Today, I took a ride to New York City where I spent the midafternoon taking pictures of the apartment building where I grew up until the age of 5. The only way I could describe my experience is nothing short of total disappointment. I thought they would have cleaned up the place by now.
Everything is still the same as remember — other than the updated courtyard with the now missing sliding pond, the blue whale and a grey turtle that we used to sit on, and a sprinkler that would keep us cool from those hot summers in the city. What was the worst was the inside the building.
The front door to the main lobby was unlocked and that elevator still opens and closes on its own for no clear reason… that freaked me out. I walked up the stairwell to the second floor and noticed that there was no graffiti on the walls. And I guess they no longer have issues with the homeless sleeping in the stairwells because it didn’t smell of urine, but the stairs were still the color of Battle Ship grey.
As I entered the second floor and looked at the actual door of our apartment with the original slightly rusted metal door knocker still attached that read “2D”, my body started to feel warm. I felt this rush through my body and could hear the pounding of my heart inside my head. It was almost as if my I was lifted off the ground.
I didn’t even feel the floor where I was standing because I was so overwhelmed by the experience and the reality that I was actually standing just a few feet from that door I knew all to well. Then it dawned on me that I was standing on the very spot where those police officers once all stood by the elevator waiting to enter our apartment where they would carry us all out.
I felt like I was a ghost floating above as I watched them take us away. For a moment, but what felt like eternity, it was 1967 all over again. I didn’t expect that to happen. I didn’t think I was going to get so lost in the moment the way I did. So, I took my pictures and left. I thought about taking the elevator but who knows what ghosts were waiting for me inside, so I just took the stairs like I’ve done so many times as a little boy….what was I even thinking of…..
I was on the phone today with my sister comparing stories of our childhood. Let it be told, I am truly relieved that what I been sharing seems to be right on the money. But something is still disturbing to me. I believe that someone who had enough saw us alone with no parental supervision one too many times called the police and Social Services on us.
As a police officer, I am going to have to go with that scenario. My sister Gloria believes that my mother, who had been admitted to the hospital with kidney stones, informed someone there that her children were left alone and needed to be looked after. I don’t buy that story one bit. Think about it.
If that was the case, why didn’t my mother contact my aunt who only lived a few blocks away to stop over at the apartment to look after us until she was released from the hospital? Why didn’t she call my sister and have her ask our neighbors to watch us? Where was my father? With no doubt in my mind, someone dropped a dime on my parents.
I believe it was definitely one of our neighbors who had not only seen enough but heard enough of what went on behind the door inside apartment 2D. I am mad at my father now because I truly believe he wasn’t honest with me when he told me his side of the story a few months before he passed away 20 years ago.
This afternoon, I decided to go through some old pictures, and guess what I recovered? I found an old black and white photo of my dad with his girlfriend dated 1968. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that maybe, just maybe, my dad was in the arms of his girlfriend that very same day we were in the arms of police officers carrying us out of our home.
I don’t know what to believe anymore. I’m totally dazed and confused now. What I do know is my therapist will need a therapist of her own when she is through with me. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the type to curl up in a fetus position rocking back and forth in a closet reliving my childhood and wishing it was just a bad dream, but have to be honest here, it does bother me that I don’t know the true story of where anybody was that day.
My father had his story and my mother had hers. What I realized today while looking through the old pictures of my family is that my parents had no business having children. They should have just bought a dog instead. I can honestly say that I don’t remember seeing my father much at all beside those times he would stop by with his truck on his break.
I can see him in his bed sometimes sleeping, and in the living room watching television, but that’s it. Hell, I don’t even remember him picking me up at the local police station when I wandered off from the court-yard playing with my other brothers and sisters. I was found by a stranger three blocks away from my home in Manhattan on West Street… I was THREE YEARS OLD!
Could you imagine if the person who found me had been a pedophile and put me inside his car and just drove away? I can go on how irresponsible my parents were back then with stories that will make you sick to your stomach, but I think you all have an idea by now what my life was like growing up at 400 West 17th street apartment 2D. I wish I could say it ends here, but unfortunately what is waiting for me on Staten Island only gets worst….
This whole weekend I tried so hard to remember something while we were living in the shelter for those two weeks, but I couldn’t come up with anything. So, once again I had to use a life line and call my sister to ask her what she could remember that may jolt my memory. What she said to me made me feel bad for my mother for a moment, but then it was quickly followed by anger, not at my sister, but at both my parents.
