A Sicilian-American family in Brooklyn in the 50s expected their son to be a natural athlete, a gifted student, or display some talent which could be trotted out at parties and gatherings.
None of that was me.
I was small for my age, struggled in school, and far too shy to ever be in the forefront of any gathering.
The Brooklyn I lived in was a tough place where you either ran with the big dogs, got run over by the big dogs, or did your best to avoid drawing anyone’s attention.
I longed to be an athlete but I was told I was too uncoordinated and too easily rattled to be a good team player. Nevertheless I excelled at “street sports” – I could hit a ball three sewers and over apartment houses when playing stickball. If you’re from NYC the “three sewers” part will mean something to you, otherwise, trust me it was a good hard shot. I had a wicked curve ball that few people could hit and rarely for distance. I was a killer at skully, box ball, and stoop ball. I could run faster and climb higher than any of the local bullies…that might have had something to do with saving my butt though.
The third of four children, I failed to make up for the perceived vacuum my elder siblings left in my parents’ lives. My older sister was street-wise, tough, and in a word: trouble. My brother, two years my senior, became quite sick at an early age and due to a common but ill-advised medical procedure, suffered brain damage.
I came along as an “accident”, surprising pretty much everyone but both of my parents pinned their hopes on me nevertheless. The bar was set, it was set high, and I never managed to clear it even once.
With a mostly absent big sister, a big brother who needed constant attention and was, in essence, my little brother, I settled into an odd niche in the family, my name could have been replaced by a shrug and a sigh and it would have sufficed.
The concept of child abuse was not something people spoke of as openly as they do today but it was real and it was a terrible and debilitating force in my family. It was only years later that I understood why my sister was so often absent. I went from night to night thinking I was somehow bad, literally thinking I was evil, and spent each day feeling damaged, somehow broken.
When I turned 9 though, my life was really turned upside down. I came home from having served as an altar boy for a visiting priest and tried to find the words that would express what had happened to me that morning but I couldn’t. Eventually my mother understood what I was trying to explain and told me, most emphatically how I was wrong, I misunderstood, I was somehow mistaken. No man of god could do wrong. How could I even imagine such a thing.
I took my first drink as an alcoholic that day, and another, and another.
It would take me 21 years to crawl out of that bottle but as evidenced by who, what, and how I am today, I most assuredly did.