Last week, my son went with his classmates on his first overnight trip without me or his mother, a middle school “camping” trip in the forests of Montgomery County, Maryland. He was gone fifty-two hours, just a bit more than two days, checking out wildlife and sitting around a campfire. My son came back on his bus, worn out with equally worn out sneakers and clothes, smelling of river and bad cafeteria food. Boy did I miss him. But at least I knew where he was, more or less.
I did no such trips like the one my son did until the day I went off to Pittsburgh and college, some twenty-seven years ago. Let me repeat. Not one overnight trip on my own or with my classmates growing up. The closest I came to being out in the world, other than my 10,000 walks to the store or up Route 22 or down in the Bronx, was in the years my father Jimme would take me and my older brother Darren for a day, only for it to turn into a weekend. With a couple of exceptions, all of these extended excursions occurred before we started working with our father in the city in the fall of ’84. Most of them happened before I turned thirteen and had to resort to hunting down my father every Friday or Saturday for a few extra dollars, for me and for helping out my Mom.
At least a dozen times between April ’79 and September ’84, we ended up with Jimme overnight. In the days without cellphones and with my father never having his own landline, he’d and we’d have to call my Mom from a pay phone to let her know how we were. There were plenty of those nights in which I didn’t want to call my Mom or go home.
This despite the fact that every time we did an overnight or, on three occasions, back-to-back overnights, Jimme was lit. How it happened depended on at what point during the weekend he’d pick us up. If my father came over early enough on a Friday evening to take us out for a pizza or Mickey D’s or a movie, he’s sometimes have a Miller or a Schlitz with him, in his coat pocket, ready to drink after the sober version of himself had picked us up from 616. Or, much more often, Jimme would fulfill his Saturday fatherly duties by picking us up, usually between 10 am and 1 pm, take us out to eat, and then swing by one or more of his drinking buddy’s places, where he could get his fill of beer or malt liquor, move on to stronger stuff, and lose track of time.
Ida’s place, Lo’s stoop, Pam’s den, it really didn’t seem to matter to our father. These were his easy places to drink, to hang out, to tell the world how much of “a big shot” he was. All the while, money would spill out of his pocket, scooped up by his hosts to cover groceries, rent, mortgages, car notes, and street drugs. But we didn’t really notice that until I hit thirteen.
Our last extended weekend with Jimme was in August ’84, right after my j.v. football tryouts, just before the start of tenth grade. We went over to Pam’s apartment off South Fulton, just a couple of blocks away from Adams Street, where we had lived as a family before I started kindergarten. Those days were long off by now. Instead, I saw my father in a completely sloshed state, really, for the first time, with the mind of an adult. Pam, for her part, was wasted, on some form of cocaine, crack or powdered, I didn’t know for sure.
By the end of the day that last Saturday in August, he could barely stand up. Pam had some music on, Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” as it was in the middle of the bridge portion. While it was playing, Jimme tried to dance to it, with a thick string of drool hanging from him bottom lip and all the way to his right pant leg. He stumbled to his left, then his right, as the song went, “dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, du-du-dat-dat-dun-dun-dun,” via a guitar string and a synthesizer. We had to sit him down on Pam’s ’70-style couch to let him snore and drool for an hour and a half before taking him back to his place that Saturday evening. On the way out, we bumped into my classmate Dahlia and her grandmother. They lived in an apartment complex across the street. How embarrassing!
We didn’t call my Mom to let her know what was going on. So when we came home late that Sunday afternoon, she was pissed. But she didn’t seem that concerned about her safety. Instead, it was all about, “What? You think Jimme’s a good father now?” and “I need someone around here to go to the store.”
As much as I loved my Mom, she didn’t realize that we needed moments to escape, even if it meant being with our alcoholic father and being around his equally drug-addled friends. Those were our overnights before we reached adulthood.