How I Became My Father
“Where are you going?” my father asked, stepping out of his black GTO as I approached the Mission, a halfway house my mother forced me into after bailing me out of jail.
“To get my things,” I said.
“You know you can’t leave. Your mother’ll rescind your bail.”
“Well I can’t stay here.”
“Never mind, man, I just can’t.”
We were facing each other before the ramshackle mission with its toddler sized wooden cross hanging by a steel chain from the middle of the porch ceiling. Dope boys haunting the top of the block shouted the different colors of the caps on crack vials they were peddling while junkies slipped sweaty wads of cash into their palms.
My father looked away from me, ignored the dope boys, shaded his eyes with his hand and stared at the Mission—a mud-brown monstrosity at the top of a block of row houses in Northwest Baltimore.
“Wanna go for a ride?” He looked at me.
I shrugged my shoulders and followed him to his car.
We drove around the city some before he parked beneath an old maple by the reservoir in the heart of Druid Hill Park.
“So,” he said as I watched sunlight dance on the reservoir’s slate-grey surface. “You want to tell me what’s going on?”
I didn’t. It could really screw with his head if I told him. Might spill him right off the edge of sobriety into the hell it had taken him 20 years to climb out of.
He looked off.
He turned back. “But I’m here now. And I’m your father, You can talk to me.”
“Nah, man. It’d be bad for you.”
“Look, Lil’ Lenny,” he said. “I haven’t always been there for you.”
He looked off. He turned back. “But I’m here now. And I’m your father. You can talk with me.”
My favorite scene in the Star Wars franchise is the one in The Empire Strikes Back where Vader breaks Luke’s heart with these four words: I am your father.
I could dig Luke’s terror and rage snarling in the NO! he screamed before slipping and falling off the space station into the darkness below. You grow up without a dad and you dream his ghost into a god. When Luke’s phantom god was smashed and broken across Vader’ s confession, he lost his grip. If Vader was his father, what did it mean for his fate? The sins of the father, after all, are visited upon the son.
Unlike Luke, I’d known all along that my father was Vader. My mother had made it clear to me that my father was a crackhead. And that he was an asshole. And that he’d been in and out of prison. A bad guy. But I always secretly wished he was Obi Wan Kinobi. Something far more than he could ever be.
I looked at him and studied the intensity in his dark eyes as I waited for his reply. He frowned, nodded his head as if to say, I’m telling the truth; you can believe me. And I wanted to. Because he was my father. And if you can’t believe in your father who can you believe in?
So I told him and he turned away from me.
“I don’t believe you,” he said.
“GTFOOH You think I would lie about something like that?”
“You don’t want to stay at the Mission,” he said. “You make this crap up to justify leaving so your mother won’t have you thrown back in jail.”
He could have done a lot less damage by busting my lip and spitting in my face.
When my little sister Erica was six, she told my mother that Armando, my mother’s boyfriend had touched her vagina and kissed her.
Andre and I liked Armando, He wouldn’t let our mother whip us. He was a saint as far as we were concerned. And he told wild stories about banditos and Mexican ghosts after smoking a joint. He was a kick to have around. Believing Erica was not convenient for me. So I didn’t.
“Momma’s going to kick him out for that shit, Erica. You gotta tell the truth.”
“I am telling the truth.”
“I don’t believe you.”
I remembered Erica’s eyes while staring down the gullet of my father’s convenient disbelief and felt ashamed. Maybe my father read it as shame from having told a terrible lie; but it wasn’t. It was shame rising from having done to Erica what my father was doing to me.
I was 16 when I first met my father.
Well, that may not be entirely accurate. I’d seen him once, twice, maybe, before then. I can’t be absolutely certain about it. First time was at one of my youth basketball games. I was nine.
I saw him sitting on the bleachers in the midst of a crowd of parents. My mother had mentioned he might show up so, as I was riding the bench with the rest of the scrubs, I scanned the bleacher crowd for a glimpse of him.
I didn’t know what he would look like. The only memory I had of him involved his penis. Him standing before a urinal with his swipe in his hand as he instructed me on the finer points of pissing into a toilet bowl rather than on the floor. I had to have been two, maybe three.
At nine, I couldn’t remember his face. So, when this slim brown cat in a black fedora, grey trench coat and dungarees waved to me from the crowd, the feeling I had of my lungs being clenched in a fist led me to believe it was him.
I wanted to impress this stranger. So that he’d like me. Because, if he liked me, he might want to hang out some time. I begged Coach Murray to let me off the bench so my dad could see me play. But Coach wasn’t having it. He wanted to win, he said. So sit down and shut up.
