The likelihood of meeting the person you’re destined to be with is a statistical anomaly. That’s if you believe it’s even possible. Be that as it may, my parents almost never met.

My mother was in love with a man named Donald Dayton. In the 1970s when the automotive manufacturing industry was thriving, and before health and safety regulations were what they are today, Donald spent his summers working at a plant in Detroit. It was good money for a black kid at the time, but unfortunately the air he breathed working there was toxic. He developed a then fatal lung disease called sarcoidosis. This would not be the last time my mother would lose the love of her life to the American working environment.

Scientists today have said that sitting is the new smoking. It’s something we all do without the long term health risks being understood. Most of us sit all day staring at screens. Will we look back at our current day jobs through the same lens we look at the inhumane working conditions of the past? My guess? We definitely will.

After Donald’s funeral my mom got in her car and drove for days without any destination. It was the worst thing she had ever been through, up to that point. Unbeknownst to her then, it would also be the catalyst to propel her into the world she knows today. Even more important, for the purposes of our story, I owe my existence to this seemingly horrible event.

There’s this old fable of the wise man,

A boy in a village wanted a bike and finally got one. The people of the village thought it was great. Reserving judgement, the wise man said, ‘we’ll see’. The boy broke his arm riding that bike. The villagers then thought it was bad. The wise man said, ‘we’ll see’. Then war came, but because the boy had a broken arm, he didn’t have to go. The people changed their tune again and thought his arm breaking turned out to be a good thing. The wise man simply stated, ‘we’ll see’…

These stories reflect the importance of non-judgement and non-attachment to any particular outcome. It’s best to stay here in the present moment. We never know where it will take us.

Chapter 1

Have you ever considered the improbability of being alive? Of all the near-death experiences I’ve had, my ancestors made it through just as many, probably more. The earth had to be exactly 93 million miles away from the sun in order to make life on this planet hospitable. Every living organism that existed in the 6 billion years between Earth forming and the evolution of man had to make it through unimaginable difficulty, all in order for your parents to meet.

And like I said, my parents almost never did. When it happened, it was of course a chance encounter.

My Mom and Aunt Phoebe had plans to visit their friend Nancy in Virginia Beach. Nancy ended up meeting a guy at the last minute. An encounter I can only imagine was just as random as my parents’. Because of this, she no longer wanted my mom and aunt to visit, so she basically stood them up.

Not wanting to waste their vacation time, my mom randomly suggested visiting Charleston WV instead. While there enjoying the summer day in front of their hotel, they noticed a group of guys hanging out by a fountain. My mom was way too shy but my Aunt Phoebe was the opposite. She walked right over and started talking to one of them, named Curtis.

My father was one of 14 brothers and sisters, born and raised in War, West Virginia – the state’s southern most town. He and his siblings would grow to resent their country upbringing and began moving to New York City when they became of age. They had family there who they’d spent their summers with as children. My father went to college however in Charleston, West Virginia. The summer he graduated he found himself outside at the city fountain, discussing his plans to finally move to New York permanently.

It was then when a heavy-set, light-skinned, African-American woman named Phoebe approached him, asking, “What’s there to do around here this weekend?” My dad, noticing her pretty brown skinned 5’1 sister standing quietly in the background, invited them both out that evening. He said he’d be happy to show them around, they just needed to pick him up. They accepted his invitation and for the rest of that weekend, the three of them hung out. My mom and dad exchanged phone numbers but she never thought she’d see him again. They ended up keeping in touch and before long they were taking trips to see one another.

After a couple years of dating my parents got married. By then my father was living in New York full time, working real estate in Harlem, and trying to get his record label off the ground. My mother worked for a doctor’s office back in Steubenville, Ohio. My dad eventually enticed her to move to the big city.

Through the lens of history it seems apparent now, but for them at the time, the magnitude of danger in Harlem circa 1983 wasn’t as obvious right away. And like the boiling frog, my father would slowly succumb. He was also in mourning, his father was dying. Most of the time then, he was nowhere to be found. Where he was and what he was doing, we won’t find out until I’m much older. It’s something that would change my family forever.

Fortunately for my mom, her mom who I called ‘Gram’, would soon be forced to visit New York to help. Gram was an unapologetically courageous black women, though light enough to pass for white.

It was right around this time my mother became pregnant with her first child, me.

