Chapter 1: My Dad Was No Hero! CHAPTER 1 MY DAD WAS NO HERO!
I was born in the Bronx before it began burning, in the fall of 1967, the youngest of six kids. Arriving four years after the next-oldest sibling, my sisters and brother always joked that I was “the mistake.” My mother would have none of it.
“You shut up!” she’d mock-scold them in her sternest West Indian accent. “He was the only one who was on purpose!”
I was about a year old when we moved from our apartment in a dilapidated building on Hoe Avenue to a narrow, aluminum-sided single-family house with a leaky roof and postage-stamp yard on 203rd Street in Hollis, Queens, a mostly Black, working-class neighborhood lined with other narrow single-family houses. Fronted by chain-link fences or scraggly hedges, most of the homes had a neat but needs-work-I-can’t-afford look. Hollis didn’t resemble the overcrowded projects in the Bronx, but it had many of the same problems.
Folks in that part of Queens made livings as bus drivers, train conductors, nurses, paralegals. Others sold drugs or stole to buy drugs. No doctors or lawyers—there wasn’t none of that in my neighborhood. Manhattan’s skyline glowed in the distance but still took more than an hour to reach by the Q-2 bus and then the F or E train, most locals’ main mode of transportation. Manhattan to us was a place where people went to work and then rushed back home. You had to have actual money to live there; at the time, you didn’t need much of that to live in Hollis. Planes from nearby JFK International Airport roared overhead, drowning out our hollering while we played football in the streets.
When I got a little older, those planes also drowned out the rappers and break dancers who suddenly sprouted up in parks and on street corners all over the place. They arrived along with the crack epidemic, hoping to emulate the success of Run-DMC, the neighborhood group turned hip-hop pioneers.
Run-DMC started out in local spots like Hollis Park, Jamaica Park, and Ozone Park, rapping for the DJs who competed there. They quickly put my ’hood (birthplace of such dignitaries as jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, and civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton) on every hip-hop fan’s map. Their songs were the soundtrack to our lives: “It’s Like That” (released when I was sixteen), “Hollis Crew,” “Sucker M.C.’s,” “My Adidas,” and the novelty hit “Christmas in Hollis” (“It’s Christmas time in Hollis Queens / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens”). To this day, they’re still cued up in whatever car I drive—you don’t come from Hollis and not have Run-DMC in your library.
They were just dudes who were around. My brother, Basil, was tight with the group’s DJ, Jam Master Jay, who grew up right across the street, half a block up. I saw Joey “Run” Simmons all the time when he dated a drop-dead-gorgeous girl on our block named Tonya, and I would also see his brother Russell Simmons, who founded Def Jam Records. LL Cool J grew up just a few blocks from them, at his grandmother’s house, on Farmer’s Boulevard.
But even in the toughest times, Hollis clung to its urban village roots. Some sections were more tense and dangerous than others. Mothers in the neighborhood—like Mrs. Miller across the street, and Mrs. McKnight (my friend Mark McKnight’s mother, known as Mommy Alice) two houses up from mine—kept an eye on everything from what seemed like permanent perches in their front windows and front steps. If you misbehaved, your parents heard about it. These women weren’t assigned those roles; it wasn’t part of some “neighborhood watch” program. They just cared about the community and made sure everybody did the right thing. As kids, we hated it. Looking back, I appreciate how lucky we were to have these ladies looking out for us.
I had aunts and uncles scattered around the boroughs like branches of some Caribbean social club. They all came from nothing and moved here from the U.S. Virgin Islands in search of something else—in search of more. My parents, Ashley and Janet, did the same. They met as teenagers at the church in St. Thomas that my mother attended every Sunday. My father was one of the guys who stood outside throwing rocks at the pretty girls when they came out. Apparently, back then that’s how you showed your love.
Damn if it didn’t work: they got married in 1958, shortly after my mother became pregnant with my oldest sister, Linda. My mother was seventeen, my dad nineteen. They moved to New York in the early 1960s in search of the better life their relatives had sought before them, some with more success than others. Then they had the rest of us: Basil, Arlyne, Abigail, Carmen, and me.
My father eventually found work managing a ServiStar Hardware store on 135th Street in Harlem, next door to the women’s-clothing shop owned by my uncle Frankie called the Choice Is Yours. My mother stayed home to raise us kids until my dad checked out, when I was about six (he didn’t leave, my mom didn’t run him off, he just checked out; we’ll get to it in a minute). After that, in the early seventies, my mother went to school to become a nurse, ultimately rising, by the mid-1980s, to assistant head nurse at Queens General Hospital, down the street from St. John’s University. She’d also moonlight eight-hour shifts at a nursing home at the end of our block.
