This is an excerpt from my upcoming book
Preface: Why You Should Probably Shouldn’t Read This
I don’t know what I’m doing here. I mean for that fact I don’t know what you are doing here. Over the year’s people have heard “my story” and said to me in an offhand way “You should write a book.” Something like that is easy to ignore the first dozen times. After a while you start thinking either God is adding to an already complicated call on your life, or people are just stupid. The problem with thinking like that in my experience, that if everyone else is wrong, it most likely means you are delusional. Seriously. The problem with delusional thinking is you don’t even know you are delusional. As a good friend points out that is one of the prime “features” of a delusion.
It wasn’t until recently that I decided that maybe God was trying to say something to me. Don’t get me wrong, I believe he uses my broken past in the building of his kingdom. The only reason my life makes any sense is with Christ. Meaning that I ran amok for years all over the country, but he took my shenanigans, my utter humanness and turned into glory. My story, like all of us, is part of the story. For me that is the biggest factor why I have never sat down in front of a keyboard like I am this cold January morning. Every story is sacred. All our lives are scripture. You may be a single mom with shades of Ester. You may be sleeping on cold concrete tonight with Moses poking through your heart. It’s very possible as you organize the next protest , Jesus is not only working in you and through you, but you become of his narrative. Maybe you were sent to this place in history to cleanse the temple. Maybe the temple is the local police station.
That’s my point. My story is, in my opinion, nothing special. Not a great selling point to get you to keep reading right? But walk with me for a second. If all our stories are sacred, then maybe mine is just meant to be used one on one. In ministry or in a church basement with other folks like me who are in long term recovery. Or on a street corner when I take the time to take a seat with you while you spare change. Maybe I can just use my story to remind people that their stories are sacred. That my story is just a run of the mill and average description of what it’s like to encounter Grace. Maybe that’s all that makes it amazing. That when Grace is involved no matter how broken a situation you cannot only be restored, but renewed. Resurrected. I’m not unique.
But I still find myself here with you. On a cold MLK day writing my story down. Why? I think it’s like every other call that God has placed on my heart. I run from it until God would not allow me to. Free will is a fickle thing. So reluctantly, I answer the call to ministry, or to writing this. But God has softened my heart up with the meat tenderizer of hard living. So of course I’m answering the call. Jesus is a jerk and won’t let me do anything else. I don’t know if that is bad theology, but it’s my experience. God has allowed me to dash myself against the sharp rocks of life until I’m beaten into a state of reasonableness. If that’s free will I’d hate to see predestination at work.
This book isn’t meant to be a lot of things. It isn’t meant to be a treatise on being a person of color in America. There are plenty of those and I will leave a few recommended books at the end of this chapter. They deal with the complex experience of race in America in a much more tactful manner than I will. It isn’t meant to be an autobiography. There are great autobiographies of people who bear much more significance than me to this world. Also, in my opinion, more important lives that call for reflection. This is just meant to be a collection of certain episodes in my life. Turning points, peppered with interludes I personally find funny. Most people would think they are tragic or sad. To be clear it’s all funny to me because I survived.
This is not meant to be a book critiquing or accentuating one way to recover from alcoholism or addiction over another. I think people who do that are terrible. Really. Most 12 step programs and any alternative work really hard on literature, unity, policies, and do it all on a shoestring budget. Also they work for the most part. All of them work for someone or they wouldn’t exist. But inevitably there are vultures picking through the corpse of some poor kids shipwreck of a life. Offering a new and improved version of a program that’s been around for 80 plus years. Then follows the eventual rehabilitation facility and the speaking fee’s. Let me be clear if you are that person, you suck. Reevaluate everything. But it would be hard to be authentic if I didn’t talk about some experiences in recovery. This isn’t meant to be a theological document. As I write this I am a seminarian pursuing a Masters in Divinity and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Translation I’m studying to be a pastor. So yes I will discuss the Church and what I have found here, but I’m no theologian. Hell I’m barely a Christian by some people’s standards.
My point is I’m one voice among many. That my experiences are just that. My experiences. One person in a sea of others, just like me. One lonely cry of the oppressed that is easily drowned out by the voices that have had a tougher road. One window to the soul of America that I hope you peek through. One servant of the Master who is just learning what that means. One fighter in a losing battle. One more person drowning in waves of grace.