I wanted to try so hard to feel bad for my mother considering my father broke her heart and just skipped out on us. But being reminded of how mean she was to us when we were little brought back memories of the pain she inflicted on all of us, especially on my older brothers and sisters. What sickens me even more was that my father was no angel either, as seen through the eyes of my sister.
I can remember the punishments we received from my mother, but I also remember the weapons of choice she used against us, as well. If it wasn’t a belt it was the bottle of Hot Tabasco sauce she kept in the top cabinet next to the stove. When any of my brothers or sister did something my mother believed to be bad, out came the strap and the screaming would begin.
If the punishment didn’t need a beating, she would have us kneel against the wall either in the living room or the hallway with our hands up behind our heads, our fingers locked, and the tip of our noses just barely touching the wall. We would stay like that for what seemed like hours. When my mother wasn’t looking, we would put our arms down and shake them until the pain from holding them up for so long would go away.
As soon as we could hear her come out from her bedroom, we would put our arms back up so fast in fear that she would catch us. Now, I want anyone who is reading this to stop, and go to the nearest wall and give it a shot. Let’s see how long you last. By the way, hope you don’t have an itch to scratch.
Now, my mother wasn’t finished just yet. She would take that bottle of Tabasco sauce from the cabinet and pour some on her fingers and put it around the mouth of my older brothers and sisters, and when she did that, the screams would get louder until all of a sudden, silence would set in. I remember looking over to my older brother and seeing what looked like ketchup on his lips, and I can hear him crying, but so low you could hardly hear him.
There we were just in our underwear and a T-shirts kneeling against the wall with our hands above our heads with our fingers locked, and all I could hear in the background was my mother yelling at my other sister in the kitchen. Now, don’t forget I’m just 5 years old, but for some reason I stood up shaking and scared and slowly walked over to where my sister was screaming.
I peeked from the living room and looked across to the kitchen and I could see my mother putting her hand over the open flame and yelling at my sister in Spanish.These are a few of the memories that I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I will live with them for the rest of my life. So, the last time my mother came to visit us in the shelter, she was with my oldest sister Gloria. This visit would be the last my mother ever made.
My sister told me that my mother was hugging each and every one of us telling us how much she loved us as my oldest brother was crying and begging her not to leave us. The last memory Gloria has is leaving from one door with my mother, as we were led out to another door to a waiting van. My sister remembers looking back one more time and crying so hard, knowing that our family was no more.
The sad part for me is not remembering that moment as my sister does or the two weeks in that shelter. Hell, I don’t even remember the long ride to Staten Island. As I sit here in my living room typing this story, with the Giant game in the background, my eyes are watering up, so I am going to stop because my Queen is inside the kitchen, and I don’t want her to see that my heart is hurting…. yet again.
What I am about to tell you will not be from my memories but from those of my oldest sister. A couple of nights ago, we started talking about the day we were removed by Social Services over 45 years ago and placed in that shelter for two weeks. It turns out, my mother was in the hospital with kidney stones and my father had walked out on us.
Now, trust me, this was hard to accept considering my father had told me something totally different when I was about 27. Why would he lie to me? It wasn’t like I was going to go all crazy on him had he told me the truth. Who was he protecting? Me? My brothers and sisters? My mother? Or was he just protecting himself from embarrassment and humiliation?
Was my father cheating on my mom, and if so, for how long? Was having eight children too much for him to handle? Then why did he have us in the first place? It’s no wonder most children with broken homes grow up with mommy and daddy issues as an adult. We go through life spending most of our time in a therapist’s office asking questions that only our parents can really answer.
Then, when we get the courage to finally ask them, we have to wonder who is really telling the truth. Now, my father told me he was the one in the hospital when we were taken and not my mother. He told me he had a nervous breakdown because he couldn’t cope with the death of my sister, who laid lifeless in his arms.
He also explained to me that a counselor from Social Services met him as he laid in his hospital bed and that it was he who requested we all be placed in a Catholic orphanage home for a better life than he and my mother could offer. Jesus, he looked right into my eyes and told me that story with a straight and convincing face like it was yesterday.
I really felt bad as he was telling me his story… he seemed very upset. Here was a man telling me how his baby daughter died and how he tried saving her, couldn’t cope with her death, ended up in the hospital where no one knew where he was, and it was my mother who was nowhere to be found… period. That’s it, nothing else. That was the story I believed up until two days ago.
