After thirty-five years of blunders and errors I have finally come to understand what it truly means to be a man. I am not talking about merely being male. I am talking about that complex balance of testosterone, ego, intellect, competitiveness, love, lust and the paternal instinct in its ideal form.
When I was growing up being a MAN meant being the best at everything. The best athlete, the smartest, the toughest, the sexiest and most desirable, and the wealthiest. In one form another this ideal, born out of the machismo of the streets, has haunted me throughout my life. When I grew up Da Man was the guy who all the women wanted and all the men feared. I have been Da Man many times in my life. I have been a real man far less often. In my defense I had few examples to follow.
My father used women and could not hold a job. My mother left him the day I was born and never went back. I only met him once at a child support hearing when I was twelve. I declined to ever meet him again. I may not have had any positive male role models growing up but at least I did not have many negative ones. Unfortunately, three years after leaving my father my mother ran right into the arms of the man I called Dad for the first two years of my life that I can remember. His name was Greg and he was a Vietnam Vet, which in '73 meant he'd been killing people only months before my mother moved in with him. I remember sitting on my bed at night and screaming at the top of my lungs for him to stop hurting my Mommy. One day he tried to force poison down her throat and she packed up all of our things and moved us in with my Great Grandfather, William Boise James and his wife Ethel James. I was the first boy born to our family in fifteen years and so I was doted on by my great grandparents. A year after we moved in my great grandmother died. She was the sweetest woman I'd ever met and I didn't understand enough to cry. At the funeral I walked up to the casket and rubbed her forehead, then I kissed her on the nose just like I did when she was alive. I have kissed my loved ones on the nose ever since. My ex-wife thought I had a nose fetish.
My great grandfather and I became the closest friends. He would take me everywhere with him. We would travel all over the city to pool halls and liquor stores and little shops downtown. I now suspect that great granddad may have been a numbers runner. Our daily trips through the city always culminated with him and I sitting by the river eating filet of flounder sandwiches that were fried and batter dipped and covered in hot sauce and ketchup. My Poppop, as I called him, would marvel at how such a small boy could eat a whole sandwich by himself and drown an entire sixteen ounce soda. He taught me the value of a dollar by paying me fifty cents every Wednesday for taking out the trash and a quarter on Sundays for running to the store to buy the paper and two dollars for mowing the lawn. I would run around the corner and mow my grandmother's lawn for free and get her morning paper. Sometimes she would give me a quarter but sometimes she couldn't afford it. Sometimes she couldn't even afford to buy the Sunday paper and I would buy it for her with the money Poppop had given me. See, he taught me the value of a dollar but he also taught me the value of making your loved ones happy. My Great grandfather died in 1980, exactly five years after his wife passed away. I was ten years old. I am crying now as I remember finding his body curled up by the bed where he had fallen the night before from a stroke. The same thing that had killed my Nana five years before. That day I became the man of the house. I still had no idea what that meant.
I kept taking out the trash even though there was no one to pay me my fifty cents. I mowed our lawn and my grandmother's lawn and never asked for a dime. I ran to get the Sunday paper every morning for both of our homes. I unclogged the toilets at my house and my grandmother's house. I set traps for the sewer rats in the winter just like my Poppop had shown me how. Then one day my great grandfather's dog Prince ran away and I cried for two weeks straight. More than I had the day Poppop died. That was probably my first nervous breakdown. Long before people were aware that kids that young had them.