But the most compelling reason not to read any further is that I’m going to try to anger you. I love challenge paradigms. I’m going to poke at you. More specifically ,I hope to stick my fingers squarely into the open wounds of this society for no other reason than to see it squirm for a second. Words are the only weapons that Christ will let me use and I fear by the time I’m ordained he will take those too. Radical peace and inclusion doesn’t leave much room for armed men. I’m armed and dangerous. I have watched the sun rise over the Rocky Mountains from the Flat Irons, and sold my body for drug money in Daytona Beach FL. I have been called nigger in Atlantic city and Cincinnati. I have been chased home from middle school for being a white boy in West Philly (I will never call it Philadelphia.) I have a quiver full of arrows of pain with sharpened edges of mercy. I’ll share my scars if you don’t mind getting cut.
Chapter One: If You Grew Up the Way I Grew Up…..
My parents met and fell in love in a drug rehab. Story goes downhill from there. But I think that is an important piece of the puzzle. My mother, Loretta, was from the mountains of Pennsylvania. Hazleton area in the Pocono’s. She came from a typical post WW 2 family. Lots of kids. Four to be exact. Two brothers and a sister. I wish I could give you a clearer picture of what that was like for my Mom, but she wasn’t that close to her family. I’m sure part of that was marrying a black man in ’76. I’m also quite sure it was the gulf of the unsaid that is created in families when alcoholism and addiction ravage a loved one in our midst. We watch, often silently, as the person we once knew so well is warped into an twisted image of themselves. Stretched well beyond the well-defined moral borders they suddenly leap over at times.
We are often left with a caricature of a loved one, that we are sentenced to life with. After a while we don’t recognize them as anything but what they have become. I know her dad was a lifer in the coal mines. Her uncle was a worker on the rails. Both WW2 vets. Her mother was Greek Orthodox and apparently that was risky for their day. Good Irish catholic kid like my grandpa bringing home an orthodox believer. You think that would have prepared them for when she brought home another wounded person that she was in love with. But its ‘76 and your nice white daughter (ignore the rampant drug use) brought home a black man. That she is most likely sleeping with. Apparently my grandfather told my Mom that if she went to a stadium full of brain surgeons she would bring home the hot dog vendor. That was Loretta. If it was broken, she would fix it. My Father as it turns it out was unfixable. My mother had red hair, fierce blue eyes that welled up with tears when she was mad. She had a left hook that was best avoided. She was my everything. A fighter and a fool. A drunk. A heroin addict. A damn good cook and a follower of Jesus in the unlikeliest ways. I have seen her with more bruises then a prize fighter after 12 rounds and never once didn’t think she was beautiful.
My father was raised in West Philly in the 60 and 70’s. From what I can glean it wasn’t all that great. Spoiler alert it isn’t that great for most black men now. Raised in a big family like my mother, two brothers and a sister. The Duncan’s. My family, or at least the family I knew as a child. My Grandfather was the patriarch in all the sense of that word. But my Dad never stood a chance. He was sort of an afterthought for my grandmother. By the time he was 11 or 12 he had run into the street and been hit by 3 cars. I haven’t neglected my dog that much. He got into a stick fight with a friend and had lost his right eye. By the time he reached 9th grade, due to the so called social advancement system of the Philadelphia School system, he was almost too old for school and couldn’t read or write. He bounced around from failed attempts from being a gangster to a member of the nation of Islam. The youngest, I often heard him express he felt disposable. The kid no one wanted.
While that could have been very much true I think there where socio-economics factors. Philly was a mess at the time. It was illegal for two more than 3 black’s kids to walk on the same side of the street as each other. It was considered “gang activity.” While the 60’s and 70’s seemed to roll on with a rising tide of change, my impression of Philly at the time from elders was different. It didn’t get any better, it in fact got worse for the average black man in Philly. No called you nigger to your face in the North, you just got beat like one. Self-segregation, racial tension with just a dash of abject poverty kept Philly from ever really taking advantage of the “awakening” American society was experiencing.