Other than sharing Caribbean roots, my parents were opposites. Six feet tall, about two hundred and five pounds, with big hands and rich brown skin, my father was outgoing, the life of the party, a sharp dresser (or so he thought) who wore three-piece suits and shiny shoes and loved to sing and dance to calypso around the house and at family gatherings. He’d been a great athlete, a basketball and baseball player whom the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, he bragged, once expressed interest in signing when he lived in St. Thomas. He practically glowed. He was the kind of man other kids with overworked, bone-tired parents looked at and said, “Wow, what a great dad you have!”
My mother was pretty, and always pleasant, but also introverted and private. She hated for others to know her business. Her best friend her whole life was her sister, my aunt Rita, who only ever left St. Thomas to come visit my mother. Mommy was about five feet eight inches tall and light-skinned, coming from mixed parents (white mother, Black father). I mostly remember her bustling around the house wearing the plain white blouse and white pants of her nurse’s uniform—she worked all the damn time. She was only loud inside our house, where we six kids, and especially me, had her screaming in her lilting singsong the whole day long.
“Stephen, take out the garbage!”
“Stephen, wash the dishes!”
“Stephen, clean your room!”
Our little house in Hollis could get jam-packed. There was only one working bathroom in the Smith residence, and it often didn’t work. Same with the shower and sinks. Lots of times hot water wasn’t available, or the heat was turned off, because of an unpaid utility bill. The bedrooms were tiny—a touch bigger than a jail cell—but we still doubled and tripled up in bunk beds when we went to sleep. My sister Linda slept in the unfinished attic.
Yet none of that stopped my mom from playing the role of Mother Teresa. She allowed numerous relatives from both sides of the family to crash at our house, sometimes for months, when they hit hard times. As many as a dozen people crammed into the place for weeks on end.
We didn’t have much. My four sisters had to share clothing, most of which my mother got from Goodwill. I had three outfits at a time for all of my childhood and into my teens. Breakfast was almost always cereal, with our own version of 2 percent milk: whole milk mixed with tap water, to make it last longer.
The cereal often came out of the box piping hot. In normal homes, the cereal box is put away in a cabinet or on top of the fridge, in clear sight and easy reach of everybody.
Not in my family. Cereals like Honeycomb, Sugar Pops, and Cap’n Crunch were an extravagance, tantamount to a night out on the town ordering filet mignon with a glass of red wine. As a result, we six kids were constantly hiding it from each other.
My preferred hiding spot: behind the dining room radiator. If I didn’t stash it there, it wouldn’t last twenty-four hours before everybody devoured it and I’d have to wait at least a week or two for my mother to buy another box.
If that behavior sounds like crabs in a bucket, well, hell, it was. We were always hungry. Sometimes we approached what felt like starvation. So no matter how much we loved one another, love was not always part of the equation when our stomachs moaned and our heads ached because of a lack of food. Overall, we were definitely about family—mess with one of us and you messed with all of us. But when it came to food, it was everybody for him- or herself.
If a fly found its way into one of our bowls, we spooned it out and kept on eating. We didn’t run from mice or rats when they were in the vicinity of our meals—they ran from us! At one point, we did a stint on government cheese and bread and were damn grateful for it.
Later on in my life, when I’d moved out and moved on, making a decent living, folks would ask incredulously, as I poured sugar onto almost everything I ate, “How’d you get so addicted to that stuff?” My answer was simple: growing up, we usually had bread but rarely had meat. So for lunch or dinner we’d literally take sugar and spread it over the bread to make sugar sandwiches.
My sisters and brother and I suffered. We struggled. The old line “I didn’t even know we were poor” didn’t apply to us. We always knew we were poor. And it was debilitating as hell.
But our pain didn’t emanate solely from the conditions we endured. What made it even more injurious, more scarring, was the reality that things did not have to be that way. Our circumstances were by choice.
My father’s choice.
Other fathers in my neighborhood came home once their workday was over. Not mine. Four or five nights a week, my dad just departed from the hardware store and didn’t come home for days. He’d leave on a Wednesday, come back home on Sunday. Sometimes he’d change it up and leave on a Thursday instead, but I never, ever saw him on a Friday or Saturday night. I knew something was up, but I was still too young to know what. I’d ask my mother, “Where’s Dad?” She never had an answer—until the night she showed me by finally showing herself.
