It’s National Sibling Day and instead of thinking about the short life I spent with my brother Roland, I’ve given thought all day to his funeral. Perhaps is was because I was preparing for an interview with author Nora McInerny. Her book, No Happy Endings, is a memoir that chronicles the personal tragedy of losing her husband to brain cancer not long after they married. She writes, often with great humor, about the awkwardness of being a widow and how being around people became increasingly difficult. Which brings me back to my dead brother and the awkward day of his funeral.
My brother Roland died in 1999 at the promising age of 36 from complications resulting from the treatment he received as a kidney patient. After his body rejected the first kidney transplant, he had a 2nd operation that we thought was successful after living for 4 years with it. I’m not sure I was ever told what the official cause of death was.
A day or so before he passed, I received a call from my uncle Mike who said, “your brother isn’t doing well and I think you should come home.” I was dead asleep in the guest room of our house (because I snored like a growling bear) when the call came from my mother. My wife walked in the room and handed me the phone. My brother had passed before I could get there. I howled for quite some time as my childhood flashed before my eyes. Cried until there were no more tears to cry. Death had never come so close to me.
I learned a lot about my brother during his funeral. He was well respected by the faculty of the theology school he attended and by leaders from his church. Great moments of pride swelled my chest. The church was full of family, friends, church members and school mates. So many people that I could find a quiet place to think. I couldn’t breathe.
As grand a send off as it was, I hated the entire affair. I have always found funerals to be a morbid and unnecessary ritual. Looking at dead bodies is a creepy exercise and I was in no mood to socialize. My brother was a devout Christian and his funeral was as about as Christian as a funeral could be. Christians view funerals as a “home going” event, a reason to celebrate. Yet I was in no celebratory mood.
I had what could only be described as an out-of-body experience that day. Aside from my wife, who understood what I was going through, and my sister-in-law who was devastated upon losing her soulmate, everyone seemed to me to be attending a different event. The laughs and smiles, jokes and hugs all seemed foreign to me. There I was in my grief having just lost my only brother and people were engaging me as if we were attending a church picnic.
The thoughts that ran from the depths of my mind to the tip of my tongue were held back only out of respect for my mother. “What the fuck are you smiling at?” “You find this to be a fun event?” “Yes, I haven’t seen you in quite some time. Now get out of my damn face.” “Yes, upstate New York is beautiful country…now piss off.” I wanted to grieve. I needed to grieve. But these people did not understand the needs of the heathen black sheep of the family. The non-church attending son. The one yet to have his body snatched by space invaders. They didn’t understand the immense guilt that I carried knowing that the last conversation that I had with Roland was an argument about my not being saved.
I helped the other men carry my brother’s body to the dead person’s car. Weak in the knees, he nearly slipped from my grip. What a total dick I would have been if I dropped my dead brother to the ground. But I held on tight.
I still carry the guilt of not saying goodbye and the guilt of not donating a kidney and likely always will. It’s difficult separating that guilt from the memories. It’s a burden I’ll happily bear if it means that I can still remember the sound of his voice, his laugh, and his trying to save my lost soul.
Recently I decided to take a break from science fiction reading to delve into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thought provoking book, Between The World and Me. I fully expected to be treated to a unique perspective on the multitude of complex issues that face my hometown. I least expected to be completely confronted with my own past experiences.
If you haven’t read it, and you really should, Coates starts his book with a letter to his son that is powerful, personal, and alarming. He warns his son of the dangers of being a black man in America and the ever present threat to the fragile human body.
Coates weaves poetic truths in the telling of his own personal story including detailed experiences very similar to my own. So many similarities that the lines separating our two lives began to blur as I read on. He speaks to the perilous navigation of Baltimore streets, PG county cops, and social constructs of New York City.
My own story is also rooted in fear. I learned to live in fear early on as a child growing up in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. If an arrow lodged in my right shoulder blade, as described in my previous post, The First Time I Almost Died, didn’t teach me about the fragility of the human body, then watching two teenage girls’ hand-to-hand combat tete-a-tete quickly turn to knife wielding and stabbing certainly did. That was the first time that I saw significant amounts of somebody else’s blood. And there were plenty of other occasions to learn that lesson.
One triple H (Hazy, Hot, and Humid) day on the playground of my old elementary school Dickey Hill, I sat on the sideline of the basketball court watching the older high school boys hoop, shirtless and sweaty. Afros flopping with every shot and rebound. I waited patiently for the heat to chase them away so I could have a chance to improve my game. They were so much better than me and I wanted to run and gun with the big boys one day.
It was hot and I thought about giving up my hoop dreams for the apartment complex swimming pool. The game drew close to ending and the familiar cry of “who go next?” rang out. “Who got next”, as in who is next in line to challenge the winning team, almost always invited discrepancies. This day was no different.
The teams generally split between neighborhoods; my Wakefield Apartments vs kids from the notorious Forest Heights. Wakefield put claims on “Next” and Forest Heights disputed. These two neighborhoods, separated by Windsor Mill Rd and the sports fields in Leakin Park, were forever at odds with one another. Constantly disputing over everything with one central question to be answered – who was tougher.
Wakefield’s claims on “Next” did not sit well with two brothers from Forest Heights. The younger of the two staked his claim on the game after having just arrived to the court. Everyone knew that his declaration was without merit and so predictably the “us” vs “them” forces began on a collision course. First came heated words without reason followed by shoving and punches thrown between the younger of the two brothers and my fellow Wakefielder; a Cherry Hill transplant like myself.