I did. Every so often I’d look behind me into the crowd in the bleachers to see if the stranger I thought was my dad was still there. He’d wave his black fedora and smile. Once, I tossed up a hand but was so tangled up inside about having to ride the bench, I quickly put my hand and head down.
Of course, tears were splashing against hardwood by game’s end. They coursed down my brown face like raindrops carving silver trails down a Chevy’s cracked windshield as the other kids and their parents began filing out of the gym.
After a while, I looked up for my father, hoping he’d pick me up, hug me a little too roughly and tell me to stop whining, it’s only a game. We’d shoot a few hoops just before they locked the gym up, and he’d tell me the reason he wasn’t around was because he had a crime fighting alter ego and didn’t want his enemies to get wise to his family. He was protecting us. You see what they did to Batman’s dad.
But I couldn’t find him. I scanned the crowd moving across the hardwood gymnasium floor and out its double doors. But I couldn’t spot the black fedora atop the tall slim brown man’s head.
Andre sat beside me on the bench and asked me who I was looking for.
“Didn’t you see daddy?” I asked, wiping the tears from my face with my yellow jersey.
“Daddy, man. In the bleachers.”
He frowned and looked at me as if I’d asked him if he’d seen Freddy Krueger walking up our block clicking his quicksilver finger knives together.
“What you mean?”
“I’m just askin’. You talking crazy right now.”
“Why you say that?”
“Cause you talking like Lenny’s gonna come see you play basketball and you can’t even play basketball.”
“And he’s probably smoking crack somewhere, anyway”
He was right. Maybe it hadn’t been him. Maybe that guy in the fedora hat had been some other kid’s dad and was waving to him.
I wouldn’t see my father and know for certain it was him until the Christmas Day many years later that he took a day pass from the drug treatment center he was in to visit me and Andre at my mother’s house.
Andre didn’t seem to care about seeing Lenny as we waited for him, but this was huge for me. I wanted to know who this cat calling himself my father was. Like most 16 year-olds, I was having serious existential issues. There were no examples of manhood in my life other than the dope fiends around the way and crack uncles I had. I found myself grappling alone with conflicting ideas about what it meant to be a young black man in America.
This was serious business for black boys of my generation: X. In the absence of our fathers we turned to the streets, to rap music and gangster movies to define for us what black manhood was.
Who was harder than Nino Brown, cooler than Big Daddy Kane, sharper than the cat pushing an Acura Legend down the block as he clocked the boys hustling the crack he served them? Get money, stay strapped, flick the world was the code every kid in the hood latched onto in his drive to survive. It was the gangster who epitomized manhood for us. Tony Montana. Don Corleone. John Gotti. Frank Lucas. The doctor was a square, the lawyer a shyster, the teacher a sucka. Only the gangster stood with his self-respect intact as he flipped the establishment the bird, his hand on his bozack like it weighed three tons.
None of that made sense to me. Knowing how to cook crack or load a gun wasn’t cool to me; it was the work of a traitor who preyed upon his people. But there weren’t any men around to guide me through the minefield of bullshit I was crawling through. All I had was my books. The Destruction of Black Civilization, Manchild in the Promised Land, Soul on Ice, Soledad Brother. But none of these books could answer the questions that plagued me so violently: What is a man?
How do I become one?
I waited for my father in my mother’s living room. Maybe he could give me the answers I was seeking.
I stopped breathing when he pulled up in a black 280 ZX, the sun glistening white on its hood. There’d been so many times in my young life that I’d prayed my father would pop up some night outside my window and take me away, times I’d hated him for staying gone, times I’d loved him so powerfully in his absence I’d felt my heart would crack from the strain of it. All of this crystallized diamond hard and hot in my chest as I watched him step out of his car.
I measured him against myself. He was long and lean like me and moved with the smooth wary steps of an alley cat.
“He’s here,” I announced.
My grandmother, mother, and sister grew quiet and stared as I walked to the door and opened it.
“Ya’ll ready?” this stranger asked without so much as a “Hey, how ya’ll doing—I’m your father.”
I studied his face for traces of myself. It was the first time in my life I could remember seeing the man who’d fathered me and I was shocked by how much of my face I saw in his.
“Man, you look just like your daddy,” my step-father who’d become friends with Lenny when they were in prison had often said. But it had never occurred to me that he wasn’t saying that just because it was a nice thing to say. My father and I had the same funny looking mouth and angular nose, the same smooth and precise diction, the same liquid way of moving.
