Believe it or not, my father worked forty years as a truck driver, delivering large rolls of printing paper for United States Trucking, and he didn't miss one day's work. It was years later before I truly appreciated the stability and work ethic of that man. There was always food on the table and a roof over our head courtesy of the hard work of a man I thought was named “Charlie” until I was about five because my mother always addressed him with, "Listen, Charlie!”
My father’s love of music impressed me and planted the seed that grew into a deep appreciation of all genres of music. He was a drummer and, along with my uncle Johnny, who played the saxophone, was in a band that often played at the Steel Pier, a popular spot in the 1930’s and 40’s along the Jersey shore. An alternating band that also played the Steel Pier included drummer Gene Krupa, who my father thought was the best drummer he’d heard up until then and predicted would soon be recognized as the best. For the younger readers: that prediction was accurate.
I didn’t understand the commotion over Frank Sinatra, but my father told me to listen to his phrasing, and I started listening more intently to all artists and their different styles and nuances. When I put on a good set of headphones and listen to Jackie Wilson’s version of the Irish classic “Danny Boy,” I get goose bumps and think to myself; thanks, Dad!
My mother was a generous woman who was ahead of her time. She had a hard life and worked as a housecleaner for the wealthy. There was a nightly ritual in our apartment…loud arguments. Living with thirty-two other families in a crowded tenement, I knew the neighbors could hear every word.
Consequently, when I was younger, I tried to get my parents to lower their voices for two reasons. One, so I wouldn’t feel so embarrassed when I faced the neighbors the next day. Two, so I could study! After awhile, I didn’t give a shit anymore and adopted the “fuck them” attitude.
Then, reading that most people lead lives of quiet desperation, I realized I had no right to feel sorry for myself. Well, if these loud arguments didn’t diminish the desperation of the other families, it did shatter the quiet. The shows happened every night without fail, so they lost their malice. The hurled insults back and forth were sort of like ping-pong, only a game. We’d start off the next day like nothing happened. It was like my childhood toy, the “magic slate”: you lifted up the cellophane and the writing on the slate disappeared. My family put the fun in dysfunctional. The one benefit to this nightly exchange was finding out information about my family tree…the insults were my ancestry.com!
I’m being somewhat cavalier about the effects of watching my mother stagger down the street in full view of the “stoop sitters” though…I’d feel deep shame! In later years when my mind was free of drugs, I’d spend many days and nights alone with my thoughts in a barren cell. I looked deep inside myself and became aware of the corrosive nature the deep shame had on my character. It slowly and surreptitiously disheartened me and placed a layer of cynicism in my psyche.
Always looking for the ulterior motives in people, eventually I sorta’ gave up thinking “they’re all full of shit!” It was a slow recovery process and took years, but I learned to keep the dark thoughts and suspicions suppressed, treating them as caution signs and learning to focus more on the good.
Naturally, one of the things you have more time for while incarcerated is reading. Concentrating on inspiring stories of the human spirit and people who have overcome incredible hardships to become better people, I slowly started to regain my optimism. Reading stories about people who gave to others selflessly with no ulterior motive–
I found myself smiling. Had to go to Webster to find out what “altruism” meant, but it became one of my favorite words.
My parents may not have possessed good parenting skills, but they were warm and welcoming people who did their best with what they had to work with. Their load would’ve been a lot lighter if I wasn’t so self-centered and irresponsible. Neither one of them had a malicious bone in their bodies. All my friends knew they were always welcome in the house, and my partner, Jerry, was one of the family. When I went on a heist we would frequently “chop up” the money in my apartment…as long as Mom got her cut. The family that splits the take together stays together!
As far as the escape my mother chose to diminish the reality of her life and its effect on me, I always think of a line in an Eagles song, "every form of refuge has its price!"
As we grew into our early teens, a lot of us got into another hobby that was prevalent in the tenement areas of the five NYC boroughs, "flying" pigeons. "Breakin' in new ones" is training new pigeons to accept your coop as their new home. Opening the large wooden coop door with its sliding metal bar for a lock, at daybreak, I felt a sense of excitement. How many would I lose? I hope the beautiful colored Dunn Tieger stays. When the birds eagerly flew through the first escape route afforded them in a couple of weeks, I flew with them. Give me that vast expanse of air where the sky is literally the limit. I'd rather chance dying in bad weather than being content to die on the vine.
Pigeon flying faded as the tenements were replaced by "the projects" and high-rise buildings. It was while strolling down Second Avenue past one of these high-rise buildings on a warm summer night that I realized just how much the neighborhood was changing and becoming more "sophisticated.” The apartments in the newly built building across the street had terraces. As I walked past the public phone booth on 25th Street and 2nd Avenue, the phone rang. I picked up the phone and a sultry voice said, "Hi. I'm watching you from my terrace; you walk gracefully and those jeans fit you good!"
I said to myself, "Mingua, just what I been waiting for...a rich broad!" She told me her name was “Monique” and invited me up. Strutting into the lobby with a "dip in my hip," I announced to the Puerto Rican doorman, whom I vaguely knew from the neighborhood, "apartment 17T.” After looking at me and getting confirmation from the tenant, he buzzed me in. Getting off the elevator with horny anticipation, I rang the doorbell. It wasn't a rich broad that answered but a fake, a fraud and a part-time broad–
a dude about 6' 4", who said, "Hi. I'm Monique!"
I said out loud, "ahhh, shit!" and ran down the fire stairs, trying to avoid the doorman on the way out. There was no escape - I had to pass him. He gave me an ethnic, "Que paso?"
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