The older of the two brothers watched with content as his younger brother sought to handle business. But he loss ground. He was the smaller of the two contenders and didn’t take kindly to his public embarrassment. So he reached into a Crown Royal whiskey bag and withdrew a .22 caliber pistol, aimed, and fired two shots at his scrambling challenger. Most on the playground broke in different directions or hit the ground seeking cover. I froze like a fawn playing a game of “you can’t see me” with a hunter. Heart pounding and ready to wet myself, I realized that the shooter, not more than a few yards away, fired at his challenger who was running in my direction. The shooter then fled on foot back towards Forest Heights.
The stunned crowd began to move and there was again bustling activity. My fellow Wakefielder emerged from behind his parked blue Toyota Corolla to notice two bullet holes in the passenger door. He was pissed. I, too my surprise, had not yet wet my pants, but the day wasn’t over. “Tell your brother when I see him I’m going to fuck him up”, he says to the older sibling whose “Oh, really?” response brought about a collective “oh shit” moment from the rest of us onlookers. He too reached into a bag and withdrew a handgun and began firing at a now moving blue Toyota Corolla. It was at this point that I detected moisture in my underwear.
Later that day I examined the bullet holes in the car. The bullets created two round holes surrounded by dented metal and chipped paint. I imagined what it might have looked like if those lead slugs tore threw my skin and flesh and perhaps hit bone. I was fascinated by the damage and ran my fingers over the holes in the car and then over my own torso.
My youth was full of narrow escapes. Moments when I could have been damaged severely or permanently. At times, like Ta-Nehisi, I lived in fear every time I left my house. Never afraid of one-on-one encounters. I never shied away from a fair fight. Being jumped by multiple people or defending myself against weapons that could tear my flesh is what created angst. During what seemed like a weeks-long period in middle school, I watched as a group of boys chose random victims on the bus and beat them mercilessly and for no apparent reason other than to terrorize. One boy that I hung out with from time to time was victimized. Beaten bloody. Busted lip, bloodied nose, swollen eye with contusions. He was no small boy. He stood tall and wiry with lengthy arms to his advantage. But he was not match for 5 boys hell bent on terror.
Each day that I boarded the bus, I feared that my ticket would get pulled next. That I would find myself scrapping for my life. That I’d arrive at school like Kenny did; ugly and battered. Humiliated as the bus driver and riders stared out of windows as if nothing was happening. I was lucky. My number never came up but the fear remained for a while.
One truism that I learned from the character Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is that the world is made up of takers and those that get took. Even as a boy I knew that there existed in my world those who would plunder. Those who would take your belongings, your money, even your health and dignity. It’s a hell of a thing when you become conscious of your own fragility and vulnerability. Impacts you in ways that you cannot fully comprehend. The funny thing is, we moved from what was at the time a hostile Cherry Hill neighborhood to one that we thought was safer in Wakefield. The fact of the matter is when you are economically vulnerable, there aren’t many safe places to retreat.
Without doubt, these experience have impacted me in profound ways. Contributed to defense mechanisms manifested in hot tempered, guarded behavior. Always ready to push back on those who would take from me, threaten me or my family; a punch first and reason later strategy. Strike with words and fists. But never plunder others.
Yes, Coates book is a stark reminder of a life, my life, of fragility and survival.
Surveying the room with dread. Identifying traps and looking for opportunities. Safe zones in the corners. Land mines around the bar. I walk smiling and nodding. Looking for a hack. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need a reboot. Intercepted by man. I recognize him from the elevator ride up. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I nod, feigning amusement. I chuckle with a sound I’ve been perfecting for years for these very moments. Another man touches his shoulder. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Just the hack I need to exit. Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Made it to the bar. I sip bad wine and pretend it’s good. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He found me using the same network pathway. We are joined by a woman. Small talk ensues. The man remarks on the extraordinary beauty of a young woman entangle in conversation among a pod of people next to us. He gives a foreboding glance and I wonder if he is conscious of #MeToo. “Wamp Wamp Waa”, they say to me. Reciprocity is expected. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need to hack this conversation. Esc Esc. A familiar face peers in my direction from a different pod of people and I make my way. Crtl + Alt + Del Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. In familiar face, I’ve found a safe zone. Small talk ensues and again I am trapped.
Circuiting the room like a signal with no receiver. Page loading indicator just churning. That’s me in most social situations. Socially awkward as fuck. Conferences, fundraisers, meetings, it doesn’t matter. I tend to view the world through economic lenses. Inputs vs outputs. Risk vs reward. Investments vs returns. Gains vs losses. Over time, I have determined that the amount of energy expended during “small talk” is not worth the return on investment. For me…small talk is exhausting. I now know what the weather is like outside. The amount of traffic you traversed to get here. Your child’s school district. What’s my gain?
If nothing else, I am self-aware. I recognize this character deficiency. And I recognize the benefits of social capital. Yet still, social gatherings without my “wingwoman” are soul-crushing events without measurable personal benefit. This will come as a bit of a surprise for those who know me through my social media persona. The gregarious, opinionated person from Facebook is simply a personality construct for social media. A bit of personal branding if you will. The truth of the matter is that I am most comfortable sitting in a recliner with a glass of red wine reading a book or watching Netflix. Or getting caught up on the days events with my wife.
