me a man. What he did was steal my childhood.
One day my senior year at Pitt, the Henderson twins and I were in conversation about fathers — I have no idea how we got into that. I said, “the only person I’d ever really known as a father was Jesus.” I didn’t think it was especially profound at the time. But they remembered that for years after I said it. For those times, it was so true, and in many ways, it still is.