Trick or Trick

October 31, 2011

Charlie Brown fooled by Lucy and the football, again, October 30, 2011. (

I’ve never really liked Halloween. Probably because most of my Octobers growing up in Mount Vernon, New York were pretty horrible ones. The worst of those late Octobers were in the early 80s, starting in ’81.

That year, Halloween was a forbidden holiday in my life anyway. But the trick was on me. On a day just before Halloween, my day’s meal consisted of an ice cream sandwich as hard as a rock. The lunch at A.B. Davis Middle School that Friday — as it was most Fridays back then — was a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with fries, not exactly a Hebrew-Israelite’s diet. It was also about thirty degrees outside and partly cloudy, unusually cold for early fall in New York. So I stood near the steps leading down to the back of Davis, which led to the athletic field below. The field had turned a dirty yellow-green, the color of mid-fall. It matched how I felt about my life on that day.

The only reason I even had a rock-hard ice cream sandwich for lunch was because I’d won one of our seventh grade social studies teacher Mr. Court’s bets. He’d made an incorrect historical assertion in class, and I caught it, collecting a quarter from him that morning. Still, I learned, fully and truly for the first time, how

A Single Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich, 1994. (Renee Comet/National Cancer Institute). In public domain.

poor me and my family had become, all while bitterly jamming the ice cream sandwich down my throat. So much for discovering my inner Hebrew-Israelite self through fasting and eating kosher foods!

I very quickly grew to hate hearing the words Hebrew-Israelite, especially since I’d never been to a traditional synagogue, much less Israel, Palestine, or even Ethiopia. Our Hebrew-Israelite ways had left us with little to eat when I was at home. There was a benefit to all of this. It made the fasting part of fasting and prayer easier. Not easy, just easier. My first Yom Kippur ceremony was difficult. We fasted on fruit for three days, and I barely made it through school each of those days. I almost passed out from the lack of food.

My older brother Darren, meanwhile, had decided that “the day of atonement” and all things Torah didn’t include his stomach. By the end of October, I would watch him take his kufi off as he boarded his bus for The Clear View School (see “About My Brother” from December ’07). I caught Darren walking near our apartment building with the last of a Hostess’ Apple Pie and its wrapper during Yom Kipper. He had snuck around the building to eat his contraband. What made this transgression worse was that Hostess used lard to create its desserts. And Darren, once caught, just stared at me and smiled.

My Mom was too busy and tired for me to think about complaining to her about this or about the issues I faced during my first days of Humanities. For more than three years, my Mom’s income had dropped so much compared to rising food and energy prices that we didn’t have food in the house for the last ten days of every month. Sometimes we didn’t have heat either, because we were usually two or three weeks behind on

Anthracite coal (like the lump of coal that was my life in '81), March 7, 2007. (United States Geological Survey). In public domain.

the Con Edison bill. I also knew that we were consistently behind on rent. I felt as isolated as a kidnapped tweener chained to a radiator in a walled-off-window basement.

Lack of food and heat at home weren’t the only problems. My Mom had popped out two of my younger brothers in the previous three years. We lived at 616 in a 1,200 square-foot, two bedroom and one bathroom apartment, so overcrowding had become an issue. Me and Darren were sharing a bedroom with our two siblings.

Not only did I start to believe that my then idiot stepfather Maurice Washington — oops, Judah ben Israel — had colluded with his version of God to play a cruel trick on my mother and my family. Not only did it finally dawn on me that we had slid into poverty somewhere between beginning on ’79 and Halloween ’81. But I knew that we were in a family crisis, financial, material and spiritual. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing, I knew to do about it. Not even asking for candy would’ve helped.

A Baseball Bat and a Father’s Absence

July 19, 2011

One Louisville Slugger, July 19, 2011. (Source/

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’

Grandpa, Me, and Noah, September 12, 2010. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

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

Wolf in sheep's clothing, a false prophet (a symbol of my ex-stepfather), November 2008. (Source/

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.


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