Ouch. That Eminem song … so many ways I could go with that.
When I was in Istanbul in November, there was a guy from the Philippines in my meetings. His name was J.P. Morgan. No, J.P. Morgan is not a Filipino name. His father had changed the family name in hopes that it would bring prosperity. It didn’t.
I happened to be seated next to J.P.—John—on a dinner cruise the first night. I thought, “Oh no, trapped on a boat for three hours next to this guy—what could we possibly have in common?”
But then we started talking and by the end of the cruise I was calling him “son” and he was calling me “mom.”
John’s father was an alcoholic who had left the family when John was small. John was pimped out at the age of 10, sold to strangers for sex until he was too old and no longer desirable—19 or 20—and he began pimping out younger kids in order to make a living and survive.
By the time I met him, John was Vince’s age, had recovered long ago, and ran a recovery program for street kids. Here we are, talking about his “River of Life” program. To prostituted young men, John has become their idol, big brother, and mentor. Everybody, including notorious gang leaders, listens intently to John and follows every word he says.
John and another sex worker had had a son together. He was a teenager now, and John was doing his best to keep tabs on him, though the mother was an addict and moved around a lot.
I asked John if he thought that kids being raised by single mothers was the biggest reason that kids got in to trouble. He looked squarely at me and wagged his finger. “No. It is not the mothers. It’s the fathers.” Alcoholic fathers. Abusive fathers. Fathers who gamble away their paychecks. Fathers who leave.
On Vince’s first birthday I called to invite his father to have cake with us, and he said he was too busy with “business.” A drug deal, in other words. I never saw him again, except briefly in a crowd.
From time to time I would ask Vince if it bothered him that he didn’t have a father. “Let’s just call him The Creep,” he said once, and we laughed and I never really got an answer, if he had one to give.
Vince never asked about The Creep. The Creep’s dad had been a barge worker and his mother was a telephone operator who had grown up on a reservation. They lived in a dilapidated farm house in Rush City filled with cigarette smoke and no heat and large bowls of bite-sized Snickers and a big-screen TV. The Creep and I visited his grandmother once, on the rez. She lived in a tar paper shack without indoor plumbing or electricity.
I never mentioned to Vince that the Creep had been a drug dealer from a small town who didn’t have a car or a phone, a high-school dropout who worked as a clerk in a gas station. A guy who aspired to nothing more than hanging out with his friends, drinking and smoking pot, laughing and telling stories about drinking and smoking pot. I never mentioned any of these things because I didn’t want Vince to be influenced by them, if he harbored some unconscious admiration for The Creep.
The Creep had had a son with another woman before I met him, and went on to father four more children. I got $103 in child support once, but that was it.
I’m not trying to shift blame; after all I must have had a far stronger influence on Vince since I was there 24/7 for 16 years, right? I don’t spend all day analyzing and angsting over why Vince is who he is. But for every Vince, there are 10,000 more like him in prison, in Minnesota alone. I’m sure they all derailed for a different mix of complicated reasons, just as I succeeded despite a complicated mix of factors that should have kept me down. If someone could figure it all out, they would deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize.