This week, I scoured the streets of Newark to find a guest blogger. Okay. I didn’t really. It was totally staged. Ha. I’ve known this kid since he was 14 years old. He was my student at Clifford Scott High School, (straight A’s. But a smart mouth.)
Shydel James has worked as my personal and research assistant for three years. For a decade, I’ve encouraged him to write–something he has a natural ability to do. He resisted. Went into acting instead. Which was cool. But I know a writer. And I know it’s his destiny. After years of transcribing my interviews, dealing with publicists and running my literary life, he began dipping his toe into the written word. And now, I want him to dive in.
Shydel is my heart. But as close as we are, I knew nothing about this story until last week when he pitched it to me.
I am so proud to have him as a guest blogger.
On Father’s Day, we ran a very sweet roundup of fathers who put in work and make their children proud.
Shydel has no such story. It’s a common story, alas. And one that I hope will provoke discussion.
Father Knows Best
By Shydel James
I had been fidgeting with the folded up paper in the back of my Lee jeans for over 30 minutes.
“You excited to see your father?” Grandma asked.
“Yup.” I said.
Grandma had dragged me out of bed at 5am so we could catch the first bus to Newark Penn Station. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon as Grandma, my two aunts, my cousin and I walked into the station, stepping over bums to catch our train. When it pulled up, my cousin and I darted onboard, racing each other to be the first to sit in the window seat. I won. I stood on my knees, face smashed against the window, as the train sped to Rahway. Upon our arrival, there was a fleet of dingy, white taxis waiting out front. We all piled into one and the driver took off without a word. He knew where we were going.
When I stepped out of the car and walked inside, I was frisked, scanned with a wand and told to walk through the metal detectors. After I strolled through without any beeps, a mole covered, fat lady in a light gray uniform ushered my family and I into an outside holding area that smelled of fresh grass and dirt.
Twenty feet high steel double doors that dwarfed my four-foot frame locked us inside the holding area. The armed guards with semi-automatic rifles, hovering over the barbed wire, looked like life-size versions of my G.I. Joe action figures back home.
And then: a loud, shrieking noise accompanied by a flashing red light.
The huge steel doors slowly began to open and my adrenaline started to race.
Grandma grabbed me by the hand and we all flocked into the prison courtyard where the inmates were waiting for their visitors.
Children ran into the arms of their fathers. Wives and baby mothers straddled their husbands, boyfriends and baby daddies, planting deep, passionate kisses onto their lips.
“He’s over there!” my aunt yelled, pointing to my father.
We frantically waved him down and he walked over to us.
There he was. The man everybody called Butchie. He was short, slim and sharply dressed. (In the 80’s, prisoners were allowed to rock street clothes during family visits.) His swagger was cool and nonchalant. His walk had a dip to it. He strolled like he was walking down the street a free man and not across the prison courtyard as a convicted felon.
He gave his sisters, mom and niece hugs and then kneeled down to give me a hug and kiss on the cheek.
“Look at you!” he said admiringly.
“Here’s my report card,” I said as I yanked it from my back pocket.
He unfolded it and smiled.
“Straight A’s? Check you out!”
“Keep up the good work. I don’t want you to end up like me.”
He stood back up and began introducing me to his prison friends.
“This is my son” he said proudly.
As his prison buddies circled around me, smiling in amazement at how much we looked alike, I couldn’t get his words out of my head.
I don’t want you to end up like me.
What did he mean by that? Why wouldn’t I want to end up like him? Had he done something wrong?
I was only 5. I didn’t understand what it meant to visit someone in prison. All I knew was that I got to ride the train, see the men holding the big guns and hug my father. That was good enough for me.
But then the prison visits stopped.
They started shuffling him from jail to jail, which made it harder to visit. And aside from the obligatory birthday card and random phone call, I never heard from him. To this day, I still don’t know why he didn’t keep in touch.
My mother eventually divorced him and her relationship with his mother fell apart. She did, however, manage to keep a good rapport with his father, who stepped in as the positive male role model in my life.
