by Sarah Booz
People often ask me what it was like growing up in Greenwich Village, and I always tell them the same two things: A. I don’t have anything to compare it to, having never grown up in the suburbs of New Jersey, where I assume everyone else is from, and B. That my childhood was really fucking weird.
The thing about having an abnormal childhood is that you don’t realize it’s different until you get out of it. Only then do you start noticing the inconsistencies between your upbringing and those of your peers. I didn’t register until I was much older that most houses raising a child do not have various people over every night until odd hours. Or that, while other children had parents who smoked, they didn’t have parents who smoked something that smelled different from cigarettes, and that I wasn’t allowed to talk about at school. Or even that parents had bedrooms.
Until I was eight years old I grew up on a little block in the West Village occupied primarily by brownstones with one bedroom apartments. Couples moved in together, made the little bedroom their own, then had a child and moved out of the bedroom and onto a fold out couch in the living room. To me, and many of my childhood acquaintances, this was normal. But while the other parents on our block went to bed at normal hours and kept company to a minimum, my house was a revolving door of crazy.
We lived on the third floor in apartment 4A, which never made any sense to anybody. Someone would buzz, and my parents would let them in. They never questioned who it was, because they had a child– it was my job to run out of the apartment and look down the stairwell to announce it to my parents. Like a tiny butler. More often than not I would simply report the name or names of our guests, but for certain people I would have to run in and say, “Mommy, hide your purse.”
These are the sorts of things that happen when your father is a drug dealer. Which, again, wasn’t something that occurred to me as odd until much, much later.
For the record, drug dealer is a strong term. My father sold marijuana. I don’t think he ever sold anything stronger than that, though I know he had plenty of access to it.
I’m sure there must have been a conversation about this at some point. The things that could and could not be discussed at school. Though I can only imagine how it went.
“If anyone asks what your Baba does for a living, just tell them he’s a gardener.”
This job description was technically true for a year or so when my father owned a legitimate gardening business. He served the likes of Estée Lauder until a high speed car crash down our block totaled his work van.
And yes, we had a roof garden, and yes, we had run-of-the-mill herbs and vegetables, but my father was just as skilled at growing eggplants as he was at cultivating a forest of marijuana. A forest that moved into to my bedroom during the winter months.
“It’s probably best if you don’t mention the amount of cans and bottles littering our apartment.”
This, again, seemed perfectly normal to me. It’s hard to picture either of my parents without a beer in their hand. My mother’s favorite picture of the two of us was taken at a family friend’s wedding when I was about four. It shows me in a flowered dress laughing and clutching my mother’s leg while looking up at her. My mother, also clad in flowers, smiles broadly while looking at something in the distance. There’s another guest’s shoulder in there, a big red barn behind us, and in my mother’s left hand, featured rather prominently, a can of Budweiser.
“Aaaand you probably shouldn’t mention the whole drinking and driving thing.”
When I first heard that you weren’t allowed to drink and drive I thought they meant anything. Any liquid at all. If a police officer caught you with a soda behind the wheel you would go to jail forever. The thought of someone driving without a beer seemed ludicrous, yet somehow the idea of banning juice or Coca-Cola seemed perfectly logical.
One conversation I do remember, however, was the one about our cat. We had an incredibly old tabby cat that my mother had acquired from a friend years earlier when the woman discovered she was allergic. Her friend’s parents had always told her she couldn’t have a cat, but they never told her why. So my mother, being sympathetic, took the kitten. The cat was called Buttercup, and probably would have continued to be called that if my mother had not heard the following story:
One night when the original owner and some guy had finished having sex, Buttercup jumped on the bed. The guy, wanting to befriend the kitten, got on all fours and started calling to the cat while doing that clicking noise with his tongue that is the international language for “Come here, kitty.”
“Tch tch tch… come here little baby. Come here cutie! Tch tch tch. Come here little Butter…” It was at this moment that Buttercup decided to swipe at his unprotected penis with her outstretched claws. “…FUUUUUUUUCK.”
And thus the cat was rechristened. While my parents were fine with me calling her by her proper name within the confines of the apartment, they were adamant that I never call her “Butterfuck” anywhere but at home.
What strikes me as funny, though, is the things my parents didn’t feel the need to talk to me about. When I was very small we had a sixteen foot reticulated python named Big Ben. Ben would roam around our apartment, getting beat up by Butterfuck whenever he decided she might be good as a snack, and generally just being a snake. On the rare occasions my maternal grandfather came over, my father would have to stuff the snake into a suitcase and put him in the closet. While my grandfather knew about the snake, he certainly didn’t approve of it and absolutely never wanted to see it. Other than that, Ben had free reign of the apartment. In the early days, Ben ate rats, but by the time I started nursery school he had moved on to rabbits. This was not something that was ever discussed because it was just what you did with large snakes. You fed them rabbits. It was normal. That is until Easter rolled around during my first year in pre-school and my parents got a phone call about how I’d upset the other children. When my teachers said “Easter Bunny,” I said “Snake food!” and apparently that was the wrong answer. And I made a number of children cry. Just because they didn’t have sixteen foot pythons roaming around their tiny apartments.
Now that I’m in my thirties, living on my own and engaged, my extended family comments on how “normal” I am whenever we get together. I’m not sure what they expected, but it certainly wasn’t this.
“You had an unconventional childhood.”
“It’s a wonder you turned out as well as you did, considering the cards you were dealt.”
I’m glad everyone is pleased that I turned out so well, but it’s odd to think that they ever thought I wouldn’t. Sure, I was raised by a couple of alcoholics and a village of idiots, but they never wanted anything but the best for me.
Sarah Booz lives in an RV and you can read all about it at: http://www.daretopee.wordpress.com.
Or follow her on Instagram @sarahbooz.
Or see her Twitter, also @sarahbooz.