The Promise

Violence. Poverty. Drugs. Hunger. The true story of one boy who beat the odds.

By Alphonso Mayo with Brian Nelson

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PART ONE: ABANDONED

I was born in 1987 at the height of the crack epidemic. Both my parents were addicts. My father had been clean all his life until my older sister, Ashley, died in her crib when she was fifteen days old. That was his breaking point. After that he started using crack and getting into trouble. By the time I was born, thirteen months later, he was in jail. My mother was on crack throughout her pregnancy with me, and I was born with two holes in my heart.

As a newborn my mother would take me to different crack houses when she needed a fix. When I was six months old she abandoned me in the basement of one of those houses. My aunt and uncle eventually found me. As my aunt tells it, I was crying inconsolably, my face red and sore. It was a cold day and I was only wearing a diaper. She wrapped me in a t-shirt, and I finally settled down. Later, when she went to change me, she found drug vials in my diaper.

After that I lived with my paternal grandparents in a row house on North Avenue, an area famous for drugs and violence.

Sixteen people lived in the house. Three generations. There were my grandparents George and Gloria Mayo. Their sons: George, Riccas, and my dad—Alphonso, Sr. Their daughters: Teresa, Darlene, and Lolita. Then my cousins India, Andre, Tasha, Teila, Demetrius, Solita, James, and me. People slept in every room except the kitchen.

PART TWO: FIGHTING TO SURVIVE

We were in constant trouble with the law. Sometimes the police would come to our house seven days a week. They knew everyone by name. They’d come up the steps, “Who is it this time? Andre, Riccas, or Alphonso?” In fact, if I were to write out the police records of everyone I lived with, it would fill several pages—everything from assault to dealing drugs to prostitution and burglary. My dad, my uncle Riccas, my cousin Andre, my aunts Lolita and Darlene. They got arrested over and over. My father alone went to jail nine times for assault and five times for drugs.

My whole family had a mean streak. When I tell people that my family fought everyday, they think I’m talking about arguing. No. I’m talking about fighting. One night my uncle Riccas broke both my dad’s arms. Another time my dad almost killed Riccas with a cast iron skillet. I remember him on top of Riccas, pounding his head over and over. He destroyed Riccas’s face. When my dad finally stood up, he was covered in blood, up to his elbows. I couldn’t believe how much blood there was. It didn’t even seem real.

Dad went to jail for that.

Another night my Dad got in a fight with grandpa and cut him above the eye with a broken glass mug. I remember Grandpa standing in the doorway with one hand pressed to his eye, the blood was surging out with rhythm, seeping through his fingers and down his elbow.

My dad went to jail for that, too.

In fact, my dad was in jail so much that for the longest time I didn’t even know he was my dad. I thought my uncle George was my father. It wasn’t until the first time he whipped me that I realized who he was. I was six. My grandpa had given me a dollar to go to the store, and I bought two packs of lemon cookies. I was so happy that on the walk back I ate the first pack. When I came through the vestibule, there sat my father. “Come here,” he said. “What’s in the bag?”

“Cookies,” I said.

“What happen to the first pack?”

“I ate them on the walk back.” He took the bag of cookies, grabbed my shirt, spun me around, and started beating me. The pain shot through my back into my head and I became nauseous. All I could do was wait for someone to stop him. But no one did. I was so confused. Whenever anyone else had tried to hurt me my grandma had always intervened. But not this time. Because it was my father, she wouldn’t. That was the beginning of years of abuse. In my community it’s common for parents to beat their kids for no reason, but my father would do it almost every day.

The only person my dad wouldn’t fight was my uncle George, his older brother, because he knew he couldn’t beat him. George was the only normal one. He had been in the military and never drank or did drugs.

* * *

With violence all around me I learned at a very young age that I had to be tough; that I had to hide my feelings and never show weakness. In my world you were never safe because there was always someone who would hurt you or take from you if they could, whether you were in the street, in school, or in your house.

In the first grade I was walking home from school when a fourth grade girl—a big girl with cornrows and light brown skin—started beating on me. I had no idea why. I’d never seen her before. But she wanted to hurt me. She busted my lip and scratched me all over. I went home crying.

