Walk Like a Man
Who’s Your Daddy?
My birth mother’s name was Lula Mae. After her death my two sisters, three brothers, and I were taken in by various relatives. Melvin, the oldest, was only seventeen. He tried to keep the family under one roof, but the relatives ignored his pleas. Melvin left the tiny town of Orange, Texas in 1954 and began a new life in Los Angeles, California.
Trying to unscramble the mystery of two family trees is still an enigma. At age thirty-two, I asked Melvin to explain a few things. He wasn’t very helpful.
“Allen, your birth given name was really my dad’s name. Your dad was so awful, our mom didn’t want you to carry his name.” I had obviously upset my brother. He gave me a hard stare. His face was already flush from the tiny pile of cocaine powder which disappeared into his left nostril. “They called your dad, Red,” he continued, “but I don’t know his real name. If you want to know you need to ask your Aunt Rita.” Melvin handed me a tightly rolled twenty dollar bill. “Take a hit, Lil’ Brah’.”
Well, I never got around to asking Aunt Rita, and she’s not alive today. Melvin did show me a photo of my father and I resemble him so much, I could of been his clone.
My new parents became Cousin Curley and his wife, Rosella. They were from a small town called Jennings in the state of Louisiana.
An angelic kid I was not, although I did try to please my new parents. Father Curley had a third grade education and Mom Rosella had never attended school. They had their hopes and dreams, and they wanted some of them to come true through me. Shortly after taking me into their home, they decided to move to California. Along with us came Earline, Father Curley’s daughter from a previous marriage, Uncle J .W., Mom Rosella’ s baby brother, Uncle Lloyd, Father Curley’ s baby brother, and Sister-Shirley. Sister- Shirley was actually not a blood relative. She was taken in by the family. Her mom wasn’t able to care for her and her father had passed away.
Mom Rosella was a Louisiana Creole woman who had no children of her own. She was light complexioned, five-foot-five, pear-shaped, with long india-ink black hair. She was a professional house cleaner, an excellent maid and nanny, but she was incapable of giving birth. During much of my childhood she convinced me and anyone outside of the family that I was her only child. When I asked her about it as a teenager she got upset and claimed she’d explained it all to me when I was younger. Nevertheless, the chemistry between us was awkward at times. Father Curley’s brother, Uncle Lloyd, was married to a school teacher named Hattie. Aunt Hattie would often babysit me and I would cry and throw a tantrum whenever she left the room. On one occasion Mom Rosella witnessed my reactions and scolded me, but I realized she was hurt and upset.
Many years later, when Melvin showed me a photo of Red, he also showed me one of Lula Mae. The resemblance between my birth mother and Aunt Hattie was extremely keen. A couple of relatives risked telling me a secret while I was too young to figure out what it meant.
“I seen your real mother,” they’d whisper in my ear, “She was real pretty.”
Being a fifties kid of a black family from the South, I was raised not to ask a lot of questions. “Be still, mind your business.” You had to “do” what you were told, no back-talk. I was all of that. I aimed to please. As I grew older, the pleasing of everybody became an issue. I was doing so much pleasing I really didn’t know what I wanted for myself. Intuitively, I knew I wanted to be liked and accepted.
Silicon Valley was once a great farming community of fruit orchards and various other crops, mostly settled by Italian, Portuguese, and Mexican families. A handful of black and Asian families were scattered throughout the valley. It was a great place for a kid to grow up.
Our first home was one block from an elementary school. Around six-hundred kids attended, but only two blacks, a girl named Sarah and me. We were the same age and started out in the same classrooms for the first two years. We were the Watusis, both tall for our age group. The color of my skin got mixed reviews. Some kids were eager to touch my hair. They claimed it looked like cotton and was just as soft. Some were afraid to touch my skin. They feared the dark tones would contaminate their light complexions. I got teased a lot and was usually last to get picked on sports teams. I was an outwardly shy and passive kid, but basically I didn’t care to hurt anyone’s feelings.
The Negro image was disreputable among other races while I was growing up. Black people were often depicted as being slow walking, slow talking, with extra large facial features, and exaggerated body parts. This stereotype was portrayed on radio, television, and food advertisements. Many of my classmates and a few teachers didn’t realize I was embarrassed by their comments and jokes because I pretended it didn’t bother me and was hesitant to show emotion. I sensed they were generally mimicking the comments made by the media, parents, or older brothers and sisters. For a period of time I disliked being black. I didn’t like my nose, lips, or hair.
“Oh! Look at the black Sambo.”
“It’s a baby gorilla!”
“Hey, monkey! Want to play ball?”
