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1) OPENING TAP
I weighed eleven pounds and twelve ounces when I was born. At my birth was the first time of many that I made the newspaper. The Jersey Journal had an article about me being the biggest baby born in Jersey City that year.
My size was no surprise to anyone in my family. My moms is about five-eleven. My dad was about six feet three and a half. I have a cousin, Calvin Tillman, who played at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, played pro ball overseas, and got a tryout with the Detroit Pistons. He was six-nine and skinny. My grandfather was seven feet two inches, like me. All of my uncles and cousins on my mother’s side were tall. I have another cousin who is six-eleven. One of my female cousins, May, is six-three.
So the height wasn’t a big deal in my home. I never heard, “Wow, you’re so big!” among us. My family never harped on it. I never felt out of place in my home. But in public . . . once people found out how old I was, it was a big problem.
By the time I was three, I remember my mother getting into it with the bus driver because he didn’t believe my age and wouldn’t let me on the bus for the child’s price.
By the time I started school, I knew I was different. I was always at the back of the line, of course. As I moved into the third and fourth grades, I could barely fit into the desks. I used to sit there and lift the desk off the floor with my knees. By the fifth grade, I was taller than my teachers.
The hardest parts of being so tall were the stares and people making me feel different. I was a kid, but I looked a lot older, and people would expect me to act much older. But I was just a kid.
Adults were the ones who usually made me feel out of place. My friends never did. When we played together, it didn’t matter that I was a head or two taller than everyone else. You don’t even think about those things until someone brings it to your attention. And you know there’s always a wiseass in the bunch ready to pick on you.
Bigfoot. Lurch. Frankenstein. Goofy. Doofus. I heard it all. And it all hurt. I would come home some days crying and my mother would say, “Don’t worry about it, baby. Those are just words.”
They didn’t feel like just words. I was being teased for something I couldn’t really help.
“Look at those feet!”
I wore a size eight men’s shoe when I was eight. A nine when I turned nine. A ten when I was ten. When I turned fourteen, I graduated to a size sixteen shoe. Up until then, I was rocking the Hush Puppies, which went up to a size sixteen. But after I started wearing a seventeen in junior high school, my mother had to order shoes from Friedman’s Shoes in Atlanta, Georgia. I still shop there to this day. Then basketball came along and I was able to get all the free sneakers I could wear.
But before then, it wasn’t cool to be tall with big feet and big hands. Especially when I started going to public school. The kids were not only teasing me, but testing me. It was as if they wanted to see if I was as strong as I was big or as tough as I was big. I wasn’t tough. But I wasn’t a punk, and I wasn’t going to let anyone push me around. So I was fighting a lot.
I never started trouble, and I had to be really pushed into it. But once I was pushed, I finished it.
They would start in on me on Monday, and by Wednesday we would be fighting. Ironically, they weren’t cracking on me only because of my height. They also teased me because I didn’t have the right clothes or sneakers. While I was in Catholic school, I didn’t hear much about my clothes because that was easy. And my mother made sure that, although I was growing like a weed, I never wore high-waters and always looked presentable. But we didn’t have money for the latest fads and styles, so I got teased for not being with it.
They also cracked on me because they knew my father collected bottles and turned them in for money. He had a job, but he also hustled to make ends meet.
In the summers, he had a truck and he sold watermelons. My father was known as the Watermelon Man in Jersey City. He made me work on that truck. That was a source of teasing. He figured I was big enough to be put to work and so he did. I worked on his hot dog truck, too.
I also got teased for going to church. My moms had me in church two to three times a week, including just about all day on Sunday. They called me corny and church boy. So I felt that I had to beat the hell out of them for bothering me. I didn’t want to look like a punk.
It seemed as if I had a fight every day that first day of junior high. Looking back, I know I was ready and quick to fight not so much because of the teasing, but because I had a lot of anger and frustration building up inside that I needed to release.
A lot was going on in my life. My entire world got rocked when my parents split. I don’t know what happened or what led to the actual breakup. I just know my mother came to me one day and told me to pack my stuff, that we were leaving. I knew not to ask questions. My brother and I packed up and off we went to the projects. It was the opposite of The Jeffersons.
I went from having this normal family, living in a decent neighborhood, going to Catholic school, to living in the projects with my mother, my brother, and on occasion an aunt and a cousin or two, and my grandmother Geraldine McDonald.
I used to visit my grandmother a lot in the Booker T. Washington projects. I loved visiting her house because you know how your grandmother can always make you feel special, and you can get away with things with your grandmother that you could never get away with at home. Well, it was a different story living with her. You know the saying about its being a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there . . .
Living with my grandmother, we had to live by her rules. It was harder on my mother than it was for me because my mother definitely didn’t want to live there, but she had no place to go after she left my father.
My grandmother was no-nonsense. She smoked Pall Mall and chewed Cannon Ball tobacco. From Wadesboro, North Carolina, she was Cherokee, about five-ten, and had some meat on her bones. She was also a gunslinger, known to pack a .22-caliber gun.
I loved my grandmother because she was a real person. She loved her family. She loved the Lord. But if you crossed her or crossed her family, she would deal with you. I heard stories about how she used to handle people back in the day. A bullet hole in the wall of her apartment marked when she allegedly shot at her husband.