My cousins were on the front stoop and saw me coming. They ask me what happened. I’d stopped crying by then, but as I tried to tell the story, I broke down all over.

They assured me everything would be all right and that they’d take care of it.

The next morning, at role call, everyone was standing out in the concrete courtyard of our school. My cousins told me to point her out, so I did. They walked over to her and started pushing her around. “Wait until after school,” my oldest cousin Tisha said.

After school we banked her. Four against one. I remember it was near the church by our house. My cousins shoved her back and forth for a while, then Tisha hit her in the head and she fell to the ground.

“Little Al, hit her,” she said.

I punched her in the face. My cousins egged me on. “That’s it. Hit her again.” So I punched her again. And again. And again.

I remember that moment very clearly. The shame and humiliation of the day before was still fresh in my mind, almost as fresh as the feeling of power and vindication I felt standing over this girl. Perhaps I did not think of it in so many words, but I decided that I never wanted to feel humiliated like that again, and that if any kid talked bad about me or my family, I’d fight them. In hindsight, it was a terrible idea, but I felt (and maybe it was true) that I had no alternative.

Soon I was getting into a fight every other day in school. It became a cycle. I’d fight, get suspended, go back for a few days, get in another fight, and get suspended again. Perhaps it was the rage at not having a mother, perhaps it was the examples I saw in my own house, I don’t know, but I was a very violent kid. I would eventually be suspended more than 170 times. Some years I was out of school more than I was in it and I wasn’t learning anything. It didn’t matter. My teachers always passed me.

PART THREE: HUNGER

My granddad’s pension was $975. I will always remember that number. That’s what we had to live on and most of it went to rent. We got food stamps because of the five children in the house, but you just can’t feed sixteen people off food stamps and a few hundred dollars.

The first of the month was good, but by the 11th or 12th we were out of food. I’d open the fridge and there’d be the grease bucket, one egg, some bread ends, a can of condensed milk, and a dusting of roach droppings. I’d eat cereal with water or syrup sandwiches (King Syrup was my favorite). And I ate Oodles of Noodles over and over. Chicken pack or oriental pack or beef pack. The beef pack was the best. Eventually there would be no more of that, so I didn’t eat.

During the last weeks of the month you just had to hope that some money trickled in. Riccas never worked, but he would go out and collect cans. That would bring in forty or fifty dollars and he’d give it to Grandma to buy more chicken and Oodles of Noodles.

When there was no food in the house, I stayed away. What little sense of sanctuary my house had, it evaporated if there was nothing to eat. Instead, I’d show up at a friend’s house right around dinner time. That’s when I saw how normal people lived. They didn’t fight over food, or hoard it in their rooms, or eat it as fast as they could because they knew if they didn’t, someone else would. Although others in my house stashed food, I never did. If I had extra food it was always so little that I just ate it immediately. If you stashed it you risked losing it—either to other people or to mice and roaches.

We had it bad, but my Grandma and Grandpa had it worse. They wouldn’t eat until the rest of the family had finished. If there were ten pieces of chicken to go around, they would wait until there was just a wing and a thigh, and that would be dinner. Some nights they didn’t get anything. I’d offer them some of mine and they’d say no, claiming they had already eaten or they were full, but I knew it wasn’t true.

I’m the one with the striped shirt and hat. My grandmother is standing in the doorway. Uncle George is on the far left. 

PART FOUR: MY FATHER

When my father was out of jail he made my life hell. He was a maniac, clean and simple. A strung out junkie with a hair-trigger temper and a bad case of LMS—Little Man Syndrome. On the street he didn’t fight much, because he was so small. But in the house he tried to dominate everyone, picking fights over the most trivial things: the last piece of bread, his spot on the sofa, the remote control. He was like a child having temper tantrums. He never cared about the consequences either, and he’d say so himself. “I don’t give a fuck. I’ll knock your brains out.” That was his favorite saying, “I’ll knock your brains out.” And he loved to remind you that he wasn’t afraid of being arrested again. “I don’t give a fuck about going to jail. It don’t make me no different.”

