425 South Sixth Avenue, 48 Adams Street, 616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Child Abuse, Darren, Jimme, Maurice Eugene Washington, Mother-Son Relationship, Neighborhood, Neighbors, Parental Neglect, Sexual Abuse
This past weekend marked four decades since my Mom and my late one-time stepfather (though not quite in 1977) Maurice moved me and my older brother from South Side Mount Vernon to an apartment complex three blocks from the Mount Vernon-Pelham border. This is much more a memorial of remembrance than of anything to celebrate.
For me, it was part of an endless series of storms. Mom had filed for divorce with my father and had decided to move in with her allegedly new boyfriend Maurice (who wasn’t so new, as I’d learn years later). My father Jimme’s alcoholism had gotten worse. He had drowned my Mom’s clothes in a bathtub, thrown a color TV out of our second-floor window, and stomped in a glass coffee table during dinner after my seventh birthday in response to the cheating and the divorce. My Mom ended up in the hospital for two months due to the stress and her kidneys, which had almost shut down due to her nonexistent diet. Add to all this the sexual abuse that I had suffered while Mom and Jimme were going at it during the centennial summer of ’76. My world was upside down, in shambles, as shattered as glass blown out of a skyscraper by well-placed plastic explosives.
A week ago, my thirteen-year-old son asked me, “Did you ever live in a house?” Even though I had talked about my life before the move to 616 East Lincoln Avenue before, it had been a few years. I think my son asked because of our plans to move out of our “luxury” high-rise after fourteen years. The truth is, I have lived in four homes over the years. But in my first seven years (with 240 East Third as a notable exception during my Mom’s illness), I grew up in three houses: 24 Adams Street, 48 Adams Street, and 425 South Sixth Avenue. We lived in one-bedroom flats in the first two homes, where we shared a kitchen and a bathroom with one other family. I have memories of playing in the front yards of both, of older neighbors (by toddler standards) hosing down their cars, of older kids and teenagers at the Adams Street Park on monkey bars and shooting hoops. I even remember the day my Mom told me we were moving to 425 South Sixth, August 12, 1974. It was the same week I burned my knee on an over door, the same week Richard Nixon announced his resignation from the presidency.
At 425, we had a two-bedroom, one-bath flat, on the second floor, with a separate entrance. It was as close to owning a home as we got during those years. And boy did my Mom and Jimme blow it! Between the sexual abuse incident and my unconscious attempts at self-erasure, even suicide, 425 never quite felt like home.
The move to 616 occurred about a week after my Uncle Sam clotheslined my father like he was the late Deacon Jones and Jimme was a running back whose career was coming to a crashing halt. I remember it being the second Friday in April, near Easter Sunday time. It had warmed up from the frozen winter of ’77 to the light chills of early spring. But I didn’t feel particularly warmed up inside.
It didn’t help that where we end up moving didn’t look at all like the newer — if more impoverished — series of apartment complexes down the street on Pearsall Drive. It wasn’t the first time I’d been in an apartment building. But from the first time I walked into the A section of 616, I didn’t like it. The vestibule was too dark, the elevator too slow, and the building too smelly for my tastes. Plus, because of the haste of the move and the damage my father had done to our furniture, me and my older brother Darren didn’t even have a bed. From April to December ’77, we slept on the floor or on the couch in the new living room or in our eventual bedroom, with Mom and Maurice staying up sometimes until Johnny Carson time watching sitcoms and the news. So many times in those first months, I felt like I was a rag doll that had been hurriedly thrown into a box marked “Miscellaneous.” I was along for whatever ride Mom and Maurice were on, a permanent reminder of yesterday’s marital storms, a yoke on whatever future they had in mind.
I acted out repeatedly the first twenty months after the move. I chewed on a red-and-blue-striped t-shirt until I had swallowed about a third of it. I began biting and eating my nails until I made the skin underneath bleed. I stuffed sandwiches into the holes I made in my coats, and ate every booger my nose could expel as a substitute for lunch. That’s how much I hated Mom, Maurice, myself, my life, and 616 forty years ago.
Mom and Maurice tried to explain it away as simple selfish jealousy, that as a soft mama’s boy, I wanted Mom to myself. That’s only about twenty or twenty-five percent accurate. What I did know was that Maurice wasn’t my dad, yet Mom foisted him on us as if Jimme had died and none of us had any other choice. What I did know was that I was hurting, and since I was getting an ass-whuppin’ about once a week, I couldn’t lash out. What I did know was that not a single neighbor or kid in the building, especially the Bagleys, welcomed our presence in the building or my existence at 616.
With what I’ve learned about Mom, Maurice, Jimme, myself, and my neighbors since ’77, it’s a wonder I didn’t go up to the roof and just throw myself off it those first two years, or in ’82, ’83, or ’84. God knows I ran away enough, got beat up enough times, and was called “faggot” often enough to see slamming myself into the slate sidewalk leading to 616’s front stairs as a better alternative to living. College was the first opportunity I got to get away from this living hell, and I took full advantage.
Mom and my two youngest siblings still live at 616. The youngest barely remembers the end of the abuse and chaos that I lived through and Mom put up with. The other sibling has horrible memories of his own. After the fire at 616 in ’95, when Mom asked me for advice about where to move after the renovations, I told her, “Anywhere but back to 616.” Mom, as nearly always, didn’t listen to me. I guess misery is as addicting as anything else.