Tag Archive for: Writer RJ Smith
Waxing Poetic/in News/by RJ Smith
South Beach – Miami – Ocean Drive
My birth-mother Harriet “Tish” Smith is dead. She died on March 1st, 2020, at Aventura Hospital & Medical Center, and much like in her life, she was alone, unhappy and afraid. It was terribly sad, yet completely predictable. For reasons still unknown to me and my siblings, she abandoned just about everyone who loved her. A member of the Silent Generation, she lived through World War II – Nazi Germany and witnessed the devastation of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
I, however, am a product of Generation X. Born just after Christmas 1965 in the small village of Ossining, New York, I grew up in the 1970s, a time when black was black and white was white. It was a good time to be a kid, yet I don’t remember much. Does anyone? I do recall that almost every year, mother moved us to a different run-down roach-infested one-bedroom apartment to get away from the dozens of men in her life.
A lonely place, Ossining had one stoplight, a Shell gas station, a couple bars and a beauty salon. Suburban life in America back then resembled something like the fictitious town of Mayberry depicted in the Andy Griffin Show. We even had our own oddball police officer like Barney Fife, played by the late comedian and actor, Don Knotts. Then there was Mister Rogers, (Recently played by Tom Hanks in the motion picture A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.)
Back there in yesteryear, we only had access to three network television channels-ABC, CBS & NBC over terrestrial broadcasting signals which didn’t involve satellite transmissions or underground cables. Encoded images and sound were comprised of amplitude or frequency variations that morphed into a primitive picture drawn several times on a tube connected to a low-resolution screen. We had to continually adjust a TV-top rabbit ear antenna connected to a rooftop Channel Master Color Vector TV Antenna simply to get a clear picture. Color Television was still a new technology which was extremely expensive. I have to admit, people seemed friendlier in the 196os and 1970s and neighbors were more connected. In fact, I’d propose when peering through the foggy lens of history, one could argue American life was better than when compared to current times. Neighbors interacted and organized lawn and street parties and sometimes even summered together. In my wonderful hometown in the great state of Florida, most people are either extremely standoffish or outright dismissive.
Ossining was and remains a prison town where almost everyone worked or works inside a dreary yet infamous Sing-Sing state penitentiary. It was here where America’s first serial killer, Albert Fish, was executed in January 1936. In modern times, the 1970’s serial killer, David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam, once walked the maximum-security yard surrounded by gun towers and thirty-foot walls.
The place is legendary. Of course, to us kids, it was a place of horror we thankfully only glimpsed from a hill overlooking the exercise yard. Down below, we’d see enormous Muscled men working out with weights, running the perimeter, or playing football or baseball depending on the season. There was even an old black man who’d glance up the hill and wave to us kids. It was creepy and we always wondered, what was an old guy like that doing there? It was a scary place, so very dark, lonely, and stark.
In my writings, I often use the phrase Dead End Friends. It is an important term from my childhood, describing blood brothers – when best friends would slice open their palms and grip hands allowing blood to mingle. Nowadays such an act would be akin to suicide with the myriad deadly diseases our society faces.
The early seventies was a happy time in my young life. Children of my generation actually had to go outside to play with friends. We had to use our imaginations and brains. We played long ago forgotten games. Stickball, Hide and Seek, Marbles and Tag were the big ones. Girls played Kick the Can, Hop Scotch, Red Rover, and Mother, May I? Some of us rode Stingray Chopper Muscle bicycles with stretched forks and we spent a lot of time Tree Climbing. These were our ONLY means of entertainment. It developed our musculature and wore us out. Childhood Obesity was practically non-existent despite the fact we consumed mountains of sugar and fatty foods just like modern kids. The difference is this: social interactions now come by way of virtual STATUS updates, a Tweet, Instagram, Google, Facebook, or YouTube post. We didn’t have Internet, no Computers, no Cellphones, Xbox or Playstations. They would not be invented for decades. In fact, the technologies of today were nothing more than Isaac Asimov Science Fiction stories considered laughable fantasies. When seeing such future tech in sci-fi magazines, one automatically defaulted to thoughts of comic books, aliens, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. It’s simply amazing what we’ve accomplished since 1950. Think about that! Life was a splinter of what it is now. As I got older, we’d hang out at Roller Rinks, Drive-in Theaters, and I even joined the Young Marines as a kid. It was a wholesome life full of wonder and excitement.
One of the highlights of my boyhood was the summer camp mom sent me off to every year. I excelled at sports as a kid. Modern kids no longer attend summer camp in the numbers they once did and They certainly don’t engage with one another as we did at the same age. Around the age of 6, I began paying attention to music. The first song I remember hearing was Bennie and the Jets by Sir. Elton John while seated in a beauty salon waiting for mom to get her hair teased out (a weekly event). The song erupted from an old wooden radio and introducing me to the world of Elton dressed up in his outrageous outfits. I’d come to love music, especially during the holidays when mom would play Christmas music. My siblings, Larry and Laura would always visit on Christmas. Unknown to me at the time, mom had abandoned them a few years previously. Luckily, they went to live with their dad who took ’em’ in, raised ’em, loved them, and provided a safe and comfortable life. Raised normally, they had a sheltered existence and enjoyed a typical American childhood. Both excelled at school and eventually went on to college before raising their own beautiful families. To this very day, I am proud to call them my family. This is especially true for my amazing brother Larry who somehow managed to stifle the abhorrent pain and lonely anguish of abandonment by mother. I had problems rectifying the same issue.