He never spent time with me. He never encouraged me or tried to teach me anything. When I was seven I had to have heart surgery to fix the two holes in my heart that I’d had since birth. I was in the hospital for eleven days. He never came once. I started playing football at the age of eight. By the time I finished high school I’d played in over 200 games. My father came to one game.

And it wasn’t simply that my father didn’t care about me, it was that he seemed to actively want to hurt me, both physically and psychologically. When I was nine, we were living in a better house on Cherry Hill and I hoped that things would improve. One day not long before the holidays he took me aside and asked me to make a Christmas list. Up to this point in my life he had never bought me anything—no clothes, shoes, or toys—but I made my list. I still remember it: black Timberlands boots, video games for my Super Nintendo, and some clothes. I was so happy. I remember thinking, Finally, he’s doing something for me, and I can’t wait. On Christmas Eve, I walked to the other end of the street where my father was staying with his girlfriend, Ms. Donna. Her son Tyrell welcomed me in. Tyrell was my age and we were friends because we both played football. As the night went on, we talked and talked, and I shared my Christmas list with him. I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning Tyrell woke me up and said, “Come on! Let’s go see what we got.” When I got to the Christmas tree I searched for my presents, but they all said, “To Tyrell, From Big Al and Mommy.” I felt terrible, but I tried to make the best of it. I turned to Tyrell, “Can I help you open up your presents.” Without hesitation he tossed me a box. Inside were three video games for his Super Nintendo. My heart dropped. Then he opened up his next box, it was a pair of black Timberlands boots. I sat there, feeling utterly lost as Tyrell opened the rest of his presents. My father walked into the room and smiled at Tyrell, “You like it?” he said. Tyrell gave him a huge smile and nodded enthusiastically. I sat looking out the window so my father couldn’t see my face. Once he left the room, I picked up my coat and walked out. As I walked through the alley, I kept my head down, tears rolling down my face, the pain of not being loved so acute I thought my heart would seize in my chest. I should have known not to let my guard down. When I walked in the back door of my grandparents’ house my grandmother asked, “What’s wrong?” But I couldn’t speak. I walked by the Christmas tree, with all the presents with my name on them, and went upstairs to my room.

* * *

Every day in my house was the same. The ghetto version of Groundhog Day. By the early afternoon, Uncle Riccas would be drunk. Then my dad would come home, strung out and belligerent, looking for a fight. He’d start picking on Riccas, who was an easy target because he was wasted, and before long they’d come to blows. Some days I tried to calm my dad down before it escalated, but that usually meant he’d turn on me. “Who the fuck you talking to?” he’d say, unbuckling his belt and folding it in half. I’d feel that rush of fear and my mouth would go dry. He’d beat me and forget all about Riccas. For the longest time I never fought back, because that would only make it worse.

Then one day, when I was eleven, I decided I’d had enough.

I remember it very clearly: Dad came in, making lots of noise, mumbling and cursing. Motherfuckin’ bitches…

He didn’t say hello to anyone, just went to the refrigerator and threw the door open so hard it smacked the wall. It must have been the beginning of the month because we had food. I remember him stooped over with a loaf of bread in his hand.

I was already mad at him. Just look at him, eating our food. He didn’t even live here. (This is when he was living with Ms. Donna.) He made a sandwich and went to the kitchen table. As I watched him I just kept getting madder and madder. I had decided that this man was not my father. There was no way. He had destroyed my trust a long time ago. When we fought it wasn’t because he was trying to discipline me, it was because he wanted to hurt me. He was not my father.

“Little boy,” he says, “get me some water.”

I turned my head away in disgust. Was he crazy? The refrigerator was right behind him. I was in the dining room.

“Get your own water,” I said.

He stiffened. “What the fuck you say to me?”

I looked at my grandmother. She had a worried look on her face. This had never happened before.

“Go get me some fucking water!” he shouted.

“Get your own water,” I said.

He stood and threw his plate and then his coffee mug against the wall and came at me.

I felt the familiar rush of adrenaline, but this time I didn’t wait. As soon as he got close I starting punching him. I punched him and I didn’t stop. By now I had been in so many fights at school, I knew what to do. I knew how to dodge and weave. Thanks to football I could take a hit. He was punching at me, too, but he was missing. He might have hit me a few times, but I hit him a lot more.

