Thursday, February 03, 2005

thy mother guards the sheep

The spire of my church in Cleveland rises high above the hill. I can tell it’s a cold morning, because the sky is a light gray. Not the rain/ snow gray that Cleveland often sees, but the early winter, storm-free color that I am used to seeing through high, overpainted cafeteria windows.

The back seat of the old Plymouth Acclaim was always crumb-free and vacuumed. My mother would drive up the hill, the risen dawn to my back; I am dreaming as a boy again. I lean against the cold window, trying to capture all the steps of my weekly church trip. Eyes watching the cracks on the sidewalk, wondering which one I would trip over if I was walking up the hill. I can see the spire of our church rising into the gray, white contrast to gray clouds.

I always hold that image in my mind—the moment my hope against hope is dashed, when I know for sure we’re not going for an extra special treat. We’re not driving to Chicago. My mother isn’t going to drop me at a comic shop where I can read to my heart’s content, nor will she let me eat candy that makes my face red, nor will she take me to have a big brunch with our cussin’ uncles on the south side of town.

Every Sunday I got the hill; a slow ascent to hard pews and mediocre fire and brimstone. Fat women with paper fans or scratchy coats who want to dole out hugs. My mother woke me at 7 in the morning is to avoid the crush of the main service; so I missed all the cartoons. I’d eat eggs for breakfast, half asleep. My eyes itched, trying not to fall asleep and snore.

My mother would pull and knead and scrape the nappy hair into some kind of order, an unassuming fro, as I whined and squinted and groaned.

“My stomach, ma,” I would say. “I can’t even stand.”

She’d never believe it. She was stern in that bathroom, and until I was 16, once a week, I would think about all the places I could be, all the things I could see, besides the inside of a church. I’d cuss under my breath.

She’d look at me, her eyes and mine meeting in the mirror. With me turning away first. “Hold still,” she would say, combing hard, “can’t have you looking like…” She left the line blank. So I could imagine how horrible it must be to be someone other than what she and dad wanted me to be.

She would finish and I would be on the edge of tears. But Mom, she would be beaming, already set with her hair combed, permed and sprayed into round order, shiny and impervious to the weather or Sunday bonnets. Her string of pearls would show on the small bit of neck she allowed to the world. Painted nails ran across my scalp to make sure she did not miss a spot.

“I can comb my own hair, ma,” I told her for years.
“Let’s go, I don’t want you to make me late.”

I realized in my early teens that I didn’t hate church itself. I have nothing against God and his churches. I might have been happy going to the later service. Sunday School only happened during the 10:00 service, when the church was packed with people who drove even farther than we had. The other kids hated it, I know; they’d be standing outside chewing gum and wearing their Raiders coats over their shirts and ties and suits and dresses. Muttering to themselves and biting their lips while scowling. I watched them from the window, if they came early and my mother was lingering with the early risers. The boys and the girls were buck toothed and gangly and proudly separate from their parents.

The mothers were hard to distinguish. The whole set of them were like crows on a telephone pole, in black or red dresses with appropriate bonnets, ribbon-bowed at the brim. The mid 40-s paunch was in full effect. They waddled from person to person, whispering gossip about who had come up and who had done something foul.

Separate as from these families as my mother intended, I would finger some candy I snuck into my blazer pocket, and watch the other kids my age. Trying to fill in the blanks. Trying to figure out what badness my mother thought would rub off of them onto me. What were they like? Did they like comic books too? Would they rather be outside playing Game Boy against each other, or maybe drawing out badass new comic characters in the dirt?

The boys don’t look much different from the kids I see on the subways, or walking up 87th Street, the kids lingering in front of pizza stores and walking by video game shops, talking excitedly about who beat who in whatever video game platform. I still watch those kids with curiosity, wondering if someone’s mother is telling them not to hang out with so and so.

The other kids were from the old neighborhood, the place I barely remember before mowing lawns and scraping up leaves and shoveling all that Cleveland snow. And these kids represented the image of the neighborhood—the Raiders jackets, the caps, the unkempt or cornrowed hair, the slang, the bad language just on the threshold of the church.

One always used to sneak a cigarette around the corner. He had good eyesight; you could see him acting to stub the butt when his mother began to turn her sizable girth in his direction—it took her a minute to start moving in a line. Another kid was always surrounded by the girls, and you could just tell they’d be fast by the way they chewed their gum and wore short skirts and snapped their fingers.

