Breaking NightA Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard
HYPERIONCopyright © 2010 Liz Murray
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-7868-6891-9
Chapter One University Avenue
THE FIRST TIME DADDY FOUND OUT ABOUT ME, IT WAS FROM BEHIND glass during a routine visit to prison, when Ma lifted her shirt, teary-eyed, exposing her pregnant belly for emphasis. My sister, Lisa, then just over one year old, sat propped against Ma's hip.
Reflecting on this time in her life, Ma would later explain, "It wasn't supposed to turn out that way, pumpkin. It wasn't like me and Daddy planned for this."
Even though she'd been on her own and in trouble with drugs since age thirteen, Ma insisted, "Daddy and me were gonna turn around. Somewhere down the line, we were gonna be like other people. Daddy was gonna get a real job. I was gonna be a court stenographer. I had dreams."
Ma used coke, shooting dissolved white dust into her veins; it traveled through her body much like lightning, igniting her, giving the feel, however fleeting, of something forward-moving, day in and day out.
"A lift," she called it.
She started using as a teenager; her own home had been a place of anger, violence, and abuse.
"Grandma was just nuts, Lizzy. Pop would come home drunk and beat the crap out of us, with anything-extension cords, sticks, whatever. She would just go clean the kitchen, humming, like nothing was happening. Then just act like Mary-friggin-Poppins five minutes later, when we were all busted up."
The oldest of four children, Ma often spoke of the guilt she harbored for finally leaving the abuse-and her siblings-behind. She went out on the streets when she was just thirteen.
"I couldn't stay there, not even for Lori or Johnny. At least they had mercy on Jimmy and took him away. Man, you bet your ass I had to get out of there. Being under a bridge was better, and safer, than being there."
I had to know what it was Ma did under bridges.
"Well, I dunno, pumpkin, me and my friends all hung out and talked ... about life. About our lousy parents. About how we were better off. We talked ... and I guess we got high, and after that, it didn't matter where we were."
Ma started out small, smoking grass and sniffing glue. During the years of her adolescence, moving between friends' couches and earning her living through teen prostitution and odd jobs like bike messengering, she moved on to speed and heroin.
"The Village was a wild place, Lizzy. I had these thick, tall leather boots. And I didn't care if I was skinny as hell; I wore short shorts and a cape down my back. Yeah, that's right, a cape. I was cool, too. Jivin', man. That's how we used to talk. Pumpkin, you should have seen me."
By the time Ma met Daddy, coke had become a popular seventies trend, alongside hip-huggers, muttonchops, and disco music. Ma described Daddy at the time they first hooked up as "dark, handsome, and smart as hell."
"He just got things, ya know? When most of the guys I hung around didn't know their ass from their elbow, your father had something about him. I guess you could say he was sharp."
Daddy came from a middle-class, Irish Catholic family in the suburbs. His father was a shipping boat captain and a violent alcoholic. His mother was a hardworking and willful woman who refused to put up with what she called "foolishness" from men.
"All you need to know about your grandfather, Lizzy, is that he was a nasty, violent drunk who liked to bully people," Daddy once told me, "and your grandmother didn't tolerate it. She didn't care how unpopular divorce was back then, she got herself one." Unfortunately for Daddy, when his parents' marriage ended, his father left him, and he never came back.
"He was a real piece of work, Lizzy. It's probably better he wasn't around, things weren't easy and he only would have made them worse."
People who knew Daddy when he was growing up describe him as a lonely child and a "hurt soul" who never seemed to get over his father's abandonment and his resulting status as "latchkey kid." His mother took on a demanding full-time job to make ends meet and she worked long hours while Daddy was mostly alone, searching for an outlet, someone or something to connect with. Most nights, he spent evenings by himself, or in the homes of friends, where he became a fixture in other people's families. Back at his house, he and Grandma grew distant, and things were mostly serious and silent between them.
"Your grandmother wasn't the talkative type," he told me one day, "which was very Irish Catholic of her. In our family, if you said the words 'I feel,' they better be followed with 'hungry' or 'cold.' Because we didn't get personal, that's just how it was."
But what Grandma lacked in warmth, she made up for in her tireless devotion to securing her son's future. Determined not to let Daddy suffer from the absence of his father, Grandma set out to give him the best education she could afford. She worked two bookkeeping jobs in order to put her only child through the best Catholic schools on Long Island. At Chaminade, a school with a reputation for being rigorous and elite, Daddy shared classes and a social life with a more well-to-do crowd than he'd ever known existed. Most of his classmates were given new cars as gifts on their sixteenth birthdays, while Daddy took two buses to school, his mother praying that the monthly tuition check wouldn't clear through the bank before her paycheck did.
