There are some things that most folks — at least most in the US — take for granted that I had very little of growing up and into adulthood. Certainly love was one of those things, but I’ve told that story as a running theme many times over the past seven years and eight months. On a more materialistic note, the things that provide pleasant memories of childhood even in the midst of suffering and sorrow, like pictures and records, were also rarities for me as well. As I said in the Preface to Boy @ The Window, photos “are among those smallest and most awesome of things. Perhaps because so few of mine survived to childhood.” This lack of evidence of my existence and importance prior to college is a story of poverty, of course. But it’s also a story of what’s important to do and feel and say, even in the midst of poverty, abuse and domestic violence.
One of the five surviving photos in my possession from my childhood is a picture of me with my older brother Darren covering my mouth as we stood at the playground gate right next to Nathan Hale Elementary School. It was February ’75, and I was in the second half of kindergarten. We took this picture on a Saturday, with both our Mom and our father Jimme there. Believe it or not, we were on our way to play on the asphalt playground and basketball court, walking around the neighborhood that was Nathan Hale and South Sixth Avenue on Mount Vernon, New York’s South Side. This was a memorable event only because it was also a very rare event. That our Mom took us somewhere that didn’t have anything to do with grocery shopping, clothes’ buying or laundry washing. That our father was also along for the event, actually sober and not arguing with or threatening our Mom.
It was also an outing where Darren and I had been horsing around, calling each other names. Just before our Mom started snapping pictures with her old Polaroid, Darren had put me in a headlock and punched me in my forehead for calling him a “dummy.” He then covered my mouth as I kept calling him a dummy, all while our Mom snapped the first picture. “Y’all keep it up, you’re gonna get your asses whupped,” Mom said to get us to stop. And we did stop fighting just long enough to snap a better picture, although it didn’t survive very long.
As far as I can remember, this was the next to last time all four of us were out together as a family. The last time came in June ’76, when my Mom introduced me to basketball, only to tell me she would “never show me how to play basketball again” because I became frustrated with getting the ball high enough to the hoop. I was six years old at the time.
Ten years after we took the Nathan Hale playground picture, Darren and I had become enamored with music to begin consuming it. Darren had bought himself a turntable at the end of ’84, for the wonderful price of $15 (it would probably be $175 in today’s money because of today’s lopsided supply and demand for vinyl in an mp3 age). But we had zero experience buying records, and our Mom’s limited collection of Al Green, Diana Ross and The Supremes and Gladys Knight and The Pips had been destroyed long ago in the midst of her breakup with our father. Our idiot stepfather Maurice had 8-track and vinyl collections (especially The Commodores and The Ohio Players) that he had given away when he converted to the Hebrew-Israelite cult in 1980-81.
So we bought whatever we heard on WBLS-107.5 or WPLJ-95.5 FM, without the benefit of music videos or without the influence of parents and classmates. Darren bought Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash, UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam. My first purchases were to support Live Aid’s anti-famine work in Ethiopia, via “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The first 45 I bought for us to play on Darren’s turntable, though, was Hall & Oates’ “Method of Modern Love,” which reached number five on Billboard’s pop charts about this time thirty years ago. It was an interesting foray into music beyond the radio, at least for me. Darren would tell me how “wack” my music was, and I’d say, “you don’t even like rap. You’re just listenin’ to it because you like girls now!”
This first effort at consuming music didn’t last long. It took money and weekly trips to the city to find vinyl to support it, and in early ’85, we simply didn’t have enough money to shop at Tower Records and Crazy Eddie’s for the stuff we wanted every week. At least not yet. Plus, we broke the turntable that spring, and with the rise of the Sony Walkman and cheap cassette tapes, we were on our way to truly getting into the ’80s before the ’90s arrived.
I no longer have that Hall & Oates single (although I do have it on my iPod). But I do have memories of my brother Darren, memories where we were still actually brothers to each other. Memories of rivalry, jealousy, fighting, even love. All in the time of choking poverty and emotional neglect.