My parents assumed I was too soft and tried to encourage me to fight back. Mom Rosella tried to fatten me with large portions of beans and rice at meals. Both she and Father Curley hoped I would grow into a bigger and more assertive boy. At one point, I believe I was the only skinny kid in the neighborhood who possessed a protruding belly. I could never claim I was ever being starved.
Eventually, Mom Rosella became my personal bodyguard. My neighborhood friends would complain of her spying while we played in my back yard. She’d startle everyone by yelling at us from a window at the rear of the house.
“Cut that out! Quit throwing them rocks!”
“Leave him alone! Untie him!”
“Get off of him! Get down from that roof!”
Occasionally she’d stroll up on us unannounced. My friends believed she was mean. I’d never agree with them, but I was embarrassed by her over-protectiveness, which a kid interprets as parental distrust. I retaliated by playing extra hours away from home, beyond Mom Rosella’s vision and the range of her voice. Yet she was tenacious and resourceful. She quizzed me on where I was going and whom I was playing with. Whenever I was late for dinner or missed curfew, she’d appear on the scene with a scowl on her face, a cigarette in one hand and a belt in the other.
I minded my parents, but sometimes it was fear of their reprisals instead of respect. They weren’t mean, but God forbid, don’t lie, steal, or embarrass them. Unfortunately, I began showing early signs as a repeat offender. Perhaps it was too many restraints; I couldn’t relax and just be a kid. Mom Rosella was a master disciplinarian. I’d snap to attention and respond immediately to her call. She wouldn’t have it any other way. She could break the spirit in the toughest kids, and she was just as sharp with adults and pets too.
Bed-wetting plagued me into my late teens. I definitely had a bladder control problem. Spanking and punishments didn’t work; yelling and threats made it worse. I was a nervous kid. Some of my cousins never let me forget it. Mom Rosella resorted to placing the yellow-ringed sheets out on our mid-yard fence to dry, so my neighbors and friends could see. Instead of positive results, I resorted to deception. I bought myself an extra pair of sheets from a second-hand store and washed the soiled ones myself.
Even though Mom Rosella was an expert nanny, I must have given her a major ulcer. She wanted to exhibit me as a model son, perfect in every way. Her pride and joy was on display, and I persisted in acting like a lunatic kid. I’d be an angel for a month, and the next month I’d do something completely out of character. At some point, she realized her tactics weren’t working with me, so she pled her case to Dad.
Father Curley was the calming agent. He possessed a pleasant demeanor, complimented by a good sense of humor, but you didn’t want to get him angry. Nobody liked him when he was angry. He was stout, five-foot-eight, strong, handsome, and brown complexioned. He was good at several skills, and accustomed to working with his hands, which were thick and hard as brick. Mom Rosella devised a slick presentation to get him involved with disciplining me. She’d chose the middle of our evening meal, right after he’d just completed a hard day’s work
“Guess what your son did today … ?”
She had good intentions, but her timing sucked. Mom Rosella was shrewd. She was very competitive and had to be the best at whatever she did. She expected no less from others.
Get In Where You Fit In
Some of my favorite neighborhood playmates were the Alvarez kids. The entire family was dark complexioned, even darker than most members of my family. Other Mexican kids often called them negritos (blackies). I didn’t mind it when the Alvarez clan called me negrito, because they always smiled big when they said it.
The Portuguese Lima boys, all five of them, adopted me into their fold. They had a fierce reputation of not taking lip from anyone. On Sunday afternoons, they’d come by my house dressed like mob thugs, wearing black and grey, or brown and beige, Pendleton shirts, buttoned to the collar, with pressed black or tan khakis, often referred to by other kids as monkey jeans because the logo on the rear pocket was a monkey or gorilla’s face looking through the bars of a cage. Their hair was slicked back with just the right portion of Pomade and oil. They spit-shined their black shoes glossier than a military boot. They’d line up on the sidewalk in front of my house, the oldest, being the tallest, would stroll up to the porch and ask Mom Rosella’s permission to take me to the movies. Watching him go into action was almost identical to the antics of the Eddie Haskol character from Leave It to Beaver. Eddie, the neighborhood bully/jerk would switch into an overly polite and respectful conversation only when Beaver’s parents were around.
“Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver.”
“Is Wally home?”
“Can Beaver come out and play?”
“Oh-no, Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver, I wouldn’t do anything like that.”
The Lima boys weren’t thugs, but my momma’s boy facade got kicked to the curb when I hung out with them. They never forced me to do anything illegal, but what I observed while in their company made a lasting impression.