The irony was, as much as this upper-class, private school setting was meant to position Daddy for a life of success, instead, it would put my father at odds with himself forever: in this environment he became both well-educated and a drug addict.
Throughout his late teen years, Daddy read the great American classics; vacationed in his classmates' beachfront summer homes, ignoring his mother's incessant phone calls; and as a pastime, popped amphetamines beneath the bleachers of the high school football field.
Though he'd always been quick to learn and absorbed much of his rigorous education, the drugs made it hard to concentrate in school, so he slacked on homework and dozed in class. In his last year, Daddy applied and was admitted to a college located right in the heart of New York City. When graduation rolled around, he just barely squeaked by. Manhattan was meant to be his real start in life, college his springboard. But it wasn't long before his high school setting recast itself around him, except now he was older and not in the suburbs of Baldwin, New York, but in the center of everything. In a few years' time, Daddy came to apply his aptitude more toward peddling drugs than his college work. Slowly, he rose to the top ranks of a small clique of drug pushers. Being the most educated member of the group, he was nicknamed "the professor," and was looked to for guidance. He was the one who drew blueprints for the group's schemes.
Daddy abandoned school when he was two years into a graduate degree in psychology, a time during which he also gained some experience in social work, earning slightly above minimum wage. But the upkeep involved maintaining two very separate lives-a legitimate attempt at the "straight life" versus the "high life"-required too much effort. His lucrative drug earnings had a gravity far too powerful; it simply outweighed what an average life seemed to offer. So he rented an East Village apartment and worked full-time in the drug trade, surrounded by odd, lower-Manhattan types with criminal records and gang affiliations-his "crew." It so happened that Ma was hitting the same scene, right around this same time, floating in the same offbeat crowd.
Years down the line, they connected at a mutual friend's loft apartment. Speed and coke were distributed as casually as soft drinks, and people discoed the night away surrounded by soft glowing lava lamps, the air perfumed by incense. They'd met a few times before, when Daddy'd dealt Ma speed or heroin. Coming from the streets, Ma's first impressions of Daddy were something like an encounter with a movie star.
"You just had to see the way your father worked the room," she'd tell me. "He called all the shots, commanded respect." When they hooked up, Ma was twenty-two and Daddy was thirty-four. Ma dressed for the seventies, in flower-child blouses and nearly invisible short-shorts. Daddy described her as radiant and wild-looking with long, wavy black hair and bright, piercing amber eyes. Daddy said he took one look at her and loved her innocence, yet also her toughness and her intensity. "She was unpredictable," he said. "You couldn't tell if she was calculating or totally naïve. It was like she could go either way."
They connected immediately, and in many ways became like any other new couple, passionate and eager to be with each other. But instead of taking in movies or hitting restaurants, shooting up was their common ground. They used getting high to find intimacy. Slowly, Ma and Daddy abandoned their crowds to be together, taking long walks down Manhattan streets, clasping hands, warming up to each other. They carried small baggies of cocaine and bottles of beer to Central Park, where they perched on hilltops to sprawl out in the moonlight and get high, anchored in each other's arms.
If my parents' lives had held different degrees of promise before they met, it didn't take long for their paths to run entirely parallel. The premature start of our family leveled them, when they began living together in early 1977. Lisa, my older sister, was born in February 1978, when Ma was twenty-three.
In Lisa's infancy, my parents initiated one of Daddy's more lucrative drug scares. The plot involved faking the existence of a doctor's office in order to legitimize the purchase of prescription painkillers that Daddy said were "strong enough to knock out a horse." Typically reserved for cancer patients on hospice, just one of the tiny pills had a street value of fifteen dollars. On his graduate student clientele alone, Daddy could use phony prescriptions to unload hundreds of these pills per week, earning Ma and Daddy thousands of dollars every month.
Daddy went through great pains to avoid getting caught. Patience and attention to detail would keep them out of jail, he insisted. "It had to be done right," he said. Meticulously, Daddy used the phone book along with maps of all five boroughs of New York City to carefully create a schedule of pharmacies they would hit systematically, week by week. The riskiest part of the scare, by far, was actually walking into the pharmacy to collect on a prescription, a task made riskier by the pharmacist's legal obligation to phone doctors and verify all "scripts" for pain pills as strong as these.
Daddy devised a way to intercept pharmacists' calls. The phone company at the time didn't verify doctors' credentials, so Daddy frequently ordered and abandoned new phone numbers under names he picked out of thin air, or sometimes he drew ideas from his former professors, Dr. Newman, Dr. Cohen, and Dr. Glasser. The pharmacists did indeed reach a doctor at the other end of their phone calls; a secretary even patched them through. But really it was only Ma and Daddy working together as a team. They worked long days, utilizing rent-by-the-week rooms in flophouses across New York City while friends cared for Lisa, who at that time was only a few months old.