Now, my sister was 12 years old back then, so I am pretty sure she knew and remembered a lot more than a five-year-old. After my conversation with her, it was as if someone took a sledge hammer to my head and then poured salt into the wound while laughing. Only, she wasn’t laughing, and it was about to get worse.
My mother knew we had been removed from our home while she was still in the hospital. When she was discharged, she went straight to the shelter to visit us. I have no recollection of any of this, so I am still relying on my sister’s memory. My mother had picked up both my sisters from the women’s shelter and taken them home, but left the rest of us at the shelter where we were for at least two weeks.
During that time, my Aunt Dolly, my father’s sister, would stop over at my mother’s and try to convince her to place us in an orphanage so we could be looked after and have a better chance of a future than living in the projects in a poor broken home. My sister remembers the countless meetings they would have whispering in the kitchen over our future as a family.
Why was my aunt involved? Why was she so persistent in having us placed in an orphanage? Did she know something my mother didn’t? I mean, my mother knew my father had walked out for reasons unknown to her, but she really believed that he was coming back.
Apparently my mother didn’t want to make any quick decisions until my father came to his senses and returned home to save our family, but that never happened. Two weeks had gone by and my father wasn’t coming back like she had hoped for. What was she to do? She had no job and food stamps weren’t around back then, she had to make a decision and time was running out…
After being taken from the only place we called home, I remember looking out the window of the van and seeing cars and trucks. To be honest, I have no idea where we were going, but I do remember my brother, who’s a year younger than me, sitting in the middle between my other brothers with his head back and eye’s closed…almost like he was sleeping.
I don’t remember much else from the car ride. Why that image stayed in my mind is beyond me. The next memory I have is being in this big room with a lot of beds. It was pretty bright inside and the walls were white. I remember this blond-headed boy in a bed next to mine. I guess he was about my age, maybe younger.
Our beds seemed pretty close to each other because when he threw his covers over his head a few times, I could feel the wind in my face… that’s how close we were. My other brothers were also in the room. We were all pretty close to each other, so we would play on our beds and make faces at one another.
We would hide under the covers and play hide-and-go- seek, but while in our beds. I don’t get it, not too long ago we were taken from our home by cops and the woman with the mean face, and here we were making faces and laughing in a strange place with all these beds like nothing happened.
I remember putting the covers over my head and staying like that for what seemed like hours humming a song I had heard many times in my sister’s room as she sat on her bed staring at pictures of Mr. Spock from Star Trek and the singers from The Monkee’s posted all over the walls of her bedroom that she shared with my other sister.
I pretended that I was in her room again listening to her sing. About the age of 17, I learned from my social worker, Judy O’Brien, that we were all placed in a shelter for two weeks not far from the apartment building we once called home. I do remember asking my brother who was two years older than me just one question…if Mommy and Daddy going to pick us up.
To be honest, I don’t even remember what he said. I pretty much don’t remember much at all while staying in that shelter for that long. Two weeks, two days, two hours. It didn’t matter to me… I was just a 5-year-old and something wasn’t right once again.
Just to make sure we are all on the same page, this story that I am about to share is still coming from the eyes and memory of a 5-year-old. What was about to take place in our home seemed to be in slow motion, at least for me. Now, my birthday is in September, so it was either the winter of 1967 or early 1968.
Remember when I talked about impact memory in my first post? Well, I am about to share one with you how I remember the day that changed my family forever. I remember playing with two of my brothers when we heard voices coming from outside our bedrooms. The voices did not sound familiar at all.
It wasn’t our dad’s because he worked during the day driving a truck, and I know it wasn’t our mom because she was out and my oldest sister was watching us again. So I opened the door just a crack and called out my sister’s name, but she didn’t answer me. That’s when I started to hear her crying and a strange voice that didn’t sound like my mother’s telling her that it’s ok.
When I stepped all the way out I could see police officers inside our apartment standing by the door that was open and some were standing by the living room and hallway. One cop walked towards me with a smile on his face as he squatted down to my height and asked me my name. I remember him out of all the cops there because he was the biggest one and he was laughing with another cop right before he saw me.
He gave me short little waves with his hand while making funny faces. He took off his hat and put it on my head and gave that big smile again. Do you know what I remember next? The feeling of my face pulling back… I was smiling… isn’t that crazy? I can still feel my face stretching as I type this.
