Going to daddy’s gaudy Harlem apartment every other weekend was one of the highlights of my childhood. Living in the heart of the hood, he worked as a full-time barber and part time hustler. A sawed off Puerto Rican who stood tall about 5’5″, his name was Carlos. He had a thick spic accent that mixed well with street wisdom and big poppa attitude.
Daddy was slick as a can of oil and cooler than the summer breeze. Coming to the skyscraper jungle when he was a boy, he was kicked to the curb by his own brother when he was twelve. Forced to sleep on rooftops and scrounge for scraps, he became one of the few Latinos to settle into the rip and roar of black Harlem back in the late 1940s. Behind his thin back, some cats referred to him as “the little spic.”
One particular Saturday night in 1971, my brother and I were in his bedroom watching television. Daddy’s lair was like something out of a New Orleans whorehouse with an ugly crimson spread covering the queen-sized bed and matching kitschy lamps with red shades on both night tables.
In those days, I was a TV fiend who loved Chiller Theater. Broadcast every Saturday night on channel 11 (WPIX), they showed classic horror films like “Night of the Blood Beast,” “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” and “Curse of the Demon.” If I remember correctly, it was a ‘50s low-budget feature called “The Crawling Eye” that enraptured me that evening.
Sucked into a vortex of haunted castles, foggy villages and bad make-up, I sloughed on the bed wearing husky sized jeans and a stripped shirt while my little brother snooped through daddy’s closet. Two years younger than me, baby bro was aptly nicknamed Perky. Unlike me, Perky was a skinny hyperactive kid who was always digging into shit that wasn’t his business.
Whereas I could easily fall deep into imaginative pop culture landscapes of comic books, pop records and monster movies, Perky was more content burrowing through bureau drawers and poking through the private contents of the closet. “Hey Mike,” he whispered as I stared at the television. “Look what I found.”
Annoyed by the interruption, I snapped, “What do you want?” It was then that I looked across the room while Perky held-up a copy of a Playboy magazine; on the cover was a beautiful white woman laying down. Shot from a birds eye view, the stunning woman was topless with a long strand of pearls dangling between her cleavage.
Tenderly cupping her small breasts, the lush haired model (whom I later discovered was named Crystal Smith) had an angelic face and devilish eyes that glared into the camera as though challenging whoever might glance in her direction.
In a matter of a few seconds, I had completely lost interest in that stupid movie. Snatching the magazine from Perky’s small hands, I stared intensely. Even at eight-years-old, I was smart enough to know that this woman was dangerous. Yet, like other scary things I’d encountered in my young life (the giant Batman sliding board at Palisades Amusement Park comes to mind), I was willing to take a chance.
Hypnotized by the porcelain-skinned beauty, I felt a strange tingling sensation rush through my blood like liquid fire and desire. Although I had learned about Emmett Till and repercussions of lusting after white women, this was love at first sight. “Where did you get that from?” I asked my smiling brother; he thoroughly enjoyed those occasions when I participated in his mischief.
Pointing towards the closet, he grinned impishly and walked over to the door. “There’s a whole bunch more in here,” he whispered. Standing next to him, I peeped into the closet. Sure enough, looking like a four-color twin towers; stacked high, there must have been about a fifty magazines dating back as far as the sixties.
Having seen the title on various newsstands around the city, I had never held a copy of Playboy up close and personal. I pulled a few random magazines out of the closet and Perky and I both sat on the floor and flipped the pages. I began to feel feverish as a trickle of sweat dripped down my forehead onto the erect nipple of the centerfold girl.
For the next twenty minutes, Perky and I were introduced to the vavoom aesthetic of America’s swinging poppa Hugh Hefner: naked women, beautiful stereos, jazz concerts, a well-mixed martini, naked women, silly jokes, gorgeous apartments, half-naked women dressed like bunnies, LeRoy Neiman illustrations, sleek cars and naked women.
Did I mention the naked women?
Sensing by our silence that something was wrong, mom screamed from the living room. “What are you two doing in there?” Quickly throwing the magazines back in the closet, Perky and I damn near leapt out of our skins as we scrambled back to the big bed.
Hearing mom walking down the foyer, we pretended to be engrossed by the movie. Sticking her head in the door, mom glanced at us suspiciously. “We not doing nothing,” Perky replied, sounding guilty.
A non-believer in the best mommy tradition, she simply smiled. “Well, whatever nothing you’re up to, I want you to stop.” Staring me in the eye, she said, “Your brother is just a bad liar, but you’re the sneaky one; I know ya’ll up to something.” Looking at mommy, I shrugged my shoulders. What exactly was I supposed to say?
Though I had yet to reach puberty, my dreams of being a police officer or firefighter seemed like such a boyish fantasy. Indeed, after being turned-out and tempted by the countless pages of wicked white flesh, I knew exactly what to say when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow-up?”
“I want to be a playboy,” I’d say. Certainly, my personal sexual revolution had just begun.