Beg You a Dollar, Nuh? (Part 2 of 4)
The Jamerican Brady Bunch
For one year, I lived with Loren, Pat, Ricardo, Sophia, daddy, and Aunt Dora in that one bedroom apartment in White Plains, NY. The living room was a decent size and held two sofa beds and one traditional couch. Loren and I shared one sofa bed, Pat and Sophia shared the other, and Ricardo slept on the traditional couch. Sophia was eleven years old, chubby, and spoilt, the apple of her mother’s eye. But she was young. And she was sweet. She would let us sit on her bed and share her Donkey Kong game! We would scream and flinch and jump as if we were actually the character on his quest to save the princess. And she would laugh and laugh at how silly we were. Meanwhile we were playing, she was demolishing a large order of chicken fried rice with a side order of fried chicken wings, fries, and a large bottle of coke her mother had bought her. And an hour later, we would get the familiar chime: “I’m hungry.” And she would move on to a coco bread, a Jamaican beef patty, and a pineapple soda — her snack. “But yu no jus eat?” [But didn’t you just eat?] Ricardo would say in disbelief. “Laaawd Gad!” [Christ!].
The culture of the home was normal for the odd blending that it was. So we began settling into our new lives, talking, laughing, living — the Odd Couple, the Jamaican Brady Bunch. Daddy drove the taxi during the days, coming back home for varying lengths during the days. Sometimes he had Jamaican goodies: beef patties, cocoa bread, soda. Aunt Dora came and went. In the context of parenting, she spoke when she needed to, but that wasn’t often. She simply hurried in and out the building and to and fro the official bedroom that was off limits to us stepchildren, glancing at us sheepishly, nervously, and in an unfocused way. For indeed her eyes were crossed. And she had buck teeth. We didn’t know what to make of her really; we didn’t bother to try.
Summer of 1984 came quickly, and us older girls were being sent to daddy’s sisters in Cambridge, MA., and Ricardo was about to experience his family in third world Brooklyn! Aunt Jay and Aunt Vee were super cool people. Aunt Jay had lived a more vibrant life, a jazz singer turned something else, turned something else. Aunt Vee was far more conservative, a church-going enthusiast, private caterer, and a doting wife. So we had an eclectic three months, hanging between them and discovering the ecstasies of crockpot cooking, an unbridled life, and the crevices and corners of good ole “Bastan.”
The island man had retrieved his inheritance, and my fingers were still embracing its absence. “Is fi mi lotto!” [It’s for my lotto!] he chimed.
“Lotto?” I came to quickly.
“Yea man, all you need is a dollar and a dream.”
“What the hell? If you save all the money you get instead of spending it on stupid lotto, you’d be rich,” I said.
“Maybe, but you have to be in it to win it!” He ended with a big broad smile and a consequent chuckle, revealing teeth that had obviously been sheltered through his time of storm.
“Whatever!” I snapped. He looked somewhat offended, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to talk anyway. My mind was racing up and down White Plains, NY.
In a millisecond, we were back in New York. Aunt Dora was working. Daddy was playing. And Sophia was eating: Kentucky fried chicken. Pizza. Chicken fried rice. Hamburgers. Fries. Jello. Applesauce. Cake. Candy. We, on the other hand, were adjusting. Loren and I joined a local church and its promising youth choir and began making long-lasting friendships that yielded multiple advantages. We got food and clothes and a wealth of experiences through the different programs the church instituted for the benefit of its younger members. We were privy to concert pianists; up-front and personal discussions with Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon; Studio 54 performers now on the Lord’s side; renowned and up-and-coming speakers; church outings; and numerous opportunities to sing, speak, and lead. Wanting to feel included, Pat joined too, enjoying some of its advantages, but she was never really serious about it. Ricardo did what boys typically do. With the rat race in full swing, he created his own entertainment, fully flavored with drama. Once, he and Sophia were up and down the fire escape feeding and befriending squirrels and birds. In two minutes or less, White Plains police were knocking on the door intent on arresting “criminals” who were reportedly using the fire escape to break in and enter people’s apartments.
“White Plains police no have one damn ting fi du,” Pat chuckled. “A bet yu Brooklyn police woulda jus hang up di phone an roll dem yaiy.” [White Plains police have nothing to do. I bet that Brooklyn police would just hang up the phone and roll their eyes.]
