The worst summer of my entire life began thirty years ago on this date, within hours of having survived the worst school year I ever had. Between unrequited love and low-level ostracism, Crush #1 and Captain Zimbabwe, I made a pact with myself on the twenty-fifth of June, the last day of seventh grade, to keep the humiliation that I endured that year from ever happening again (see my post “The Legend of ‘Captain Zimbabwe’” from May ’09).
After school that balmy Friday afternoon, me, Mom, my baby brothers Maurice (or Menelek, his Hebrew-Israelite name) and Yiscoc, and my older brother Darren’s “counselor” Mrs. Karen Holtslag went to Willson’s Woods Pool. The pool and the park were about two blocks from 616, the largest park in Mount Vernon. It included large picnic areas, a children’s playground, a large municipal pool (one of the few public pools in the city), and a concessions stand.
Mom and Mrs. Holtslag met to discuss Darren’s “progress” and his psychological needs (see my post “Summer Camp” from June ’09). The rest of us were there to have fun. It was one of those rare times where I got a chance to spend time with my younger siblings without thinking about their terrible fate, to have Maurice as their biological father. It would be like having Damien from The Omen movie series as the man of the house. Baby Maurice and Yiscoc needed this time out of the house more than I did, at least that’s what I thought at the time.
I witnessed their father Maurice abuse baby Maurice and neglect Yiscoc on too many occasions. My stepfather once beat the six-month-old Maurice with a belt to keep him quiet because he was trying to sleep, and would forget to change his diapers while we were in school. Mom eventually found a babysitter to watch baby Maurice, but the damage was already done. Even though nearly three years old, baby Maurice had never said a word. The eleven-month-old Yiscoc had been stunningly quiet since his birth. Maybe Mrs. Holtslag should’ve been counseling Mom about them, not Darren.
Mom gave me a $10 bill to buy some snacks at the concession stand for everyone. As I walked over dreaming of hot dogs and mini-pizzas, careless me had the bill only half in my right hand. A big kid magically materialized, ran by and snatched the money from my hand. It seemed like God suspended the rules of time as soon as it happened. The moment that the thief grabbed the bill it felt as if a lightning bolt had ripped through the clear blue sky on that bright summer day. I knew deep down that my summer would mirror the previous fall, winter, and spring.
When my stepfather found out about my tragic error, he demanded that I tell him exactly who stole the money. “I’m not sure. I think it’s some guy named ‘Pookie’,” I said. Maurice walked over to me, poked me in the chest, and told me to get the money back from Pookie in two weeks. I said, “I can get the money from Jimme,” but he didn’t want to hear that, shaking his head in the process. I pointed out that Pookie was much bigger than me, and that I didn’t know where he lived. Maurice told me to “find out where he lives!” Otherwise I would get a “whuppin’.”
I spent nearly two weeks asking questions and running around the Pearsall Drive projects (now the more affluent Vernon Woods condo community, bought from the city and converted in ’84 or ’85) looking for Pookie after that. I learned that he was sixteen years old, about five-foot-ten, and lived with his mother on the fourth floor of one of the six buildings in the project community. I hadn’t seen him once in my eleven days of snooping since the robbery. I was terrified to be at 616, and too scared to be outside. I spent my afternoons when I wasn’t out on one of my Pookie hunts in 616’s stairwells and basements crying and thinking. I thought, “Why me?”
But not-so-deep-down, I knew why. I stopped acting like Maurice was my father and a changed man after what he did to Mom. This was punishment for not fulfilling the Torah’s law regarding fathers and mothers, “Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days be long on the land that the Lord hath giveth thee.” “Yeah, right!,” I thought. We had no land, no promised land, and no prayed-for-land either. And Maurice, well, if he was my father, then what did that mean for me, Darren, and Jimme? Torah or no Torah, I swore that I’d never call my bastard stepfather “Dad” again.