My family wasn’t thrilled about my moving to Japan. They’d treated my announcement like I’d announced “I’m disowning all of you!” The fact that it has now been five years since my fateful exodus hasn’t helped the situation, either. Maybe they had alleviated their anxiety about my move by telling themselves, “Oh, he’ll be back in a year, perhaps the better for it.” Well, I am better for it, but I’m not back, and feeling further and further from being back each day since I’ve been back.
There’s a 12-13 hour time difference (depending on daylight savings) between NY and Yokohama, and this has an lousy effect on keeping in touch with family. Either they’re busy or I am. Either I’m asleep or they are. Because of Yahoo and SKYPE communication wasn’t cost prohibitive, but these timing issues slowly made the whole effort mendokuse (too much friggin’ trouble.) At least for my family it did, I presumed. That is, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
For my mother, initially (meaning pre-SKYPE,) it meant using some crazy international code before the number. And why should she have to? After all, I didn’t give birth to her. She was the one who sweat through umpteen hours of labor trying to squeeze out my oversized head. The least I could do was return the favor and alleviate the crucible of having to press three additional numbers every time she wanted to hear her son’s voice. Well, she was still tucked away in a rehab, where receiving any calls was a no-go, so contacting her was out. That was a blow but I rolled with it.
I have 5 brothers and sisters. My oldest sister, and her two daughters, live in California so that wasn’t going to happen. My two older brothers and my younger brother are MIA. Seriously. I didn’t know where they were. No one in my family could say definitively. If I asked my younger sister, the person in my family I felt closest to, she’d probably laugh. My older sister might walk past my little brother in the street without recognition. Even my mother could only give me leads.
“Oh, last time I spoke to your brother he was calling me from somewhere Upstate. He gave me an address but, I don’t know where I put it.” In NY parlance, Upstate means prison.
So, when I say my family wasn’t thrilled, what I’m actually saying is my mother and my little sister weren’t thrilled. My older sister over in Cali… she was thrilled! It didn’t directly affect her at all, so she was able to look at it objectively. Moreover, she is the most optimistic person you ever want to meet, and very supportive of anything I undertake. I believe she could actually be a motivational speaker and be a big hit to the tune of 5 figures a shot! I swear. She has more energy, intelligence, and life experience- that spans the spectrum of life experiences- than anyone I know, and can eloquently and passionately convey her thoughts and feelings. And she can draw from her experiences the wisdom to go on, and go on with vigor. I envy her. I think she’d probably be a better writer than I’m trying to be. She’s the fucking inspirational bomb, and truly gifted! Every conversation with her either leaves me rearing to go or drained from the mental energy it takes my often brooding and pessimistic ass to keep up with her.
My move would mean absolutely nothing to my three brothers. My younger brother I haven’t seen in a solid 10 years or so. He’s schizophrenic, clinically, and divides his time between the Hip Hop career he created in his mind, insane asylums and prisons (assuming there’s a difference.) My second oldest brother…He used to be in and out of jail, but went straight and moved to the country somewhere, last I heard somewhere in Delaware. We’ve lost contact and I haven’t really made an earnest effort to re-connect with him, nor has he with me. We didn’t get along well when we were kids and our relationship as adults, with our relationship as youth as its foundation, wasn’t that sturdy or stable. No, those two wouldn’t even notice I was gone.
But my oldest brother…He, I was crazy about. There was no father in my house growing up so he was the closet thing I ever had to a father. Though he was a career criminal, he wasn’t especially gifted at it. But what he lacked in skill he more than made up for with style and audacity. He was my hero, my idol, and my protector. He was the toughest of the tough guys in the neighborhood. The other guys feared and respected him and the girls adored and hated him. He had a pathological duality about him. He was as harmless as a housefly at times and as dangerous as a Black Mamba other times. He was as funny as Richard Pryor (no exaggeration) one moment and the next he’d just lose it. One time I had to pull him off of my other brother after he’d ht him over the head with a brick. Born a year apart, they’d had the consummate sibling rivalry. Because of him, for me, life in Bed-Stuy was a breeze. His reputation for cracking skulls wrapped me, and anyone in my circle, in a protective cloak. I rarely had an altercation when I was growing up. Except with my second older brother…he was a bully, and my only nemesis as a teen. And my oldest brother was the only thing standing between me and a regular asswhipping from him.
I mentioned Franklin Avenue previously. My oldest brother RAN Franklin Avenue, he and his crew, and if something went down, you better believe he had a hand in it, or knew who the guilty party was. Unfortunately, the police knew this as well. He was the usual suspect, and usually guilty. Police at my door was not a rarity. Nor was the sight of my mother begging and crying before some judge for leniency. It was too late for mercy.