He didn’t come home one night. The next night, he came to the dinner table expecting to eat as if nothing happened, and my grandmother came out and shot at him. The bullet grazed him. She kept that hole in the wall to remind him (and to remind the rest of us) of what she was capable of. If she raised her voice, you better duck. She had no problem getting the belt on any of us kids. If Mama McDonald told you to do something and you didn’t do it, you better know what was coming.
My grandmother was unique. She was hard, but had a soft spot for her family and for people. If she could help you, she would. She wouldn’t give you money, but she’d make you something to eat. She was known around the Booker T. Washington projects as that woman. If people had a problem, they would come to my grandmother and she would pray with them and feed them. She didn’t have much, but she taught my mother how to stretch what they had—flour, sugar, cornmeal, grits, salt, pepper. You could grab something and make a meal. My grandmother was resourceful.
She had a real soft spot for me. I was her boo-boo, which meant she rescued me on many occasions. Under her roof, she was the law. She overruled my mother in a lot of things, even when my mother wanted to whup my ass.
“You ain’t whupping that boy,” she would say.
• • •
My grandmother had these rules, and they applied to everybody. We had to eat at a certain time. You couldn’t watch TV when you wanted. And you couldn’t watch what you wanted to watch.
I’d want to watch Benny Hill. But she wasn’t having it. She would have us watching some western or Dallas or one of her soap operas or the Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman. I’d be in the middle of watching Popeye or Woody Woodpecker and here she’d come.
“Boy, turn to channel seven, my soaps are on!”
I’d have to turn to All My Children or One Life to Live or General Hospital. I got real acquainted with the Luke and Laura saga.
One show I did appreciate my grandmother making us watch—Roots. At first, I was like “Oh, come on!” (to myself, of course). But as I watched the miniseries, it changed the way I looked at a lot of things. Roots definitely added something to my life.
I enjoyed watching that.
Living with my grandmother was also hard for me because I no longer had my own space. I had to sleep on the couch in the living room. My grandmother didn’t have much room—only two bedrooms. Six, sometimes seven, of us shared those two bedrooms and one bathroom.
I missed my father, too. I missed hearing him say, “Junior, come here!” I missed his voice, his presence. That was my daddy. And no matter what, I loved him. During the first few years after he and my mom split up, I definitely missed him.
Outside of the ass whippings, he was a good guy. My father and I had a crazy relationship. I’m glad I got to know him when I got older and understand him and appreciate the things he did for us. I loved my pops. I missed him then and I miss him now.
I love music because of my father. He exposed me to it at an early age. He also taught me about being a man—things I couldn’t grasp then, but that I reflect on and understand now, such as how and why he got up every day and worked so hard for us.
Living with my grandmother was a big adjustment. But I was used to making adjustments to fit in.
Public school was a huge change. Everything was different. We didn’t have uniforms, and clothes were always tough for me because I was growing so fast that I never had anything that fit well or looked good. The public school was much bigger than what I was used to. And the kids were different. I got into a lot of fights that first year. Maybe it was because I was the new kid or maybe because I was so big people wanted to test me. Whatever it was, I was fighting.
I had a fight in class once and got suspended. That was it for my mother. She sent me to live with my father.
It was cool living with my pops for a while. But I always had to be on my toes. I couldn’t get away with anything. I never wanted to piss him off because I didn’t want that strap, so I tried to stay out of trouble and stay out of his way.
As long as I did that, things were good. We would hang out like buddies. He could cook a little something, but we would go out to eat at different restaurants. He would take me hunting on the weekends. He introduced me to different music and really sparked a love of music in me. I loved to hear him sing. I enjoyed that.
He had a few rules—stay out of trouble and “make sure your behind is in the house when those streetlights come on. Don’t let the dark catch you!”
I never did. I knew the consequences. He would go upside my head or put that strap to my butt, so I didn’t want that. I got to hang out with him late if he was fixing the car. He would show me different things under the hood and how to change the oil and all of that. After a few weeks, though, I would start to miss my mom.
I would end up doing something to make him mad and he’d send me back to her. But he got it. After whipping my behind he would say, “I know you miss your mother, don’t you?”
That was my thing. I knew what buttons to push to get back to my mom. But I would go back to my pops when I got to be too much for my mother. I was back and forth like that for about a year.
I wasn’t a bad kid; I mostly got in trouble because I had to defend myself. I wasn’t going to let anyone punk me, and if someone wanted to fight, I was going to give it to him.
Again, I had no perspective on my size. It must have looked crazy for me to be fighting kids my own age as big as I was. It couldn’t be a fair fight. But since I didn’t start the fights, I thought it was okay to finish them.
One teacher at my school noticed what was happening. He saw that some of the kids were getting kicks pushing my buttons and watching me go off. Mr. DiFillipio was my homeroom teacher and my science teacher, and he would give me assignments that would have me in the lab with him after classes. He took an interest in me, and if it wasn’t for Mr. DiFillipio, I don’t know what would have happened to me during those years. He taught me to believe in myself and that I mattered. Mr. DiFillipio made a huge difference in my life.
Unfortunately, Mr. DiFillipio wasn’t there all the time. He couldn’t save me from a lot of the bad things that were happening to me at home. But he was one bright spot in a whole lot of gray.
© 2010 Luther Wright