Once a Cop
1 Suburban Sugar Hill
No kid grows up dreaming of being a crack dealer. I certainly didn’t. My mother did everything she could to put me on the right path, to teach me the difference between right and wrong.
She made us go to church every Sunday. She’d wake us up early—so early that we’d all have to shower the night before. The next morning we’d be running around getting dressed while she’d yell from downstairs, “Hurry up! The Lord don’t have no time to wait for you!” There would be fights over the bathroom, because there was only one in the house for me, my parents, and my five sisters.
Ma would have breakfast ready when we came downstairs. We’d eat real fast and rush out the door. Poppa rarely came with us. Every Sunday she tried to get him to go, and every Sunday he’d say, “Eva, I ain’t goin’ to no damn church.” We went to Prince of Peace Baptist in St. Albans, Queens, where we lived. It was a big church, a lot of members, including almost my entire extended family, my aunts and uncles and cousins. Church was all day. Me and my little sister, Latonia—we called her Tawn—we would start out at Sunday school in the basement, then go up to join my mother and my older sisters for the regular service. We had to be there for all three services, the six o’clock, the eight o’clock, and the eleven o’clock. Tawn and I would get restless and start acting up, hitting each other, making noises. Ma would turn her head, grit her teeth, and say, “Sit y’asses down ’fore I beat you.” We knew what that meant. We
would settle down quietly for a while, until, inevitably, we would start back up again.
Getting through three services was hard but worth it, because after church we’d get Ma’s home cooking. Every Sunday was like Thanksgiving at our house. My mother cooked during the week, but Sunday was the day we’d eat. To make a big meal like that with six kids wasn’t easy. Ma had a system and she ran a tight ship. She had one of us sweeping the floors, another setting the table, someone cutting the potatoes. Tawn and I would stir the cake mix, because we liked to lick the bowl. After dinner we’d play games or do homework. The time we spent together on Sundays was always special.
I was born on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1968, at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, Queens. Nobody called me Corey. My nickname was Boobie, or Boo. I don’t know where it came from. My mother was Eva Jewel Caple, we called her Ma, and my father, Poppa, Richard Russell Sloan. My four older sisters, Linda, Vicky, Debra, and Angie, were from Ma’s earlier marriage in North Carolina, to a man named James Caple. My older sisters are much older. Angie is the youngest of those four, and she’s six years older than me, so most of my memories from growing up are just me and Tawn, who’s three years younger. We shared a bedroom and have the same father. We didn’t get his last name, though; the two of us were given my mother’s maiden name, Pegues. (Nobody pronounces it right. It’s Pa-geez.)
St. Albans was a working- and middle-class black neighborhood in southeastern Queens. It was mostly African-American, sprinkled with some Caribbean, and by Caribbean I mean Jamaican. Some of the better off families from Sugar Hill in Harlem had started moving out after World War II. They called St. Albans the suburban Sugar Hill. A lot of famous names: Count Basie, Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown. They all lived here back in the day. Just next to us were neighborhoods like Hollis and Laurelton and Springfield Gardens, places where blacks who had made it out of the ghetto were able to buy their own homes. To the south, down Guy R. Brewer and
Sutphin Boulevard, was South Jamaica, home to the Baisley Park Projects and the South Jamaica Projects, which people called the 40 Houses. That was still the ghetto, pretty much. That’s where things got rough.
When I was growing up, middle-class black families were going even farther out, to towns like Hempstead and Roosevelt on Long Island, and St. Albans saw a lot of less-well-off families like ours moving in. It was definitely becoming a low-income neighborhood, but it was a stable, working-class neighborhood: kids playing in the park, people sitting in the front yards, barbecues in the summer. St. Albans had been all white before blacks started moving in, but by the time we lived there the only white person left on our block was Mr. George, this grumpy old fat guy. He was nice, but he was a loner. We only saw him when he’d take his garbage out.