But I’m trying, friends. I’ve committed to getting out more in hopes of developing a set of skills that will help me survive social events. But the struggle is real.
The weather “Wamp Wamp Waa”. “How are things”? “What do you do”? Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc….
It wasn’t long after I arrived on the campus of Syracuse University as the newly appointed Program Director for the University’s public radio station that I received a highly anticipated telephone call from my hometown of Baltimore, MD. The voice on the other end of the line informed me that my submission to the annual WMAR TV Arena Players Black History Month new playwright contest was selected as the winning script. The screams of excitement were heard throughout the studios and offices I assure you.
You see, there was a time when I fancied myself a writer. I had dreams of creating great works of poetry and fiction. Maybe even becoming a screenwriter. My best bud, Sean Yoes, and I would put a pen to paper transferring thought to pad as we itched to create the next great work. We’d hit the open mics and spin tales of urban woe; oppressed warriors shaking the shackles of modern slavery; and even tales of love and lust. In truth, our shit might have stunk, but we couldn’t smell it. Creativity was our drug and the Jones kicked in every day.
You should have seen us two knuckleheads from Walbrook High fumbling around the Mid-Atlantic Writer’s Conference back in the late 80’s. It was a conference full of academia and professional writers. We were the second coming of Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen. The Harlem Renaissance would be reborn in us on that day…or so we thought.
The conference concluded and our resolve strengthened. We had dreams. Dreams of being writers. Dreams of being film makers. We would be integral parts of the creative class come hell or high water.
During that period, a local television station sponsored an annual contest for up and coming playwrights. The station, WMAR TV, partnered with the Arena Players, a local African-American community theater organization, to host the contest in celebration of Black History Month. The chosen playwright would receive a $1,000 cash prize and his/her play would be produced by the Arena Players and aired in the Baltimore metropolitan area on WMAR TV. It was a big freaking deal.
Twice before I attempted to submit a competed script and twice I failed to realize a finished product. Writer’s block got the best of me as did a lack of technology.1992 was a different year. 1992 would be my year. I was arrogant enough to condemn prior contest winners to the dung heap. Yet, as arrogant and cocky as I was, I still needed permission from my new bride to buy a word processor. Handwriting a complete script proved to be daunting.
$500 is what I needed to prove myself worthy of the dream. It might as well have been $5,000. $500 was a lot for us to consider spending. Having just jumped the broom three years prior and adding a new addition to the family, every penny was needed for daily necessities. Yet there I stood before Angela Lee breaking down my simple plan – buy a $500 word processor on credit (a personal computer for us in the early 1990’s was unthinkable), write and submit the script, and win $1,000 for a net gain of $500.
It didn’t take much convincing. I could see the concern on her face but it quickly turned to a smile and a “yes”. Angela has always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Her confidence in me fueled my creativity as I banged away at the word processor keyboard. It’s why I continue to be in love with her today.
I submitted the script to WMAR TV and accepted a new job in Syracuse, NY simultaneously. So much was happening at the time and it was overwhelming.
Flanked by my bride and 1-year-old daughter, mother and mother-in-law, I stood in the crowded Arena Players theatre listening to the buzz around me, anticipating the moment that my work would come to life on stage. Announcements made, lights dimmed, and there it was; a cheap imitation of Zora Neale Hurston and influences of every Harlem Renaissance writer I had ever read appeared on stage. The work wasn’t very good; it was just unique enough to win. The actors breathed life into my play which, ironically, was about fulfilling dreams.
I was buoyed by my family and good friends like Sean Yoes and Tony Perkins. Yet despite the kind words and praise of the actors and theatre attendees, I knew as I stood there that the dream had come to an end. I held my squirming 1-year-old and looked at my beaming bride and knew that the work that was ahead of me was not as a dramaturg, but as a husband, a father, and a radio guy. And with no regrets.
I think about Hughes’ question all the time. What happens to a dream deferred? We all have dreams. Fruition is the end game for all but only the lucky few get to see their biggest dreams unfold on the grand stage. For the rest of us, those dreams go through a metamorphosis of sorts. It doesn’t have to dry up or fester like a sore. And it needn’t sag like a heavy load. A dream deferred merely becomes a different dream and the dreaming itself is what sustains and drives us, isn’t it? Today my dreams are simpler and they change from day-to-day; but always centered around my girls.
My friend Sean parlayed his dream of becoming a writer into a career as a journalist. Between the two of us, he was the far more talented scribe. As for me, I just needed some sort of creative outlet. My dreaming is never-ending. There is no tragedy in unfulfilled dreams. Tragedy exist when we stop dreaming altogether.
ManUp has gone all audioish on you. Feel free to read the text version below or enjoy the audio version of this edition of The Making of a Miscreant by hitting the play button.
My name is Joseph Bradley Lee. My friends and family call me Joey. Professional associates call me Joe. There was a time in 1972 that I hated the name Joseph. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Joseph because most people called me Joey. It was a different story, though, when school was in session.
In 1972 I was a second grader at Carter G. Woodson elementary school in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. Cherry Hill was a mostly African-American community. In fact, if there were any non-black students at Carter G. Woodson, I never saw them. Cherry Hill was a tough neighborhood; a nurturing neighborhood; and to a degree an isolated neighborhood. And unlike any other place I have ever lived, the black folk in Cherry Hill frequently butchered the name Joseph.
