I’m not happy doing this. My mother died a little over six months ago. AIDS. I had sworn never to use hard drugs after watching heroin annihilate her. Selling them is just as bad. Worse. I feel like I’m about to enable chaos for dozens of people.
I’ve justified it to myself. I told myself that it was my only choice, my last option. If this didn’t work... I have two children, two beautiful boys. Fernando, my oldest, had turned two in October. We call him Boo because he looked so scared when he was born. Cristiano, born thirteen months later, had just turned one. He came out looking like Leonard Nimoy, so we call him Spock. I had just spoken to their mother, Maria, and she had nothing to offer.
Maria and I split up a few weeks ago. It was a long time in coming. She was barely sixteen when we met, and I was just some horny, nineteen year old virgin. It wasn't long before she had the baby she’d chosen me for. Cristiano, our second child, was no one’s choice.
When Cris was born, Maria went despondent. She paid a minimal amount of attention to Cris. I spent more time with him, and I was working forty hours a week, selling camera equipment for Ritz. When she had recuperated from labor, a very easy labor where she practically shot Cris out of her womb like a cannon, Maria started to let me know that she felt as if she’d wasted her childhood.
I had warned her when we first started dating that we were too young to start a family. My mother had her first child at sixteen, and I was witness to the disasters that can befall the family of a single, teenaged mother. I don’t recommend it. But it was exactly what Maria wanted, and she had chosen me to father her child. I had done my part. I could hang around or go away. The choice was mine.
I chose to stay. I had never had a father around, even though I was the first child my mother had in wedlock. My father had spent some time in jail, and once he got out, my parents just couldn’t pick up the pieces, mostly because mom had started using again, mostly because dad had been in jail. I was eight the last time I saw my dad. There was no fucking way I was going to be that father.
I stayed. I stayed even though I suspected that it wouldn’t be long before this maternal instinct gave way to a need to be young and free. I stayed through three years of pointless arguments, futile fights, and painful cheating. The last six months were the worst. Maria would be waiting for me to get home from work so she could flee for the night. What started out as a little partying on the weekends had become a nightly celebration of her youth. I’d spend the night tossing, turning, and crying until the sun began creeping out and I would finally hear her key in the door. There was no doubt she was fucking anyone but me, in the end.
I was buying my first home, a small rowhouse on the four hundred block of North Rose Street. It was during the height of The Great White Flight from Baltimore. What I didn’t know was that the drug area that had once started closer to North East Market was creeping down to our block. The neighborhood seemed like it was falling apart, and Maria having gotten her jaw broken by some thug that summer was proof of that.
I felt lucky to have found a place on the south end of Patterson Park, right on Eastern Ave. It was three stories tall, had four bedrooms, big enough for us, the kids, and my younger sister and brother, who had gravitated to me after we’d lost our mom. It looked like the perfect place to make a fresh start.
I had even convinced Maria that it was the best thing for the children, the best thing to save our relationship. The friends she made on Rose Street only enabled her bad behavior. But on the last day of September, the day before we were supposed to move, Maria decided she was going to stay. Her friend Tammy—they were both dancing at the Golden Nugget on The Block—was going to move in, and together they would cover the mortgage. At least that was the plan. ...until it wasn't.
Like anything else in her life, Maria was unable to remain committed to even that. It only took a couple weeks before she decided to try her hand (or is that her ass?) at dancing for more money in New York. With her stretchmarks, I doubted she could pull it off, but I was still left with a house I would soon lose and two children I could barely take care of. But I had to try.
I found someone to live in the house on Rose Street, although I never did get much more than the first month’s rent from her. As far as childcare was concerned, I had this girl named Kim move in. We had flirted on a few occasions, and as was often the case, I was her go-to guy to call whenever she had boy problems. Kim would sleep in my bed, as long as I understood that she wasn’t really ready to start a relationship. That was cool. I was a gentleman. I just needed her to watch the boys when I went to work. She wasn’t really ready for that either, though.