The prescriptions themselves Daddy created with the help of his crew. He gave friends in a printing shop a cut of his profits in exchange for an ongoing supply of illegal, custom-made rubber stamps bearing the names of the phony doctors and a supply of legitimate-looking prescription pads. With the help of his connections, and for the cost of twenty-five dollars per pad, Daddy transformed blank prescriptions into gold, a stamp-by-stamp moneymaking machine. By design, Daddy said, his plan was "airtight" and would have continued to work if not for Ma's slipup.
Though he did claim responsibility for at least half of the mistake, admitting, "We never should have been using from our own supply, that's a rookie move. Getting hooked on your own stash fogs your head, makes you desperate."
But there was no way to tell whether it was Ma's addiction that made her desperate enough to ignore the obvious red flag, or if it was simply Ma's typical impatience. Daddy had been careful to warn Ma of the signs that a pharmacist was onto you: surely, if you dropped off a prescription for highly suspicious pain reeds at a pharmacy one entire day prior, there could only be one reason for a pharmacist to instruct you to wait twenty additional minutes when you arrived-he was calling the police, and you should get out of there as fast as possible. Daddy had warned Ma of this scenario, made it perfectly clear.
But on the day of her arrest, Ma, who was known for being relentless and never backing down from something she wanted, would later explain, "I just couldn't not come back, Lizzy. There was a chance he was gonna give me the pills, ya know? I had to try." She was handcuffed in broad daylight and marched unceremoniously into a nearby police cruiser by an officer who had responded to the call hoping (correctly) that he would catch the criminals responsible for hitting countless pharmacies throughout the five boroughs. Unknowingly, Ma was already pregnant with me.
For over a year, the Feds had been compiling evidence that included a paper trail and a string of security camera footage that undeniably linked Ma and Daddy to nearly every pharmacy hit. If that wasn't enough, when the Feds kicked in the door to arrest Daddy, they found bags of cocaine and dozens of pills littered across the tabletop of their East Village apartment, along with luxury items like a closetful of mink furs, dozens of leather shoes, leather coats, gold jewelry, thousands of dollars in cash, and even a glass tank holding an enormous Burmese python.
Daddy, who had orchestrated and executed the majority of their illegal activities, was hit with numerous counts of fraud, including impersonating a doctor. On his day in court, for dramatic effect, the prosecution wheeled into the courthouse three shopping carts brimming with prescriptions, all of which bore Daddy's handwriting and fraudulent stamps. "Anything to say for yourself, Mr. Finnerty?" the judge asked. "No, Your Honor," he said. "I think that speaks for itself."
In all of this, they almost lost custody of Lisa permanently, but Ma maintained strict attendance in a parental reform program in the months between her arrest and her eventual sentencing. This, combined with a very pregnant belly on her day in court, solicited just enough leniency to get her set free.
Daddy wasn't so lucky. He received a three-year sentence. He was transported from holding to Passaic County Jail in Patterson, New Jersey, the day Ronald Reagan was elected president.
On the day Ma was to be sentenced, she brought with her two cartons of cigarettes and a roll of quarters, certain that she would do time. But in a move that surprised everyone in the courthouse, right down to Ma's lawyer, the judge looked her over with pity, then merely ordered probation and called the next case.
The bail money, one thousand dollars-the very last of my parents' earnings from their heyday-was released to her in a check on her way out the door.
Check in hand, Ma saw an opportunity to start over, and she took it. The bail went for cans of fresh paint, thick curtains, and wall-to-wall carpeting for every room in our three-bedroom Bronx apartment on University Avenue, in what would soon become one of the most crime-ridden areas in all of New York City.
I was born on the first day of autumn, at the end of a long heat wave that had the neighborhood kids forcing open the fire hydrants for relief, and had Ma lodging loud, buzzing fans in every window. On the afternoon of September 23, 1980, Daddy-in holding, but awaiting his sentence-received a phone call from Charlotte, my mother's mother, informing him that his daughter had been born, with drugs in her system but no birth defects. Ma hadn't been careful during either pregnancy, but both Lisa and I were lucky. I peed all over the nurse and was declared healthy at nine pounds, three ounces.
"She looks like you, Peter. Has your face."
From his cell later that night, Daddy named me Elizabeth. Because Daddy and Ma were never legally married and he wasn't there to verify paternity, I got Ma's last name, Murray.