“Mrs Richardson, Jozup cut in line”! “Mrs Richardson, Jozup pushed me”! Mrs Richardson, Jozup is chewing gum”! Jozup, Jozup, Jozup! The “seph” in Joseph seemed to allude the students at Carter G. Woodson. Occasionally, a teacher or two would duplicate the error in pronunciation. It was nonsensical to me. Joseph wasn’t a difficult name at all, yet no one managed to get it right.
I was so fed up with Jozup, that on one particular spring day after school I literally kicked a can up and down the street as I contemplated a name change. I sat curb side on Seabury Rd trying to figure out how to break the news to Mama Lee. I poked at a line of marching ants on their way to investigate a crumb of potato chip. A clear indication of transference of energy; my bad energy to the ants and the ants in search of something to attack.
After a few moments of pissing off the ants, a fellow classmate joined me curbside. His name was Philip. Philip wanted to talk about how Mrs Richardson swatted Byron Barnes with a yard stick because he was talking in class. Yes, the teachers, and I use that term loosely, were allowed to inflict physical punishment on us students at Carter G. Woodson elementary school. Byron was a nice kid, but trouble always seemed to find him. He also had a mouth full of the tiniest, blackest teeth you ever did see. We chuckled about that too.
After a while, Philip headed home and so did I. I was determined to have a chat with Mama Lee about the name situation so, once home, I helped myself to a bowl of cereal and turned the TV on to Leave It To Beaver and awaited mama’s arrival from work.
“I don’t like my name,” I got around to blurting out. Mama Lee wanted to know why. “I don’t like the way people say Jozup,” my reply. “Well tell them to call you Joey,” Mama Lee said with a “boy get out of my face with that silly shit” look. “I tried but they don’t listen,” my frustrated response. Then came the litany of predictable justifications, “It’s a biblical name”, “it’s your father’s name”, “it’s a strong name.” Her mouth moved plenty, but all that came out of it was Jozup, Jozup, Jozup. Then came a question that I surprisingly hadn’t anticipated, “What name do you want then?” she asked. Up to that point, I gave no consideration to a replacement moniker. So I uttered…Philip. Mama’s face was twisted and her response…incredulous. “Philip! Why Philip?” I had no response and, in fact, felt like a silly child. I soon dropped my short-lived campaign for a name change. School would soon be out for summer recess and I’d return to be Joey.
The name game followed me for a good portion of my life. Teachers called me Joseph. Friends called me Joey. And in between…a variety of nicknames.
In Cherry Hill, I was White Hiney. “Hey White Hiney,” they’d yell. Evidence that we were the lightest skinned kids in the hood.
As a teenager, Mama Lee called me Poo Bear. In front of my friends no less.
When we moved from Cherry Hill to the Wakefield area on Baltimore’s west side, variations on a wolf theme emerged. Wolfboy, Wolfie, and Wolfpire became a new attempt at adolescent cruelty. Inspired by a short-lived TV show called Lucan which ran from 1977-1978, a few neighborhood kids called me Wolfboy because of my long hair. Lucan chronicled the life of a young man who, as a boy, was raised by a pack of wolves. I was the neighborhood Lucan.
The two moles on my neck that mimicked a vampire’s bite suggested to them that I was part wolf and part vampire, hence the Wolfpire reference. This didn’t bother me. Secretly, I loved the Lucan TV show and often fantasized about being raised by wolves.
During the same period, yet another nickname surfaced. It was Ugly. No, literally the nickname was Ugly. It was given to me by my adopted godfather, Johnny Miles. Johnny Miles was a shit-talking hipster from Marion South Carolina that took a shine to my adopted godmother, Mignon Ackerman. They would later marry and become influential figures (good and bad) in my life.
“Hey Ugly, come here,” he’d say with his raspy voice. Johnny was a big guy. Over six-foot tall and thick of body. Peeled right out of a Zora Neale Hurston novel, Johnny was as country as they came. Johnny was loud. You’d never not know he was in a room; and to watch a Washington Redskins game with him was intolerable.
“Let me holla at you Ugly,” he’d bellow. “Stop calling that boy Ugly, Johnny!” Mignon jumped to my defense. “What do you want me to call him? Cutie?” I was not a kid with a confidence deficiency. I knew I was attractive and I didn’t need the likes of Johnny Miles to validate it. Johnny adored me, as did Mignon. In many ways, I was as much their child as I was Frances Lee’s. After two weeks of protesting the name, Mignon finally fell in line with her beaux and she too called me Ugly. It was and is, to this day, my favorite nickname.
It doesn’t matter what people call you as long as you know who you are. I’m a Joey. Joey defines me. More so than Joe. And more so than Joseph. Joe is my professional moniker. It started with my first broadcast assignment. I’m Joe all day long. I now live in a town where I am only known as Joe. So when I hear my wife Angela’s beautiful voice call ‘Joey”, I’m transported home, to Baltimore, to my roots. It’s sweet and peaceful and loving, her voice. It provides a sense of place and reconnects me to me, Joe to Joey.
Do you have a favorite nickname to share? Perhaps one that you hated? Let me know in the comments section.
My grandfather, Mordecai Brown, was a simple, hardworking man. He worked as a janitor in the Baltimore City school district for years and saved his money to buy a dream. An American dream to purchase land that he could call his own. Land that would relocate him from the urban hustle of the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD to the quiet countryside of New Windsor, MD. And like many dreamers from the greatest American generation, he made it happen.
