When I was a child my dad and his friends would drink beer, smoke joints, and play Axis & Allies (a board game that involves strategy and conquering the world). The smell of beer and weed permeated our tiny apartment in the ghetto of Oak Cliff, just south of downtown Dallas. My Dad is dead now, but some things still trigger vivid memories him. Even now, I can remember his big, burly frame. He had a rough look about him, unshaven, unkempt. Some of my relatives say I look like him, just not as big. He was physically stronger than most men. His biceps bulged when he picked me up and lifted me to the ceiling. I could hear his heavy footsteps from anywhere in our tiny apartment. His rough appearance matched his personality. The people in our neighborhood knew better than to cross him. He was one of those rare people who actually enjoy fighting. One time he knocked out an Irish man named Mark with one punch. Irish Mark was his best friend, too. He didn’t care, he’d hit anybody, anytime, anywhere. That was my Dad, a big burly man who would knock you out if you crossed him.
My dad once talked with me about God. He said God is very large, lives in the sky and watches over everyone on the earth. I imagined God as a big burly man with bulging biceps who enjoyed relaxing and kicking his feet up, resting on top of the clouds much like my Dad in his recliner. I often wondered if this big burly God in the sky knew about me, if he was aware of my existence. Could he see me? With my childlike imagination, I envisioned God as someone who had a big television, like the one at the movies. If he didn’t have a big television, then how else could he see everyone at the same time? I have memories of the family gathering at my grandma’s house to watch movies like “E.T”, and “IT”. I remember thinking as I was watching television that I was actually watching someone’s real life, in real time. In a childlike way, I thought a T.V. was a portal into someone else’s life. I didn’t understand that the characters in these movies were just acting. I guess I just wasn’t old enough to understand reality, so I wondered, “If I am watching their life right now, then who is watching mine?” What if my life is being watched at this moment by another family in their living room. Maybe that’s also how God is watching me, on a big TV in his family’s living room.
I know this all sounds childish, but that’s because I was a child. And for me, being on someone’s TV was exciting because that meant I could have someone’s undivided attention at any point in the day. The thought of having that much attention excited me beyond measure and I became obsessed with the thought that I was always on a stage, always entertaining an audience, always being watched by someone. I enjoyed laughing at the people I watched on TV, therefore, people must enjoy laughing at me when they watch their TV. So, with this in mind, I set out to do things that I thought would make the people watching me on TV laugh. For example, one time I jumped on the couch and played air guitar while looking at a vent in the ceiling with a rock star face. I assumed that there were cameras hidden in the vent and I was sure they were laughing hysterically. I also imagined that God, the big burly man in the sky, would kick back on his recliner-cloud and watch me on his big TV. This brought me comfort. Knowing that God was watching me gave me confidence that if something bad ever happened, like if I got robbed or fell in a manhole, then God would be watching and he could come help me. In my view, God was much like a superhero. Superhero’s aren’t involved in our lives, they just show up when we need them. This became my view of God, a higher power who helps me when things get out of control.
The bedroom window of the little apartment we lived in was perfectly positioned toward downtown. Each morning I would gaze at the Dallas city skyline of from my bedroom window. The beauty of downtown captured my heart. The reflections in the mirrored windows of large buildings, the busy streets, the dazzling views and incredible skyscrapers made my imagination run wild. On the wall in my bedroom hung drawings of the skyline, hand drawn by yours truly. My favorite building in the sky was uniquely shaped like a big ball suspended in the air. It’s called “Reunion Tower.” It was my dream was to visit the big ball. The dazzling lights that encompassed that ball at night cultivated my curiosity about Reunion Tower. Plus, I heard and believed a rumor that you could actually climb inside of that big ball and view the city from in there. I imagined what it would be like to stand on that big ball and throw a paper air plane over the city. One night I was awake past my bedtime, standing in the window staring at the big ball. My dad saw me staring at the big ball, and he promised me that he would take me to visit it one day. “You know how to get there?” I asked. He said, “I know how to get everywhere.” I was ecstatic. My dad must have been some kind of super human. He reassured me that we would visit the big ball soon, but he couldn’t at the time because we didn’t have enough money. I asked, “Dad, how come we don’t have any money when you are always picking up dime bags?” He laughed and laughed and laughed. The he explained that a dime bag was not for real dimes. I didn’t understand.
It wasn’t unusual for us to talk about dime bags, the unusual part was that he was home at night. Most evenings, my dad would disappear. The sound of police sirens & ambulance horns would fill the air as I slept and I would often think the sirens were the sounds of policemen chasing my Dad through the night. Sometimes I was right. I knew he had a gun. I wasn’t sure if he had ever used it on anyone, but I did know he used it to scare people. One time he scared people so much that the police surrounded our apartment. I was sound asleep in my bed when my dad shook me and said, “wake up, I need you to come with me and stay right beside me no matter what.” The smell of beer was on his clothes and he was breathing heavily, as if he had been fighting something, or someone. I knew it was an emergency. I could tell this was serious because for the first time ever, I sensed fear in my dad’s voice. He was afraid. I wondered if we were going to be alive when this night was over. I stayed close to my dad as we ran outside through our only door, down the squeaky stairs and into the black of night. I could hear police sirens, a helicopter, and commotion in the parking lot behind our apartment building. We ran in the opposite direction of the commotion through the apartment community, weaving in and out of trees, around corners, and across a street. The entire time I could hear men yelling at my dad and telling him to stop and give up. He took me to the other side of the complex where my grandma lived. We banged on the door, she opened it, and we quickly barged through the door and locked ourselves inside. Looking back, I realize my dad was using her apartment a hideout from the police, except they knew we were there because they saw us go inside. It wasn’t long before the police busted through the door with guns blazing, and they tackled my father and took him away. I was told it would be a long time before I saw him again.