There were several town theaters. The Fox and UA (United Artist) showed two matinees for fifty and thirty-five cents, respectively. They were mostly attended by white and Italian kids, while the Mexican and Portuguese kids attended the Crest and Padre, where three shows were 10 to 25 cents. Once I was old enough to go alone, I would attend whichever I preferred and could afford.
On the North side of town was an Asian community of mostly Japanese, although a few Chinese businesses were mixed in. Tucked away alongside those neighborhoods was a Black Baptist church, a barber shop, and a soul food restaurant. Our family ate rice with almost every meal, so Father Curley chose to do the family grocery shopping at two Asian owned stores, one in Japan town, and the other, a mom-and-pop Chinese market closer to home. These stores welcomed our business mainly because once a month dad spent a good portion of his salary with them. My family relished food. Our refrigerator, kitchen cabinets, and pantries stayed full. Mom Rosella could make leftovers or the most inexpensive meal taste like the world’s finest cuisine.
I was seldom ever comfortable having someone cut my hair, and it took me awhile to get used to barber shops. The Mexican barber was only a few blocks from my home. Uncle Melvin, Mom Rosella’s brother, was a regular customer. He had fine, wavy hair, which blacks in those days referred to as “good hair,” unlike my hair which was labeled “kinky.” The Mexican barbers would cut my hair just fine, but every so often they’d get into a Spanish conversation with a customer and make snide comments about me or the texture of my hair. My Spanish has never been fluent, but I learned early how to recognize and key in on certain words.
The black barber shops were a little intimidating at first, and almost always loud and bustling with laughter or chatter. It was my only avenue to study the mannerisms of black people outside my family. The men were a mix of proud, intelligent, jovial, angry, ignorant, and rude, all jumbled up together in one, often tiny, room, with each trying to out-joke or trump the other man’s knowledge on some tidbit or artifact. They jive-ta1ked with verbiage I didn’t fully understand. They’d do a wordplay of a game called “dozens,” which was cut-throat jokes such as, “Yo girlfriend so ugly, she has to sneak up on a glass of water …” They soapboxed on every subject, from sports to politics to religion.
The experience always left me both fascinated and afraid. The men acted different than I was accustomed to. Father Curley never took part in the joshing. I didn’t know if I could ever fit in or find the courage to compete.
On the other hand, the Asian proprietors were always impeccably polite, almost to a fault; their smiles didn’t always seem genuine. Father Curley and Mom Rosella were keen observers and could detect the slightest thread of insincerity. It was the black person’s stigma that the color of our skin would almost always invite a little tension, and/or caution. From a kid’s perspective, it didn’t make much sense. “If you’re nice to people, shouldn’t they be nice back?”
It took a lot more experience before I got a clear grasp of “Covert Racism 101.”
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
In the Spring of 1960, I began working at a flower nursery along with some of my neighborhood friends. The business, a short distance from my home, was a three acre lot with a small plum and apple orchard, a greenhouse, several storage sheds, and a towering wooden windmill along its backyard fence. There were hundreds of clay and ceramic flower pots, as well as potted shrubs and trees. Out front was generally a nice display of the season’s flowery blooms. The nursery also contained a florist and a floral-frame business. It was run by an elderly Italian man whom my friends and I worked for. We didn’t get paid much, but riding around town on the back of his rickety truck was fun. The root beer floats he treated us to made up for whatever might have gone wrong at home or school.
Somewhere between eleven and twelve years old, my peeping epidemic began and it was a tumultuous roller coaster ride. Years later a psychiatrist explained, “You’re looking for your family!”
My parents couldn’t relate to the value of therapy. They believed therapists were only in business to solve the problems of wealthy people. The only reason I eventually tried therapy as an adult is because a criminal defense lawyer recommended it.
The voyeurism was innocent at first. Just a curious kid taking a lingering look. Although some of my neighbors found it upsetting.
“I know. He is just a boy,” the Portuguese man would claim, “but my wife, she’s-ah young and-ah scared.” As Father Curley listened, his light, calm brown eyes turned a dark shade of angry emerald green. I don’t know if it was the worst thrashing he’d given me, but it ranks among the top ten.
Over a period of time, I believe the thrashings my parents gave actually did hurt them worse than me. Father Curley’s pride was pierced.
“Not my son!”
“Not my Allen,” Mom Rosella would echo. They were stunned by the neighbor’s visit; several months later there’d be another visit, and eventually the police. At the time, I was too naive to understand the possible ramifications of what I’d done. I was the son, the only child, of a humble black family, just trying their best to get along in a foreign neighborhood. Late at night, I’d hear my parents’ whisperings as to whether I was crazy, or my mischief just the nature of my bloodline.
