I never really shared my father’s past but it is something that has unequivocally shaped who I am today. My father without exaggeration a protege in many ways, never graduating high school, yet a gifted engineer who was accepted to MIT, a genius with numbers, knew how to fix and build anything mechanically; cars, motorcycles, electronics, you name it, he just knew what to do to resolve the problem, but as gifted as he was, his past played a big part in his loving but yet volatile nature. My Mother was the ying to his yang, she Dr Jekyll, him Mr Hyde. With reason, there were many states of paranoia and demons my father faced, one of them…overcoming a decade long heroin addiction before my sister and I were born. Raising his self with his sister in the streets of South Philly, struggle was no stranger. In and out of jail in his youth, my father hussled in any way he could to survive. I have no shame in talking about my father’s past, it is what he did but it did not define him in my eyes, but in many ways he let his past dictate his future which thwarted his true potential, and in many ways those frustrations fell upon us…something I am not really ready to share with the world at this point. Though I can say as beautiful as my childhood was, there were certain tragedies no child should have to deal with, but it is a part of me that makes me realize each day is a blessing that you shouldn’t take for granted. I was blessed with angels in my life… my Mother and my twin sister and have no idea where I would be without them in my life but as I have gotten older I recognize even through my father’s volatile faults his presence played a huge part steering me in the direction I am in today.
The reason why I wanted to share a bit about my father’s past is because of a woman I met whose past regarding her parents very much mimics my own. Certain individuals I feel you are just destined to meet, crossed paths written in the stars, a sister from another Mother, ok, ok maybe I am beginning to sound like a gypsy hypnotized over a crystal ball but lets just say our pasts have a very strong connection. Under the alias of “Gold Baby” (a nickname her father dubbed her as a little girl), she shares her coming of age memoir; ‘Alphabet City, A City Within A City’, about her family’s survival in the “concrete jungle” during the 70s and 80s. It is a story about poverty and redemption. As the youngest child in the Jones family, Gold Baby lived on East 4th Street in New York with her two brothers, Nasim and Derek, and her Caucasian mother and African American father. It was a time when the streets were lined with “The Walking Dead,” as her mother once put it, rather than trees, trendy restaurants and hip boutiques.
A exclusive story about, survival, perseverance, passion, courageousness and inspiration, ‘Alphabet City, A City Within A City’ takes a deeper look into Gold Baby’s memoir.
Alphabet City, A City Within A City
On October 16th, 2009, I woke at dawn to a phone call from my middle brother Derek. We spoke weekly, but I knew that a phone call at this hour couldn’t be good news. It wasn’t.
“Titi, I killed someone.”
At that moment I plunged into darkness as I struggled to make sense of my brother’s confession. In the weeks that followed, I knew that Derek likely faced a life sentence and my only solace was to reflect back on our childhood and to try to understand how this happened. In the process, I discovered the humanity of someone the world—including myself—is too quick to demonize.
Photo: Marlis Momber
My father, a political activist and struggling actor, was unable to accept that he led an ordinary life instead of the extraordinary one he had dreamed of living. Held back by racial inequality and degenerative blindness, he created a rich imaginary life for himself—one that had him exploring the pyramids of Egypt with Kings and Queens. He spoke of his so-called “stolen lands rich with oil” and promised that one day he would reclaim them and the Jones family would live in wealth again. His inability to accept the truth made it difficult for him to handle the day-to-day responsibility of being a husband and a father to five children; two of the children were from his previous wife he “forgot” to mention to my mother and Derek was the product of an affair he had while married to my mother. At the age of six Derek learned the truth of his birth. It was a truth that helped him to understand why he’d always felt like an outcast in his own home. He became my father’s scapegoat for everything that was wrong in our family.
My mother, a brilliant woman from an upper-middle-class background, was disowned by her family for marrying a black man at the age of eighteen. Her proper Anglo-Saxon father once said to her:
“You fuck niggers, you don’t marry them.”
Saddled with three black children and no emotional or financial support from her family, she put her private-school education to use by securing a teaching job on Avenue D. Turned off by what she perceived as suburban middle class hypocrisy she spent her days helping the underdogs and the cast-offs in her community. But her battle with mental illness, my father’s infidelity and the effects of poverty left her staring down a bottle of pills and struggling with her own mortality. Unlike my father, these feelings of isolation and sadness led her to have a special place for Derek in her heart. She was his biggest champion, but even her love couldn’t protect Derek from secretly becoming a drug dealer at the age of ten while serving his local Catholic church as an altar boy. Derek’s descent into the drug world would remain a constant struggle throughout his life.
My brothers and I were the products of parents from vastly different worlds and yet both of them were oblivious to our struggles. We lived a life that was privileged, while poor; educated, while forgotten; dangerous, yet protected. As my brothers and I stumbled through life trying to define ourselves inside a dying neighborhood and a fragmented family we began to take different paths.
Nasim spent the majority of his childhood as a stand-in for our parents when they were absent due to our father’s numerous sexual escapades; our mother’s full time teaching job; suicide attempts; or when both of them were out protesting trying to change the world. Our lack of a conventional upbringing drove Nasim into a life of structure and discipline eventually joining the military as an MP. Derek’s inner struggle with good and evil made it easy for the streets to seduce him into a life of crime. A life where one’s financial status, education, and background didn’t matter. On the streets the only thing of relevance is the code of the gang, be loyal or be killed, a simple rule to follow and Derek shined. And yet, our mother’s moral fiber instilled in Derek a need to protect abused women, kids and stray animals. The so-called-easy prey were off limits.
I have long seen my family, childhood and neighborhood through a kaleidoscope of compassion, forgiveness and acceptance. It is not that I was blind to the misgivings of my community and family, but rather I never saw things as one dimensional, all good or all bad. I saw Alphabet City and the people who inhabited my neighborhood as beautifully damaged creatures. This led me to a life in the arts.
Photo: Marlis Momber
Alphabet City, A City Within A City, is a story about three kids surviving one of the most horrific neighborhoods in the history of New York City during the 70s and 80s. It is a rare look into poverty, survival, hope and forgiveness. It breaks down the clichés and shows a more complex view into the human being, through it’s frailty, strength and human spirit. It is a story about a place—and a family—where the real heroes aren’t always recognizable.