Thursday, November 17, 2011

Black Thursday: Did Black Friday ‘Jump the Shark’ by Not Caring About Thanksgiving?

Black Friday is no more
Editor’s note: this may contain offensive language to some. – BJ

Black Friday has officially jumped the shark. For those of you who might not be familiar with the phrase, it’s the moment when something that was once popular attempts to maintain or regain that popularity with a grand, attention-getting stunt that ends up failing miserably. It comes from 70s television hit Happy Days. In the show’s waning days, there was an episode where Fonzie, the main character of the show and icon of everything cool back then, jumps over a shark, while on water skis and wearing his leather jacket with a pair of swim trunks.

The show, having hit its creative peak, continued to offer storylines that were more grandiose than previous ones. It was that episode where most of the adults who were still watching Happy Days realized it had become a joke. The show went on for a few more years, but it was never the same. Now it’s Black Friday’s turn...

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Life with Mom: My Hero, My Heroin Addict

Artwork inspired by my mom & Mary Janes, her favorite candy
It’s odd having been raised by a mother who remembered being at Woodstock, but who didn’t remember where I, her six-week-old son, was that weekend. However, odd barely begins to explain my childhood and my mother.

Miriam Esther Figueroa, my mother, left home when she was 15. The story Mom told me was that her mother had caught her kissing a man on the fire escape during her QuinceaƱera, her 15th birthday party. She dragged my mother by her hair, through the window, back into the party, and proceeded to beat her in front of her guests. When the man who kissed her, her first kiss, offered to take her away from her abusive mother a few days later, my mom jumped at the chance.

She didn’t know this man. She didn’t know he was much older than she was or what he even did for a living. She definitely didn’t know he was a heroin addict. One evening, enticing her with the idea that it would make sex more interesting, he injected mom with a dose. Not very long after that, my mom found out she was expecting a child. The man soon abandoned my mother—pregnant, addicted to heroin.

She struggled during her pregnancy, eating at diners in New York and sneaking out when it came time to pay the bill, doing whatever it took to survive and maintain her habit. Carlos, my older brother, was born addicted to heroin and had to go through detox. My mother, frustrated that her child didn’t even have a crib—he slept in the bottom drawer of a dresser stuffed with a blanket—finally went to her mother, pleading with her to take her back. My grandmother turned her away, but offered to take Carlos. Having little choice, mom obliged.

I was not born addicted to heroin. When I came along, in the summer of 1969, my mother was happily married and clean. However, her criminal past eventually caught up with her. I was still an infant when my parents’ apartment was raided. The cops claimed to have found illegal drugs in the medicine cabinet. My father came home just as they were about to arrest Mom and I was about to be carted off by Child Protective Services. She was pregnant with my younger sister, Kyra. My dad claimed the drugs were his and let them arrest him, instead.

The loss of my father, convicted & sentenced to five years, sent my mother into a dark spiral. She began using, again. Kyra was also born addicted to heroin.

As you might imagine, mine was not the easiest of childhoods. I was a fairly aware child, and it didn’t take me long to realize there was something wrong with Mom. Everything came into focus, though, during fifth grade. We had a unit about illegal drugs. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had the all the information I needed to understand Mom, to help her.

I could hardly contain my excitement. I ran all the way home. I’d barely stepped through the door of our apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, when I started telling Mom everything I’d learned, and that I finally understood what was wrong, and that I could help her stay off drugs. She looked at me, unmoved, and said, “What do you know? You don’t know shit! You kids are the reason I use drugs.”

I never mentioned her habit again, unprompted.

It wasn’t always bad. My mother was actually a very loving woman. She had an open door policy, willing to help anyone she could with their problems. After we moved to Baltimore in 1984, she did a lot of work helping to establish Baltimore’s Hispanic community. She helped families who arrived here find housing, employment and social services—whatever they needed to help make Baltimore home. She even translated for them and helped them get into English classes.

She was a strict mother, sometimes too strict. She put an emphasis on education and expected her children to achieve their potential, and she didn’t accept excuses. Most importantly, she believed in us. Mom always told us to believe in ourselves. She supported my desire to be a writer from a very early age, making me promise only that I would one day tell her story. But she also taught us that it didn’t matter what we became. “Fernando,” she told me once, “I don’t care if you’re a garbageman, as long as you’re a happy garbageman. As long as that’s what you want to do with your life, I’ll be proud of you.”