That’s when my world shattered and changed forever.
I was about ten. My mother grabbed my hand that day and said simply, “Come with me.” We turned at the corner at the end of our street and walked another half block. She didn’t say a word until we stopped in front of the house belonging to my uncle Freddie, my father’s older brother.
Once there, Mommy told me to knock on the door and ask for my father. I thought that was strange but did as I was told. I rapped on the door with my little ten-year-old fist and called out to my father’s brother, “Is my dad here?”
Nothing happened for a long minute, but I could hear the muffled sound of somebody moving around inside. Suddenly my dad cracked open the door. He stood there and stared at me. He hadn’t seen my mother, who was hiding off to the left of me. After glaring at me for another minute, he asked, “What are you doing here? What the hell do you want?” All hell broke loose. My mother burst out, bulldozed past my surprised father into the house, and aimed straight for the woman I would later learn was his mistress.
But suddenly my mother froze in her tracks: the mistress was holding a baby in her arms. Seeing my mother coming at her, the other woman lifted the baby in front of her, using the infant as a shield.
When my mother paused for a split second to make sense of what she was seeing, my father grabbed her, lifted her off her feet—he didn’t hit her, he never struck my mother, that was the one thing he ever did right, he knew his children would kill him—and pulled her away. He then snatched me with his free hand and, with one swift movement, tossed us both back outside.
Once we were out there, my dad slammed the door shut and locked it. The sounds rang in my ears like gunshots. My mother, who I’d never seen look so broken, raced back to the door and, with stunned neighbors watching from their yards, pounded on it with her worn-out fists and screamed his middle name, which she always called him—“Basil! Basil!”—all to no avail. He never came back out.
I was devastated. It was the first time I had an inkling of why he didn’t come home so many nights and of the reason why my mother wouldn’t tell me why. Even as a ten-year-old, I could deduce there was another woman in the picture and that nothing about it was right.
Our neighbor Doris saw my mother and me walking around the corner to my uncle Freddie’s house, and she told Carmen and Arlyne to get over there, so they came over—and we all headed back home together. During the short walk, which seemed to take forever, my sisters focused their anger and disgust on our father’s infidelity.
But I couldn’t shake a whole different thought: my father had put me and my mother out of the house instead of the other woman. He could have sat us down, told us to wait, taken her home. Something. Anything. Instead, he put us out like yesterday’s trash and locked the door.
Until that night, my father was my hero, not because he’d done much that was particularly heroic, but just because he was my dad. I’d always looked at him a certain way, as someone larger than life, someone I’d someday want to be like. He was that dad everyone else told me I was so lucky to have.
Not anymore. From that day forward, my image of him changed. I realized that we—my mother, my four sisters, my brother, and I—were not as important to him as his other family.
And we never would be.
That was the hardest part to accept back then, and it’s the hardest part to accept now. My family was not poor because we lacked the funds to live better—my father had a steady job and my mother worked like hell. We were poor because my dad had another family on the side, just ten minutes away, at a house he shared with his mistress. That’s where he spent all his money, when he wasn’t gambling.
My dad fed his mistress and her three kids, not us. He paid their mortgage, not ours. He put food in their refrigerator, put clothes on their backs. He even paid for her kids to go to summer camp. He never had anything to offer my mother when it came to us.
While we sat around, our stomachs aching and our heads throbbing, he was elsewhere. When it was freezing cold and we had no heat in the house, he was nowhere to be found.
I remember vividly, when I was eight, one of my sisters hovering around the kitchen, visibly fuming. My mother was rummaging through paperwork and working the phone feverishly, sounding more desperate than I’d ever heard her.
Turns out we were on the verge of being evicted, because my father had stolen the house-insurance money out of my mother’s dresser drawer and gambled it away playing spades. It was explained to me that failure to pay the insurance bill could lead to foreclosure.
Somehow, my mother handled the matter by the end of that workday, fending off the insurance company until a later date. That evening, once things finally calmed down, my father came waltzing through the front door, drunk, singing and dancing, as usual. When my mother confronted him, he just laughed.
“Relax!” he said cheerfully. “You handled it. I knew you would.”
He was right. From 1972 until she retired, Mommy paid all the bills. Most of the financial relief she ever received came from me. My father never paid a bill again, right up until he died, in August 2018.
He never apologized for it, either. Never displayed the slightest remorse or regret.