Chapter 2

I don’t know much about reincarnation, but once out of curiosity, I googled who died the day I was born. Howard Dietz. We have some eerie similarities. Because I’m a Leo, I’ve always loved lions. Howard Dietz is credited with creating the Lion mascot you see at the beginning of every MGM movie. And not only did he die the same day I was born, but it was in the same city! If that’s not enough, he was a writer too. Creepy.

I also don’t know much about my paternal grandfather either, other than he died on July 1st, and by the end of that month I’d be born. You would think that losing your father and becoming one, within such a short time span, would create some sort of balance. But my father couldn’t handle death. Not even new life could lead him from the depression that followed.

My mother hadn’t seen him in days. Miraculously, he came home the morning she’d give birth to me. My parents had an arrangement with their neighbors. They were supposed to drive her to the hospital when it was time. When it actually happened though, they “chickened out” and gave their car to my father to drive instead. Racing from 127th – 12th street through Manhattan traffic on a hot Saturday night in July, they make it without incident to St. Vincent’s Medical Center (the hospital used first on September 11, 2001).

While my father was parking the car, my mom and grandma were getting into a heated confrontation with the security guard. He’s telling them they have to go in through another entrance. My grandmother is yelling, “Can’t you see she’s pregnant!? There’s no time! Her husband is parking the car, we can’t lose him!” My mom is thinking that my dad, with his temper, is seriously going to fight this dude. Just before my dad catches back up with them, the guard recognizes my mom…she works in the same hospital! He then let’s all three of them in, just in time. Crises averted.

At 5:38pm on July 30, 1983 I took my first breath in one of the most artistic and open minded places in the world, Greenwich Village. I was handed to my mother and father by a nurse with purple hair. Then it was back to harlem.

Chapter 3

Giving birth made my mother extremely ill. She was in the hospital for weeks. To this day my mom tells me I owe my life to Gram being there, taking care of me while she was hospitalized. My father was again missing in action.

One night Gram had enough of my father not taking care of his family. So she went looking for him and started her search at his Mom’s.

I don’t know much about my father’s mother who I called ‘Grammy’. I only ever met her a few times. I do know that because of her letting my Dad get away with so much, it’s the reason my mom never let me get away with anything.

None of us had any idea yet why my father was hiding or what he was running from, but Gram found him there on Grammy’s couch. He was just sitting there watching TV, as if neglecting your newborn and sick wife was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. She yelled at him and his mother, telling them about themselves and how ridiculous it was that she could allow him to be so irresponsible. She told him he should be ashamed, laying around like a kid when he has a child of his own now. I guess the deserved ridicule worked because after that beratement he finally came home.

My mother began to feel better and for my family things started to improve. My mom was working, going to school, and learning to navigate the city. My Dad was trying his hardest to be successful with his businesses.

One night after showing an apartment to some potential tenants my father was robbed and pistol whipped for the few hundred dollars he had on him. He came home that night bruised and bloody. I was still too young to remember, but they told me I could sense the trauma and lifted my little baby arms to his wounds with a cold compress. That’s when my mom started to get a sense of the danger Harlem had to offer.

Another night after work my mother accidentally left the keys in the door for the entire day. Fortunately the nice neighbors she knew found them and kept them for her. When they gave them back they also gave her a grave warning, intensely stressing that she never ever do anything like that again: “You’ll lose everything at best or at worst someone will take the key, make a copy of it, and kill and rape your entire family.” My mom never felt the same about New York after that and began feeling like it wasn’t the place to raise me.

My father had apartments in Brooklyn so my mother suggested possibly moving there. A few weeks before they were going to move in all of the plumbing was robbed from the house. Apparently older places with copper plumbing are worth a small fortune. Afterwards there was no way my parents felt safe living there and it was the last straw for my mother. She had tried it my dad’s way long enough. Now it was her turn. After about a year of negotiations she talked my dad into moving back to the town she grew up in, St. Clairsville.

We stayed in a small house there where I made my very first memories. All I remember is my dad’s brother visiting, my Uncle Jackie, and me being 3 years old riding on his back. I also remember falling down the stairs and Grammy being there, calling it a “big bad boom”.

Next when I was 4 ,we moved to a nearby town called Martins Ferry where I start to really recollect memories. This is where I first learned about the opposite sex, and the opposite race.