Everything changed after dad was arrested. My mom was a short lady with an insecure, yet friendly, demeanor. She was very attractive in her early years, but even as a child I could tell the years of drugs, alcohol, poverty and otherwise hard times were catching up to her. Some lifestyles have a way of making your skin look like leather. I remember her hair like yesterday, styled like Farrah Fawcett from the 1970s. The feathered wings on the side of her head crowned her as the queen of my life. I remember how she cared for me, teaching me to bathe myself, bandaging my wounds and laughing at my jokes. She laughed and smiled often, despite the fact she didn’t have the healthiest teeth. Her love for country music made some people chuckle, but I admired her for it. Growing up I would wear my Dad’s big cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle while singing those sad old country songs with her. When dad was in prison she tried her best to make ends meet, but they never did. We learned to survive without the ends meeting. Food became scarce, the electricity stopped working, and we were broke in every way. Mom didn’t know how to fix all the problems and our little family hit rock bottom.
Eventually, other men started to float in and out of our apartment. It was scary at first because some of these men were mean and intimidating. I wished my dad was home. I recognized some of the men, but there were others who I had never met. I remember once being at a flea market style bargain store when my mom met a man who was selling shoes. After meeting my mom and talking for a little bit, he gave us some shoes for free. I thought he was such a nice man. The next morning, I woke up and found him asleep in my moms bed. That was confusing. Did my mom have sex for a pair converses? Or was that just a coincidence? Eventually, the electricity came back on, we had food again, and things seemed to be getting a little better. She figured out a way to feed her kids while also feeding her addictions. This became the new normal.
While mom was keeping the lights on, my dad’s brother started visiting more often. I was thankful to see a familiar face coming around. He didn’t live far away, so my mom would sometimes send me over to his apartment with a note that said “It’s 3 O’clock.” For some odd reason, it was never actually 3 o’clock when I took the note over. I guess that was just a code word for “It’s time to smoke weed” or something. I don’t know what it was all about, but I’m pretty sure there was some sort of weird romance happening between them. My Dad’s brother wasn’t exactly the biggest guy. He was kind of a scrawny, skinny guy who lived in my dad’s shadow. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew that one day my dad was going to kill him. When my dad finally got out of jail, he beat the crap out of him. The only life lesson I ever learned from my uncle was, “don’t try to have sex with your brothers wife.”
Dad was out of jail for a little while, but then he was back in again. Shortly after he went back to jail, I lost a tooth. I had lost a few teeth before, but this one was unique. Previously, my dad helped me pull my loose teeth by tying a string around it and attaching it to a door knob, then encouraging me to slam the door. It scared me, but it entertained him! But for this particular tooth, I was on my own.
Without a consistent man around the house, something inside of me wanted to prove that I was strong. So, I gripped my tooth between by thumb and forefinger and yanked it out. In this moment, I felt that I had become a man. I was strong. I pulled my own tooth and didn’t cry. My dad would have been proud. I showed my mom the new gap in my teeth, then I quickly wrapped up my freshly pulled tooth in toilet paper, and placed it under my pillow. I had never been more excited about getting a visit from the tooth fairy than I was that night. What would the fairy bring me? A quarter? Two quarters? What if I got a dollar this time? Does the tooth fairy give rewards for bravery? I was much more brave this time than last. I fell asleep dreaming about the pack of baseball cards I’d buy with my cash the next day. The following morning when I woke up, I quickly sat up and turned my pillow over to find that the tooth was still there, and there was no money under the pillow. I checked again. The tooth fairy had either forgotten about me, or she couldn’t find me. Either way, I was bummed. I didn’t want to wait another day to get paid so, confused, I took my tooth into my mom’s bedroom to tell her that the fairy couldn’t find me. She woke up and asked me to sit down on the edge of her bed. She said, “Bill Jr, I want to show you something” and then she pulled out a tiny green jewelry box from one of her bedroom drawers. The little tattered box wasn’t full of jewelry, however. It contained a few little white pebbles, which I learned were my old lost teeth from weeks & months earlier. And the crazy thing was, my mom had these teeth, not the tooth fairy!! The memory is so vivid because this was the moment that I learned the fictional story of the tooth fairy, and it was also the moment I confirmed that Santa was not real. I had suspected Santa was not real because there was already a rumor about it at school, but the tooth fairy?! Dang that hurt.
The day my mom explained that we were poor and she didn’t have enough money to put a quarter under my pillow was the day my childhood naivety was stripped from me. It was ripped away without warning, and I wasn’t prepared for it. For the first time ever, I saw life without kid goggles. It was painful. I tried to be tough like a man, but I couldn’t. I cried like the little boy I really was. My mom put her arms around me, and she cried, too. The years following were laced with poverty, hunger, homelessness, abuse, molestation, and police dodging. We bounced in and out of shelter homes and other homes for single mothers who needed help. I often wondered if God was still watching me, or had he changed the channel? Maybe God was just as real as the tooth fairy. Either way, I wished I was someone else.