My grandfather would come to pick me up every weekend.
“You ready?” he would mumble, cigarette seesawing on every syllable.
I hopped in the car and off we would go.
My grandfather was a man of few words, but our adventures together were always fun and eventful.
He’d take me to the barbershop to get a fresh cut. Then we’d hit up the ice cream parlor for my favorite: vanilla ice cream in a cup with rainbow sprinkles. Along the way, he would sit me on his lap and let me steer the car, while he worked the pedals.
We never talked about my father. But the older I got, the more I wondered why he was jail.
“What did my father go to jail for?” I asked my mother one night over dinner.
“Butchie made some really bad choices when he was young,” she said without skipping a beat. “So now he’s paying for what he did.”
Before I knew it, we were talking about something else.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across the New Jersey Department of Corrections webpage. The words “OFFENDER SEARCH” caught my attention. You could plug in any name and find out their entire rap sheet. I hesisitated. Came this close to just clicking the little X and leaving that page entirely. Did I want to know what was there? Did I need to know?
Yes, I did.
Seeing it on paper made me feel small and embarrassed.
The man who did all of this is my father. And it’s online as a public document for the world to see.
Now I know why my mother skirted around the issue.
He was released from custody in 1997. I didn’t hear from him.
The same year he was released from custody, Grandma called me up out of the blue to have lunch with her.
“Your father wants to establish a relationship with you,” Grandma said
“Okay. What’s stopping him?” I asked.
Grandma raised one eyebrow and shot me her okay-now-watch-your-mouth look. But she couldn’t mask her own confusion. Even she didn’t know.
“Well…he’s still getting himself together.” She mustered.
For ten years, he’s sent various family members to make the connection.
My aunts: “Your father was asking about you the other day. Have you seen or spoken to him lately?”
Next up: My uncle.
“Man, I spoke to Butchie. I told him he gotta connect with you. You heard from him?
More years passed. He did not attempt to contact me.
He failed miserably at an attempt to bridge a connection with me at my aunt’s birthday party in 2006.
It looked like he’d packed on a few pounds. His stomach poked out behind his argyle sweater. His face was stressed and had hardened over the years.
We had been in the same room for 20 minutes without saying a word to one another. I was on one side chatting with relatives; he was on the other side talking with friends. As soon as I thought I would be able to make a clean getaway with out an awkward exchange, he walked up to me with a nervous smile on his face.
“Don’t you wanna buy your father a drink?” he asked. “I don’t have any money and would love to have a father/son drink with you.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” I asked. “Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
He was speechless. I walked away.
This past Sunday, on Father’s Day, I thought about it. Should I call him?
I’ve missed out on having a relationship with my father my entire life. I could break the cycle by picking up the phone and inviting him out for that father-son drink he seemed so eager to have at my aunt’s party.
I sat down with the phone in my lap, his number in my hand.
And I made my decision.
What would you have done?
Shydel James is an actor/writer based in New Jersey, but prefers to say New York City since he lives 20 minutes away and it sounds glitzier.
He currently shares a co-writing byline with Aliya S. King in the very last issue of KING magazine. He’s also a frequent contributor to Upscale magazine.
Dear readers: Shydel did not call his father. And he has no plans to. Ever. Should he? Should he at least hear this man’s side? I feel like Butchie did try to reach out at the aunt’s party.But maybe he should have just said, hey can we talk. But maybe Butchie has his own issues to work with? I wonder how Shydel will feel if his father passes away and he’s never gotten the chance to just ask: Why?
Then again, I can’t even imagine the pain Shydel must have endured. Growing up with a father who has been out there in the world, communicating with other family members. And not manning up and getting in touch with his own son. A part of me feel like if Butchie’s not ready to a make a mature step to reach out, maybe Shydel is better off?
Ugh. I think I want Shydel to call him. Or not.
What do you think?
Shydel and I would love to hear from you…