Trips “up the country”, as we called it, were delightful. The property sat high on a hill accessible by a winding gravel road that parted dense forest like a great divide. Rays of sunshine tried desperately to reach the forest floor in an attempt to give life to youthful foliage. At the bottom of the hill where the road commenced trickled a natural spring that pooled crystal clear water.
Brick by brick, beam by beam my grandfather built his home; defying the odds and fulfilling his dream of land and home ownership. The house sat atop the hill at the end of the gravel road where the wood opened to a clearance. I was fascinated by the open space, trees, and nature.
Once the house was complete and my grandparents settled in, they would trek down to Baltimore to retrieve me and my brother Roland. We helped with chores and provided as much labor as 8 and 9 year-old boys could muster. On one such occasion in the early 1970’s, me and Roland piled into the back of my grandfather’s winged station wagon; ready to tackle some adventure. The winged station wagon wound its way from Cherry Hill, through the Baltimore City streets and on to Liberty Road where we would spend the next 40 minutes or so on a straight shot to New Windsor.
I remember the feeling of freedom and the lifting of burdens that city living often placed on my shoulders. At least for the next couple of days, there would be no worrying about bullies, glue-sniffers or basketball court brawls. No one would call me “White Hiney”, a reference to my pale bottom often seen when I’d give a full moon salute. Growing up “light-skinned”, at times, could be an unshakable burden and that name would stick with me and Roland until we moved to Wakefield on Baltimore’s Westside where a whole new set of nicknames would eventually emerge.
Once through Baltimore’s suburbs, farm land sprouted from the horizon. The smell was different, cleaner. At least until we were hit with the undeniable aroma of fresh cow manure. “Pew”! Roland and I would shout with twisted faces. My grandfather made eye contact through the rear view mirror, “Doesn’t that smell good?” We’d scream, “No”! and pinch our adolescent noses. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the manure smell held a different meaning for him. It smelled like freedom and destiny; reminiscent of home and roots. Mostly, it was unlike anything that Cherry Hill had to offer. Cherry Hill, for Mordecai P. Brown, was someplace to escape from.
The winged station wagon turned off Liberty Rd. after a while an on to Roop Rd. Our excitement was palpable for we knew what sat ahead a hundred yards or less on the left side of Roop Rd. The grandparents befriended a local. A black man, roughly 70 years or older by my inexperienced estimation, who owned a small farm. On this farm he had some chicks eee i eee i oh. Among the small assortment of domestic farm animals, the old dude owned a rather large hog. This hog, at the tallest point of its body, stood taller than me, and lived in a pen just a few yards from the edge of the road. Pop Pop, that’s my granddad, would stop the station wagon in the road next to the pen so that we could say hello to Mr. Pig. Pop Pop, in turn, exchanged pleasantries with the farmer.
At the house, just minutes from the farm, we helped unload the winged station wagon and settled into our chores. We cleared land, hauled water, applied creosote to wooden beams, and removed rocks from Nana’s garden. Nana was my grandmother.
My Pop Pop laid the foundation for a larger dream home adjacent to the house that they were living in. Cinder blocks outlined each would-be room and wooden beams served as the bones that would hold the meat of his dreams. For whatever reason, the house was never finished. That was not something that we knew at the time.
All was not lost on boys of 8 and 9 years of age. The cinder block foundation might as well have been an ancient Mayan ruin, and we its conquering explorers. It was a playground, zoo, and science lab all in one. Captured turtles and toads were placed in the foundation for close study. Insects sequestered and dropped into spider webs for experimentation. A large wolf spider carrying its young on its back became Roland’s favorite pet; spending a portion of its life in a mayonnaise jar. Sitting on the wood beams, eating sandwiches, watching insects fly about, listening to song birds compose a tune, and watching squirrels engage in a game of tag was glorious past-time.
During this particular trip, while playing among the ruins, we spied a black serpent of unknown species slithering among the cinder block. Having watched our fair share of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Roland had the bright idea of capturing the snake. I idolized my older brother so I was all in. We fashioned a two-prong fork out of a tree branch. This fork was to be placed behind the snake’s head, rendering it incapable of striking and allowing for safe handling.
I reached my little hand into a hole in the cinder block wall and grabbed the snake by the tail. I flung it to the ground within the walls of a section of the foundation. It wriggled wildly with fear. Roland chased the serpent into a corner and, with precision, pinned the snake behind the head with the forked stick.
I had to be the first to handle the snake. I had to. My little right hand grasped the snake behind the head just like Marlin Perkins taught us. With my little left hand, I scooped the snake’s body until it was hoisted in the air. I was flush with pride and accomplishment. And then… engulfed with fear.
The snake dropped from my hands and slithered to a corner. My body hit the ground; mouth gapped wide open as silent screams only audible to dogs spilled from my lungs. Then I cried bloody murder. Roland dropped to his knees and the snake watched from its corner within the foundation. “What’s wrong”! my older brother shouted. But I could not answer. The shrieks poured out of the open tap. Finally I summoned the words, “I’m gonna die.” “I’m gonna die”! “I’m gonna die” “I’m gonna die”, my speech began to loop as fear’s clutch grew firm.
More words came although composure did not. “I don’t want to die,” I cried. As a lay on my back grasping my hand, Roland shook me by the arms, “Where did it bite you?” Dirt began to turn muddy where I soiled my shorts. Yes dear readers, I did indeed pissed my pants. Again Roland asked, “Where did it bite you?” I raised my hand to show my brother where the serpent exacted its revenge.