Grandma was screaming, “Al, Al, stop!” But both of our names are Al. Then uncle George came pounding up the steps from the basement. He picked me up and turned me around, putting his back to his brother, because he knew my dad wouldn’t dare hit him.

“No, no this shouldn’t be happening,” George said. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t give a fuck about him,” my dad shouted. “Who cares.” He took off, flinging open the screen door and stomping down the steps. A moment later he was halfway down the ally.

Uncle George still had me up in a bear hug, my feet off the ground. I was still struggling, flailing around.

“No. No. No.” Grandma kept saying.

Uncle George finally let me down. I raced upstairs to my room. I was so angry and hyped up, it took me a long time to settle down. A part of me felt bad for fighting in front of my Grandma, but another part of me felt good. I could finally stop my dad from whipping me. After so many years of abuse, it was an incredible feeling. I knew that a dark portion of my life was over.

It was just a few months later that uncle George contracted pneumonia. He waited too long to go to the hospital and died. He was 45 years old.

PART FIVE: DOPE

About the time I turned twelve I began to notice my dad’s drug use. Up until then I never really understood that the drugs were driving his anger and rage.

He was out of jail now and working for Mr. Mike as a car mechanic. Sometimes I’d go down to the shop with him and wash cars for money. We’d be together all day and never speak. Dad would make sixty or eighty bucks a day, always under the table, and he’d blow it all. We’d ride a hack (a freelance taxi) home together, and he’d want to get out early, at the top of Norfolk. He’d pay the driver and tell him to take me on home, saying he had business to do. That’s when I knew he was going to buy because that was a big drug area.

It was embarrassing for me because a lot of the dealers were people I knew. I was twelve or thirteen and most of the dealers were fifteen and sixteen. These were kids I saw in school or through football. They’re smiling at me at practice and they’re selling drugs to my dad every day.

Because we never had enough money to get through the month, it was expected that if my dad worked, he would give most of his money to grandma. But even when he did, he would always beg it back. “I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” he’d say, or “I’ll give you double tomorrow.” I must have heard that a million times. Grandma would always give in to him, and of course, he never gave it back. So I started to take the money from him so we could eat.

Then in the middle of the night he’d wake me up, asking for it, saying it was an emergency. I gave in a couple of times because I was tired and half asleep, but then I started to hide the money. It became a game. He’d need a fix and come searching for it. Eventually, he would find my hiding place, then I’d have to find a new one. Over and over again. For years. Finally, I started to fight him. If I caught him sneaking around my stuff, we’d fight.

He developed weird habits from the drugs. He did crack, so he was obsessed by anything white. If you were sitting with him at a table and he saw something white he would try to get it up with his finger. He’d realize it was just paint or something, yet he’d keep trying. Over and over again. It was if he wasn’t really in control of his mind, which I guess he wasn’t.

I also noticed how his body would change. When he was using he would get real skinny and gaunt. When he was in jail and eating three squares a day he would beef up, but after he’d come home he’d start losing it. It happened every time.

Before that I never understood why he was always angry and why he always wanted to fight. But now I saw that it had to do with the drugs. I didn’t forgive him for it, I should be more important to him than his drugs, but now I understood.

PART SIX: ATTEMPTED MURDER

Then came the night that I almost killed my father. I was thirteen years old.

It was after three in the morning when he came to the back of the house. He was high out of his mind and wanted to come inside. He started calling up to grandma’s window. “Let me in the fucking house.” But grandma could tell he was high and that letting him in would just cause more trouble. When my dad figured this out, he went crazy. “Open this door, you fucking bitch! I’ll kill all of you. I don’t care.” I lay in my bed listening to him. I knew my grandma—and the whole neighborhood—could hear him. It’s the middle of the night. It goes on for an hour, than two hours. As I listened, I got more and more angry. I was so tired of the embarrassment my family suffered because of him. Say one more thing about my grandma, I thought. Just one more thing. “Open the door, you fucking whore!” I slipped on my basketball shorts and went downstairs. In our pantry we kept our hardware supplies. I grabbed a shovel and opened the back door. There he stood. “Come on, bitch,” he said and rushed me. But he was so high, he wasn’t even moving right. He made an easy target. I swung the shovel with all my might, connecting with the flat part against the side of his head. He fell to the ground, holding his head. I kept swinging the shovel. BANG. BANG. BANG. I was so enraged. I beat him until the shovel broke. My grandmother rushed out. Blood was pouring out from my father’s nose and ears. “Call the ambulance,” she yelled. The police and ambulance arrived at the same time. When the paramedics saw the body they seemed shocked. He looked so bad lying there, not moving, and all the blood, they must have assumed he was dead, because they took their time helping him. They slowly turned him over and checked for a pulse. They couldn’t find one.