So my parents met in rehabilitation in Bucks county. A 2-year program, apparently they spent most their time hating each other and generally not getting along. The story, as it has been regaled to me over a bottle of Wild Irish Rose and a still burning but hardly ever ashed Newport, was that one of the few weekend passes they got my mother had plans to hang out with her then boyfriend. But he broke up with her just a few weeks away from “graduation”. My mother crushed was crying by the side of her car. My dad perhaps had one of the few truly unselfish moments of his life and he stopped to see what was the matter with the only girl in the rehab who didn’t fall for his act. He cancelled his plans, took her to Atlantic City and they walked the beach and the boardwalk. Held hands and stayed together for 30 plus years. That would be a great story ,if you know, it wasn’t for addiction and the systemic forms of oppression that were about to kick their asses. But on this day they were happy. Sober and falling in love.
Now it would be easy to read this and think I didn’t love my parents. You would be wrong. They were dumbasses. But they were my dumbasses. They were mine and I loved them fiercely. Probably to my detriment more than once. I think that’s something people don’t understand about the inner city poor. That’s code for Black, in case you aren’t hip to how these sort of stories can be framed. When you spend weeks wondering if there will be food on the table. If Dad will get out of jail. If Mom will keep her job. You are hyper aware at 9 years old that if she loses her job you will be homeless. Unless you have taken a book of the old food stamps down to corner store and prayed no one took them from you on the way, you don’t understand the camaraderie that develops in families like this. I knew my parents weren’t like the other kids. I maybe didn’t know why until later in life, but I knew they fought. I just had no idea what they were fighting.
Now this wasn’t every kid’s experience in my neighborhood. A lot of my friend’s parents were upwardly mobile. They held jobs. Sent their kids to school with new clothes. Went to Church and weren’t beating each other until the cops showed up to break it up. But a lot of kids in my neighborhood were just like me. But I’m jumping too far ahead. How can I keep going without telling you about my little brother Daniel? Younger is more apt. He was always bigger. Tougher. When I was chased home my one prayer was that I would make it to Daniel. Where I was introverted while younger (believe it or not) Daniel was confident and easy going and likable. He was just “that” kid in West Philly in a lot of ways. Could play sports, make you snort with laughter and vanquish an enemy with a solid left hook he got from my mother. An important aspect of Daniels worldview was that he was readily accepted by our black peers while I wasn’t. I was accused of talking too “white.” This meant that I used proper English to me, but it was more than that. It was dialect. It was a rhythm I just didn’t get and in many ways still don’t get. Everyone else was listening to the “Ready to Die” album by Biggie. I was buying vinyl versions of the “Speaking in tongues” by the Talking Heads. Don’t get me wrong I loved hip hop, and at its core it spoke to my experiences with the siren song of an unjust living condition put to poetry. But I was always willing not to fit in. That makes for hard living as a kid.
But Daniel who had the best afro and crystal blue eyes. He could fit into anything like most people put on gloves. Our relationship was contentious in the way only two boys, two years apart could be. Knock down drag out fights. Screaming matches. The conspiratorial late night whispers. Victories that would be hard won in the light of our home. My Mom worked and my dad’s only skill was getting high and beating all three of us to a pulp. I remember as a young boy wanting to bask in the light of my father. All young men do. To be near him, in the mix with him. But I also remember being hyper aware of how dangerous that could be. Sitting with my father was like sitting near a box of fireworks when they were lit. You know the big mortar shells that no one should have but everyone does. At his distilled best it was like moment right after you lit the fuse, in between the explosion and when the shell takes off. He was the sizzle you hear and the faint smell of gun powder in the air.
The fuse would spark. Bottle of E and J brandy or Wild Irish Rose. The sizzle would hit your ears. Laughter around a card table. A Richard Pryor record playing in the background. The fuse would get shorter. Coke mixed with joints in the strange metallic burning plastic smell only crack can give. Here. Somewhere here would be the magic moment. He would say he loved me, but I couldn’t hear it. Like hear it. Or he would play chess with me. Here in this brief interlude in my night he would do something that would amount to what I called love for many years. Explosion. The moment would pass. My mom lying bleeding on the floor, eye swollen shut, I’m standing defiantly over her at 6 years old. Ordering him to stop. Begging him to stop. I’m called a little white fucking traitor. I’m swept aside with a backhand. Fireworks are always something to see from the proper distance.