The sobbing grew and my heart pounded in my chest like a sledge hammer. “It must be the poison,” I thought to myself. “I don’t see a bite,” Roland was confused. “Where’s the bite?” “It..it..it spit poison on me,” I managed to say. Roland examined the poison closely. “It’s poop or pee you dummy,” he exclaimed. “It pooped on you! That’s not poison!” I was dumbfounded. Indeed there was wetness and slime on my hand. Indeed it was the left hand that was affected. Indeed, dear readers, my little right hand held the snake by its head. I feared, with great embarrassment, that Roland was correct. I had been pooped, not poisoned.
I gathered myself together, wiped the snot from my nose, and cleared my eyes of tears well enough to see Roland laughing at me. I failed to see the humor.
Still, there we were, two boys of 8 and 9 years of age with a task still ahead of us. A snake to capture. Roland would play the role of Marlin Perkins on this go ’round. We chased the black snake into another corner where Roland used the forked stick to secure the snake. I ran to the side of the house to retrieve an old rusty bucket to to hold our new pet.
The day grew long and it was nearing time to leave for Cherry Hill, but we were not yet ready to part with Blacky. Yes, we named the snake. The two brothers thought it would be cool to take the snake home to show their friends. So we covered the bucket with tin foil and placed it in the winged station wagon until it was time to depart. All of this unknown to my grandparents. Until discovered by Nana. You see dear readers, the snake had no intentions of traveling to Cherry Hill. None at all. It pushed its way through the tin foil and settled near the gas pedal.
The screams were loud and echoed throughout the wood. My grandfather moved with hesitant curiosity to investigate. Nana was beside herself. Our pet was discovered and in my mind, I was about to face my second near death experience of the afternoon. Pop Pop tossed the rusty bucket to the side and ordered us boys to remove Blacky from the car. We did with some measure of caution.
The day of excitement and adventure had come to an end as the winged station wagon headed back down Liberty Road. These kinds of experiences are among the building blocks that shaped the teenager and man to come. I learned an appreciation for nature and, for the second time of my life, for my own mortality. Blacky was most likely a common black snake, non-poisonous. But the risk I took capturing it and handling it is how I learned to take chances, both calculated and not.
A recent report on children’s active lifestyles suggested that the average child today spends only 10 minutes or less outside of the home. I’m so glad that I grew up in the 70’s. Life and nature have far more to teach us about life than the over-scheduled, technology driven way of today’s childrearing.
Dizzy and exhausted and so far from home, I questioned how I could possibly make it in my condition. In reality, I was no more than a mile and a half or so from my beloved Seabury Rd house (as the crow flies) at this point, but the road ahead seemed bleak and daunting. We traveled the path from whence we came, we three boys. Down the tracks, in and out of tree lines, and back to Cherry Hill Rd. Normally, we might have traveled Cherry Hill Rd to Round Rd to Seamon Ave to avoid rival neighborhood groups within some of the other courts. I hesitate to call them gangs though previous run-ins did produced physical confrontation.
I could feel the exposed flesh, resulting from the stranger’s yanked arrow, sticking to my shirt. Blood ran down my back soaking both shirt and shorts. I was light-headed. My footfalls turned to foot-drags along the concrete and asphalt and knees gave way to rubbery behavior. One of my arms hung around Keith’s neck for added support but walking was laborious. I stopped. Out of breath I told the two, “I can’t make it.”
Stupefied, Tony stopped and stared but Keith began to chuckle. The chuckle turned to laughter. My best friend laughed at the moment of my potential expiration. I did not understand it and found it quite off-putting. His laughter suggested that he thought I was being dramatic. I was known for dramatic behavior as a child but I had just been shot in the back with an arrow and losing blood by the second. The joke was lost on me. Our relationship was never the same after and explains why I had little remorse for breaking a Budweiser bottle over his head in a fight just a year later. The friendship ended there.
I sat curbside, unable to go on. The boys sat next to me. Tony offered to run to my house to alert my mother while Keith stood watch. It seemed the best idea and only option at this point. “What’s wrong with him?” a voice rang from a car stopped in the middle of the street. “He got shot with an arrow,” was the response. “Get in,” said my good Samaritan.
The Samaritan leaned over the passenger seat and pushed open the door. The car was clean, smelled clean. It was an older model but you could tell that he took pride in his ride. Beads hung from the rear view mirror and you could smell an air-freshener though it wasn’t visible. “We gonna get yo mutha,” the two boys yelled, and off they dashed. I looked up at the Samaritan and recognized him immediately. It was one of the maintenance workers from my housing complex.
By now I was seeing stars and little birdies like when someone was clobbered in the head on the Saturday morning cartoons. I was so overcome with relief that I made an effort to lean back and rest my head. “Don’t lean back,” snapped the Samaritan as he extended his arm. Not interested in having me stain his car interior with my blood, the Samaritan pushed me forward to where my head rested on the front console. The incredulity of it all must have been evident in my reaction because I detected a slight trace of shame on the Samaritan’s face.
He tells me, “Let’s get you to the hospital.” We continued down the road. There needn’t be much communication or coordination because I knew exactly where we were going. The South Baltimore Hospital was just a stone’s throw away, in Cherry Hill, on the banks of the Patapsco river. Indeed, I had been a frequent flyer at the emergency room there. This would make my 3rd of 4th visit.