Before my previous trip home 3 years ago I’d searched on-line at the NYS Department of Correctional Services Inmate locator website and was able to locate my oldest brother. There he was, up in Fishkill, under one of his aliases of which the website had a list, at least the ones I knew. I’d sent him a letter and some loot and told him I’d be in town in the summer and to look out for me. I never got a response. I checked again before I departed and his status hadn’t changed so when I arrived in NY, Japanese girlfriend in tow, I decided to give her a rare experience and brought her with me Upstate to visit my brother. On a NY vacation, most Japanese never leave Manhattan, I’ve learned. My girlfriend got to see the real New York: Brooklyn, in all it’s glory and gore, and an American prison.
I’d actually never visited my brother Upstate before. I’d gone to Riker’s Island a couple of times, and several jails in the city, but I wasn’t about to go up to Sing-Sing (which is relatively close to NYC) or some of the other facilities he’d resided in wayyyy the fuck upstate, damn near in Canada. I just wasn’t keen on seeing him in a cage, whether it was an hour away or a 6 or 7 hour drive away. Selfish, I know, but that’s me. However, I’d made an exception this time for a couple of reasons:
1-I hadn’t seen him in years and,
2- He is HIV positive and I really don’t know how many more opportunities I’ll get to see him.
The depressing idea of him dying alone, in prison, of that god-awful plague… Anyway, when we got there, I realized that it wasn’t quite a maximum security jail. More like a medium security, which means get those images of Shawshank out of your head. It means we didn’t have to talk on a phone through fiberglass, but could talk and touch and hug and have lunch and whatnot in the flesh. When they’d told him he’d had a visitor he’d come into the picnic area expecting to see some girl he’d convinced he wasn’t a lost cause. When he saw me and this tiny fine ass Japanese girl, he was so shocked and overjoyed he burst into tears, which isn’t exactly the thing to do in a jail, but like I said, it wasn’t Sing-Sing. It was a very emotional reunion but I think it added years to his life. He looked great. He always looks great when he’s been locked up for a while. While he’s in there he eats regularly and works out like a madman, but he doesn’t look like The Terminator. He’s more like Taye Diggs. Not bulky like a power lifter, but chiseled like a gymnast, a martial artist or a swimmer. Once he’s back on the street a while he starts to look like shit, again. The streets are his nemesis. He seems to thrive on incarceration.
This time around however, the website informed me that he had been released and so I had no idea where to find him. My mother had had a phone number for him but it was one of those disposable pre-paid cell phones, and apparently he had disposed of it.
So, that left my little sister and her daughter as the only family I could meet. I picked them up and we went out to dinner. In the car we carried a conversation about this and that but I was anxious and uncomfortable. I tried to relax and bask in the love that one can only feel in the company of loved ones, but I couldn’t. I felt estranged. We went to a diner my sister said was all that, called Purity Restaurant, over in Prospect Heights. The menu was oldtimey like the diners I loved growing up and the food was great. It was 8pm, but I had some pancakes and sausages anyway.
My sister hadn’t changed much. She was still her sassy, sarcastic, super intelligent self. But, something was different. She’d grown a little weary. She’d gained a bit of weight and that had her down. Her daughter was a teen and slowly falling out of adoration with her, and that was a hit. The men of quality that used to come knocking weren’t knocking as often and that was a blow, as well. So, she’d lost a little of her snap, but not irretrievably. I think she’ll be ok.
But, as she was catching me up on her life I felt an inkling of the reason I’d been feeling estranged. I couldn’t…no, rather I didn’t want to get into it with her until I had thought it out some more, though. My sister is a tough cookie. She has a heart as soft as butter, but she’d placed that butter in a meat locker a long time ago. I could thaw it out before I left for Japan. Our relationship was just that way. But, since then…I haven’t even put it to the test. She wasn’t being especially cold, though. Little stabs, like Sharlene and Wendy had made, little snide, verbal daggers that hit their mark with the precision of a circus performer.
I endured them, like a penance, from Sharlene and Wendy, mostly because they were drunk, but partially because they were friends. Their daggers stung. But my sister doesn’t drink. Not a drop. And, I was a little more vulnerable to anything that came from her mouth. She was my touchstone before I left. She was the person I could turn to for a reality check. I was the person she could open up with, let down her guard, be absolutely real with. I wasn’t prepared to accept daggers from her. Her daggers would draw blood.
I decided to avoid any serious topics.