The next thing I heard was my sister crying from inside the living room again, so I walked toward her and saw a strange woman with light hair wearing a long tan coat asking if she knew where my parents were. Why would anybody be asking that? The woman then turned her head to me, walked over to where I was standing and asked me the same question.
I didn’t like her at all. She wasn’t smiling like the cop that gave me his hat. She just looked like she was mad at me or something. I don’t remember what I said. All I wanted to do was go to my sister, but couldn’t see her because there were so many people standing around in the living room blocking my view.
I could hear the big cop telling others by the door to go downstairs. I remember that so clearly in my mind even now as I tell it. The woman then asked me where the rest of my brothers and sisters were. I just looked up at her and didn’t say anything. In my mind, I thought if I told her, she was going to have the cops lock them up.
She asked again, this time bending down touching my face and telling me that everything was going to be fine. All of a sudden, I hear the cries of my brothers screaming so loud I wet myself… now I was scared. I was afraid they were taking us away and my parents weren’t there to stop them. I will never forget the look on my sister’s face as she stood in the living room by the window, wearing her yellow pajama dress she always wore.
Both our eyes met, and the look on her face will stay with me forever. Her eyes widened like a cat, and she wasn’t looking at me at all. She was looking over me, and that’s when it happened. My brothers started screaming like someone was hitting them, but no one was. I saw the cops pick up my younger brothers in their arms and held them as they walked out of our apartment.
I was being lifted up also, but I don’t remember crying, and I ‘m not going to make it up and say that I did because I really don’t remember. The last memory I had that day was looking at our apartment building as we were being driven away in a green van with my other brothers and sisters wondering where we were going….
Before I continue, I need to talk about my oldest sister for a moment and share a story that I remember from when I was 5 years old. I remember one evening, we were all sleeping when I felt this tug on my shoulder. It was my oldest sister telling me to get up. Half asleep, I hear her rambling on about a mouse she heard coming from the living room, and she needed me to find it. She got me out of the bed that I shared with one of my brothers and led me into the living room where she told me to find Jerry and kill him.
Yes, as inTom and Jerry. My sister already named the mouse. How did she think I was going to kill it? I was just 5 years old and with what was I supposed to kill it with? So I asked her, she paused for a second and then ran into the kitchen and came back with a small pot. She handed it to me and told me to use it… Was she kidding me? That was the same pot that I ate my rice puffs out of for breakfast every morning because I was too slow to beat my brothers and grab one of the few bowls that we had.
But, there I am, with the pot that holds my rice puffs in my hand searching for Jerry throughout the living room to no avail. Since I was woken up to help my sister, she let me stay up and watch The Green Hornet with her and let me have cereal as a reward, get this, in a REAL BOWL! I actually ate out of a real bowl, and with a spoon no less. So, as we sat watching The Green Hornet, we both heard the elevator outside our apartment door open and could hear my mother talking loudly to somebody in spanish and the sound of her key making its way into the door knob.
My sister took the bowl from my hands and told me to go back to bed before mommy came in. I did just that and jumped back into bed, threw the covers over my head, smiling. I was smiling not because I got to stay up to watch The Green Hornet while my other brothers and sister were asleep, and not because I didn’t have to end the life of a mouse we never did find. I was smiling because I finally got to eat my rice puffs cereal out of a bowl… I guess I had Jerry to thank for that. 🙂
Before I begin, I want to make it very clear that the story I am about to tell is from the memory of a 5-year-old. Now, some may ask what I could possibly remember at such a young age? All I can respond is simple… enough. I may not remember everything, nor will I be able to tell you exact dates and times.
Hell, I won’t even remember most of the names, but I can tell you what I saw and experienced that stayed in my mind like it was yesterday. I can even describe what kind of day it was. It’s what I refer to as IMPACT Memories, moments in time that affected me one way or another, good and bad.
For starters, I remember living in the projects in Manhattan on 17th Street and 9th Avenue. We lived on the second floor with graffiti sprayed on the walls and in the hallways, and boy, did it smell of pee all the time. I remember the lobby with the metal mailboxes on the wall and the blue elevator that we used countless times.
I remember my brothers and I jumping up and down inside just to make it shake and scare our sisters as my mother, the female version of Ricky Ricardo, would yell at us in Spanish. Yes, we were an army of eight, six boys including myself, and two girls.
There would have been nine of us, but my sister, Mildred, at the age of three or four, died in my father’s arms before I was born. I remember my dad telling me the story when I was about 30. I’m not sure if I am ready to tell that one. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever will. I really have to put more thought into that before I make that final decision.
