A.B. Davis Middle School, Black Male Identity, Black Masculinity, Chorus, Domestic Violence, Fife, Judah ben Israel, Manhood, Maurice Eugene Washington, Mentoring, Music Lessons, Oppression, Poverty, Pulaski Day Parade, Summer of Abuse, Tamrin, Trombone, Type 2 Diabetes, William H. Holmes Elementary
One thing I never discussed here or in Boy @ The Window were the handful of “leisure” activities I had during the Hebrew-Israelite years. The world in which we lived back in the ’81-to-’84 period had precious few resources and even less room for things like summer camps, overseas travel, baseball games, amusement parks, or even a free impromptu rap battle at Van Cortlandt or Hartley Park. Heck, the Kool cigarettes’ music series that sponsored “Teddy Pendergast” or “Rufus and Chaka Khan” in those days might as well have been a trip to see the World Cup in France compared to our pitiful roach-and-belt circumstances.
One of my idiot stepfather Maurice’s Hebrew-Israelite friends, though, did provide a free service for us males in ’81 and ’82. His name was Tamrin. He was a heavy-set dude, probably about five-foot-eight, maybe 120 or 125 kilos (between 245-260 pounds), and likely in his late-thirties. Unlike so many of the Hebrew-Israelite men I had the curse to meet in those naiveté-shattering years, Tamrin had a lighter touch. His idea was to put together a boy’s band of fifes, drums, bugles, and other marching instruments to lead us Hebrew-Israelites in marches through the street of Mount Vernon, as well as temple sites in the Bronx, in Harlem, and in Brooklyn (specifically, Bed-Stuy and Flatbush, if memory serves). Even at twelve, I knew how ridiculously uncool that idea sounded.
That was his plan, anyway. So off and on, between August ’81 through the second week in July ’82, Tamrin gave me and other kids music lessons to play overly bombastic marching band music. These were the kind of joyless songs which one was mostly likely to hear at Moscow’s May Day parade of soldiers and nuclear missiles than hear anywhere in ancient Israel. I was picked out because I had musical training in my immediate pass. I played the trombone in fifth grade. Or rather, I had six months of trombone-playing lessons at William H. Holmes ES before my music teacher had a heart attack and died in March ’80. I sang in chorus all through sixth, seven, and eventually, eighth grade. I could read music, though I struggled in transition between half-notes and quarter-notes.
So Tamrin would come over about twice a month, usually on Saturday afternoons, and spend a couple of hours with me playing the fife. (Can you imagine that? A twelve-year-old, kufi-wearing Donald playing such a small and delicate reed instrument? Really? Really!) Tamrin took us to the Pulaski Day Parade down in Manhattan the first Sunday in October ’81 to see how the pros do the fife-and-drum thing. The costumes I found fascinating, but I dreamed of food, not of marching around with fife.
Once Mom’s already pitiful funds got down to a disposal income of $5 per day — that was in December ’81 — Tamrin didn’t come around as much. Though he wasn’t getting paid much, I think he still expected $10 per lesson. Still, he came around even when he wasn’t getting paid, though it was only once a month during the ’81-’82 winter. That’s when I noticed, though just barely, that Tamrin had diabetes. His fingers had swelled during the winter, and he moved slower, too.
From mid-April to the beginning of July, Tamrin was around nearly every Saturday for an hour at a time, working with me on marching while playing fife, polishing up fife-ful flourishes, and getting me to learn more bombastic music. There were a couple of times I played with the other preteen and teenage Hebrew-Israelite kids. They seemed about as cool with this fife-and-drum band as I was with having an abusive stepfather.
And that’s who stopped my participation in Tamrin’s pet project. After my summer of abuse began in earnest on July 6, ’82, Tamrin came around that Saturday, July 10. I played my fife to some music, but the knot on my head, the bruises to my left cheek and jaw, and my busted lip would’ve been obvious to any observer in the week after Maurice tried to beat me into submission. I kept playing my music, but I knew that Tamrin and Maurice were jawing at each other about something or other, hopefully not me. All I know was, that was Tamrin’s last time working with me to play the fife. I’d continue to see Tamrin at temple. But that second Saturday in July ’82 would be the last he’d come over to 616 to teach me terrible music for the fife.
Did I play a good fife? Tamrin thought so. Compared to my Hebrew-Israelite comrades, I’m pretty sure I did. But like with so many things Hebrew-Israelite during those years, it was a bitter march to nowhere. The fife was part of a Hebrew-Israelite physical and spiritual gulag that put me into more chains, rather than freeing me to be me. Despite Tamrin’s intentions, the idea of molding me and others into men in conditions that would make most “men” contemplate homelessness or running away was a ridiculous pipe-dream.
That Tamrin was likely the only adult male in the Hebrew-Israelite camp who saw Maurice for the lying, abusive, womanizing asshole he was made me realize not everyone in this world was against me. But in a religion that when practiced helped oppress me and others more than the outside world, what was any Tamrin to do?