April is a pretty significant month in my life and times, almost as significant as August and December. I finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in April, married my wife Angelia in April, became a Christian in April, watched my family become homeless in April. My first crush’s birthday’s in April, and I became friends with my first best friend in April. This particular April marks three decades for some of these events. This was the spring of Donna Summer, Billy Joel, Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” and the emergence of Christopher Cross. A Snickers bar was 25 or 35 cents, a 12 ounce can of soda 25 or 30 cents, and chips 15 or 20 cents. Mind you, this was the year the inflation rate reached 14 percent.
But I digress. The first significant thing that occurred in April ’79 was that my father Jimme came back into our lives, mine and my older brother Darren’s. It was Saturday, April 7 to be exact. (Don’t think that my memory’s that good, I had to look it up — I thought it was April 5). We hadn’t seen my father since the end of March ’77, after my Uncle Sam had clotheslined him coming through the front gate of 425 South Sixth Avenue, our previous home, flipping Jimme in the air and onto his ass, and knocking a bag with a 32 ounce Pepsi in a glass bottle to the ground. It happened in slow motion for me, watch Jimme and that bag hit the ground at roughly the same time.
This was in response to a nasty divorce between my mother — Uncle Sam’s older sister — and my father. The divorce and my father’s drunken awareness of my mother’s infidelity led to a number of nasty incidents after she filed for divorce in July ’76. 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. 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. The stress of these random acts of rage had left my mother in the hospital for nearly two months with a serious kidney ailment. So when Jimme kidnapped us from our babysitter and took us back to 425 South Sixth, my Uncle Sam, already in the process of moving us out, lost it.
That happened two years before. Since then, my mother had remarried, hooking up with the guy that she had been in an affair with in the last months of her marriage to my father. Who could blame her, given what Jimme was like? At the same time, marrying a known womanizer whose first wife had divorced him for his abusiveness and infidelities wasn’t exactly the greatest decision in the world either. I didn’t like Maurice, and ran away from home two months after he had married my mother to show it, in December ’78. After thirty lashes with the whip and six weeks of no TV and no time to play outside, I had transformed into a bit of a nerd, since I was only allowed to read as punishment. So my braininess took off. But even with Darren and school, I was also lonely.
When Jimme finally called us to see if we wanted to hang out with him, it did lift my spirits some. Of course, my mother constantly reminded me how unreliable my father was. “You know, he ain’t never paid no rent when we was together,” or “You like him more than you do Maurice.” I ignored her snipes, for the most part. I knew my father, with all of his drinking, was about as reliable as Mount Vernon’s Reliable Taxi in those days. But drunk or not, even at nine I saw him as a better person than the constantly lying Maurice. Back then, though, I didn’t know that Jimme was light-years better than Maurice.
Still, he wasn’t a good father by any normal definitions of father. By the time I was old enough to witness one of his drinking binges and hangovers, when I was five, he regularly acted as if Darren and I were his drinking buddies, talking to us in language most of us only hear when watching Goodfellas. Jimme went on an alcohol-laced benders that usually 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-nese. This was even before my mother had filed for divorce. Jimme also had a habit of saying, “O’ bo’, can’t do dis no mo’. Gotta stop doin’ dis. Nex’ week, nex’ week. I’ll stop nex’ week.” All while shaking his head, his eyes down, ashamed of how he felt and looked once the binge had ended. He never said “now” or “this week.” It was always next week with Jimme.
Darren and I had the privilege of witnessing this on a semi-weekly basis once Jimme came back into our lives from April ’79 until someone attempted to put Jimme’s head in orbit two years later, we spent time with our dad about once every three weekends. He’d call every Saturday to say that he was on his way, usually from a phone booth or from a bar, but usually didn’t make it over to 616. It got to the point where I could predict the next time he’d be over, either by date or by how he sounded on the phone the night before.
I looked forward to the times that we did go out with Jimme, though. Despite his deepening addiction, Jimme was fun to be around most of the time. He went out of his way to take us to Mickey D’s, to take us down into the city, to show us where he worked and the “big shots” that he knew. He’d take us over to his drinking buddies’ homes, including our one-time babysitter Ida. When Darren and I first started hanging out with our dad, he’d take us to visit his brother Michael, who also lived in Mount Vernon (he later moved back to Atlanta). Jimme would sometimes attempt to cook us dinner, would tell us stories about growing up on the Collins family farm in rural Georgia, about his work and all of the things he saw in Manhattan.
The last time we spent time with Jimme before the baseball bat incident was somewhat memorable. We’d gone down to the city to see the movie Popeye with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. I didn’t have the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to watch beforehand, but then again, I didn’t need them to tell me that this movie really sucked. It was so horrible that we left in the middle of it. My dad had brought some beer in the theater with him, so he was to’ up by the time we decided to leave. After taking the Metro-North back to Mount Vernon, we stopped off at a one-time restaurant on the corner of “The Avenue”—downtown Mount Vernon—to pick up some roasted chicken parts and fries for a late-night dinner. We went to Jimme’s place, a sleeping room in someone’s house, ate and watched Eddie Murphy on SNL. It might have been his “Buckwheat” episode. Who knew that a few weeks later I’d read about my dad in the obituaries, only to find out that he’d only technically died for a few seconds before coming back to life?
Jimme ended up in the hospital because he’d made fun of another, bigger drunk, calling him a “po’ ass muddafucca” at what Darren and I called “Wino Park” on South Fulton and East Third. So much was the humiliation that the man marched home, grabbed a baseball bat, and returned to repeatedly smash my dad in the head until he was unconscious.
Jimme recovered eventually, but he was out of commission and out of our lives from April ’81 until August ’82, the longest I’d go without seeing my father until I went off to the University of Pittsburgh. It’s funny to write about all of this now that my father’s been sober for a decade. He’s literally spent more time around Noah sober than he spent with me between ’79 and ’96. Better later than never. Even drunk, those two years of time with Jimme did help me see, long before Humanities and the Hebrew-Israelites, that there was a whole big world out there. And though not mine, it was bigger than anything my mother or Maurice had experienced. Jimme was as important for me understanding that I had possibilities as my teachers and World Book Encyclopedia in the spring of ’79.