I would get home, and the boys would be wearing the same diapers they wore when I had left. I wasn’t sure that they’d been fed. I wasn’t sure that they’d even spent any time out of their playpen. It was miserable. But there was nothing better I could afford selling cameras for $6.50 an hour. I had yet to learn the art of the sale, so commissions were still light. I had to do something.
I went to Social Services, sat in their grungy, stank sitting room for hours just to get a bunch of dirty looks and to be told that I didn’t qualify for help. I might qualify for childcare, but the waiting list was six months long. So yeah, when the chance came up to make a small investment for my children’s future, illegal as it might be, distasteful as I found it, I went for it.
Nicky was a DJ. He came from a large Filipino family that were all into music and dancing. We would all pile into a couple of cars and head down to Traxx Nightclub in D.C. on teen night, and because I was twenty-one, I could buy pitchers of beer and get everyone drunk. They loved me.
Nicky came to me with the proposition, and I had just gotten my Christmas bonus, not to mention Christmas commissions. If you can’t sell cameras at Christmas, you don’t belong in the business. Nicky had the connection. It would already be vialed into individual grams. All I had to do was put in my half and drive up with him. I would even see Maria, who had been dodging me on sending money to help with the kids. It felt right.
Granted, when I did see Maria, when I figured out she had nothing to offer, everything suddenly felt very wrong.
I’m a terrible drug dealer. Nicky’s already sold his, and I’m still stuck with most of mine. I’m too nice. I immediately start selling on credit to friends who promise to pay me on payday. Payday comes and goes, and I never see the money. If it wasn’t for my little brother, Joe, selling some at the supermarket where he stocked shelves, the whole ordeal would have been a disaster. Nicky ends up buying a lot of my stake, at cost of course.
It doesn’t take me very long to realize that this isn’t going to work out. And after only four short months, the family was falling apart. My sister’s fallen in love. She’s practically living with the guy, and it isn’t going to be long before she stays with him for good. Joe and I are constantly fighting about the noise he and his friends make when I’m trying to sleep after a long day’s work. I’m tired of listening to Kim talk about all the boys she’s interested in, none of them me. My poor sons are still suffering.
If my mother were still around...
Eventually, the desperation eats at me. I go to Maria’s father, Jupiter. It’s not my mother, but if anyone has an interest in seeing Boo and Spock thrive, it should be their grandfather. Maybe once he understands the situation, he’ll at least agree to help pay for childcare. Not so.
However, his new wife Karen, formerly his daughter’s babysitter, has been bugging him to have his vasectomy reversed because she wants a kid of her own. His offer? He’s willing to take Boo off my hands, if only to show Karen that the experience of parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. His ex-wife, Martha, would take Spock. Those are my options: give away the children I fought so hard for, or think of myself and allow them to continue living a squalid, meager existence.
Of course, when word reaches Maria, she’s back in Baltimore within days, in my face, raving about how dare I give up her children. As always, she has no real solutions. Maria’s return to Baltimore, especially her insistence on staying at the new house with me and the gang, hastens the inevitable. For however bad things were, Maria’s manic energy makes matters worse. My sister moves in with her new beau. My brother moves in with his girlfriend and her mother. Kim, my ersatz nanny, also moves back home.
I find a couple of rooms to rent across the street from my old middle school, the former Hampstead Hill Junior High, whose name changes with every infamous atrocity that occurs within its walls. Within weeks of handing over Boo & Spock to my in-laws, the house that was supposed to save us, keep our little family together, is just another abandoned, empty shell in the neighborhood. For the first time in my life I am totally, utterly alone.
I bury myself in my work. I learn the art of the sale: You’re selling yourself, not the camera. I start taking cameras home, and shooting during long walks on my way to work, from Highlandtown to Harborplace, and back. The store manager begins displaying my pictures. Apparently, I have a good eye. I even start getting work shooting weddings and other events. It feels good.
I’d failed as a husband. I’d failed as a father. I’d certainly failed as a drug dealer. I’d failed at keeping a house or even my family together. I needed this, something I could feel good at, feel good about. Having nothing finally gives me the space to make something of myself.