I’m not alright… Actually, I’m fucked up…
Like any thinking, feeling, caring Black man I was already deeply disturbed by the constant drumbeat of Black males savagely ruthlessly slaughtering one another in America’s inner cities. The streets of Chester, Camden and Philadelphia have become literal rivers of blood. Violence comes without warning, there are no heads up. You can be on a basketball court, sitting on front porches, walking your dog or even sitting inside your home… It truly doesn’t matter, the senseless violence can find you.
On an intellectual level, the recurring images of Black males scurrying across the screen in surveillance videos recklessly firing high caliber semiautomatic weapons at other Black males are beyond disappointing. The “cut and paste” news stories featuring “Black male between 20 and 30 shot multiple times” are heart-breaking.
On Monday, March 2, I had very real conversations with the parents of 3 prominent college basketball prospects. This was on the heels 3 Black males being killed over a 3 day period. A former Public League and college basketball player was shot to death after a disagreement escalated during a pick-up basketball game at LA fitness. Another young man was shot to death on a West Philadelphia basketball court. A former Temple football player was shot to death after he emerged victorious in an old fashioned fistfight.
In very frank conversations, my friends, the fathers of some of the best high school basketball players on the eastern seaboard admitted that the proliferation of wanton and deadly gun violence was a significant factor in their college selection process.
I posted the following on social media after those conversations: “Murder is bad for basketball recruiting… IJS”
On Tuesday afternoon at 4:53 pm, I received a text from a good friend that is a staunch supporter of one of the Philadelphia Big 5 programs.
He wrote, “That post about murder last night was a bad look.”
I was driving to meet my homie Howard Hudson and head to watch Maryland play at Rutgers. I was surprised by my friends response and even more surprised that he would send me the text.
So I called him right away… The conversation got kinda ugly… But it was a conversation between friends. I explained that the “bad look” was the Black men lying dead on the streets, not what I posted on social media. He disagreed. He felt that I unnecessarily connected the murders to college basketball recruiting… I explained that I was merely sharing what was spelled out to me by fathers of kids going through the process.
Moreover, I added that one coach of a Catholic League kid also called on Monday and explained that one of his best players had lost 3 of his friends to gun violence over the past 12 months. The coach asked me to help find the kid a college program anywhere but Philadelphia. In other words, I tried to explain that “murder is bad for basketball recruiting.”
My friend wasn’t moved… See, he loves his alma mater… He wants them to win… He wants them to be viewed as a desirable destination in the eyes of elite Philadelphia basketball players.
My social media rants were getting in the way… So he thought… I really respect my friend, so I made every effort to explain that he and his Athletic Director were middle class white males living in the suburban enclaves safely ensconced away from the barrage of gunfire snuffing out young Black male lives by the dozens on a weekly basis. I also made it clear that I would continue to highlight the senseless violence plaguing our communities.
I told him to “buckle up” because if that social media post bothered him, he would definitely be perturbed by much of what was sure to come. I have a responsibility… I explained that I don’t see any of the others that have an audience of young Black Males discussing the deeply ingrained problem of Black male violence.
“You ‘bout to be pissed at me Bro.”
We left it at that… I met up with Howard in Camden and we rode up to Rutgers for the game. Soon as I hopped in his car, I told Howard about my conversation…
This is “Black people shit… He just doesn’t get it.”
“Shit is fucking crazy on these streets… I’m not gonna stop speaking up.” Howard patiently endured my venting as we made our way up the turnpike.
We got there a little late, because we failed to account for the fact that Rutgers is finally pretty good and there’s considerable interest in their games these days… There was a LOT of traffic getting into the campus…
Once there, we went to the will call only to be told our tickets were around the corner at the VIP entrance… Sweet… I was kinda forgetting about the conversation that had me all riled up.
I was REALLY looking forward to watching Maryland knock off the Scarlet Knights… We made our way to our seats about six rows up right at half court. Maryland played like shit but they were only down 6 at the half. It was around 8:00 pm and Howard went to go get some $20 chicken tenders and fries. I sat there and watched a magician and his assistant put on a pretty good halftime show.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, my stepson, Vernon Mayes, III was standing on a street corner and a sadistic gunman sprayed the corner with a hail of bullets. Vernon was struck in the heart, the back and the leg. He was pronounced dead 20 minutes later at Temple University hospital.
I had no idea…
Maryland continued to play like shit! Rutgers kicked their ass, beginning to end… We got outta there a lil’ early to get ahead of the traffic.
