July 16, 2006
I Love it When You Call me Big Papa
I had been sprawled across the sofa in the living room of our small apartment in Biscayne Park, listening to the pigeons and their squabs cooing in the branches of the date palms outside our window, trying to think about something interesting to write about As I Lay Dying for my graduate class in Southern literature at the University of Miami. I looked across at my desk with my pens, papers, cellophane tape, and scissors. The desk and our queen size bed were the only furniture that my wife, Nadia, and I had bought with our own money.
The rest were hand-me-downs from her mother, my mother, her sisters, and friends. We’d been married for two and half years, and we had finally figured out who would cook or wash the dishes. What I hadn’t figured out was how I was going to tell her that the University no longer needed my services as a teaching assistant and that I’d been thinking about applying for a position with Dade County Public Schools. It would be an understatement to say that this wasn't how I thought My life was going to turn out.
I was studying the grain in a mustard colored cushion that my mother had given to us when my wife came in through the door.
She told me to close my eyes and not to look until she told me to open them. I was thinking, afternoon delight? Nadia had told me that she was going to see her doctor and I had expected her to be back later in the afternoon, so I was surprised that she had come back so early. She told me to open my eyes. I was startled when she handed me two gifts wrapped in some very ornate paper and a card.
“Open them,” she said and when I moved to the biggest one first, she said, “No, start with this one.”
I tore off the wrapping and she told me to be careful. I went more slowly. I peeled the wrapping off the cardboard box, opened it, and saw two white booties made of yarn. I looked at the booties and didn’t know what to make of it. Sometimes I don’t put two and two together quickly.
Nadia then told me to open the card. I tore open the envelope and she told me to be careful. I slid the card into my hands and read what she’d written. She said that she was very happy that we’d gotten married, but she was even happier that I was going to be the father of our child.
I couldn’t believe it! Me, a father? No, it couldn’t be. Panic flushed my body and then, an immense joy. I was going to be a father! Then, the panic set in again.
I looked over the inherited furniture. How was I going to provide for our child? I had just lost the one stable source of income. Would the baby change our marriage? Would being a father mean I would have to abandon my writing or could I, like many of my white friends and teachers who were writers, simply depend on my wife to support me and our child while I continued to write novels and poetry?
I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. For no matter how much I tried to “Shoot the Sherriff” there were always the voices in my head that would condemn me as just another Black neer-do-well who had married a white woman (never mind that our relationship was not based on color, but that she’s the most interesting woman I’ve met in my life) and was now living off her and would probably be going on welfare soon—Ronald Reagan was in his third year and David Stockman was at the helm of his economic battleship. I had to contend also with the idea (part of my Jamaican, middle-class upbringing, which is the source of my highest aspirations and my horrific nightmares) that writing wasn’t really work and that time would be better spent on other more financially rewarding pursuits. Which is true.
Writing takes time. There is no way around it. You learn to write by writing, and writing a novel (counting the time for research and working out the back-story on all the main characters) usually takes about two years. This is not taking into account revision, which is where the real writing takes place. The average novel is usually about 90,000 to 150,000 words long. Unless you are Stephen King who writes about 2000 words a day every day of the year without any holidays, estimate 500-1,000 words for about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 52 weeks. Take the rest of the time to work at your other job, pay your bills, and spend some time with your wife and new baby on the weekends. That gives you 260 days of the year to write for 3 hours, which is equal to 780 hours per year. The minimum wage in Florida is $6.40 cents—that’s $4992.30 for one year. Therefore, after 2 years of writing (again, not counting revision) you could have earned $9,984.60.
That’s a lot of Pampers! This is without any assurance of publication. Also, if you are a committed writer, you will spend as much time on the work that may be deemed a “success” as the one that has been deemed a “failure.” If you do get the novel published, the median advance for first time unagented writers is $5000, so you are already behind by $4,984.60, but you do have royalties to be gained. If you are a poet, (and it takes a greater level of concentration and skill to write a book of poems) not only are you still $9,984.60 in the hole (although you’re extremely grateful that the book got published), but your future earnings on royalties from your books will be diddlysquat.
And now there was a child involved in my life? As a father, I would be expected to nurture and to protect this life that my wife and I had brought into this world. For although I was part of the Caribbean Baby Boom Generation and ascribed to certain values such as the promotion of equal rights regardless of race, culture, ethnicity or gender, nearly every Jamaican man that I’d known had an alter ego of a Red Stripe/Appleton drinking massive who respects women, but does not consider them to be his equal. In that world, man was man. If the family could not survive economically, it would not be that my wife tried her best to provide for the family; it would be that I had not lived up to my obligations.
Then, I began thinking about Nadia’s father and my father. Both of our fathers had abandoned us before we became adolescents. They were all part of that cycle of fathers who for one reason of another were absent from their children’s lives. And if they did stay at home, many of them became bitter about “the little hooligans” that were running around the house making noise and they resorted to the whip, strap, cane, tamarind switch, electric extension cords—“Anything that I can grab to beat the devil out of you!”
The violence would have to end with me. All that I’d learned from Melvyn Smith, my best friend’s father, about goodness and patience; from Leo Rose, my uncle, about steadfastness and devotion; and from Dennis Scott about humor and honesty would have to be put into practice.
There would be no beatings. Beatings only taught me how to run fast. But no matter how fast I ran, I always had to go back home. I had gained a few hours, but for what? I had learned about alternative discipline from men like Jimmy Carnegie who refused to cane the boys at Jamaica College, no matter what the infraction. He found ingenious ways to punish us: “Mr. Philp, I want you to pick up all the bottle caps from tushy (around the bathrooms) to tucky (tuck shop).” Also, at the end of one of our readings, I remember Felix saying to me, “I never beat my children. Only the Macoutes beat my children.” He didn’t have to say anything more to convince me.
Nadia handed me the third gift as I sat dazed on the sofa. I unwrapped the present carefully. It was Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare. I guess she was as scared as I was. I told her about the University of Miami. I knew she was worried, but she said things would work out. She reminded me as Brother Bob sang, "That every little thing is gonna be all right,"
When she said that, I knew exactly what I had to do. I pulled out my book bag and went through all the papers. I began filling out the application to become a teacher with Dade County Public Schools.
My mother had been a teacher in Jamaica and now it felt as if I was taking up the mantle where she had left off. I would be the best parent and the best teacher that I could be.