In another instance, when the rest of us were away, Ricardo found our father’s flare gun and opened fire on the apartment. The fiery missile apparently bounced off the ceiling and the walls several times before landing and burning a large hole into the linoleum floor where it fell. When we got back home, we found him shaking like a leaf and bawling his eyes out — terrified! Aunt Dora glared at him intently, pairing the stare with a lecture of academic proportions. She somehow managed to lock one eye unto his fear-filled face. But the other chameleon eye kept darting from him to daddy to Sophia to Pat to Loren to me. So the scourge and the shame were unintentionally shared. Daddy just shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
Life continued for the bunch with school, home, church, and play. Pat and Ricardo went to White Plains High School, Sophia was attending White Plains Middle School, and Loren was in her final year of SUNY-WCC. I was planning on following Loren. Since Pat was the first to land on American soil, she had secured some “working papers” and was making her own money babysitting, wait staffing, and housecleaning for affluent people. She would use the funds for her own pleasure. But she also purchased some clothes and sized ten shoes for Loren and me since Aunt Dora’s sized nine hand-me-downs were giving Loren corns and causing her to limp. We slowly built a relationship with each other, rarely getting on each other’s nerves though we were in such a tight knit space. We would go to the park together or walk down Mamaroneck Road to Nicky’s Pizza or Happy Discount Store or Woolworth’s or somewhere with no particular agenda. But when we were home, our primary mission was to help Donkey Kong save the princess. And we took turns doing so, vacillating between hyper-enthusiastic fans, amateur coaches, and active participants. One evening, we were at the kitchen table, eyes affixed to Sophia’s computer screen. A cacophony of laughter, screams, cheers, advice, and uncontemplated jerks and jumps accompanied Ricardo’s skillful maneuvering each obstacle to get to the beautiful princess. “Run! Run! Run! Run!” we yelled. Then, “Jump! Jump! Jump,” with Sophia roaring with laughter at the level of passion we were displaying toward this Donkey Kong fool who never did what we told him to do.
“You know he can’t hear you,” Sophia’d say, laughing uncontrollably, her hand moving from the bowl of chips to her mouth and from her mouth to the bowl of chips.
“I’m trying to make him jump, but it’s not working,” Ricardo said, dismayed.
“Let me show you how to do it,” Pat beckoned to Ricardo. “Come no man; come no man.” [Come on!]
“Mi can do it man. Wait no! [I can do it. Just wait.]
“Look how yu ago dead now,” [Look how you’re going to die] Pat said laughing, followed by “Jump. Jump. Jump Jump” in rapid succession. When he landed squarely where he intended, loud, obnoxious cheers from his supportive siblings violated the air. And the madness continued for a time. We were in the throes of this massive excitement when suddenly, Sophia slapped Ricardo’s hands from the controls, and in a stern, muffled voice, she commanded: “Move! Go! Go!”
“Whaaat?” We were just confused.
She had jumped up and shut down the computer and was trying to straighten up and sit down simultaneously.
“Go in the living room!” she screamed silently. We began moving in that direction utterly bewildered.
But it was a bit too late, for the door had opened, and it was Aunt Dora. She caught us mid-stream to the living room. And it was obvious what we had been doing only seconds before.
“Hi,” she said. Then, she paused. “I hope you guys aren’t hogging the game and not giving Sophia any time on her own game,” she said.
“No, they’re not, mommy,” said Sophia matter-of-factly.
She stared at Sophia for a few seconds, searchingly. Displeasure masked her face.
“OK,” she continued and headed to the kitchen with several brown paper bags. She sat them down on the counter, scribbling something on their surface areas before putting them in the fridge. Then, she headed into the bedroom, and minutes later, into the shower.
We looked at Sophia questioningly.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
But there was something about her tone, her furtive glances in the aftermath of the encounter that were, if not outrightly fallacious, then tacitly disingenuous. Still, we exchanged the distrust for a strong dose of levity as we settled into yet another episode of Family Feud. But the laughter died even more quickly than it started. For when we went to the kitchen later, all the brown paper bags were marked in bold black letters: “SOPHIA’S! DON’T TOUCH!” Offense slapped us across our faces, and our jaws dropped as we looked at each other utterly flabbergasted and unsure of what to even think. Aunt Dora later explained that daddy would soon be home with goodies for us, so once again, in a grand display of naivety, we dismissed the distrust in anticipation of what was to come. But that evening marked the beginning of a familial norm that entrenched our discomfort, for the brown paper bags and their contents became a staple feature we could not partake of, hungry or not. Sophia ate to her heart’s content, and not one morsel could be left over to justify us getting any. We had to eat whatever daddy’s measly dollars could afford. Sometimes it was ok. And sometimes, it just wasn’t. But he didn’t secure a real job or change his habits. Neither did he address the issue with his wife, at least not that we knew of. So we had to learn to fill in the gaps by any means necessary. And we began with our neighbors, The Tutts.
The Tutts were an elderly couple who went to the church we attended and who also lived in a one bedroom apartment on the 5th floor of our building. They took a liking to all of daddy’s foreign-born children and were sympathetic to our plight. They made it clear that they were willing to share whatever God had blessed them with, and soon we learned to trust and accept their sacrifices. While Sister Tutt rustled up some scrambled eggs and toasted home-made wheat bread with garlic-infused vegetarian big franks fried in margarine, Brother Tutt would entertain us with tales of his younger years on the dating scene before he met his beloved Pauline. He admitted to speeding down the road in his shiny Buick with his date in the passenger seat. Then, he would deliberately hang the corners fast and hard so that she would lose her seat and land in his lap! We would laugh and laugh and laugh and Sister Tutt would stick out her tongue at him and end with her traditional, “Oh George!” He was an energetic senior citizen, broad, muscular, and strong, and full of vibrant tales of life’s adventures and God’s leading. Brother Tutt’s stories were endless and hilarious, and we looked forward to hearing them day after day after day, week after week after week, month after month after month. We simply never got tired of listening.