I consider my relationship with my father unorthodox at best. It could be characterized as horrible at worst, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are moments that still linger and make me wonder what he could have been, had the dealer that dealt him his cards in the casino called life been less cruel.
My father wasn’t a free man. He was shackled by something. A tangible trauma. I don’t know the origin of this trauma, he never spoke of it, but it could be felt and if you stared into his dark brown eyes, it could be seen hiding behind his pupils, coloring his view of the world.
On special weekends, after sundown, my father found a diamond and told the whole neighborhood about his discovery. My parents’ bedroom had a set of windows that overlooked Patterson Avenue, just a few hundred feet from where it intersected with MacArthur Boulevard. There was a JVC stereo system: 5-disc-changer, dual tape deck, two speakers with a subwoofer that was optional, but allowed for a more bass-rich listening experience. On these very special nights, my father would place two ice cubes in his snifter and pour himself a glass of scotch, then he’d pour himself a few more. After downing his third or fourth round, the stereo was on and the sound of Neil Diamond’s music, completely in sync with my dad’s voice, echoed off of East Oakland’s scarred concrete.
The beginning of my father’s performance always started with something triumphant. “We’re coming to America, today,” he’d sing as he raised his glass out of our window into the cool bay air. I used to come out of my bedroom to watch him. I stared in awe as his body would move wildly to the rhythm of the instruments and his face would match the emotions suggested by the inflection of Neil’s voice.
All of our neighbors got a front row seat to my father’s show, but I was one of the lucky few who was blessed with a backstage pass. Not everyone in the audience were fans. His renditions of Neil’s greatest hits also attracted their fair share of hecklers. Sometimes the neighborhood hustlers who sat on stoops or gathered in front of liquor stores would loudly laugh at my dad or they’d scream “shut the fuck up,” but my father didn’t listen. He wouldn’t lower his voice or turn off the music. He just continued to pour his soul out into the void and his scotch into the glass.
By the middle of his set, the songs my father chose to sing were less about triumph and more about belonging. These were songs about finding a place to call home and coming to terms with the fact that life on this big blue ball, floating through an ever-expanding nothingness, seems to have everything except an instruction manual. Deep down we know there’s no right or wrong way to go. The leaders of the world are just passing down tradition and the laws aren’t rooted in logic, but conservation of the known. Each piece of legislation, no matter what system or nation it governs, is inked with the blood of those deemed too critical to exist within it. There’s nothing special in these institutions and with realization of this, there’s nothing left to do, but exist. Neil Diamond knew it, and I know my father knew it. I could tell from the passion that exploded from his chest as he sang “I am!’ I said to no one there, and no one heard at all, not even the chair… ‘I am!’ I cried. ‘I am!’ said I, and I am lost and I can’t… even say why!” He may have not been able to express it in his own words, but he knew.
My father’s drunken singing was a part of my life for years. Each performance came with a different setlist, but one song was always included: “Forever in Blue Jeans.” The song was originally released in 1978 on Neil Diamond’s double-platinum record, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.
When I started this story, I said my father wasn’t a free man and that remained true throughout the duration of his life, but when he sang this song, he was free. He looked like freedom. He moved like it, sang like it, lived like it. The shackles that restricted him were gone. He was weightless. There was a grace to his movements that I haven’t witnessed in anyone else.
My father was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. He will likely be dead before 2020 ends. My father’s impending death made me realize that for much of his life he wasn’t actually alive. His heart was beating, but he didn’t always have a pulse. Despite this, I refuse to remember him as a lifeless man. Instead, I will remember lessons he taught me with the songs he sang to me and anyone who would listen on Patterson Avenue. He taught that while money talks, it doesn’t sing or dance and it don’t walk, and as long as those lessons are here with me, his memory will be…
Thank you for reading. Ghost of Mare Island: A Vallejo Story will be out soon. I promise.