My neighbors across the street were crazy, always getting into fights. One time the police came to their house to break up a scuffle. I was scared and asked if we could drive to Gram’s house, which was a few towns over. My mother told me not to worry and that I would be okay.

The first time I heard the word nigger was from the neighbors across the street. They were laughing and pointing at me, calling me a nigger while I laughingly pulled my shirt up and played along. I had no idea what that meant. Later I asked my mom what a nigger is and she told me it was a mean word to call a black person.

My response, “well whats a mean word I can call a white person?”

“Cracker , she said.

My father was again coming and going as he pleased. Every morning I would wake up and the first thing I would yell into the next room was, “is Daddy here?”No, I’m sorry sweetheart , was always her reply.

I guess this is where my issues with abandonment stem from. And also everyday, my mother was forced to drive an extra twenty minutes before and after work to take me to day care where I would sometimes be at for 10 hours. No one knew it at the time but now there are various studies that suggest children taken to day care suffer from abandonment issues later in life. I don’t mean to complain. My mother was doing the best she could, working everyday to keep food on the table.

The workers at the Day Care showed favoritism to some children but not to me. It was infuriating to see them let a family friends’ kid stay up while the rest of us had nap time. I hated nap time. Other than that they were okay, some were nicer than others. There was a women there named Sonya who I lived in fear of. She was super mean. Ms. Linda was the owner and also the kindest. She did a lot for my mother, providing discounts when financial hardships came to my family. Years later when my mother was more on her feet, she would return the favor, donating money every year to the day care. I was always proud of her for that.

Day care was very lonely but I had one friend that I still have to this day. My stuffed animal, Goofy. One time I forgot him at day care on a Friday and had to wait all the way until Monday before I could see him again and I cried. Time passes so much slower as a child.

Back at home there were several children in my neighborhood, most of them were older than me. A few of the girls were my age and that’s who I spent most of my time playing with.

Donny, one of the kids who called me a nigger, told me a story about one of the ladies on our street. He told me that Cindy, a grown woman took him into a room and let him see her breasts. I’ll never know if that story was true or not but judging by the craziness that was going on there then, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. Hearing this story though I almost felt jealousy seeping into my psyche. I wanted to have a similar experience with her. I was probably only 4 at the time, weird I know.

I found myself alone with Cindy’s daughter Carrie, playing in a closet. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but we both ended up with our pants all the way down. Just looking at each other.

“Oohh baby I want to kiss you” I said.

My brain was already starting to be corrupted. Perhaps because my father wasn’t around and my mother was at work all the time. I had no guidance. I was left to fend for myself, way too young.

Days later I found myself playing with another one of my girl friends. At this point I was kind of assuming that pulling your pants down was the norm. We again were alone playing in a closet. I said to her, “aren’t you going to pull your pants down?” She did not and promptly told her mother.

Her mom who was babysitting yelled at me wildly, saying she was going to tell my mom as soon as she got there. I was terrified, perhaps more than I’d ever been at that point in my life. I waited outside on the porch while they talked for only a few minutes. That night I waited for the fury of my parents to erupt. I was so ashamed. But that fury never came. To this day I have no idea whether or not she actually told my mom. I lived with that guilt all throughout my childhood years. I’ve since forgiven myself, understanding it was misguided human nature.

I was beginning to formulate my own interests. I became obsessed with music. The first song I fell in love with was Dionne Warwick’s “Thats what friends are for”. Next was “We are the World”, the charitable collaboration of several popular musicians at the time. Of those artists, one would become my favorite and very first idol, Michael Jackson.

I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old but I loved his music. Bad, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, these songs laid the foundation for what my musical palette is today. No one will believe this, because of how uncoordinated I am today, but back then I could moonwalk. I swear. I had the whole Michael Jackson dance down. My mom bought me the red zipper jacket and a sparkly glove. She even let me put the S wave in my hair one time. I cried when I saw how I looked in the mirror.