Andre and I followed him to his car. I sat in the front. Andre, sullen and silent, sat in the back.
I was quite astonished after a lifetime of telling myself I’d never be like my crackhead father. Looking at him was like looking in a mirror that projected 20 years into the future. He was me. I was him. And I didn’t know how to feel about that.
We drove around for a little while. He didn’t say anything that mattered. He had no keys to life. No cryptic answers to the great existential questions. There was no mention of his years of absence or of the woman he’d left us and my mother for. Or of his dereliction or crack addiction.
“I’m saved,” was all he had to say. A born-again Christian ordained as a reverend by a pastor who ran a mission for troubled men in the city.
Then he dropped us off at my mother’s house promising to see us again soon. I was spooked by the experience; spooked by how similar our cadences were, our smiles, our devils.
“I look just like him, don’t I?” I asked my mother.
She stared at me through slitted eyes for a moment. “Doesn’t mean you have to be like him,” she said.
Dangling from the ceiling above a murky pool dug into the basement of a church one of Pastor Tim’s colleagues presided over, a rough-hewn cross as tall as I was seemed a mere instant from crashing down to crack Pastor’s skull open. He was standing waist deep in the middle of the pool preaching the Baptism—oh hallelujah, Father God. Wash our sins away, Jehova Jireh, for we are filthy with sin in your sight, Lord.
And I was waiting to see blood.
So focused was I on waiting to see the old cross fall down and spill Pastor’s brains into the grey pool, I didn’t hear him call my name, and would’ve continued staring at the cross and its thick iron chain bolting it to the ceiling if my father hadn’t nudged my shoulder.
“It’s alright son,” he said, “You don’t have to be afraid, Jesus loves you.”
Pastor called me again.
I wasn’t at all thrilled about being baptized. I’d already been baptized half a dozen times in my life and it had never done anything for me beyond getting me soaked. It did not save me. I did not see Jesus beneath the waters. My father, however, was really psyched about the whole deal so, not wanting to disappoint him, I stepped toward the pool’s edge, climbed down the short aluminum ladder and slipped into the frigid water.
“Praise Gawd,” George or one of the other five men from the Mission gathered around cried as I waded toward Pastor Tim. A distinguished looking man with a silver streaked afro, Pastor Tim smiled his benevolent smile, pushed his gold wire-rimmed glasses up his narrow nose and placed his hand on top of my head when I reached him. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I—”
The rest of what he said was lost to me when, without warning; Pastor shoved me beneath the cold water’s surface. Should’ve anticipated it, but I hadn’t and being so abruptly dunked jacked my heartbeat as intensely as snorting a rail of coke would’ve. Grabbing Pastor’s wrist with both hands, I opened my eyes and saw nothing. It was as if I’d been shoved down into some Antarctic hell.
After a few seconds that spanned into eternity I was raised up into Pastor’s embrace gasping as he whispered, “I’m so proud of you, Leonard.”
His lips grazed my ear. The Mission brothers on the edge of the pool, harmonized Amazing Grace.
“You are cleansed,” he said.
I was cold. My teeth were chattering. My heart was spazzing. I didn’t feel cleansed. I didn’t feel any different at all. I was still me. My sojourn into the Antarctic hell had no other impact beyond instilling in me the firm conviction that I’d never again volunteer for the experience.
Lenny was waiting for me when I made it to the pool’s edge. He extended his hand and clasped my arm as I climbed out of the pool.
There were tears in his eyes.
I crept out one of the Mission’s third story windows later that evening, climbed down the fire escape’s black steel ladder and didn’t take a hill breath until I was safe in the alley behind the Mission. If Pastor Tim or any of the Mission guys woke up and spotted me, they’d call Moms and I’d be in some serious shit. She’d bailed me out of jail on the condition that I live in the Mission, turn my life around and see the Light of Jesus praise Gawd, while awaiting trial on an assault charge.
If she found out I was creeping, my black ass was going back to jail.
But I didn’t care. The whole constant prayer, NA, and ice cold baptisms thing wasn’t doing it for me. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as getting beat down by 27 Bloods in a Baltimore City Detention Center dormitory, and I would have eaten dingleberries out of a wino’s butt if that had been a condition of getting bailed out of that hell hole, but the square thing was a drag and I had to get out into the real world before I choked on a bible.
So I crept into my beloved city.