Anyway, when there are eight hungry kids ready to have breakfast in the mornings, it was survival of the fittest. Whoever got up first were the lucky ones because there were only a few cereal bowls, and if you weren’t fast enough to get a bowl, you had to use what was left… metal pots.
The same ones we used to boil water and heat soup with and also to go mouse hunting with. I’ll explain that one in the next story. We didn’t have much silverware either for a family of 10, so we had to wait until someone else finished eating before we started fighting for the spoons.
I remember eating my rice puffs with a fork once and just drank the milk from the pot… at the age of 5, I learned to improvise! Now, back to my real mother, Carmen. Lets see, she was Puerto Rican, short, heavy and only cursed at us in Spanish. My dad, Edward was an average-size Irish and English truck driver with a receding hair line.
He had deep roots in Ark-low Ireland, County of Wick-low and Liverpool, England. (I learned all that from Ancestry.com. It’s a pretty cool site and I highly recommend it for anyone who really wants to learn their family history.)I talk in past tense about my real parents because they are no longer alive.
My dad passed away on Oct. 3rd, 1993 at the age of 56 from a massive heart attack while driving his truck. My mother died just last year right before Christmas of 2012 at the age of 76 from all kinds of health issues. I wasn’t close to her at all, and to be honest, I didn’t even go to her wake or funeral.
I have my reasons and let’s leave it at that. The last time I saw her was at my niece’s sweet 16 birthday party in Yonkers about nine years ago. Before that, it was around 1996 on a New York City street for about 10 minutes. The only thing we had in common was that she gave birth to me.
I did get really close to my dad during the last few years of his life and I tried to make up for lost time, which you really can’t, but we managed to get to know each other again as father and son. Better late than never, right? My dad died alone, and that really bothers me even to this day.
No one should die alone… no one. Had he only taken his heart medications like he was prescribed, maybe he would be alive today to see and love his great grand children. OK, let’s get back to where I lived because I tend to drift from time to time. Oh, did I tell you that we had a family of future stars living right across from us in the next building on the sixth floor?
The Wayans Family from the 80’s hit show In Living Color!!! Keenan, Damon, Kim, Marlon and Shawn… I don’t remember the younger ones, but I think my oldest sister and brothers played with them in the courtyard that was between our two buildings. I might have also, but I don’t remember.
Now I do remember hearing the sound of my dad’s truck as he would pull up in front of our building. My brothers and I would run down the stairwell to be the first to see him so he could pick us up and put us behind the wheel and let us honk the horn… I remember that like it was yesterday.
I remember my mother having parties in the apartment with her friends, and she had lots of them… lots of male friends. I would sneak down the hallway and see them playing cards and dominoes in the smoke-filled kitchen with beer cans on the table.
I didn’t see my dad anywhere, but would watch my mother dance to Spanish music as she would move around shaking her wide hips with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. When she would spot me, she’d yell at me in Spanish and I would run back laughing to my bedroom where my other brothers were watching TV.
I would tell them what had happened, and one by one they would sneak out themselves and would do the same thing. And yes, my mother yelled at them the same way she yelled at me… I’m actually smiling now just thinking about it. But soon, the smiles and laughter we shared with each other would fade from our faces… something was not right.
Notice how all families members and friends seem to be drawn to the kitchens to converse and drink when visiting? We all have living rooms, dining rooms and even family rooms, but they all seem to gravitate around the kitchen counter…why is that? 🙂
The kitchen you see above is actually my kitchen. I did look through the internet to download some cool pictures…I even went through some of my wife’s (of 30 years) Better Homes and Garden magazines for the right one. Not happy with that idea, I decided to see how it would look if I used my own kitchen.
So, I got my camera phone in hand and snapped away. Now, we are slowly upgrading our kitchen, so say hello to our new granite counter top! For all you kitchen hawks, the floor is next.
I am sure you have many questions right now, like what happened to my parents, how did I end up in an orphanage, do I have any brothers or sisters, why was I placed in a foster home, and many more.
By the time I am finished with this blog, there are two things I’m sure will happen. For starters, I am going to be in therapy for a lot longer than I planned. The other is having to explain to my Queen why I never told her some of the things I’m about to share with total strangers.
I am prepared for the first… still up in the air with the second. Maybe this is the time to get her that new stove and refrigerator.