I arrived home and got a frantic phone call from, Ciera, my distraught daughter. “Vernon’s been shot.” That’s all she knew… The next morning I would learn that he didn’t make it…
The headline was nondescript “Kenington Shooting.” The story was just as simple, “A 33 year old man was fatally wounded in a shooting Tuesday night in the city’s Kensington section, police said.”
That was it… I had read similar accounts thousands of times…
This time it was my kid…
Vernon came into my life when he was 3 years old. He was a beautiful, energetic boy. He loved the teenage mutant ninja turtles more than life itself. Eventually, I was able to convert him into a sports fan. He loved basketball almost as much as I did. I dragged him to countless Big 5 games. He watched just about every home game of Mark Bass’ career at St. Joseph’s. Geoff Arnold, Bruiser Flint and Phil Martelli embraced him unconditionally.
At times, when his mother and father weren’t always on the best of terms, I tried to serve as a bridge to keep the lines of parental communication open. His paternal grandfather, Vernon Mayes would regularly come to pick him up on weekends. His Dad, Vernon Mayes, Jr. introduced him to tennis. I didn’t really understand or appreciate how serious they were about it until one day I accompanied Vernon to a practice.
What the FUCK! Yo man…
The kid looked like Pete Sampras to me… After that, I did what I could to reinforce the lessons his Dads had instilled in him. While I was no tennis expert, I know what a gifted athlete looks like… Vernon was a gifted tennis player.
It became a bit of a struggle… He wanted to play basketball. He was really good at tennis.
Vernon struggled in school… More accurately, Vernon rarely went to school. He got in some legal trouble while I was teaching at Lincoln University. I went to his hearing and discovered that he had over 90 absences. He was in the streets. His mother was working hard to care for him and he was doing whatever.
He was sent away to Glen Mills. I felt it was best for him at the time. He called me on a couple of occasions and complained that the staff kept “putting their hands” on him. Knowing where he was outweighed any concerns I may have had about maltreatment at the hands of the counselors.
I knew he had a gift… And, after several attempts, I finally reached the tennis coach at Glen Mills. I told him my son was good… But, having received hundreds of such calls from overzealous parents myself, I know he would discount the evaluation from his step-father. So I shifted strategies, I literally begged the man to “hit with him” and call me back after. He reluctantly agreed.
It took a few weeks, but he called me back…
Before he could say a word, I said, “Yo man… I know… I know…”
He said, “Mr. Wilson, he’s really good… I mean really good.”
“Yo man… I know… I know…”
“He’s definitely gonna be by number 1 player.”
“Thanks Bro… I look forward to coming up to watch.”
Unfortunately, Vernon had failed the 9th grade and even though he was only 17, his eligibility for PIAA sports was completely used up.
He just did his time and eventually made it home… He found work as a baggage handler at the airport. He purchased a new Dodge Magnum. He was dabbling in the rap game.
He seemed to be doing well… He met a nice girl, they had a boy, Lil’ Vern.
I was a Pop-Pop.
I had home in North Philly at 26th and Silver. I let Vernon and his friends stay there.
Then I started hearing rumors… Vern “messing with those pills…”
Like too many parents, you hear it, but you don’t HEAR it… I NEVER, not once confronted him about the pills… I am ashamed to admit that…
On one level, I didn’t understand what they were. I could only relate them to my vices. I like marijuana. For years, I smoked weed daily. I competed graduate school, taught in college and did a lot of other things. I figured he could ‘manage’ his vice just like my friends and I managed ours.
On another level, I was just a FUCKIN’ coward! I NEVER, not once confronted him…
I just cowardly ignored the rumblings.
Two days after his death, I sit here dealing with the fact that his presence in Kensington had to be related to drugs. That I know.
What I also know is that my son was a loving, caring, beautiful young man. The soulless savage that fired the bullets that took his life stole a brother, a father, a friend, a nephew, a cousin and a son.
His biological parents graciously allowed me to equally co-parent with them. For that I will always be grateful to Sherry Poole and Vernon Mayes, Jr.
Now, like untold thousands of other Philadelphians we are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD develops in some who have experienced a scary, shocking or dangerous event. Shit like the murder of your harmless son. Symptoms include re-experiencing the traumatic event (i.e., flashbacks, nightmares), avoidance of thoughts, feelings or places related to the event, feeling tense or irritable, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, or feelings of guilt or blame.
PTSD is real!
Black men in the Philadelphia and many other cities between the ages of 15 to 34 are most likely to die by homicide at the hand of other Black men. I know so many young men that are fighting daily to stay physically alive. Now I find myself among the ranks of those fighting to preserve their mental health and ability to function productively in society.
I shoulda forced his ass to play tennis and go to college somewhere far away from Philadelphia…
I’m NOT alright… They killed my son…