I’ll never know how she pulled this off, but one day when she picked me up from Day Care she had Michael Jackson tickets for that night in Pittsburgh. Not only that but when we got home to get ready, my father was there! My mom rolled her eyes thinking sarcastically how convenient it was for him to magically appear the day he’d get to see a Michael Jackson concert. Nevertheless we all drove an hour to the city and watched the show together as a family. As for my experience there, it was horrifying. I remember crying and being scared the whole time. I guess I was too young to wrap my head around the concept of pyrotechnics. My parents were maybe ahead of their time taking me to such a show so young. But creativity had snuck into my subconscious. I would never be the same. I’m forever grateful for that night. Allowing me to see the greatest performer and artist, perhaps of all time, cemented in me from an early age, an appreciation, respect, and curiosity for the arts.

Simultaneously I was exploring interests in my first crushes. I’ve heard stories of kids not being interested in the opposite sex until much older, but not me. I’ve been infatuated for as long as I can remember. My first crush was Punky Brewster, followed abruptly by Rudy Huxtable. It wouldn’t be until I started school that I could have real life crushes, which I would, a new one every year, and it’s always been like that – even now.

My life, for a moment, started to resemble normalcy. Both grandmothers would visit and everyone got along. Grammy noticing me walking with my head down gave me one of the only pieces of advice she ever did; “Why are you walking with your head down? Hold your head up when you walk. Be proud of who you are!”I don’t know why but that always stuck with me.

One evening with my father driving me and some cousins to our uncle’s, we got into a car wreck. It was raining and his car lost control and slid into a guard rail. Everyone was ok but we were all terrified. My father did best to console us immediately after, but I was afraid to get in a car with him for months.

Weeks later, after a fight between my parents with me in the middle, my father threatened to leave again but this time take me. He didn’t and left by himself, like he always did. His departure wouldn’t last long however.

My mother sat down to have a talk with me a few nights later. She asked what I thought about having a younger sibling. I told her of course I wanted one. About a week later her and my father sat me down again. They told me I would in fact get the opportunity to be a big brother. They even told me I could pick out the name. I decided on Jessica if it was a girl. We were always in church so I picked a name from the Bible if it was a boy, Joshua.

Chapter 4

”Skeletons, found decades after their souls left. Kneeling in payer, clawing their way through the dirt they were found in, hopelessly, frozen forever. It was the 1960s and the coal mines had caved in, again. These things happen in towns like War, West Virginia. This time it was the work of the Mothman. Just months prior he brought the Silver Bridge down and killed 46 people. They even made a movie about it…”

My father would tell me ghost stories from his times in West Virginia. He was a staunch believer in ghosts and even thought our house was haunted, I would soon come to find out.

“Daddy tell me just one more!”, I would plead before bed.

“Okay, just one more…”

They say that newborn children possess a knowledge and understanding of the unknown, a memory even of what’s on the other side of life, having just come from there themselves. They say that children forget this divine information as they learn to speak. As unlikely as all of this may seem, it is true that we all have early experiences that we can’t remember. No one remembers their own birth for example, but we all still know it happened. If our memories don’t begin were our experience does, who’s to say where the timeline begins?

I don’t think my father had ever given any thought to these types of ideas, but I can’t help but to consider them when I reflect on the next story he told me…

When you were very young, Arthur, just beginning to talk, I heard you in the middle of the night in your room making some sort of a noise. I went to check on you. My heart froze when I saw you standing in your crib by yourself talking to no one. I asked what you were doing. You told me you were talking to the ‘blue man’. I asked where the blue man went, and you told me he walked back into the wall. I had chills all over my body because I had already seen things myself in this house, and it was then I knew it had to be haunted.

I slept in my parents’ bed that night, scared to death. My mother was the opposite of my father and didn’t believe in anything that couldn’t be perceived with the five senses, unless it was written in the Bible. She told me my Dad was crazy and that I shouldn’t believe everything he says. A valuable lesson I would come to realize.

When I wasn’t being told horrifying ghost stories, I was preparing to become a big brother. I was really excited. I saw a child psychologist to help me cope with feelings of jealousy that were said to be common among new siblings. But I never felt any of that. I only ever wanted to best for him from the moment I saw him.

The morning he was born, March 10, 1989 – I woke up to an empty house. I found Gram standing in the hallway. I asked where was everyone. She told me they’d gone to the hospital to have the baby. I can still hear her warm voice felt with excitement.

I guess because 95% of the people I was around were white, and at 5 I was too young to understand genetics, but for some reason I kept thinking my little brother was going to be white. My dad took me to see him in the hospital and just laughed when I asked about his color.