It wasn't long after that that I found the streets. I started hanging out with all the kids my age and getting into fights almost everyday. Don't get me wrong. I was fighting everyday before that but that was just at school. Around my way I was always the nicest kid. Now I was still nice but I fought all the time too because that's what I thought men were supposed to do. I was also always self-conscious about not knowing my father and not having any older brothers or anything and I always wanted to know if I was as tough as the kids who had men in their houses. So I kicked their asses to find out. Then between ages eleven and twelve, right after I hit puberty, I learned something else about being a man as defined by the streets. "Real" Men had lots of women. They were judged by the quality and quantity of their sexual conquests. The more women you had sex with the more of a man you were. Yet, according to the standard of beauty that existed in the 80's I was the definition of ugly. I was not light-skinned. I am dark as half-past midnight or a black scab, a black spook, a tar baby, a mud duck, and all the other names I was called. I didn't have curly hair or "good hair" as it was called then, meaning nearly Caucasian. I wasn't small and thin and androgynous like Prince or Michael Jackson or El Debarge or Ray Parker Jr. I was big and dark and manly. At age twelve I was already six foot two. I was also poor at a time when materialism was at its all-time high. I couldn't afford designer labels and I often wore the same thing more than once in the same week and kids noticed. I was called dirty, a welfare recipient, ghetto, a hood rat. Then, the summer of my thirteenth year, I hooked up with a family friend at the lake during a family reunion and got my first kiss. A week later she and I were supposed to go out on a date and she stood me up. I made up my mind right then that I would never be a nice guy again. I still remember what I vowed to myself. It went something like this: "I will say whatever I want to say whenever I want to say it. I will never think of myself as less than anyone ever again. If I can't be the same as them I will be greater than them and I will return every injustice against me tenfold." I had a flair for the dramatic even then. The result was that I entered the new school year at a new school and instantly became the single most popular kid at the school. I had women who loved me and I had guys who feared me.
One day at school a kid told me to shut up and I kicked him in his leg and broke it. Another time a kid told me to shut up and I hit him in the face with a very large Chemistry book. He told the principle on me so I kicked him in the head at lunch and knocked him unconscious. I was turning into the type of kid who had teased and bullied me when I was younger. With the girls it was worse. I got my first girlfriend at fourteen and broke up with her two weeks later because she wouldn't have sex with me. Then my next girlfriend and I got together and made love every second we were together until she dumped me two months into the relationship because she was Italian and I was Black and her parents were racists. We got back together and two years later I found out that she had slept with my bestfriend. I found out after she and I had broken up and I caught my new girlfriend with him. Nervous breakdown number two followed. I took six bottles of aspirin in a misguided attempt at suicide that almost destroyed my liver and kidneys and left me in the hospital for a week. That's about the time I stopped believing in God or anything else for that matter. I was sixteen when that happened. My sexual binges started soon after. I learned that sex was a good way to numb pain. It also made me feel like Superman.
The next eight years were a blur of sexual excess. I remember sitting in a clinic when I was twenty-two, taking an AIDS test and having the nurse ask me how many sexual partners I'd had that year and the number being close to thirty. A year after that a girl I was seeing asked me how many sexual partners I'd had and the number was in the triple digits. I knew I had a problem even then. I went to Sex Addicts Anonymous but the problem seemed too large to control so I gave up and just went with it. I started fighting competitively. I learned to love the roar of the crowd, the smell of blood and sweat and the look of fear in my opponent's eyes. I loved the joy of conquering other men and the fame, money, respect, and women that came along with it. I loved walking into a place and knowing that I could beat any man in the room. I felt like I was the man. More of a man then the men who weren't fighters and who couldn't walk into a strip club in Tokyo and leave with the best looking woman in the place without spending a dime. I loved the nice clothes, the nice cars, the travel, and the exotic women. I loved it all. None of it made me a man though. But it did make me feel like one then. I got married and had a son that same year. In ten years of marriage I slept with probably forty or fifty women before I finally got divorced. I was always a good father and an adoring husband. I worked hard everyday and cooked dinner every night and showered my wife with compliments, gifts, and affection. I thought that would excuse all my other indiscretions. I was still struggling with being a man.
It is now two years after the divorce. I have a new woman and a new baby and I am trying not to make the same old mistakes. I have failed at times. I have learned though. I have learned that all the macho bullshit I learned on the streets of Philadelphia is just that. Bullshit. Being a man is not about how much ass you kick or how much ass you can get. It is not about how much money you have or how nice a car you own or how many people chant your name when you enter an arena or ask for your autograph or want you to have their children. Being a man is about raising your children to be better than you were. Being a better father than your father was no matter how good or bad he was. It is about loving and trusting and being worthy of love and trust. It is about protecting your loved ones and sharing their joys and sorrows, applauding their accomplishments and accepting their flaws and failures. It is about being strong enough to pick them up when they fall and compassionate enough to help them learn from their mistakes without making them feel miserable because of them. I am not the ideal man yet. Sometimes I'm not even sure if I am a good man. But I am learning.