I discovered early in life that if I spend enough time pondering something, I’d usually act it out. To a kid voyeurism might have been an exciting and risky adventure, but I was violating people’s right to privacy. Even if I didn’t fully comprehend that, I knew I was trespassing. The compulsive behavior developed into an obsession. No matter how many close calls, or times I was caught, no matter the humiliation and fear of thrashings, none of this had the power to deter me from this aberrant behavior. Since I couldn’t resist the temptation, I became stealthier, and did my prowling further away from home.
Fortunately, after several episodes there was remorse and the burden of guilt set in. Father Curley was a Baptist. He didn’t attend any church; he said the church was in his heart. He taught me to pray and we prayed every morning and night. Mom Rosella was Catholic, and I was baptized Catholic at age eight. I made my confirmation at twelve, and I was an altar boy from eleven to fifteen. With voyeurism came guilt, then depression. Over the years the stress began to mount. I couldn’t muster up enough courage to confess any of this to anyone, not even to a priest. I fought alone for control in getting myself to stop. Fifteen years later, it came to a screeching halt, but not without sacrifices, trials, and a multitude of prayers.
The late Dr. Albert Schweitzer, most noted for receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1952, and for combating the tsetse fly sickness in Africa wrote, “The experiences a child gains from ages of nine through fourteen become the foundation of character for life.”
In junior high school my test scores were average, although my reading skills were below. At home there was pressure from Father Curley to achieve excellent marks. Anything less than a “B” was unacceptable, and drew ridicule. It didn’t take long for me to read better than he could, yet he was still difficult to please. He lectured me for stumbling or stuttering and I developed a habit of doubting myself, afraid to look adults in the eye.
I liked school, and I got involved with the school’s curriculum during and after class. This didn’t coincide with Mom Rosella’s program. She wanted me home right after school to help with chores. I preferred to spend my spare time in the school library. I’d search for books written by black authors. I was curious what my culture had contributed to history and the world. In junior high, there were five black students out of a student body of over twelve hundred. There were no black teachers or staff members. Library books, fiction or nonfiction, with stories by or about blacks were scarce. The librarian took notice of my dilemma and ordered books I sought.
In the Fall of 1963, Father Curley decided it was time to move back to our home in Louisiana. He still owned a house on a quarter acre lot. Apparently, he felt he’d saved enough money to start a small business and make a comfortable living. We had trekked across the Southwestern states on vacation previous summers, but at thirteen, it was like experiencing it for the first time.
I had never attended a segregated school. I was both excited and afraid, but the experience was awesome. It appeared half the tiny town was related to us. Many of the kids at school claimed to be my cousin, or just wanted to be. I was referred to as, “The California Boy.” The teachers asked me to read aloud to the class almost every day because I spoke without a Southern accent. The faculty, sports teams, marching bands, and cheerleaders were all black. There were a variety of trade shops, chess and science clubs, and an array of skilled, confident, and intelligent students.
Most of the kids thought my family was rich, because Father Curley drove a white, 1955, Cadillac. They didn’t know that in California he’d worked as an auto-detailer at a used car lot. After school, a group of girls would gather around my grandma’s porch and argue. My cousins would tell me to choose the one I liked; otherwise the girls would continue to fight. Nevertheless, I had a lot to learn about the customs of the South.
The population of the tiny Southern town was less than ten thousand. A sign posted at the city limits claimed it was the cleanest town in the state. The black community was separated from the white community by a set of railroad tracks. I was told there was a city ordinance disallowing blacks on the white side of town after dark. I don’t believe it was true, but it cautioned me plenty. The town theaters offered Saturday matinees with separate ticket lines for blacks and whites. The whites took seats on the first floor and blacks were only allowed to sit in the balcony. During my first visit I got in the wrong line and almost started a mini-riot. The black community had their own theater, a converted warehouse only a couple of blocks from my home. It was usually closed. The movie selections were ancient and it took two to three months before the marquee would change.
When the county fair arrived, there were a lot of “Separate but equal” signs displayed. “Colored Enter Here” and “Whites Only” signs were placed over doorways of restrooms, eating areas, and drinking fountains. During a parade, the black high school marching band was last to perform. They were accustomed to bringing up the rear, while most of the onlookers wandered off. The drum major and his crew were proud and majestic performers. Definitely crowd pleasers, they tried their best to outdo the bands that had marched before them.
