The Miracle of Mentors: From the Hard Life to the Writing Life

Jay Baron Nicorvo
From the January/February 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

My writing education began modestly, at Manatee Community College   in Florida, but my writing life—you might say my sentencing—started at an institution of slightly lesser distinction: the Sarasota County Jail. In 1995, at age eighteen, I was arrested and charged with “Drugs Possession—controlled substance without prescription; Trespass on Property Other Than Structure or Conveyance; Marijuana Possession—not more than 20 grams; Larceny—petit first offense.” Friends and I were on benzodiazepine, a drug used as a hypnotic, a sedative, an anticonvulsant, and a skeletal muscle relaxant. When the little round pills were mixed with alcohol, the high had amnesiac properties, and one unlisted side effect was temporary kleptomania. We’d shoplifted trinkets from a blown-glass shop downtown and, afterward, smoked a joint on a building rooftop. Cops caught us climbing off the rooftop into a parking garage, our pot smoke wafting skunkily after us. I was charged with a felony for each of the six pills in my pocket, and misdemeanor theft for a blown-glass egg.

I spent the night in jail, part of it sitting precariously in the drunk tank. The benches were the first punishment, wide enough to perch on but not to comfortably sit. Warm and yeasty, the tank was sickening. It smelled like an unleavened loaf of sourdough sprayed by a territorial tomcat. Men were moaning. Withdrawing. One was crying, shaking. The stainless steel, seatless toilet against a wall was a dare no one dared take. I spent a couple of endless hours sobering up, fighting off an existential crisis. I looked around at the trapped, anxious men in close quarters—coming down off cheap highs that cost them everything, hung-over from regret, some homeless—and I saw my future.

In the morning I was released on my own recognizance with an order to appear for arraignment in a month. I had no idea what recognizance was, my own or anyone else’s, but I was glad for it. My family couldn’t afford a lawyer. Uncounseled, I spent thirty fretful days anticipating my trial and sentencing. I waited tables at a fondue restaurant, went to class, got high, and hung out. I tried to stay out of trouble. I did some searching and found that a recognizance is a conditional obligation undertaken by a person before a court. It is an obligation of record, entered into before a judge, whereby the bound party acknowledges—recognizes—that he owes a personal debt to the state.

Growing up I had an abusive stepfather, a maniacal martial artist who once took me to visit the farm of a gentleman we called Karate Kurt and, there, when my back was to my stepfather, he fired a .38 revolver at my feet. I last saw my biological father twenty-five years ago at a child-support hearing. The man responsible for my life and the lives of my two younger brothers showed up at court looking homeless to convince the presiding judge to reduce his monthly child-support payments. It worked.

My family was poor—sometimes on welfare, sometimes off. My mom is a hardworking single mother who had a difficult time raising three difficult boys. She’s clerked at a 7-Eleven in Sarasota since 1987. Thanks to her and her insistence, I got an education and managed to work my way up and into the ivory-collar world of academia, where I’ve found safety and constancy, thanks in part to the publication of my first book, Deadbeat, but where I’ve also learned a grim calculus.

Children raised without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime. Nine times more likely to drop out of school. Twenty times more likely to end up in prison. Fatherless children are at dramatically greater risk of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and teen pregnancy, and are more susceptible to sexual abuse. Boys who grow up in homes without fathers have increased trouble establishing stable sex roles and gender identity.

My two younger brothers and I can go through the above list and check all that apply to our downtrodden upbringing. Arrests for nonviolent offenses. Molestation at the hands of a babysitter. Flunking out of high school. Bankruptcy. Addiction to, and experimentation with, a slew of hard drugs and psychedelics. Anxiety attacks. Dyslexia. Food stamps. Our mother, working night shifts so she could spend her days with us, was beaten and raped by a soldier in uniform while delivering pizza to the now-defunct military base in Monmouth County, New Jersey, where we lived until she moved us to Florida when I was ten.

Despite the long odds, I’ve so far managed to skirt the hard life determined by these sad numbers, but only because I got more than my fair share of last chances—from my mom, from local and federal government agencies, from academic institutions—and only because surrogate fathers, all of them writing teachers, took me in, taught me a craft, and showed me how to live a productive life as a writer, a generous life as a teacher, an engaged life as a husband and father.

Maybe my father will read my book of poems. Maybe he already has. The poems follow a central character called Deadbeat, a hapless fellow, a ne’er-do-well, something of an effigy for an America in recession. He’s the embodiment of many modern-day misdemeanors of the sort that I’ve been charged with. This is to say the poems are more about me, the young man I was, the grown man I might have been, than they are about my father. Calling upon other well-known figures as fathers in absentia—far-flung Odysseus and God, to name two—I was working to exorcise the ghost of my missing father through the effort of empathy, trying to get to know a man I’m incapable of knowing. In so doing, in the act of imaginative reconciliation, I was hoping to recognize and thus avoid repeating my father’s failures, because the drain, the sucking spiral of fatherlessness—deadbeat dads producing irresponsible sons—has both drawn and threatened to damn me all my life.

A month after my arrest in 1995,  I attended my arraignment in a leg cast. I’d suffered a grade-three ankle sprain playing pickup basketball while stoned. The courthouse was crowded—too many cases on the docket—and the judge sent me home after a postponement, with an order to reappear the following month. The feeling was Kafkaesque, a word I’d learned in my second-semester English class as it was coming to a close.

The day before my English final, I dropped a tab of LSD, its blotter paper printed with one of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. I took only one dose; I had a test in the morning. Coming down off my half-day trip, I attended the final not having slept in thirty-six hours. The exam was a screening of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, after which we were to write a timed in-class essay. I watched what I took to be the formation of life on earth, feeling as if I were the first drip of archetypal precipitation to form and fall and vaporize on antediluvian oceans of lava, and I was all the time-lapse and slo-mo people sorting mail, sewing jeans, manufacturing televisions.