On the way home, we dropped her daughter off at her cousin’s house. Then i told my siter that I wanted to drive by the old block to see if any of the old heads were about. She still lives in the area so it wasn’t nothing to her to see these people. But she said cool, anyway. We hit Franklin Avenue, and as I approached the signal at St. Johns and Franklin, I caught a glimpse of my oldest brother’s profile in my headlights.
I pulled over and hollered out the window, “Yo Chuck!”
He was with a woman and turned around like he expected trouble. Then he saw me.
“Oh shit! Get out the car! Oh shit!!!” He started crying right there on Franklin Avenue.
I remember when he first told me he was HIV positive over ten years ago. He came to my old apartment and dropped that bomb on me. Back then everyone thought of it like a death sentence. Even though Magic Johnson was strutting around looking better than he had when he played ball. That was only because he was rich and had access to some super drug and the best healthcare imaginable, everyone believed. But for the average Joe the Plumber, it was deemed Death Row, you were a dead man walking. Everything about him had looked the same that day except for something in his eyes, or rather something that was no longer in his eyes. Even when I looked at his eyes through 3 inches of steel reinforced glass, in them I could still see that he was going to be alright. He could survive jail, no problem. He could handle them niggers in there. But, HIV? HIV had already begun its deadly task. The disease had killed something in him spiritually before it took its toll physically. We’d looked at each other that day. I don’t know why but he wanted me to see that he was dying inside. It was like he wanted me to see that the streets couldn’t kill him, jail couldn’t break him, but even the thought of this shit coursing through his body was destroying him. He was going to give up. I could see it. He was going to cash in his chips. He’d cried that day. Cried like a baby. I’d never seen him cry like that before. I couldn’t look at him. At this invincible mountain of a man, brought to this.
“Stop crying man!”
“This fucking shit…this…shit, it’s…”
“Man, crying ain’t gonna change shit,” I said but I broke down too. and we cried together for a long time.
And he was still crying 10 years later. I wasn’t. I stopped crying years ago when I realized that this dead man had been walking around dying for years, not months like I had feared. And if he had years then he had better fucking live them and stop crying. I had gotten really angry at him. Every time i spoke to him I told him what he should be doing with his life. I spoke to him like he wasn’t dying, because I didn’t want to deal with that. But, he still looked like he was waiting to die. 10 years, whenever he’s not in jail, he looks like this.
When I saw him crying today I cut him some slack. It must have been an emotional shock to see his favorite brother he hadn’t seen in 3 years and the sister he hadn’t seen in even longer than that. And I was so damn happy that I had decided to drive down that street. Serendipitous, was it not? That I could pick his profile out of a crowded street corner at night. It had that feeling of meant to be. I had resolved myself to the fact that this trip home I would only see a single sibling.
“Hello…” I said, to the woman with my brother.
“Yo, yo, this is my wife, man.”
“Your brother is so rude, hi, it’s so nice to meet you. He talks about you allll the time, his little brother in Japan.”
He’d told me about her before. That they were living together and planning to get married. I’d thought that that was rather optimistic of him and was happy to hear it. I think he’d said that she was HIV positive as well, but I’m not sure and I wasn’t about to bring it up then. She was a little thing, looked about 40 something. Had that scratchy voice like a former lush, but she seemed really nice. She said that she had 4 kids and 3 grandkids. I was surprised but not too surprised. Young grandmothers are not that rare. Even Wendy is a grandmother and she’s only 41. Her daughter, all of twenty something now, had actually come to the bar the night I’d arrived and had a drink with us.
We stood on that corner, on Franklin Avenue, the avenue he used to run in his hey day, and talked for hours, as a family. I’d found the love I’d longed for back in Japan. And it felt wonderful…like Thanksgiving. He had my sister, his wife and I dying with laughter. He joked about all those crazy adventures that are the stuff of legend on the Ave, of all the people he’d robbed and cops he’d beat up, and so many things he’d done on these hallowed streets. Everybody that passed by shouted a what’s up at him, and once they noticed that I was there as well, they showed me some love, too.
After a while, the laughter started winding down. My sister was genuinely happy to see him but she was ready to go, and so was I. We exchanged numbers. I gave him my SKYPE number.
“What about when you go back to Japan, how the hell am I gonna get in contact with you?”
“You can use that same number.”
“It’s like you’re calling my computer…wherever my computer is I can talk to you.”
“Word! Fuck outta here!”
It was like he hadn’t been living these past years. Granted he had limited access to computers Upstate but I still felt really sad, then. I gave him a big hug and told him I love him very much and I told his wife to keep him out of trouble, and keep his stupid ass off of Franklin Avenue, unless she wanted to be visiting him Upstate.
After I dropped my sister off, I went back to Ma’s house. And, I cried for a little while. Then I did some writing.
to be continued…
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