Life Through Me is a new category that will be featured here on the Well Report. I’ll write about my current feelings or past recollections. Feel free to post your comments. God Bless!
A few days ago, I posted a facebook status that was like opening a dusty chest in an attic full of old photographs. It said:
I woke up this morning thinking about a childhood memory. My uncle used to take me to his favorite neighborhood bar, sit me at the bar and I would order a Shirley Temple or soda and eat potato chips and listen to this band called the Hot Tamales…he used to think that was hilarious! Don’t know why that popped in my head… it just did. I was five.
That was over 40 years ago but as I stood in my kitchen preparing breakfast, I was there in my mind, in the Rockabye Bar and lounge. I could still smell the Kools and Camels that hung in the thick midday air. It was dark in the daytime.
It never occurred to me at five years old to wonder why these grownups weren’t at work or why they didn’t turn on the lights. That was their work. They were small time hustlers and number runners. Pimps and factory workers who’d just got off the night shift and gathered there to place their bets and discuss the latest street happenings.
I was too busy focusing on the band. The Hot Tamales. I had never heard a live band before. They were doing a full set, during the day. I remember crying the first time I heard them because the music was too loud. Soon, I became a regular, so to speak. The barkeep knew me by name and the local pimps would give me a dollar or two.
I don’t know why my uncle thought it was funny to take a child to a bar for a drink but he did.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed when he babysat. There was never a dull moment.
Once I heard a deep suction sound coming from him that ended in a loud PLOP! Next thing I knew, he was chasing me around the living room with his “eyeball”, telling me he wanted me to see things. I’d giggle hysterically running around our tiny apartment, occasionally turning around to see if he was gaining on me.
Before long, my mood would turn serious and I would be sad that he had plucked out his eye. “You need your eye!” I would cry. Soon he couldn’t contain himself . He would be doubled over in laughter, showing me that what he had been chasing me around with the top of his Bic pen.
Billy liked talking, like I did. He would tell me numerous stories of all the entertainers he met during his military career.
“YOU REALLY MET JAMES BROWN AND THE FAMOUS FLAMES?!” I screamed one day.
“Aw, sure I did…we were gonna beat them up!” he replied, sticking his chest out. Then he proceded to tell me this long story about how he and some of his military buddies decided to jump them as they left a nightclub one night near Boston.
“We chased them to their tour bus throwing rocks at them; they were runnin’ like crazy,” he said laughing hysterically.
I don’t know why Billy thought it was funny to tell me he was going to beat up my favorite group, but he did.
My uncle was one of the best ballroom dancers, in his hometown. Some days we would dance. “Here, you stand on top of my feet,” he’d say, holding my arms steady as I would place my tiny feet on his huge, nylon-socked feet. There, we would glide smoothly across the living room floor. He would scat like Ella Fitzgerald on the radio, while I giggled and concentrated on staying on top of his feet.
I never realized he was dancing for both of us; I would feel like Cinderella on those days.
Billy was babysitting the day that Rocky, a petty neighborhood thief who lived across the hall, broke into our apartment to steal all of my uncle’s clothes. We were just returning from an errand, as Rocky was rounding the corner from the bedroom towards the sofa with an armful of Billy’s finest suits. He hadn’t noticed us yet but as he plopped down the last of his stolen treasure onto our sofa, he froze.
I don’t remember their exact verbal exchange that day, but Bill told him if he put every item back where he got it, he wouldn’t call the police. Rocky did just that.
A short time later, I was downtown with some adult, and who did I run into? Rocky. “Hey, Tam!” he yelled towards me, trying to sound like nothing happened.
I remember turning up my nose and rolling my eyes, as I dramatically turned my head. The adults I was with howled in laughter. I didn’t think it was funny.
Any enemy of Billy’s was an enemy of mine.
Billy was also the manager of a local pharmacy. “Get anything you want!” he’d say smiling down at me whenever we went there. I’d go with him in the mornings to open up the drugstore. I thought he owned the store. I would happily skip through there, filling my arms with as many snacks as I could carry. He would top each visit off with a huge fountain drink from the ice cream counter.
We would always stop there before he took me to another babysitter. “You never liked going there” he’d later recall.
“One time I took you to the pharmacy and as we were leaving, you grabbed the stool and screamed over and over, ‘Don’t make me go there!'” His eyes pleaded with me that day to tell him what was happening to me there.
He would probe periodically over the years, looking for a satisfactory answer. I would change the subject. I wasn’t ready to tell him of all the cruelty I experienced there. I couldn’t find the words.
He said, “I knew it was something. I came to pick you up one day and she had sat you outside in the cold. Alone. You were sitting on the front steps shivering, and I grabbed you and left. You never went back there.”
I smiled at him that day with my eyes, thanking him for rescuing me.
I guess that’s how I started hanging out with him everyday.
It seemed as I begin to grow, I started noticing Billy’s popularity in our neighborhood. He and his girlfriend had just purchased brand new 1969 Buick Rivieras right off the showroom floor. His was a wine color and hers was silver. It was the talk of the neighborhood. It was nothing for me to walk home and see a local street hustler driving the car. Billy was free hearted.
“That’s my uncle Billy’s car you are driving, you know?” I would boldly say to the young thug, loudly enough for all my friends to hear. He would laugh and shake his head. “I know” he’d reply.
Then there were the shopping trips. It was nothing for him to stop by the apartment I shared with my mother (and him too when he and his girlfriend had a fight) and announce that he was taking me downtown.
I’d drop whatever I was doing and skip happily towards the car, knowing I was coming back with all the latest fashions.
Billy never had children of his own. I was the closest thing he had to having a daughter; he was the closest thing I had to having a father.
So with the bond we had, it seemed quite natural for him to ask me for a favor.
“Come here, Tam” Billy said one day as he pulled in front of our apartment building with some of his cronies. “Take this box upstairs and DON’T LOOK IN IT!!” he said, with his eyes piercing mine as he gave the instructions. “Put it on the floor in my closet and close the door.”
I immediately dropped my end of the double dutch rope and abandoned my friends. Billy needs me. This must be something very important. He’s never asked me to do him a favor before. I thought to myself.
Walking swiftly towards the car, I grabbed the cigar box, he was handing me and raced up the stairs.
“Oh, I’m lookin’ in this cigar box,” I sassily said to myself.
My eyes swelled like water balloons when I saw what was inside.
Be sure to stop by later this week to read Part 2 of Life With Billy!