I adored the Southern atmosphere despite its slosh of archaic bigotry. Hot showers of rain at a moments notice. Clay streets and gardens in almost every yard. Lots of fenceless open spaces. Front yard ditches, outhouses, wells, pantries, sheds. Homes propped up on bricks and stilts. Mosquitoes, lightening bugs, chirping crickets, croaking frogs. Polecats, opossum, and skunks lacing territories with their scents. Fur-trapping neighbors drying skins on the side of their homes. Fig trees, fig bread, and fig jam. Pecan trees and pecan pie. Cajun grocery stores and Cajun coffee commercials. Pure sugar cane syrup, pork and beef sausage, and a matrix of skin complexions eyes: hazel to yellow-cats to sea green-blue to ocher brown.
Mom Rosella had seven siblings and Father Curley had five, giving me approximately forty first cousins. Aunt Lou Bertha, Mom Rosella’s baby sister, had eight children, four boys and four girls, ages seven through fifteen. They were my constant companions.
When we lived in California, Mom Rosella would mail the girls and boys boxes of second-hand clothes she’d received from her employers. The clothes she brought home were usually too big for me, so she’d hem them, expecting me to grow into them. I hated wearing the over-sized clothes. I wanted my clothes to fit snug like other boys my age. This event didn’t happen until I could afford my own clothes.
Nevertheless, my cousins admired and protected me, but they adored their Nan Rosella, not only for the boxes of clothes, but for her generosity in rewarding them with nickels, dimes, and quarters for running errands or doing daily chores.
In the meantime, Mom Rosella was losing patience with Father Curley. He was drinking heavily and carousing a little too frequently with his friends. His initial plan to start a business was delayed, because the house repairs and refurbishings had depleted most of our savings.
On November 22, 1963, a shot was heard around the world—the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The nation mourned. The death of a president was a major setback for the Civil Rights Movement. The morale of the black citizens of America plummeted, and Father Curley announced we’d be moving back to California.
The Coldest Day
By some good fortune and Father Curley’s determination, we returned to the same home and neighborhood we’d lived in before. I was enrolled in the same classes in school, and I arrived with an attitude of confidence and poise. For the first time, I began to believe I was not inferior to others and I wanted desperately to compete.
I excelled in everything I attempted, even subjects like algebra and science, which I’d struggled with before. I made the honor roll for the first time and repeated the feat for the following three semesters. I ran for student body president and won! I asserted myself in sports and developed a talent for playing football and running track. My parents were beaming with pride when the local newspapers printed an article about my “clean-up campaign” to improve the school’s reputation as the worst in the valley. Yet, before I could finish my term, I was arrested by the county sheriff for trespassing and truancy.
My family was traumatized. My teachers and my closest friends were shocked. I spent a night and two days in the County Juvenile Hall. It was the coldest day in my young life. A priest I knew came by just to talk. I was afraid to open up to him or anyone else. I lied and said I had trespassed to steal. I’m certain neither he nor anyone else believed me. I hadn’t the courage to tell them the truth.
In Juvee (the Hall), I was so distraught I couldn’t eat. The trustee slid a huge metal tray of food under my cell door. It must have been close to Thanksgiving because in the middle of the assortment of food was the biggest turkey leg I’d ever seen. I recall music being piped from a hallway speaker. A popular melody by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons invaded my heart.
“Walk like a Man …Talk like a Man …”
“Walk like a man my son …”
And as I tried to force myself to eat, my food became drenched with tears. I climbed off my bunk and peered into the courtyard through a meshed screen. At that moment, I instantly knew what it was like to be an ape on the rear pocket of those pressed khakis. My voyeuristic exploits had never ceased, and now I had a criminal record.
Many years later, I would be informed by a psychiatrist that autumn was generally the time severe mood swings began for most manic depressives. Apparently, there was a pattern to my behavior, some sort of mental deficiency yet to be diagnosed.
Resilient as most kids are, I was no exception; somehow, I moved on. The depression and doubts were buried. I was surrounded by a throng of nurturing hearts. The adults forgave me, I must have believed, as did the “Father” above. I worked extra hard at every task. Somewhere I had read, “Blacks must study twice as hard and be twice as smart to compete and gain acceptance.” Upon graduation from middle school, I received several awards, and the coveted one, covering three years: The Most Outstanding Boy.
I was thrilled and awed, and somehow remained humble. I had lived up to everything I assumed teachers and parents expected. I was placed on a pedestal I did not want. Yes, I was ambitious, but somehow I surpassed my original goal of just being liked and accepted. It was exhilarating, but my inability to be totally honest prevented me from feeling worthy of so much praise, which made it difficult to truly believe in myself.