This week my father Jimme turns sixty-eight. That sentence is weird for me. My father Jimme, who I really didn’t get to know as a sober, recovering alcoholic until he was fifty-eight, just as I turned twenty-nine. The fact that he’s still alive and doing really well, all things considered, as he enters his late sixties. That we have any relationship at all is a miracle, and it confirms the old adage that is the title of today’s blog post.
Based on interviews for Boy At The Window, my own recollections and the stories told to me by Jimme and my mother growing up, my father’s alcohol likely started the year he moved to New York City (1962) and ended in ’98. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to Monicagate is but one way to look at it. Why so long? Why in New York City, likely the worst place to become an alcoholic?
My father’s grew up as the youngest of eight or 10 (I forget which at the moment) children in rural central Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s. He learned a lot about hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, his formal education ended with the seventh or eighth grade, not uncommon in the Jim Crow era of segregation and exclusion. He was smart, which made him weird. He was shy, which made him vulnerable. And, not so coincidentally, his voice and diction made him sound Southern, which made him someone who likely should’ve never moved to the big city.
By the time my mother met Jimme in the late ’60s, my dad worked as a janitor for the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan making nearly $300 a week. It was good money for many people in ’69, and for a Black man with only a middle-school education, it was the American Dream. A dream so good that it was too good to stay true. He eventually lost that job because of his addiction, as well as numerous others. By the time my mother filed for divorce (’76), he worked as a janitor at Salesian High School in New Rochelle. The divorce process left Jimme wounded in many ways, and sent him deeper into alcoholism than I could’ve imagined at the time. Salesian fired him as well.
In the ’80s, Jimme worked as a janitor, a carpet-cleaning, wood-varnishing technician who for Glen and Bruce, the Levi brothers. Their offices were on West 64th and East 59th, near Jimme’s Manhattan bars. It was a job that he could show up drunk to. It was a job that he’d have for nearly twenty years (only to end when the FBI arrested one of the brothers for attempting to hire a hit man to take out one of their competitors; I’m sure that this is a story that’s stranger than fiction).
Among many things that I remember about my father between ’79 and ’97 was how vulgar his language would become once he sniffed alcohol, much less drank it. In finding him at bars or hanging out near liquor stores or on street corners as a tweener and teenager, he used a number of stock phrases that I could’ve easily made into a comedy routine.
Most of what Jimme talked about was money, drinking, his drinking buddies, and occasionally, women. But after he had his “pep-up,” which is what he called his Miller Beer, he started mouthing off like someone tried to pick a fight with him. “I’m a big shot, mudderfucka. I make fitty-million dollas a week. Look a’ dis po’ass mudderfucka. That mudderfucka cain’t do shit for me.” If anyone dared question his analysis of himself and his situation, Jimme would take it to another level, he’d say, “Muddafucka, you ain’ got shit nobody want. I buy an’ sell muddafuckas around here. I kick yo’ muddafucka ass.” Or “I’m da boss of da bosses. No one tell me what ta do!” The ultimate in Jimme’s mind was to say, “I make fitty-million dollas a week . . . I make eighteen thousin’ dollas an’ hour . . .” and with a wicked laugh, say “My name’s JC—Jesus Christ!” to end his expletive-filled tirade.
Despite this, despite his idiotic attempts to make a “man” out of me by paying for a prostitute to celebrate my seventeenth birthday or repeatedly calling me “faggat” because I had gone another week without getting “my dict wet,” there was a silver lining. Me and my brother Darren saw so much of New York because of being around our father and working for him in the ’80s. Whatever else could be said about Jimme, he did come through for us most of the time when we needed money during our welfare years (’83-’87). Of course, I had to hunt him down every Friday at a watering hole between East 241st in the Bronx and West 23rd in Manhattan for nearly five years to get it.
Thankfully, college, graduate school and working for a living ended this aspect of our relationship. It took another decade of drinking binges and fights and the loss of his one-room apartment and job for Jimme to fully hit rockbottom. Homeless and penniless, his brothers and sisters in Georgia convinced him to finally give up the excitement of New York and the pretense that he was a big shot in the city that never sleeps.
Every time he visits New York these days, my father is always amazed by how he lucked out. Most of his drinking buddies are long dead or are well on the way to a grave. He knows it’s only by the grace of God that he’s still here and still doing well. And he loves to remind me–and himself also– “If I can change, anyone can.” Happy birthday, dad!