240 East Third Street, 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Alcohol Abuse, Alcoholism, Arthur, Baking Soda, Black Migrants, Black Migration, Callie Mae, Cecil Parker Elementary, Child Neglect, Divorce, Domestic Violence, Drinking Buddies, Drug Abuse, Flu, Ida, Kidney Failure, Kidney Transplant, Lo, Mount Vernon Hospital, Nathan Hale Elementary, North Side, Poverty, South Side
I wrote at length thirteen months ago about the devolution of my mother and father’s marriage in ’76 and ’77, and how that led to an incident with a coffee table on or around my seventh birthday (see my post “Stomping in Coffee Table Glass” from December ’11). It was a difficult time in all of our lives, and my grades in second grade reflected this. Me and my older brother Darren had a different living arrangement from week to week between September ’76 and April ’77. But for my mom, it was life-threatening. No wonder my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father Jimme as if he were Deacon Jones and my father was Johnny Unitas!
Despite my mother’s (real and imagined) infidelity and her filing for divorce — or because of it — my father refused to move out of our second-floor flat at 425 South Sixth. From September ’76 through March ’77, he’d come and go as it pleased him. Jimme would be home for a few hours on a Wednesday, cut the cords to the telephone or dump my mom’s mink stole in a bathtub, and then be gone for another five days or a full week. If my mom somehow was home when Jimme was, they’d fight all hours. On the nights my mother was out with her bowling league, or with friends, or (presumably) with my eventual stepfather Maurice, she’d call us to make sure we were okay, only to find Jimme at the other end of the line, threatening to kill her and us.
Starting at the end of that September, barely a month into the school year, Darren and me found ourselves spending more and more time with our babysitter Ida at 240 East Third Street. For folks who have never been to this part of the Mount Vernon, New York’s South Side, the best thing to say about 240 East Third was that it was next door to an environmentally hazardous scrap metal yard. It was a dangerous place, one of extreme poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, a place in which the most recent of Black migrants from the South and their sons and daughters tried to make into a home.
Ida had been our babysitter for as long as long as we could remember. One of my first memories was calling her a “bitch” when I was three because she had made us a bubble bath out of very itchy Tide detergent. I didn’t know the full meaning of what I said, but Ida took a switch and whupped me anyway. Now we were living with her for days at a time, having to walk a mile down East Third, then South Fulton Avenue, and then Sanford Blvd to get to Nathan Hale Elementary (now Cecil Parker Elementary). The irony was that our real home was just two doors down from the school.
That wasn’t the only irony. On the many days we spent with Ida, we also spent time with her friends, Callie Mae, Lo (short for Lorenzo) and Arthur. The reason we could spend so much time with these friends of my mom was precisely because they were Jimme’s friends originally. They were part of his circle of drinking buddies! And, with us already at 240 East Third, my father would swing around and drink to his heart’s content with all of them.
My mother, meanwhile, began experiencing what the doctors at Mount Vernon Hospital thought was mere signs of stress. Her kidneys, though, were shutting down, causing a multitude of health issues. She’d gone to see her primary care physician about this in October, then again in December and January. By the end of January ’77, my mother was stuck at the hospital, as her doctors at one point thought that she would need a fast-track to a kidney transplant. Keep in mind that this is ’77, so kidney transplants weren’t the exact science that they are today.
I ended up in the hospital with her in early February ’77, with a fever of 105°F. They put me in a bed near my mom, stuck a thermometer in my butt, and figured out that I had the flu. That I still have positive thoughts of this visit is a sure sign of delusion and the grimness of that time in our lives.
Luckily, my mom and her doctors were smart enough to have a specialist from Westchester County Medical Center come in to check out her candidacy for a kidney transplant. He took one look at her labs and realized that she didn’t need a transplant after all. It turned out that my mom’s sodium levels were so low that they had caused the flow of fluids and waste through her kidneys to drop by something like 80 percent. The doctor’s solution was really simple. “Eat baking soda,” he told my mom and her doctors. That was in March ’77.
Two teaspoons of baking soda a day, to be exact. That’s what it took to bring my mom’s kidneys back to life and for my brother and me to finally move toward a more stable home situation at 616 (at least between April ’77 and the Hebrew-Israelite years). It wasn’t that I hated 240 East Third. I just hated what being there meant for us and for my mom.