Our home was a concept. Meaning we never lived anywhere more than two years until I was older and even that didn’t last. So home for us, for me, was the 4 of us. It was the strange camaraderie that happens in the wake of physical and mental abuse. My mom brother and I were standing up to the tidal wave that was my dad’s mood swings. As a whole unit there was the awe of watching my Mom make a meal for 4 out of nothing. Or the fact that presents appeared every Christmas even if my dad sold them sometimes by new year. The lights being on was a victory and surviving was the war. Our leader, my father, was flawed but on the battlefield of West Philly facing the draconian economic policies of the 80’s designed to destroy us, we were one.
Hunger has a way of uniting even the most broken family situations. Don’t believe me? Try it. Why not try to feed a family of four on the equivalent amount of SNAP benefits for a month. Only make two trips to the grocery store. Try remember that transportation may not be readily available. You will find attentiveness around the dinner table and a new appreciation for your culinary skills if you are the cook of the family. Table fellowship was a big part of the early Church and I would submit there was one very practical reason. Hunger. Today it’s all the rage to talk about food deserts. But the reality is whole swaths of our society are subjected to substandard food that is cheaply manufactured, sold at a ballooned price, and not readily available. Sometimes I think the ELCA should plant new ministries anywhere an “ALDI’s” or any of the other cut rate grocery stores are. Just open a church sponsored farmers market. There is nothing like the Gospel speaking into lives this way. Helping others sit around the table with fresh foods provided by the Church at a rate that doesn’t make eating healthy near impossible.
But beyond our practical needs, and there where many, we took an almost strange pride in our brokenness. We were all very self-aware that we weren’t functioning like “family should”. I knew this intuitively as a child. When I was six years old I heard my Mom and Dad up late screaming. It was December which for most kids are days of joy. The days leading into Christmas area heady days indeed. But by six I already noticed a pattern the days leading up to the paycheck right before Christmas. I listened, like I always did, to their words slamming against the wall. My Dad wanted to spend money in that late night desperation crack can give a man. His tone shifted from demanding to pleading to forceful. My Mom desperately pleaded with him, “Leonard its Christmas, what’s left is for the kids and rent.” This wasn’t shocking information. I knew that no way Santa could be real. No way anything magical could happen in my neighborhood. Santa didn’t come to the ghetto. That coupled with my Mom’s anxiety around this time, I knew she was the one slipping the presents under our plastic K-mart tree. In a moment that I think is defining, I marched into my parent’s room at 3 in the morning. I stood defiantly in the light of a lamp with no shade, and declared I knew Santa wasn’t real.
That they should just get presents for Danny my little brother. I remember the look in my Mom’s eyes. I would see it many times later on. I watched as her heart broke. The realization of who I was becoming in this home, the tears that welled up but where swallowed back down. The brave face a mom puts on. She looked at me and told me that she was proud of me, but it wasn’t necessary. That Christmas was still happening. I remember telling her that rent and bills were more important. I went to bed secure in the knowledge that I had tried to help my family.
That is what family meant to me. It meant sacrifice. Eventually the prices got too high for me to pay. Eventually the little boy who bravely tried to save Christmas took too many punches. Too many nights up with tear stained cheeks. The thick white rivers that washed down your face. That cracked if you actually smiled. The chest heaving up and down and up and down like the rapid beat of a drum until everything almost went black from exhaustion. One day, after a while when you are living in the bombed out shell of a family you start dream. These dreams are fueled by the pop culture of the day. Or dog eared copy of “On the Road” you find in a library. The funeral pyre of your old life is lit by sparks of defiance and daring. Daring to believe that you are not meant to sit on the sad corner that is the two houses that cap off your block. Daring to wonder what life is like outside of the world that has you trapped. Poor. Beaten. Bloodied. Bruised. Hungry. Lost. Forlorn. Defiant.
If you grew up the way I grew up, you would have hit the road too.