That’s perhaps what was oddest about my mother, that she could have such a profound understanding of life, but had to struggle so mightily to shake an addiction that wasn’t even really her choice. She did, eventually. Then, in 1989, she went through some training programs and got her first job working for the Census Bureau. We worked there together for a bit, in an office in Towson, Maryland. For the first time in my memory, I got to see my mother walk through life as if on a feather. She finally had purpose. She had drive.

Tragically, that all stopped when she was diagnosed with AIDS. She’d unknowingly had it for some time, and it was already at an advanced stage. She died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. She was 41 years old. AIDS would also take the life of her brother, Andres, whom she deeply regretted introducing to heroin. Uncle Andy, as I knew him, was the closest thing I had to a consistent father figure growing up. My little brother, Joe, who was not quite 16 when mom passed away, would end up fighting his own vicious struggle with addiction. He eventually contracted AIDS, as well. We lost him on the day after Christmas, 2006.

It was an incredibly odd feeling when I made it to my 42nd birthday. I was happy to have made it, but outliving my own mother bothered me. She had warned us that she didn’t expect to reach old age. Mom constantly told me the story of how, after Woodstock, she’d brought Janis Joplin over to our place, how Janice had cuddled, even fed me. My mother was shocked to hear of Janis’ death, just a little over a year later. She also realized that, considering they shared the same habit, she might not be too far behind.

When my sons each turned 13, I took them out for a fancy dinner. We discussed girls over appetizers. They each proclaimed to know much; I reinforced the need to treat women with dignity and respect, and to protect against starting a family before being ready, something my mother and I had both failed at. Over dinner, we discussed the perils of alcoholism and addiction. I told them my mother’s story, the grandmother they met only as infants, and I was honest about my own struggles with alcohol during my early teens. Over dessert, I let them know that they could become anything they dreamed of. But I also let them know that I’d always be proud of them, even if they became garbagemen, as long as they were happy doing it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Paradise Regained: How I Killed Bin Laden

It's just a feeling, a sense that something isn't... right. I'm strolling through El Yunque, the rainforest high in the mountains of northeastern Puerto Rico when it registers—an imbalance. Maybe eddies in the time space continuum. It's hard to explain. I'll try.

I come here to see the sky being born, to watch the clouds peel off the mountaintops and drift towards the sea. I come to listen to the higuaca birds croak and the coqui frogs chirp. In short, I come to be with God. It's not hard to feel a flaw on God's throne.

I'll admit that my first instinct's to avoid it. After all, I'm here to be cleansed, not to detail God's chair. But it's like ignoring trash because someone else left it behind—it's bad form. So I'm compelled to follow the disturbance to it's source.

The source is just some old jibaro, the Puerto Rican hillbillies who roam the mountains living off the land. I greet him graciously, and he offers me a cordial welcome and a box of mangoes, for five dollars. He's a dirty, old man, tall & gangly, wearing burlap clothes as tattered as his long beard and his wide sombrero. He's carrying a lot of weight, not the mangoes, but the gravity of thousands of dead souls.

"Viejo, you seem tired," I say, "¿Have you been to the fountain?" He bows his head a bit, shakes it slowly. "¡Bueno! Vamonos."

I lead him to the top of Las Minas, the waterfall the locals hike miles to for its waters' curative properties. We wade in. He's more cautious than I am, taking long but hesitant strides. "¿Lo sientes?" I ask, "You can feel it, can't you?"

I turn back to see his eyes widening wildly. "Si, but the current, la curriente—" His English is bad, his Spanish is worse, but he's right. I stop in the middle of the river and watch as he drifts closer to the edge.

"¿Ques pasa, viejo?" I shout at him, "¿Too much power?"

He's coming at me now, or at least he's trying to. He leaps out of the water towards me, but only ends up closer to Las Minas. "¡Help me!" He cries, finally, "I'm very rich. ¡I'll make you rich!"

"Look around you, viejo. I'm as rich as they come."

Poder! ¡I can make you very powerful!" He has to shout now in order to be heard.

"And yet you're the one being pulled towards the fall." I laugh. He drifts.

"¡¿Do you know who I am?!" He's shouting at the top of his lungs, but it sounds like a whisper. I can't quite make out the rest, muffled as it is by the fury of the water as it cascades off the cliff. It doesn't matter.

All that matters is that he didn't belong in paradise, especially not selling mangoes. All that matters is that the energy of El Yunque is slowly being restored as the dark, old man anchored by the weight of thousands of murdered souls is being washed out to the sea. I can now continue on my pilgrimage comfortably. I can now go watch clouds being born, in peace.