Monday, August 9, 2010

Sunrise Over Chicago

When was the last time that you stayed up all night and watched the sun rise in the morning? If you're like me it's been a long, long time. That's exactly what I did Sunday morning after a night of birthday celebrations, tequila shots, bikers and public porn viewing. Jenny, Mike, and I got back to Jenny's Ukrainian Village apartment a little after 5 A.M. We planned to go to the Cubs vs. Reds game that afternoon to culminate Jenny's birthday weekend so it made perfect sense to stay up and booze at Wrigley with no sleep.

We took a couple of chairs up on her rooftop patio just as the pall of the night before gave way to the magnificent radiance of the morning sun.

What a beautiful sight! The orange glow of the morning sun dispersed the clouds revealing blue skies that looked like they extended from Cicero to the Lakefront and from Evanston to 95th and the Dan Ryan expressway.

Looking out over the city that I've called home all of my life, the yards, rooftops, garages, and skyscrapers had a luster that I'd never noticed before. Mike began to talk about his experiences living in New York while pursuing a career in stand-up comedy. He talked about how, no matter what burrough you're from, everyone in New York is a New Yorker first. He wants Chicagoans to have the same pride in their city and in each other. We live in such a beautiful, clean city with history around virtually every corner. We're so provincialized in our thinking. We're not from Chicago, we're from Uptown, Wrigleyville, Pilsen, Rogers Park, Andersonville, Bronzeville, Hyde Park, and the various other neighborhoods divided by race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and culture. There's so much to appreciate when you step out of your predestined space to explore the world beyond the veil. There's nothing new under the sun so follow the sun and you're sure to find something that you've never seen before, experience something that you've never experienced.

Mike recently quit his job as a server to devote himself full time to stand-up and writing. He has a confidence in me that I don't have in myself. Mike's always asking if I'm writing and if I want to hangout with him at the local comedy clubs to hone my on-stage skills. He laughs at all of my jokes and seems to believe that I have what it takes to join him and his crew as they set out to revitalize the Chicago comedic scene. While we were sitting on the rooftop, throwing back a few Miller Lites, Mike gave me a refrain that I've heard a billion times from friends and close acquaintances over the past few months:

"D, you're a really smart guy. You're nice looking to. You gotta stop looking so deep into things. Sometimes things are just what they are. That's where you'll find your comedy, right there in the simplicity of life. Be confident that what you have to offer to the world is what the world is missing. There will always be someone that doesn't like what you say, what you do, what you write, or what you look like. Put them out of your mind and move on. You're drowning yourself in a pool of self-doubt!"

That speech didn't make me want to quit my job but there is a profound truth in Mike's words and in the words of Ray, Alex, Becks, Jenny, my mom and so many others who have more confidence in me than I have in myself.

Watching the sun rise early Sunday morning made me remember an old refrain from the Negro National Anthem that our music teacher would lead us in every morning before class in high school. I don't think I had a proper understanding of those words, words that were written with the blood of so many slaves, abolitionist, Civil Rights activist, and brave freedom fighters all across the African diaspora and beyond. Standing on that rooftop, half unconscious from a lack of sleep combined with the after effects of cheap bourbon on my body and mind, I was shot full of new life and motivation by that timeless affirmation:

"Facing the rising sun, of our new day begun. Let us march on 'til victory is won!"

Today would've been the 73rd birthday celebration for my grandfather Leverne Jones. My grandfather was the prototypical Leo -- strong willed, stubborn to a fault, and very loyal.

I'll never forget my grandfather for many reasons. He took me into his home when my grandmother, his wife, died suddenly from heart failure in 1993, destroying what was to that point a strong, tight knit family. I was devoid of a positive male role-model up until that point. My grandfather taught me the importance of working hard to earn your daily bread, that education was the key that would unlock my future, and to always look for those things that we share in common with people and not the small number of things that separate us. My grandfather was extremely charismatic and engaging. He knew everybody because he spoke to everyone, always knowing what to say after a few moments of attentive listening. Women fell in love with him after one look at his cocoa brown skin contrasted by his green eyes and white hair.

He gave me my first copies of Nietzsche, Catcher in the Rye, and Sun Tzu. He took me to the German restaurant that his old boss, who grew up in the Black Forest of Bavaria, would frequent. That's where I learned to appreciate raw steak and pickled pig's feet. Every other Sunday my grandfather would make the best corned beef and cabbage that I've ever had. He told me that it was the family recipe of his great-great grandfather Grant Parker, who immigrated to America from Ireland and fell in love with my grandfather's great-great grandmother, a beautiful woman of French, African, and Natchez Indian ancestry. Grant Parker made sure that all of his children learned how to read, write and tend the land for their living, drawing the ire of white families in his community who didn't want Grant's darker skinned children to be literate. He was labeled as a "nigger lover" for the rest of his life. My mother, aunts, uncles, cousin, sister and I are all the fruits of Grant Parker's labor.

Some of my fondest memories are those Sundays when we would get up at 7 A.M. and take the Halsted bus down to the flea market on Maxwell Street. It was still called "Jew Town" back then, an homage to the market's Jewish origins. We'd grab a cup of coffee brewed with cinnamon sticks, steak tacos with cilantro and onions, and walk up and down the rows upon rows of clothes, socks, cleaning products, video games, produce and, my grandfather's favorite, giardiniera, artichoke hearts, and olive oil from the Italian grocers. We continued this weekly ritual for several years and three locations and I looked forward to making the trip more and more every time.

