Today my father Jimme (his birth certificate name, as he actually goes by Jimmie) turns seventy-one. He’s in better health now than he was ten, twenty, and especially thirty years ago. That’s because this time in ’81, my father had apparently died for a few seconds on the operating table as doctors drilled into his brain to relieve pressure after a man did his best to dispatch him from this world. The incident, operation and time in the hospital meant that Jimme would be out of my life for almost fifteen months. It meant that I’d have a question to answer: what does a preteen boy do when his father is absent, and his best friend has shunned him? For that matter, what does a Black kid do under those circumstances?
But I’m jumping ahead of my story here. For over a week in July ’81, my father lingered in an ICU bed in Mount Vernon Hospital after he’d been reported dead in the Obituary section of the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. Jimme ended up in the hospital because he’d made fun of another, bigger drunk, calling him a “po’
ass muddafucca” at what we called “Wino Park” on South Fulton and East Third. So much was the humiliation that the man marched home, grabbed a Louisville Slugger, and returned to repeatedly smash my dad in the head until he was unconscious. Luckily, Jimme has a classic Collins head, hard enough to be used as a wrecking ball or 120 mm shell.
His near-death experience was not all that shocking for us, at least not obviously so. My father’s life in the New York City area had turned into a slow motion tragedy of errors long before I was old enough to witness one of his drinking binges and hangovers. And Jimme regularly went on alcohol-laced benders, ones that began on payday Friday and ended on Monday or Tuesday. As he liked to say, he “got to’ up” almost every weekend — “tore up” for those unfamiliar with Jimme-ese. This was going on for years before Mom had filed for divorce in July ’76.
Jimme also had a habit of saying, “O’ bo’, I can’t do dis no mo’. Gotta stop doin’ dis. Nex’ week, nex’ week. I’ll stop drinkin’ nex’ week.” All while shaking his head, his eyes down, ashamed of how he felt and looked once the binge had ended. Jimme never said “now” or “this week.” It was always next week with him. If there was any week where “nex’ week” should’ve been the week, it was that Friday in early July.
With that incident, the next time I’d see my father would be July ’82, being threatened by my stupid stepfather, who chased Jimme out of 616 for trying to see me. Dumb ass Maurice was in the middle of his five-week, abuse-and-break-Donald program, and didn’t want my real father interrupting his efforts to turn me into his prag. Witnessing that incident wasn’t a pleasant experience.
From July ’81 through August ’82, with Jimme absent and Starling no longer my friend, I really had no other Black males in my life with whom I could draw inspiration. My older brother Darren? He was already jealous of me and had withdrawn into the world of The Clear View School, acting out his role as a mentally retarded kid who wasn’t mentally retarded. My uncle Sam (my mother’s brother)? Really? I’ve seen him more in the past ten years, with me living in suburban DC, than I saw him through the ’80s and ’90s.
That left my idiot stepfather, who, at least in the summer of ’81, was there, and had gotten back together with
my mother, and had converted us into Hebrew-Israelites. This must’ve been why I clung so hard and so long to my kufi identity, even when I knew that something was wrong. With this sudden change in religion, from lethargic and unacknowledged Baptists to Afrocentric Black Jews. With me treating my stepfather as if he really was a parent of mine. With me wanting to prove myself to others in ways I never felt I needed to before.
This wasn’t something I was conscious of, at least in ’81 or in the first half of ’82. I wish I had been. At least, then, I would’ve realized. That, more than anything else, I missed my dad and my best friend. And I was using my stepfather and his religion as a piss-poor substitute for both.