It’s a funny thing to realize that it’s only been about thirteen years since my relationship with my father Jimme became a father-son relationship. That I was a month away from turning twenty-nine before I could say that I’d had a conversation with my father that lasted for more than ten minutes, that didn’t revolve mostly around his job and how many “muddafuckas” he could “buy an’ sell.” That, finally, finally, at the age of fifty-eight, he’d admitted his failings as my father and to being an alcoholic.
The last time I had talked with Jimme before the ’98 holiday season was in the summer of ’96. He’d been living with his boss’ family, the Levi’s, on Long Island because his last drinking binge had led to his landlord Mrs. Small finally evicting him from his South 10th Avenue boarding room. Even though he was with the Levi family (for more on this, read my “New York, New York” post from October ’09), his bosses were about to go out of business. Turned out that one of the Levi brothers made the mistake of talking to an undercover federal agent about doing a contract killing on a competitor. Sounded like fiction at the time, but life is stranger than fiction.
In any case, on that last call, my father seemed lost. Not because he’d been drinking. But because he had nothing left in New York to cling to anymore. A few months later, my father, unemployed and no longer enabled by his former bosses, finally left New York for the family home in Georgia at the invitation of one of his sisters. By the end of ’97, I heard that he had cleaned up his act and moved to Jacksonville. Throughout ’98 and into ’99, I began to get calls from Jimme about how he was finally sober, had found God, and was getting married, to another woman named Mary.
Right after Thanksgiving ’98, though, was the first time I returned one of his calls, just to see if the number worked, to see if he was sane and sober. I wasn’t ready to talk, as I’d heard my father’s song and dance about turning his life around since The Brady Bunch was still on the air with new episodes. But, the fact that he sounded sober for the first time in at least fifteen years was an encouraging sign.
Still, I thought long and hard about blowing him off, keeping my father at the distance of a light-year. All my life, and certainly all of my older brother Darren’s, Jimme had been an evil drunk, verbally abusive and incapable of staying sober for more than three weeks at a time. But he had also been there for me growing up during my Humanities and Hebrew-Israelite years. He helped keep Darren and me from starving or walking around barefoot in ’82 and ’83. He kept the example of hard work in front of us even as the other parent figures in our lives went on dreaded welfare and laid around as if our lives were over. His money was the reason I was able to stay in school after five days of homelessness my sophomore year at Pitt.
So I called him again, deciding to give him a second chance. That was February ’99, a two-hour conversation about how he managed to become a recovering alcoholic, a church-goer, and a married man. He admitted that he had made many mistakes, that he was an alcoholic, that he loved me and my brother. It was a conversation, a real conversation, an unbelievable change of relationship. After twenty-nine years and two months, I finally had a father that I really could call father.
Thirteen years later, and I’m still amazed that I’m able to talk to my father as my father, and not as the person I used to have to drag out of bars on 241st Street or in Midtown Manhattan growing up. I tracked Jimme down many times for money or to save him from himself between ’82 and ’93. And yet, I only found my father once he became so lost he had to leave New York to find himself for the first time.