Some of the girls would congregate in the corner, watching the boys and making notes in a shared notebook; sometimes giggling, sometimes walking over to whisper, too intimately, in a boy’s ear. My mother would sometimes mutter about those “trifling niggers;” about short-term pleasures, not destined for my great future. On the outside, she felt, my church learnings would not be twisted, trampled, manipulated by these kids who didn’t know how to come-up if it didn’t involve slangin’ drugs.

Were they as bad as my mother made them out to be? Were they the characters we saw on the nightly news? They seemed tough, and they bumped me when we passed, called me the early nigga, stared at my high-waters. But I didn’t know them, I don’t know them. We could have been friends, learned from each other maybe, if my mother was different.

I’m sure your mind wanders to the same things. You wonder – those kids you once knew, the images of your youth, the background singers in your life story—what did they become? Are they famous, are they still in the same cities? Will you end up like them? Will you one day meet? If you had known them, maybe you would have been friends, close associates, afternoon sports buddies. Maybe you would have met your future wife. Or they could have led you on a path to ruin. Or they could have been enjoying themselves, not treating every moment as if it might break their future into an impoverished, struggling mess.

My father and mother would not allow for distractions. Everything aimed at the goal. She had a dream, she had the house, she had the loans to send me to the prestigious Haden School.

And when I complained—like I complained about going to church, about not wanting to go to these schools, wanting to be smarter so I wouldn’t have to work so hard, wanting to be like everyone else, like anyone else, running around the streets and laughing, talking that common language and accent of Cleveland— they would put their arms around me and say “there, there,” until I calmed down, stopped shouting so the neighbors could hear. They would make me understand the path—to living on my own, working hard to maintain the success, to personal responsibility, to being my own man. The path of sacrifice. While the other kids degenerated in decaying schools, playing basketball and hooky, I passed out in the library and got by with my math skills.

And I understood, deep down—life was about making contacts and not making mistakes for us. It was about the come-up, and they were not about to let their hard work go to waste. I was their one shot at sending the right future into the world.

They felt that with my ability (I spoke so well, people told me in church) and my brains, I should be in politics:

“Make a difference for the people,” my dad would say in those moments when he actually spoke.

But they were okay with math. I wanted to play with numbers. Numbers always made sense, fell into patterns. There are always tricks, shortcuts—as there are with anything with a pattern. Just like if you multiply 12 by any integer 8 and below, and then add the digits, they will add up to 9; just like any number divisible by 3 must have digits that add up to a multiple of three; just like quadratic equations can be broken into a certain structure—pattern. I’ve loved pattern since I could remember. I loved the pattern on my sheets when I was three. Predictability was often visible if a person was patient and smart to enough to look for it. And teachers thought I was some kind of genius because I didn’t hiss my teeth at their confusing, poor explanations of math.

“You have to have a skill that people can’t live without,” my parents agreed. “You have to look out for yourself,” my father said while drilling me in spelling or multiplication tables.

“God helps those who help themselves,” my mother would tell me, before correcting my posture to straight or my knife and fork hand position to uncomfortable.

My rebellion came in my school choice. They left Harvard and Columbia brochures on my bed. I applied to a couple of Midwestern state schools that promised football and beer and women who would sleep with anyone; and some more serious liberal arts schools, which promised nice people and hopefully some women who would sleep with anyone. By the time they figured out the schools I had applied to, it was too late; I had a victory—a decision to myself. I reveled in it. I jumped for joy, as my parents tried to maintain a happy face, while mentioning on a daily basis that I was letting my full potential go to waste.

So for my part, I had a different path, and it has served me well. I have a college degree and some passable grades from a Midwestern liberal arts college. The paper degree is sitting in an IKEA drawer, and a college newsletter than comes to me monthly. A television my dad and I drove out from Cleveland. A collection of college books to make me look well-read. Pay stubs from WMDG. A closet filled with suits. It’s a small closet. But it has four suits. A fashionable pair of sneakers. Pictures of my college friends on the wall. An inspirational poster on perseverance. All my own. In New York City. Where I can reinvent myself.

Making my own way. This is what they wanted. There are worse things to be, and I am thankful to be here, the strong person my parents envisioned. Their shining example of the power of good rearing and religion.

With no idea what to do next.