The Making of a Miscreant: Between The World and Me…and Me

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.

 

The Making Of A Miscreant: What’s In A Name?

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.

Would-be Philip
Would-be Philip

“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.

Lucan ran from 1977-78
Lucan ran from 1977-78

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.

The First Time I Almost Died: Part Two

L-R: My brother Roland, Earl, me
L-R: My brother Roland, Earl, me about the age I was shot

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.

Train tracks near Cherry Hill
Train tracks near Cherry Hill

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.

“Shut Up Before I Really Give You Something to Cry About”

Vikings RB Peterson

A recent exchange with a family member had me reminiscing about my childhood and how I was reared by extended family and…got me thinking about Adrian Peterson.

Peterson’s recent off-field activities have landed him in hot water with the law and on the wrong side of public opinion as it relates to child rearing.  His detractors emerged quickly as did his supporters.

The ass-whooping is lore in the black community and many of us have comical tales of having to procure our own switches and belts to aid in our corporal punishment.  There was something about having extra time to think about your transgressions and come to grips with your inevitable thrashing.  We have, over time, romanticized and accepted corporal punishment as a part of our hardcore upbringing.  If you’ve ever seen a stand-up routine from comedian DL Hughely and others, you have undoubtedly heard them joke about the subject.  Former NBA star, Charles Barkley, famously spoke out about the Peterson situation and claimed that it was an accepted fact that hind-parts were not off limits in addressing adolescent mischievousness if you were a southern black.

Spanking2

And it’s not just a black thing.  CNN reported that in a 2012 national survey, that half of women and three-quarters of men in the U.S. believe a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking”. But there are physical and emotional consequences with each swing of the switch.  In that same report, CNN reported that numerous studies showed detrimental effects on trajectories of brain development, increased aggression, a decrease in cognitive ability, and decreased levels of gray matter.  We aren’t simply beating the shit out of our kids, we are also beating the potential out of them.

The emotional effects are equally damning.  We don’t know how every swing of the belt, swat of the paddle or bare hand whacking shaped the relationships that we have, or don’t have, with our elders.  I often think about how envious I am of friends and associates who have very close relationships with parents, grandparents or other care-givers.  I wonder if my own relationships might be closer and more fulfilling had a different approach to discipline been used.

The day that the Peterson story broke, my social media timelines were flooded with comments like “I got my ass whooped as a kid and I turned out just fine.”  Hell, I think I may have written something similar.  The truth of the matter, though, is that we have no idea what or who we could have become had a different parenting approach been taken. For the record, I have no doubt that AP loves his children.  He just needs a different approach to raising them.

My own approach to child-rearing in general and, more specifically, disciplining, differs vastly from my own upbringing.  Love, encouragement, and currency has been the general rule of thumb in the Lee household.  And I suspect, indeed hope, that the yield will be long-lasting, love-filled, close relationships with my girls.

What do you think?  Does/did your parenting style differ from that of your elders?  Do you agree or disagree with the research?  Have a funny ass-whooping tale to tell?

Ghetto Toys and Other Signs That You Grew Up in 70’s Urban America

 

I'm the shorty in the headband
I’m the shorty in the headband

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?

Sling Shot

And of course we shot stones.  At everything.

 

Skates

 

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)

NunchuckOur 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.