The Samaritan consigned me to the emergency room staff and my mother joined shortly after. I don’t think I ever thanked him properly.
The doctors and nurses looked on in amazement. A few recognized me from prior visits. I was asked how the arrow was removed and I explained what the stranger had done. The doctor said it was a stupid act. Said the stranger should have left the arrow in. “You’re a lucky little boy,” he said to me. He explained to my mother that my shoulder-blade likely saved my life. A couple of inches to the left or a couple of inches downward and the arrow would have gone straight through me, likely skewering a vital organ. I remember overhearing someone, perhaps a family member or family friend, say to my mother, “That boy won’t live to see 21.”
The emergency room staff busied themselves with closing the gaping wound in my back.
I’d see the Samaritan in the neighborhood from time to time and he’d give me that “I saved your raggedy-ass little life” look. I’d return it with a “hope I didn’t stain your car seat” stare. My softened eyes meant to intenerate the display of boyish machismo. It was as much gratitude as an 8 year-old boy could muster I suppose.
The harrowing experienced turned out to be just another patch up job for little Joey Lee. I was no stranger to stitched up skin. But from that moment on, I often marveled at the fragility of the human body. The human spirit is as strong as any form of matter on earth. The human body, however, is but a bag of twigs and cooked pasta when matched against steel, mountains, trees, or trains. But the shoulder-blade of an 8-year-old boy… It can fuck with an arrow, though, can’t it?
If you missed part one of my memoir, The Making of a Miscreant, you can read it here.
I don’t know if I woke up that morning with a plan or, like many boys, decided to turn found junk into opportunity. Or perhaps it was another kid’s idea. But the plan on a hot, sunny, summer’s day in the early 1970’s was to catch some frogs. Nothing at all unique about this endeavor for rural preteen boys, but for urban youth, it required a measure of planning and adventure.
2438 Seabury Rd in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD was home. It was my home. I lived in Section 8 housing but I didn’t know it at the time. A single mom and two boys living in an apartment on the right-hand side of the court, eventually moved to a townhouse over on the left. That court was our world and we did not often venture far beyond its borders except to cross the street to the elementary school playground and basketball court, or to the nearest corner store to buy penny candy. We all new each other. It was the kind of place, and a place in time, when the neighbors were empowered to discipline you. And the maintenance workers might toss a football around with you in between tasks.
On this day, though, we were going to catch us some frogs. But where? First things first. We needed a vessel for the frogs. My friend Keith, a brown, lanky kid with a small afro, and my brother’s friend, Tony who was a year or two older, joined me as I rummaged through neighbors hot garbage cans for frog storing containers. We emerged with plastic jugs and milk cartons that we, with ghetto ingenuity, transformed by cutting the tops off and creating handles using pieces of twine.
Now, where? Beyond the borders of the court and the elementary school, sat the Patapsco River which fed into Baltimore’s harbor. Good for catching crabs, not so much for frogs. Our attentions turned west to the train tracks.
Someone told someone who, in turn, told Keith that creeks and streams ran parallel to the tracks so we surmised that frogs must exist in the general vicinity. In tank-top, cut off shorts, Jack Purcells and pals in tow, I headed west for a couple of miles in search of amphibians. Along the way, Keith tells tales of strings of fireworks that dangle from passing trains. He tells us, “If we can hop the train without getting caught, we can snatch some firecrackers to take back home.” Even as an 8-year-old, that hardly seemed plausible. But what the hell, I was up for anything.
The tracks were rusty looking and raised above grade. They were surrounded with crushed stone on each side. To our delight, a stream ran along side a portion of the tracks, among a thin line of trees. Even at 8 years old, I had experience catching frogs. My grandparents bought a parcel of land in Carol County and I spent many a summer’s day catching frogs, snakes and turtles. So I lead the way. We filled our containers with water from the stream and set them on leveled ground.
Wading ankle-deep, hands held 6 inches or so apart, we moved slowly so as not to disturb the wildlife. Frogs sat along the bank of the stream, unsuspecting, warming their cold blood. Keith, too anxious, misses his first. He mutters a choice profanity or two. I snag my first. Then a second. The others join in with better success having watched a pro in action.
In the distance, we hear the clacking of train wheels on tracks drawing neigh. “Firecrackers”! Keith yells. The frogs that we managed to catch were put into the 3 containers and sat closer to the tracks. We waited patiently and grew excited as the train came into view. Keith told us to run along side the train and grab any rail or handle to pull ourselves up. I think Keith lied about the fireworks. I saw none. Still, hopping a moving train seemed fun and so we moved, like experienced hobos, to make our way on-board.
The train appeared to move slow on approach but seemed to gain steam as it was upon us. Clacking with rhythm. Clacking with purpose. And so were we. Moving alongside the train as fast as our little preteen legs could carry us. We three intrepid boys searched for something to grab onto. I trailed the other two and began to run out of steam. Keith and Tony kept trying in earnest. Laughing and running along side the cars, looking for something, anything to grab a hold of. Hands on knees, huffing and puffing, we three boys watched the train move on down the line. Victorious.
An overwhelming sense of relief washed over me. I was scared and afraid to admit it. Not afraid of getting on the train, but getting off of the train. Jumping off of a moving train was not something I even remotely wanted to attempt.