This is the thing about Baltimore: sometimes you can look into the black sky packed white with starlight and imagine for a moment that the city doesn’t rage beneath your feet. But that sense of peace doesn’t last. The City won’t let you forget she owns you. Her alleys are veins and you’re the life blood flowing into the streets that are arteries carrying you through her decaying body.
She is the undead, rotten with plague. If you are not diseased before you enter her, she will infect you before you leave.
But I loved the sickness, found freedom in it. I took a deep mildewed-stained breath in the dark alley, walked through it, slid onto the streets, and followed my normal route past the gangstas hankered down in shadows blowing silver mist into their frozen palms; was startled by the moon propped plump and marble above the roofs of Baltimore’s crumbling brownstones and row houses as I moved deeper into my beloved.
My city was a whore, wasted on crack, heroin and pain. I’d always had a fascination with them. Whores. They sell what I consider to be a priceless, sacred commodity for pennies. They are beautiful in their degradation. The Black Madonna: nappy haired with bared breasts, lipstick smeared across her mouth, bruises beneath her eyes as she seeks sanctuary in the arms of another lover.
My Madonna that night wore a maroon dress with its hem fraying along the contour of her thighs. She stood beneath a streetlamp, her hand on her cocked hip as she watched me approach. She smiled when I got close enough to appreciate it, licked her African lips and asked if I had a cigarette.
I stopped for her eyes. Their whites were as pale and luminescent as the sullen moon above us. I reached into my pocket, slipped a Newport from my pack and she touched my hand. The fingernails were chipped and half polished in scarlet.
I struck my lighter and she cupped my hand in her palms; smiled as she leaned toward the flame. Smoke streamed between us a moment as she watched me and exhaled. She smiled some more and licked her lips.
“You been looking for me, haven’t you?” she asked.
“For you—ten dollars. You’re cute.”
We walked then.
“What you doin’ out here?” she asked. “You don’t look the type.”
I didn’t ask her name. She would have lied anyway. We found a bench and sat down surrounded by a cluster of row-houses, theft windows boarded up with rotted plywood. The shabby buildings stood around us like blocky gapped-toothed winos on the verge of toppling over at any moment. Crack vials, white dust caked in their bottoms, scattered sparks of moonlight at our feet.
Jezebel propped her purse on her lap and removed from it a piece of hollow car antenna, its end stuffed with steel wool.
“Hold this,” she said, handing the crack pipe to me.
She took a small blue-capped glass vial of crack out of her purse then snatched the pipe back.
I’d always wondered what power lived in those stones. My father had murdered 20 years of his life for love of them. I’d watched friends get the meat dragged off their bones, their souls shred on hard streets in their chase of the rock.
Once, I stood ankle deep in dirty snow on a street off North Avenue immersed in pitch-black night while my favorite, Diane, scampered through the dark to cop some base. I’d thought she’d dragged me through the snow to buy some weed, but the tell-tale sizzle of the burning crack slipping from beneath her bedroom door after we got back to her house betrayed her.
I hadn’t known she was a crackhead. The revelation was nothing short of walking into a room and finding one of your closest friends with a little boy’s penis in his mouth.
Jezebel opened the vial, tapped a rock into her pipe.
“Let me hold your lighter,” she said.
I gave it to her. She struck it. The flame’s blue-orange light danced against her chocolate skin. She sucked the fire into her pipe. The crack hissed. The flame died. She closed her eyes, held the smoke and shuddered
After a fewmoments, she blew a thin stream of sickeningly sweet smoke through her pursed lips.
“Want some?” she asked when she came back.
I’d seen what the shit had done to my father. I’d seen the havoc it wrought in people’s lives. It was an animal that ripped into a man or woman with its gnashing teeth and wouldn’t let go until there was nothing left but blood and bone.
She handed me the pipe. It was warm. She tapped another rock into its mouth. I slipped the broken antenna between my lips. I positioned my lighter, lit the fire, inhaled.
A white electric flower bloomed in my belly. In that incandescent moment, I felt closer to God than I’d ever felt during any prayer or baptism.
Jezebel got down on her knees. I held the smoke in. She unzipped my fly. I closed my eyes. She put her face in my lap.
I was lost.
Pastor Tim called my name from the darkness behind me as I walked across a basketball court a block away from the Mission. I turned and saw him jogging after me, the hem of his burgundy robe flapping around his bare shins.
I stopped. I don’t know why. Maybe I wanted to hear something more than, “My bad; it was a misunderstanding—I didn’t mean to have my hands on your balls.”