We lived on 198th Street, south of Murdock Avenue, in a small row house. Up at the corner, at the intersection with Murdock, was the bus stop and a commercial strip with a beauty shop, a Jamaican restaurant, and a bodega. Only we didn’t call them bodegas. We called them candy stores. A couple blocks down Murdock was O’Connell Park, with the basketball courts where everybody would hang out. Other than that, the surrounding blocks were all residential. Row houses and detached, single-family homes. People had little front yards and driveways for cars. Kids were always in the street, playing skelly, Frisbee, tag, baseball, football. It was a nice place to grow up.
The best thing about living in St. Albans was family. I had twelve aunts and uncles and twenty cousins within a few square miles. My aunt Mary and her husband Gene lived across from us with my cousins Val and Jeff. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, lived there, too; she had a room in the basement. Aunt Mary’s house was the unofficial gathering place; you’d find seven or eight cousins running around over there at any given time. We did birthdays together, played after school together, went to church together.
Christmas was a big deal for us. My birthday was on Christmas
Eve and my mother’s was on Christmas Day. Every Christmas Eve, my aunts, uncles, and cousins would celebrate and exchange presents. There was a lot of laughing and singing and dancing. My aunts would take turns singing Christmas carols and hymns in the living room. With all those cousins, presents would be piled up under the tree. Every Christmas Eve, I’d get nice gifts from my aunts and uncles—train sets, toy soldiers, toy trucks—and I went home happy. But one year I realized that my parents never got any presents for the other kids. I asked, “Ma, why don’t we get presents for them?”
She said, “Son, we can’t afford it.”
I’d never thought of us as being poor, but as I got older I learned that we were on welfare. I learned what that was, what it meant. Ma was from a town called Laurinburg in North Carolina, where she’d had my four older sisters with her first husband. He was no good. He wasn’t just cheating on her; he had a whole second family going at the same time. Ma couldn’t take it. One day she took the girls and left. My aunt Mary had already moved up here. My mother followed, hoping to give her daughters a chance at a better life. Ma was a beautiful woman, smooth cocoa-brown skin with a big Afro. She was strong and hardworking, but she’d never graduated from high school. She didn’t have the skills or the education to get a decent job. With four young girls and no husband to help out, she wound up on public assistance and never left.
In New York she met my father, who’d come up from Tallahassee, Florida, where he had two older sons running around, my half brothers. I’ve never met them. My father was tall and slim, about six-one, handsome, a bit of a player and a charmer. He hadn’t graduated from high school, either. He drove a bus for Creedmoor Hospital, an institution for mentally challenged adults. Throughout the day he’d drop the patients off at appointments and pick them back up. Whenever we weren’t in school, he’d take us to work to ride the bus with him. That was my favorite memory of him, riding around on that bus and watching him work. Some of the other memories aren’t so good.
My father drank. Smirnoff. He’d drink it straight, no chaser. I actually don’t have any memories of him without a glass or a bottle in his hand. As far back as I can remember, every day my father smelled like liquor. I don’t think I ever saw him sober other than when he got up in the morning. I’m sure he drank while he was at work, too, driving the bus for the hospital. But the man could hold his liquor. He was a functional alcoholic. He was never sloppy drunk to where he couldn’t hold a conversation. He’d kill a fifth of vodka and carry on like it was nothing.
I didn’t like that my father drank, but other than that I was a happy kid. My parents had a genuine love, but they weren’t always good at being together. They’d fight a lot, mostly about the drinking. For a while, thanks to my father’s job, we lived better than most families on welfare. Rent wasn’t too high in a neighborhood like ours, and we had clothes to wear and presents on our birthdays. But my parents never got married. They couldn’t.
Technically my father wasn’t supposed to be living with us. Single women on welfare couldn’t have a man living in the house. If Social Services found out, she’d lose her benefits. Once in a while caseworkers would do these pop-up visits to check the house. Ma would say, “They’re coming today for a face-to-face,” and we’d have to run and hide my father’s things. We’d empty his dresser and his closets, stuff his clothes in the trash can or under the bed. That’s also the reason my sister and I went by my mother’s maiden name. We had to pretend my father wasn’t a part of our lives.
Then, at a certain point, we didn’t have to pretend anymore.