For so many years before marriage and parenthood, my Christmas’ and Christmas Eves were about as memorable as having surgery while under general anesthesia. As in “wake me up when it’s either my birthday [two days after Christmas] or New Year’s Day.” But not Christmas Eve 1994, especially that dreary night. It wasn’t all bad. It definitely wasn’t good. It was ugly here and there. Mostly it was a confluence of my life before I became more of the person I am right now than it was of the person I had to be growing up.
I was in Mount Vernon and at 616 for my second-longest holiday break ever (my longest break had been the year before), one of the few benefits of attending Carnegie Mellon for my doctoral work. But unlike the previous year, I had money to work with. I had borrowed to cover my dissertation research trips to DC for that fall, and had money left over. God knows my CMU teaching stipend was barely enough to cover my basic expenses!
By now, my 616 visits were accompanied with my sister Sarai literally holding her hand out for extra dollars, of store trips to help Mom stock up on non-perishables, and to buy appliances that everyone needed. This Christmas season, it was obvious. The used TV I had bought for everyone in ’89 was done for. I bought a new 27-inch Toshiba for everyone just before Christmas Eve, along with some games for the kids to play. I was set for a relaxing Christmas Eve.
My father Jimme came over that night. I was the last person he expected to greet him at Mom’s apartment door. “Bo’, didn’t know you was here!,” he said, all surprised. As soon as I looked at my dad, I knew he was drunk. He was standing atilt, and his breath reeked of cheap alcohol and cheaper mints. Mom almost went off on him. Jimme, though, wasn’t there for me or Mom. He was there to impress my younger siblings. At first he was going to give them money. Then Eri and Sarai suggested the grand idea of going to Toys “R” Us to get more games and toys for Christmas. Jimme said yes, and they were all ready to leave within ten minutes, before Mom and I knew what was happening.
Mom agreed to go, but not without reservations. “If you mess up, I’m leaving yo’ ass in the street,” she said to my dad. I went with my four siblings and Mom because I knew my dad would mess up. He was already too far into his drinking routine to do anything other than act abnormal.
We made the last 7 Bee-Line bus to Yonkers, around 8 pm. It was packed with parents who were shopping late for toys and Christmas trees, along with a host of younger adults ready to find a club or some other partying spot. Some had been drinking too, so my dad wasn’t a complete oddball in this crowd. Jimme being Jimme, he started in on the diverse human sardine can of “Jamaicans” and “Spanish people” with his “po’ ass muddafuccas” and other favorite Jimme-isms. At one point I squeezed next to him and said, “You need to stop this, or I’m taking you off this bus myself.”
Jimme was so drunk that he fell over on some people on the bus once, and fell into the rear stairwell one other time. With so many on the bus in a partying mood, the group around us just laughed it off. I helped him up both times. I wasn’t embarrassed as much as I was disappointed and saddened to see my 54-year-old dad so old and so out of it. I’m sure Mom was embarrassed. This was her ex-husband, after all.
We got to Toys “R” Us and the Cross County Mall around 9:30, and it became a nearly two-hour free-for-all. My siblings went nuts, because Jimme said, “I buy you anythin’ you want. I buy the whole sto’!” I agreed with Mom to chip in if it turned out Jimme’s mouth was bigger than his cash wad. Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri found almost $200 worth of toys in the course of an hour. Kids and babies were screaming and hollering everywhere, along with their parents. At least two kids got ass-whuppins while we were in line. Eri and Yiscoc nearly had a fight while in the store. Jimme’s alcohol-fuel was on empty, and he was ready to fall asleep standing up. And, I had a headache.
We left the store at 11:30 pm, and walked out into cold, damp darkness. The drizzle that was the weather when we left 616 was now a full-on downpour, unusual for late December. It took us twenty minutes to get a taxi, and almost ten minutes to get our wet asses into the cab. My siblings were sitting on top of each other, with Jimme squished in between them. Me and Mom were up front with the cabbie, with my left butt cheek on the cigarette tray between the two bucket seats. We dropped Jimme off first, before cutting across Mount Vernon back to 616. It was 12:30 am Christmas Day by the time we walked through the apartment door, soaked, tired, and with me ready to start 1995.
It would be the last time I’d see my dad until I went to visit him sober and in Jacksonville in January 2002. It was my next to last trip to visit my younger siblings and Mom before the 616 fire of April 1995. It was the last time I came to Mount Vernon as someone who could so easily shed my persona as academic historian and single-minded professional for the loner and super-responsible eldest child I once was. But more than anything else, it was the last time I’d ever go shopping on the night before Christmas. That was just too crazy for me.