This man had been my mentor for a time, my father’s mentor, had been the first real connection to my father I’d ever had. How many times had we sat at a table in Lexington Market eating chicken wings slathered in hot sauce and ketchup, drinking Cokes and rapping about fatherhood, transcending limitations, forgiveness, and what it takes to be a good man? How many times had he fed me the lines about Christ being the paragon formanhood and leadership and that to be more than what my father had been I’d need to turn on to Christ, get saved and find redemption in His blood?
I’d never really bought much of it, but there’d been moments during which I’d suspended my natural skepticism. Some well-guarded part of me wanted to forgive enough to believe. That I could be saved. From myself. From my life, And that Pastor could show me the way.
I should have kept moving, kept it all behind me, faced the cold ahead, untainted by hypocrisy; but I stopped. And waited. And when he reached me, he handed me a 20 dollar bill, shoved his glasses up his nose and said, “We’ll keep this between me and you. I’ll make sure your mother doesn’t send you back to jail.”
I turned away without responding, slipped the 20 into my pocket. I walked several blocks and bought four nickel rocks of crack. I found an abandoned garage and sought solace in the cocaine’s sweet electric smoke; the same solace I imagine my father had often sought.
It was in this moment that I began to understand why he’d been a ghost for much of my life.
As I sat besidemy father facing Pastor Tim in chairs set up in the Mission’s chapel, I felt him on the verge of an upheaval, the earth tilting beneath his feet. Slowly, clenching and unclenching his fists on top of his thighs, Lenny waited for me to repeat the sordid tale I’d told him in his car.
I shouldn’t have told him. I’d known going in that it would screw with his head but had been seduced by the thought that he was my father and would understand and help me make sense of Pastor’s betrayal; but it still bit one. That was a mistake. He was Christian to the bone. The Faith was his foundation, was what had saved him. Having it stripped from his grasp without prelude or preamble could be nothing less than devastating for him. I could understand his need to not believe me.
Pastor sat across from me avoiding my gaze. A dark fat vein snaking his right temple pulsed so quickly and violently it seemed ready to burst and splash us all with his sinner’s blood. His intermittent attempts to smile and appear pastorally with his white cleric’s collar that should’ve been burning a hole through his throat would’ve made me laugh if I hadn’t been so tethered to my own hurt.
That he could sit before me and my father wearing his preacher’s costume in the chapel, ready to spill a bible verse or two from his lips, affirmed my years-long suspicion that the Jesus trip was bunk. I mean, Pastor was Christ’s representative on earth, right? The man who’d ordained men like my father, setting them on fire for the Lord; the man who’d baptized me, who’d ministered to me, pulled my father out of the gutter and set him on two feet with a bible in his hand instead of a pipe. This gospel-toting preacher was the same guy who only hours ago had given me 20 dollars to keep quiet about his fondling my genitals while I was asleep. Didn’t do much for Jesus’ image in my mind.
“Well, what’s this about?” Pastor asked.
“My son has something to say to you.”
I looked at my father. He wasn’t meeting my eyes either. Maybe he was ashamed of me. Or of himself. I didn’t know. But the onus to expose his mentor for the douchbag that he was on me.
Could my father handle that? With barely a year clean after 20 years of crack-love, did my father have the required moxie to resist relapse after I pointed out the pitchfork the Pastor shoved into his spine?
On the other hand, so what if he couldn’t? He was grown. And I didn’t owe him jack; he owed me. For all the years I needed him while he was running the streets chasing crack. For all the things he should’ve taught me but hadn’t. For all the footballs never tossed. The answers never given, the love never shared. I owed him jack, zilch, nothin’. He’d never been any more than a stranger to me, even now.
Still… yet and still. He was my father. And in spite of everything, he meant something to me.
“I lied to my father, Pastor,” I said. “And told him…”
“Oh—that, Brother Leonard,” he interrupted, smiling his first genuine smile of the day. “We’ve already discussed that. He’s apologized and, really, there’s no harm done.”
There’d been a small insistent hope within me that, in the end, Pastor would affirm the fragile faith I’d once had in him and prove himself to be a better man than he actually was. That he wouldn’t leave me a liar in my father’s eyes but would man up and take the burden on his shoulders.
But he didn’t.
He lied right along with me.
Never mind that Pastor and I hadn’t had an opportunity to speak between the time I’d told Lenny his pastor was a freak and this meeting, my father clung to that lie for dear life. And suggested we pray. So that, Gawd, have mercy, would forgive me my sin. So we prayed. And I couldn’t hear all the words. I was too busy contending with the earth tilting beneath my feet, spilling me over the edge.