The cops started questioning me. I was so angry that I just told the truth, which was a big mistake.

There were two cops. I could tell the first cop was new. Growing up in this city, you pick up on things like that. He was doing everything by the book. When I finished my story, he said, “You’re under arrest. Put your hands behind your back.” At that moment I knew that I was going away for a long time. I had given them a full confession and even though I was a minor, this was, at best, attempted murder…maybe murder. They would send me to “Hickey”—the Charles H. Hickey Junior School. It’s called a school, but it’s not. It’s a prison for kids. They can keep you there until you’re twenty one. I’d seen the people that came out of there and they were never the same.

I put my hands behind my back, but then the older cop, who was big with biker tattoos, put his hand on the rookie’s shoulder. “Hold on a minute,” he said, “We didn’t actually see what happened here?” That’s when I realized the older cop knew my dad. He turned to me. “When you came outside you found him like this, right?”

I nodded.

He picked up the pieces of the broken shovel and gave them to the rookie. “Here, make these disappear.” The rookie stared at him a moment, processing the request, then gave a breathy sort of laugh. But he did what he was told. When he was out of earshot the older cop turned to me. “Look, you need to go to school, get out of this,” he motioned to the neighborhood, “save yourself,” then he put a ten dollar bill in my fist.

They took my dad away in the ambulance and by the time the police were done filling out their reports it was almost time for school. The older cop called for the paddy wagon to give me a ride.

My father recovered, but I’d cracked his skull, and he was plagued with intense migraines for years. He has no memory of what happened that night and he doesn’t know that I’m responsible.

That night changed my life. When the cop had said, “Put your hands behind your back,” I was sure that was the end for me. But I’d been given a second chance and I knew I had to use it. Up until then, I had been doing the same thing over and over. Fighting in the house. Going to school, fighting some more, getting suspended. Anytime I was faced with a challenge, I would fight. I saw myself as a defender, as someone who was protecting the greater good, but I was really just becoming a product of my household, another violent black kid.

PART SEVEN: SCHOOL

It was only a few days later that I was called to the principal’s office. Waiting for me were Assistant Principal Gray and a guidance counselor. I was nervous because I thought I was being kicked out of school. I had been in so many fights that I figured I’d reached the end of the line.

What happened next was almost worse.

“Sadly, I have to inform you that you’re not in high school,” Gray said. “There were some mistakes made and you shouldn’t be here. However, we can’t send you back to middle school.” He kept shaking his head, not quite believing the whole situation. “We have a prep class that you must pass before returning to normal classes. Do you understand?” I didn’t say anything. I was too embarrassed. My biggest weakness, that I still couldn’t read, was being exposed.

They took me to a special room and there sat several other students in the same predicament as me. That, at least, was a relief. The plan for the class was passed out. I figured I’d sit around and this teacher would pass me just like all the others. I know, I know. It was the wrong attitude. But the thing was, even though I had promised myself I wouldn’t fight, I figured I still didn’t have to work in school. As long as I had football, I’d be fine.

The class was like solitary confinement. We stayed in the same room all day and couldn’t even eat lunch with everyone else. I didn’t want people to know I was there, so I kept my head down whenever someone walked by.

At the end of the quarter, I was told that I had failed and that I would have to take the class again. I wasn’t surprised, because I hadn’t done the work. I figured no one else had either and that we’d all play around again. Fuck it.

