for me, isn’t the one that runs from Harlem to the Flatiron District, but the one that runs from where I used to live to where I used to drink in my hometown 150 miles north of Manhattan. On Thanksgiving Day in 2000, on the night before I was to meet my schizophrenic mother, I excused myself from a meal I’d hardly touched with a family that wasn’t mine (who lived in a house I’d been thrown out of countless times), to walk into the darkness of a future whose uncertainty continues to astound me. Muscle memory, rather than rational thought, propelled me forward over concrete so familiar that I barely registered the faded Victorians on the wide boulevard (now sliced-and-diced into overpriced apartments or converted into in numerable halfway houses). I passed the Madison Theatre, completed in 1929 (and two blocks away from the orphanage at the beginning of this whole fucking story), where I took my last fake grandmother to see Dead Poets Society and apologized to her in the pale light of the credits (“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I whispered) for making her cry after her husband drank himself to death. She waved away my concern, thanked me (almost inaudibly), and cried with abandon because she’d taught English for thirty years and loved books, and words, and poetry (I knew) as much as I did.
All of my weather was internal, so I can’t tell you what it was like outside, except to report that the sky had probably been some version of brushed aluminum and that nightfall had taken forever to arrive. I walked past the public library (built in 1898 for the president of the Helderberg Cement Company, but now owned by The College of Saint Rose), remembering the sound of its creaky floor boards and how fascinated I was by the curvature of its glass in the front windows, and then along the chain-link fence of a grade school that I attended on either side of my second adoption. When I’d returned in the fall, the fourth graders erupted into howls of laughter when I responded to my new identity, first to me, “That’s not your name!” and then (collectively and incredulously) to the nun taking attendance, “That’s not his name!”
I was mugged in front of the next administration building (which, at the time, might have been graduate housing) with the Social Worker, who’d picked me up like a stray from the pound, hoping that I could solve some of the issues from her own dark childhood. We were walking home (such a loaded four-letter word, that) from the grocery store next to the movie theater when we heard footsteps, first like a rumor told in the rustle of leaves, but then more determined, until she got checked, screaming, to the ground by one of the assailants while the other threw me into traffic. It must have been summer because I remember standing up to survey my damage, marveling (momentarily) at the rocks embedded in my palms and in my knees before I broke into a sprint after the two men. I think I was six, and they had a significant lead on me, so I stopped at the corner, turned and walked back to the wailing woman laid out on a lawn. They’d gotten her purse and her hysterics had gotten the attention of a couple of timid students who took us in and cleaned our respective wounds. Days later, the bulk of the Social Worker’s IDs and credit cards were returned by the police, but they had all been speared by the pick of a city sanitation worker who’d found them strewn across the field of a stadium downtown. When the cops asked the woman (who was not my mother) to describe the two men, she was so far off from the black guy with a face full of freckles and the Irish guy with sloppy, ginger cornrows that I had to intervene. They were apprehended a few days later after the gravel had started to push its bloody way out of my legs and hands like discount buckshot from some dumb hunting accident.
I took a detour at Ontario Street and seriously considered the neon invitation from Pabst in the window of Bogie’s, but kept walking until the laundromat on Morris Street (its faded mural now even more faded) across from the corner store where I stole my first things. I stopped and looked further down the street, considering a pilgrimage to the Playdium, not to see the bowling alley itself (as I’m not sure that I ever went inside—it’s even possible that I’ve simply been remembering vintage photos of the interior that I saw once), but to survey the parking lot where I’d set things off (like Roman candles and M-80s) with other boys in the neighborhood. (I forget what we called the firecrackers that we used to snap in half and then light from the middle, but I definitely remember the exhilaration of the sparks and how good the gunpowder smelled in the subsequent smoke.)
I stood at the end of the walkway in front of the first house I can remember living in (with the Social Worker, who then became the Prison Guard’s wife, and then the Lawyer’s wife (after the Prison Guard wised up and left her ass, all in the first-floor flat) and assessed my situation: I was raw, but I was calm. The deck was gray and cratered from umpteen layers of summer paint and decades of Upstate winters. To my left were once neighbors who hung deer from the ceiling of their garage to bleed out every season who then spent the rest of their time underneath cars in the shared driveway underneath my bedroom window. I could distinguish the father from the son only by their shoes. One summer, the exhaust from one of their junkers fed directly into my shitty air conditioner as they drank and worked on it and I was unconscious for a while before anyone noticed. In the house to my right lived a man who always agreed to climb a ladder and come through the bathroom window when I locked myself in. I would walk out just as he set foot on the ceramic tile, but it was something that we did and I don’t remember getting into too much trouble when it happened. Behind me and across the lumpy asphalt of the road (the ancient yellow bricks underneath were often exposed after the tarmac got warn off, like skin from bone) was a rogue daycare with what seemed like a million steps at the time. The mustachioed woman who ran it was short, fat, and evil and she had a couple of kids who were older than I was and we didn’t get along (much). I escaped (quietly) one day while they were all yelling at each other, crawled back into the house through the living room window, and (again, quietly) refused to open the door when the police arrived and that was the end of that. It is incredible to think that my mother was just five blocks down this very street the whole time. I don’t really know how many foster placements I’d had before I landed in the house in front of me.