We made the long trek back to the frogs, failures as hobos. What seemed like miles of track was most likely a few hundred yards. Back at the site, the frogs were gone, containers smashed. Shocked and perplexed, we three boys stood there silent, speechless, and dumbfounded. Who would do such a thing? Who would ruin the perfect afternoon? It was such flapdoodle that we struggled to comprehend what might have transpired during the short time that we chased the train. One frog remained in my plastic milk container, smashed and bloodied. A sad and truculent act.
I watched Keith’s eyes as he spied a figure emerging from the tree line. A boy, much older than the three of us, carrying a hunter’s bow with bladed arrow. This older boy told us that he was looking for some “white dudes” that assaulted his father. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would-be hunter of white dudes was not himself the capricious, frog-murdering bastard that ruined my afternoon. But Tony and Keith were enchanted by the bow and arrow and did not share my suspicion. They had never seen and hunter’s bow and arrow up close. Neither had I for that matter.
“How far can that thing go?”, Keith chimed. “Really far”, answered the stranger. Now he had my interest and attention. “Let me see”, I added. “Shoot it up”, I pointed to the sky. The stranger, bow in left hand, motioned with his right, gesticulating that we give some clearance. He pointed the bow upward, pulled the string back to his ear, and loosed the arrow. It flew straight up, climbing until it was out of sight. We three boys stood, planted in the gravel, mouths wide open and eyes bulging out of our heads. The stranger’s faced turned from a look of accomplishment to having a real “oh shit” moment. “Run!”, the stranger yelled.
Without knowing the intricacies and particulars of the laws of gravity, even we three boys knew that what goes up, must come down. We scrambled. Nervous laughter echoed and gravel flew as we made our way to the tree line. My foot slipped and I landed on one knee. With a thud, the arrow landed in my back. Lodged into my right scapula.
I don’t know what was worse, the pain or the shock of being shot. Given all the wide open space, what were the odds that a single arrow shot into the air would find its way through my flesh and into bone? I fell face down in the gravel, arrow shaft sticking out of my back. Cowboys and Indians for real. The stranger panicked. He grabbed hold of the arrow with one hand and placed the other hand on my left shoulder. He yanked. He shouldn’t have done that. Every western movie you have ever seen said don’t yank the arrow. But he yanked. And he ran. I stood. And I bled.
Gash in the back and bleeding profusely I, with my friends, started the long trek back to Seabury Rd. The energy drained from me with every step. The sun grew hotter and my tank top began to stick to my skin as the blood coagulated. The boys were concerned but none of us had any idea how serious the situation had become.
I use the word “ghetto” loosely. Growing up in Section 8 housing in Cherry Hill, a neighborhood in Baltimore, MD, was vastly different in the 1970’s than it is today. While times were hard, it was still a relatively safe place to rip and run the streets without fear of fatality. Standard summer gear included a tank top, pants cut into shorts because there was no way you’d still be able to fit them again by fall, and generic “fish head” sneakers with tube socks.
We didn’t have much at all. Nothing except space, opportunity and ingenuity. I will never become that old man that bores his children to death with tales of how things were far more tougher for me as a kid than it is for them today. But it was.
My mother had little money to speak of and whatever toys we received for Christmas had to last until next Christmas. But when you have outdoors, you don’t need much else. At least not for us street urchins. Being confined to the house because of rain or grounding was a prison sentence. After all, there was absolutely nothing on television and the neighborhood was magnetic.
Necessity forced us to be creative. After so many games of Hide and Seek, Hot Buttered Beans, Tag and others, you had to get down right inventive if you wanted a toy.
We learned to make our own sling shots by taking wire hangers from the closet and shaping them with pliers. We fashioned the sling out of rubber bands and bicycle tire tube. This is how it was done on the African savannah right?
And of course we shot stones. At everything.
Wanted a skateboard? No problem. We augmented those old steel roller skates (don’t act like I was the only one who owned a pair) by separating the front and back of the skate and nailing each end on to a piece of two by four or plywood. Why? Because the mate of the skate was long lost and we looked quite silly pushing ourselves on one skate in cut-off shorts and a dirty tank top. (Side note: you can find a picture of anything on the internet)
Our inspiration derived from many sources. Including Bruce Lee movies. Who didn’t want a pair of nunchucks after watching a martial art film? My apologies to all the people in Cherry Hill who discovered their mops were missing from the back stoop. With an old rusty saw blade, a bit of dog chain, and hammer and nails, we had the necessary materials needed to give each other concussions. We walked the dog with a rope around her neck so we didn’t quite need the dog chain anyway.
Necessity, the mother of invention, served us well. She taught us that a two by four, rubber bands, a clothes pin, and pull tabs from soda cans would yield a serviceable projectile. I was so accurate with it that I hit an MTA bus driver in the leg from 50 paces just before he closed the bus door!
There are times when I am quite envious of my children. They have an overabundance of cool technology, smart phones, internet, and on-demand entertainment. But more often than not I lament for the life that they’ve been deprived of. Not knowing what it’s like to race popsicle sticks in the gutter after a downpour. Throwing eggs at the bus as it drove through the neighborhood. Playing golf with a stick, a soda bottle and a tennis ball. I wouldn’t change my childhood for anything in the world.
There are times today that I have to call on that little boy to remind me that there is a creative spirit within that fuels the evolutionary process. That there is always a solution to a problem. I remind myself that humble beginnings define the man that I am today.
This spring, after a big rain, I’m going to take my daughter to race popsicle sticks in the gutter.