On the first day of the new quarter I returned to the same room. I’ll never forget it: There’s the same teacher, but there are no other students. I looked around and there was just one desk with a lesson plan on it. For about an hour I thought it was a prank, then I realized I was the only person who had failed. I was so embarrassed. I had always made fun of Special Ed. kids. But this wasn’t even Special Ed., this was below that. I was in shock. My brain just couldn’t even process it. But then I realized the only way to get out was to actually do it. For the first time in my life, a teacher wasn’t going to just pass me.

So I started looking at the packet. And I can’t read it. I recognized a few words—a, but, the—but only the most basic words. It was like looking at ancient runes. I didn’t want to quit so I just stared at it. I could tell they were stories. You had to read the stories, then answer questions about them. It should be easy, but I couldn’t even read the questions. So I sat there all day with this one paragraph, trying to pronounce things, trying to find words I knew, guessing the words around them. I spent the whole day on that one paragraph. I took it home and kept looking at it. I still couldn’t understand it, so I gave it to my younger cousin Solita. She read it, but so easy. As she said each word, I tried to remember it. One word at a time. I knew the words verbally, but I didn’t know what they looked like. Some words, like “ask,” never looked right because I always said “axe.”

Everyday after that, I sat in that classroom, the only student, and struggled. Slowly, my mind started to develop. Soon, I was thinking about language all day, every day. When someone would talk to me, I’d visualize how the word was spelled. I also got my hustle on. I started to tutor younger kids. I was acting like I was their tutor, but I was actually learning from them, pronouncing words, learning to read. It was at Saint Ambrose Family Outreach Center. It was all about attitude. I’d start reading a line and when I got stuck I’d say, “You know what this word is, right?” And if they didn’t know, I made them look it up in the dictionary. That way I learned it, too. It was great, I was learning to read and getting paid $300 a month to do it.

But I was still very slow. It took me hours and hours to complete simple assignments. Something big, like a paper, I would have to start three or four weeks ahead of time. At the end of the quarter I received my report card and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. All B’s and above! For the first time in my academic life, I was proud of myself.

When I showed my grandmother my report card, she smiled in a way that I had never seen before. Then she started to cry.

I knew I had accomplished something very special: I’d made her feel good, which was the opposite of how I usually made her feel. It was a feedback loop. It made me very happy knowing that I could give her that feeling. And I decided right there that I wanted to do it again.

* * *

By the beginning of sophomore year, I was finally on the right track. Life wasn’t easy, but I now had the tools and the work ethic to succeed. I eventually graduated high school with honors and, after a few of life’s detours, graduated from Stevenson University on May 10, 2014.

It should have been a happy day, after all, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. But as I looked out at the crowd—at so many “normal” families smiling and taking pictures—I felt the absence of all the people in my life that should have been there and weren’t. By now both my grandparents were dead, and uncle Riccas had joined his brother George in an early death. Most acutely I felt the absence of my best friend Travis who had been murdered earlier that year in a drug-related killing. Yes, I had made it, yet it seemed at a much higher cost than those around me.

As I gazed out at the crowd I remembered back to when I was a child, six years old, hearing gunshots at night and knowing that people were dying; it was my first realization of how dangerous my world was. At that moment, I had no knowledge of the social and economic forces that had created my world, no understanding of poverty or incarceration rates or the probability of an early death. Yet I had still known that I was very small in this world. Now, as an adult, I realize that I’d been right.

I am a product of Baltimore, a city where drugs and poverty and hopelessness make mothers abandon their children. A place where men don’t raise their sons. And where teenage boys murder one another and the paper doesn’t even report it.

But I’m not leaving, even though I now have the tools to do so. I’m still committed to making it a better place. I started with the kids in my neighborhood. I know that I can give them the things that I didn’t have. And if I can help, say, forty kids, then that will have a multiplier effect, sparking something that can grow and grow all by itself.

There is hope, even from the most unlikely of places. After my grandparents died my father didn’t have anywhere to live. Just like I had to learn to read by necessity, he had to get clean if he wanted to survive. He got himself a regular job, an apartment, and a steady girlfriend. I honestly can’t say he never uses, but at least he has it under control. Just a few weeks ago he called me and said he’d been walking by a kids’ football game and had heard some mother shouting encouragement to her son. He told me that he was sorry that he had never done that for me.

I told him not to worry about it.

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