None of these people are still on this street, so I turned around the way I came and crossed Madison at Ontario and walked, haltingly, into a gnarly city park that holds a lot of personal history for me. There is a basketball court that hasn’t had nets for decades (lack of funding? constant theft?), poured-concrete benches, rusty swing sets, transformer boxes, a bunch of beat-up garbage cans, and trees running along the perimeter (probably Oak or Dutch Elm). At some point, I was up in one of those trees with my friend, Dennis, who lived in a crooked house on Hamilton on the other side of the park with a bunch of brothers (all of whom were older than we were). I was wearing a new T-shirt that the aforementioned unrelated relative had brought back for me from the Bahamas (maybe). It could have been Bermuda or Aruba or Jamaica. Point being, it was from some place warm and it had solarized sunfish flanking across the front of it and I liked it. I spent a lot of time climbing things (trees, fences, fire escapes) often with a book but, on this particular summer day, I was with Dennis and we had wild blackberries.
Unfortunately, I had my back to my friend on the branch that I had claimed that afternoon and Dennis started touching me, poking at first, and then running a palm, then two across my new(-ish) shirt. I’d given him a couple of warnings, as my attentions were elsewhere (I don’t remember who, or what, we were collectively observing from our perch, but I was committed in a way that my friend, obviously, wasn’t). When I realized that he’d been painting the fabric with the dark juice from the tiny fruit, I pushed him off his branch, jumped down after him, and gave him a quick right jab before he knew what was happening. His nose popped like a cherry tomato between tectonic molars and, when he saw the blood on his chest, he started tripping backwards, threatening (through the snot and the tears) the full force of all of those brothers. I stood my ground and they never materialized, but when I got home (see previous difficulty with this term), I got a beating from the Social Worker that left me with a split lip and that shirt torn straight through that school of (formerly cohesive) fish because of the stains that I’d caused. (Fuck, Dennis. If you’re out there, I’m really sorry.)
And then, suddenly, there I am, center stage at center court, remembering something I’ve been trying to forget for most of my life. Between her marriages, I spent sporadic weekends with the Prison Guard (even after the Lawyer had (unofficially) moved in with the Social Worker (and even though neither of these men were my father). In the memory that I’ve been trying to forget, it was morning and the Prison Guard was trying to teach me how to jump rope (as he was fit and muscular and, to my younger self, exponentially emulatable). But, as the case was so often with me growing up, I couldn’t coordinate my hands with my feet and he took both ends of that rope into one of his massive fists and whipped my right there and then like an errant slave, the fibers of the cord separating into teeth that hooked into my skin as they burned and spun me to the ground or pulled my feet out from under me over and over again. That was the last time that I saw him, the day that I escaped from his sudden, yet unassuageable, rage.
Exit stage right, back on to the avenue, past the first bar I’d gotten into with a fake ID (ironic, in retrospect, because all of my identification was fake for most of my life), past my first apartment building (where I’d had a mattress and a stereo on the floor and little else), past the corporate donut shop where I’d logged innumerable time drunk and/or high before and/or after a party or alone at dawn because I’d had no place to sleep the night before, until I found myself in front of the new gay bar (up the street from the old gay bar where I’d started my career as a lush) and was greeted at the door, luxuriously, by a woman I knew, tangentially, mid-karaoke, who serenaded me with a hoarse rendition of the classic by The Temptations, substituting her own moniker into the chorus (“Talkin’ ‘bout Black Love/Black Love!”) as I stepped into the last night that I would ever drink again.
Michael Allen Potter is the author of TRIFECTA: Three Very Gay Plays and founder of The Hydroelectric Press. He holds degrees in English and creative writing from Union College (NY), San Francisco State University, and The University of Iowa. His work has appeared in The Public, Memoir Mixtapes, Buffalo Rising, All Over Albany, Ghost City Review, The Big Brick Review, Art & Understanding, Metroland, Livelihood, and Vallum Magazine. Find him online at: icartographer.wordpress.com
Image: “Residential Albany, New York, Madison Avenue at High Street” from Albany Public Library History Collection