As loving and thoughtful of a man as my grandfather was, he also had a dark side. He displayed the signs of alcoholism early on, spending many nights at the bars downtown instead of being at home in my mom's youth. The problem appears to have been exacerbated by the death of his infant son from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and, finally, by the sudden death of his first wife. Seagram's 7 Crown was his drink of choice but Mad Dog 20/20 or Popov's vodka would do just fine. When my grandfather drank he turned from a thoughtful, considerate man of incredible intelligence to a belligerent, violent man who thought that everyone, including his own children and grandchildren, were out to take what he had worked so hard to garner over the past 40 years.

Nothing was more embarrassing (and funny) than watching my grandfather go out on the porch in nothing but his briefs and a pot belly to yell at the kids (most of them my friends) that were playing in the streets in front of his green stucco Victorian mansion. There were those times when he would walk to my high school, conveniently located 2 blocks away, and barge in on my classes (he knew all of the security guards and drank with most of them), unshaven and reeking of Pall Mall cigarettes and cheap Canadian whiskey. Nothing was as scary as watching my grandfather fall on a patch of black ice, breaking two of his ribs as he attempted to walk to the store in freezing temperatures to get his daily fix.

Nothing was more heartbreaking than coming home from school only to find that my television, new computer, and video games had all been stolen. My grandfather frequently hired heroin and crack addicts from the neighborhood to perform odd jobs around the main house and coach house. They took advantage of one of his frequent drunken spats of forgetfulness, where he would journey outside for hours on end leaving doors unlocked and windows wide open.

I'll never forget the day that my grandfather got tired of taking care of me. He called the police and had them take me away. he told them that he didn't want me anymore and didn't care where they took me. I stayed in a juvenile detention center for one harrowing night until my great uncle Fred, my grandfather's older brother, came and took me into his home. I never forgave nor forgot what my grandfather did to me that night.

It was heartbreaking to see this man that had once been so strong and active bed ridden as liver and lung cancer spread mercilessly through his body. There was also a little part of me that felt that his condition was restitution for all the pain and suffering he caused when alcohol took over his life. His oncologist, a beautiful Brazilian woman, told me that he had less than two weeks to live and that I should make him as comfortable as I possibly could. I spent days feeding him ice, washing the sores that had developed on his body, and helping the orderly change his diaper, bed pan, and sheets. It was such a surreal experience. Here I was in Illinois Masonic Hospital, an institution founded and funded by the secret society that three generations of Jones men have sworn loyalty to. I wasn't just helping to wash my grandfather, I was performing a last rites of sorts for my brother.

One of the nurses walked in. He was a big guy that had recently returned from a deployment in Iraq as a field nurse. We made small talk while he checked my grandfather's vitals. It turns out that he was a member of the Order as well. He asked me if the man in the bed was my father. "No, this is my grandfather but he's the closest thing to a father that I've ever known". At that moment my grandfather slowly opened his eyes, looked at me and then turned his gaze to the nurse. "This is my son DeAngelo. This is my son." Those were the first words that my grandfather had spoken in a week. Those turned out to be his last words to me.

I pulled the sheets up over his shoulders, turned the tv in the room to PBS (his favorite channel), and kissed him goodbye. I promised him that I would come and see him after work the next day. As I was about to leave, he moaned as if he was in pain. I rushed back to his bedside to see what was wrong. He lifted his frail arms as if to say that he wanted a hug. I embraced him and gave him a final kiss on the forehead. When I looked at his face there were tears in his eyes.

The next morning, July 13th, 2009, my mom called me a little after 9:00 A.M. to tell me that he was gone. I had been at work for about 30 minutes and had just told my boss Barbara that I might have to leave if his condition worsened. I tried to hold back the tears but they flowed from a place that I didn't have access to before. As I rode the Brown Line to the hospital I thought about all the moments, good and bad, that I had shared with my grandfather. He was there when I first picked up my one true love, the game of baseball. He was there when I gave salutatorian address for my 8th grade graduating class and again, 4 years later, when I was the valedictorian of my high school graduating class. My grandfather was there for my graduation from the Honors program at DePaul. He was overwhelmed with joy as I walked across the stage at the Allstate arena with the graduating class of 2006.

As I walked into his hospital room there was nothing but silence. No more breathing machines and heart monitors. Just silence. There he was laying there finally in peace. My mother had arrived before me and performed the unenviable task of closing her father's eyes. She was holding his right hand. I went over and touched his forehead. He was still warm. At that moment, none of the drunken tirades mattered anymore. There was only the finality of that moment, the realization that I would never see the man most responsible for any success that I've had in my short life again. No more alcohol, cigarettes, pain, guilt, lost opportunities, bad decisions, and fear. At that moment, even the atheist in me hoped for the existence of an afterlife where my grandfather would be reunited with his mother Roxie and father Grant Parker Jones, all of his brothers and sisters who preceded him in death, his late wife Ruthie Mae, and his infant son who he lost so long ago.

There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of my grandfather Leverne. His love for life, food, books, and people opened my eyes and heart to the world outside of our little neighborhood. His life long battle with alcoholism fueled my desire to help those people who are unable to help themselves overcome this vicious, pervasive disease. I owe everything that I have and all the things that I hope to obtain to his presence in my life. His favorite phrase was "you have to take the bitter with the sweet". Everyday since July 13th, 2009 has been bitter sweet.

I love you dad. I'll do everything in my power to continue to live a life that you would be proud of; the life that you wish you would've lived.

Happy birthday!

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