In fall, 1973, shit started hitting the fan. Mother had begun sending me off with a male friend to “vacation” at a cabin in the Bear Mountains while she took off to Florida with her Beau de Jour. For weeks, a man named Robert often molested me before returning me home. I knew something wasn’t right about it, so I tried to keep it secret but ended-up telling mom what happened. Shockingly, she laughed and didn’t believe me. That impacted our otherwise close relationship. In retrospect, I suppose that was the day I lost all trust in her. That’s a hard feeling to describe, even for an experienced writer. Our relationship literally fell apart before my very eyes. Unknown at the time, mother was a raging alcoholic. I suppose this is what caused me to push aside alcohol for most of my life. I don’t like the taste at all and can’t stand liquor. Once in a while, I’ll sip on a beer or half-a-glass of wine, mostly during the holidays or New Year’s Eve. But generally, I don’t drink alcohol and detest it. That must come from memories of mom.
Hell on Earth began for me in the dead of winter on Christmas Eve, 1973 when mom’s then-boyfriend Freddie, a sewer plant manager, moved in and began beating her. Running from his grasp on Christmas Eve, she grabbed a carving knife and plunged it into his chest. Staring in shock at the gushing blood from the corner of the room, I wept. Mother quickly gathered me into her arms, hurried from the apartment and pushed me into the passenger seat of her 1975 Camaro with only the clothes on our backs, we must have driven for hours, my mom behind the steering wheel chain-smoking one Salem after another. Then, I noticed she’d driven into New York City. Pulling to the curb, she pointed at a bodega, handed me a wad of cash, and told me to run inside and grab her a few packs of cigarettes (nobody cared if kids bought smokes back then). I didn’t think anything of it, as I had done this a hundred times previously without consequence. Surprisingly, though, this time, as soon as my feet hit the sidewalk, the car pulled away from the curb and abandoned me right where I stood. I was confused, frightened, and didn’t understand what was happening. Dashing into the street, I chased the disappearing taillights to no avail. However, by the time I realized what had happened, she was long gone! That night, I felt like I died inside. Suddenly, a teenaged Puerto Rican boy walked over to me where I knelt on a cold section of concrete, with rain tumbling from the dark ominous clouds and bolts of lightning streaking through the sky as thunder rolled through Times Square.
There I slouched, crying on the corner of 42nd Street & 8th Avenue – smack in the center of the then derelict, Times Square. Somewhere in the distance, a siren shrieked, horns blared and Hookers worked their trade beside what I’d come to know were Pimps. I remember staring at one of the girls screaming at a Trick who was horrified behind the wheel of an old run-down Toyota. Times Square was a scandalous place in the 1970s. Drug Dealers, the Homeless, and Crime ruled The Square. It was nothing like the Disneyesque of Times Square of current times. Back in the seventies, it was a dangerous place for adults, let alone a seventy-pound eight-year-old white boy with big blue eyes and fair skin.
As I have written extensively in The Santa Claus Killer, and my emotionally charged Hollywood film script and literary biography, Destiny, the Puerto Rican kid introduced himself as Marco, just one of the dozens of discarded kids living in abandoned apartment buildings in the slums of Washington Heights.
We scrounged for food in restaurant garbage cans and sometimes managers would hand-over unsold food when closing at the end of their day. This was the beginning of a five-year ordeal where I’d grow into my teens as a throwaway kid. It changed me, just as it does for every abandoned child. I became a shadow of the boy I once was and experienced the worst kind of loneliness on the planet. I suppose, like any child, I was attached at the hip with my mother.
Not having her as I grew up was a gut-wrenching experience. I became insecure and emotionally detached. Sometimes I’d be forced to fight and showing weakness was like offering red meat to a lion. At the time, all I knew was that I had to survive at any cost. When thinking back on that horror, I often wonder how I survived. Why did I when so many others didn’t? No kid should ever have to experience anything like that.
Following five long years growing up on the streets of Manhattan, at the age of thirteen, I was plucked from Times Square by police and eventually evaluated by New York City Department of Children and Families. Placing me at The McQuade Foundation for Boys in the town of New Windsor, I finally felt normalcy again, made lots of new friends, excelled at school and began to trust. The first book I ever read was by Sideney Sheldon and I soon became hooked on literature. Three years later, for whatever reason, Mom demanded the state of New York return me to her Where she now lived in North Miami, Florida. Thus, within weeks, I was escorted aboard a Pan Am jetliner and flown to Miami International Airport. To say I was nervous would be an understatement I hadn’t seen her in eight years. I often wonder why she decided to interrupt my teenaged life?
This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. I had done well in school and recently signed up to enter the United States Army after I received my high school diploma just six-months into the future. Thinking back to yesteryear, I now realize how much I wanted to become a soldier. Missing that opportunity is one of my biggest regrets, a sore memory that often rears its ugly head time and again. But, it wasn’t my fault and I have to remember that. Walking off that airplane in Miami I didn’t know what to expect. One step led to the next and when exiting the jetway I immediately recognized mom. Emotionally overwhelmed, I practically collapsed into her arms. This was the moment I had dreamt about for so many years! My emotions were a mess! Surprisingly, she somehow maintained her good looks, even then at the age of forty.
“How’ve ya been?” she asked, her arm loosely slung around my shoulders.
It was almost like the last eight years didn’t happen and I had merely returned from a Twilight Zone episode. Strange is a lacksadaisical word to attempt a description of that experience. My emotions were pulling me in two separate directions. The next day, she registered me at North Miami Senior High School, where I entered the 11th grade and settled in for what was expected to be a fabulous reunification with mom.
I met so many cool teenagers my age At school and the ensuing months were wonderful! I had a tightknit group of friends and a sexy girlfriend by the name of Kristen. Excelling at sports, I made baseball tryouts and would practice as a right fielder. Life was good until one day, the other foot dropped. When returning home after school I discovered my clothes and property had been thrown off the second-floor walkway where they landed upon the sidewalk below.
What the hell? I thought. I don’t get it!
Running upstairs, I discovered the deadbolt key mother had given me no longer fit the lock. Banging on the door and window, I was sure this was some kind of mistake. Yet, the years had taught me much and educated me on the worst of humanity. Thus, it didn’t take long to figure out the situation. Mother had abandoned me again! Yet, the question was, why? I had been doing everything right, we got along great, and I didn’t push her on explaining why she’d abandoned me all those years previously. Despite everything I’d been through, I was a well-mannered teenager, was very attractive, and was a straight-A-student who was looking forward to a bright future in South Florida.
But, the hell of my youth would multiple infinitely in the Sunshine State.
Thus, thirty-six years later, on February 28th, 2020, when I got a phone call from my brother Larry in Utah, I wasn’t expecting him to ask me to handle an emerging issue with my elderly birth-mother I hadn’t seen in years.
Apparently, she now had Stage 4 Lung Cancer and had just completed a second dose of chemotherapy. I knew nothing about it, we were estranged despite my continued attempts from 2009-to-2017 to reconnect and get to know her.
So, there I was at home in Largo, Florida, about four hundred miles north of Miami. In June 2013, I had a terrible bicycle accident in The City of Belleair Bluffs where I broke my shoulder, injured my lumbar and cervical spines which required ten-serious surgeries, the implantation of titanium screws, plates, and rods. Dealing with a resultant Traumatic Brain Injury, it’s been a tough seven years. Now, my mother was dead.
To be honest, when Larry asked me to investigate the situation sharing a phone number of mom’s friend, I promised I’d call. Apparently, mom had been found two consecutive days on the floor of her small apartment. From what I learned, she couldn’t talk, move, and had a harrowing 103-degree temperature.
So, I did what any good son might and called North Miami Fire Rescue from West-Central Florida.
Relating to my brother what I’d been told and the actions I took, he asked if I’d hustle down o Miami and “see what’s up?” I never in a million years ever believed I’d be the adult sibling who’d get in a car, drive a back-breaking 400 miles to a hospital I knew nothing about to hold my dying mother’s hand as she lay in Aventura Hospital and Medical Center.
That first night, in her ICU room, she was cognizant and surprisingly happy to see me. Handing her a hardcover of my 2018 novel, Monsters in the Woods, a stuffed animal, balloons & flowers, , she expressed that she was proud of me and we then were able to talk openly about our past. I really had no clue she was close to dying. But in the ensuing hours, doctors advised she was and requested I contact the rest of our family. That was a sad moment for me because I knew nobody was likely to show, although my sister did arrive for an hour visit before Suddenly taking leave and helping herself to mom’s jewelry and everything else of value the old woman had.
That first night as I sat watching her struggle for breath, something happened inside me. Deep down where the past nags at the gut, the anger, disappointment, frustration, and hatred I thought I had for her surprisingly dissipated. The decades of ill feelings and outright despise I held for her simply evaporated. It was as if everything I’d been through ended on her death bed. A great sense of healing overcame me and for the first time, I had empathy for her.
One of the last things she mumbled to me was: “my kids aren’t here but I guess after what I did to you’se (sic) they wouldn’t be.” That was the closest thing to “I’m sorry” she would allow herself. I accepted that. The bottom line for me was I got to say goodbye, called a priest, and watched as he gave mom last rights. After everything, I was surprised to be the adult child who was there in the end.
That night, I whispered in her ear that I forgave her and promised if she’d let go and go to God, I’d be alright. I sensed something just then, and although NOT conscious, she actually lightly squeezed my hand. At that moment, I knew we were good.
At 7:3o a.m. on March 1st, 2020, she slipped away to the darkness which awaits us all.
I guess sometimes in our lives, we allow things to follow us around like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Emotional pain, regrets, and difficult memories are very hard to resolve. Yet in the end, I discovered this… those we think we despise the most are pretty easy to forgive. I was blessed to have closure.
UPDATED: 01 December 2020
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