By: Jess Mederos, Image: Remy Holwick
Doorbells ring in the suburbs at 5am for two reasons – both involve law enforcement.
The doorbell of our Long Island home rang at five am, and my mother and I were jolted from sleep by intense banging, as if someone was trying to break down our door. I was fourteen. I was terrified.
On the other side of the door, six FBI agents had their guns drawn on me, my mother and our dog. They entered our home after presenting an arrest warrant for my father, who although had been living abroad in Central America with his much-younger girlfriend for the past four years, still used our home as his primary address. I watched them search all the places no human being could possibly hide– the refrigerator , the freezer—and thought about how criminals must do incredibly creative things to evade capture.
Seventy-two hours later, my father turned himself in. He was charged with federal tax evasion and fraud, and his bail was set at one million dollars—an unprecedented sum for the white-collar crimes he was charged with, but an unsurprising legal discrepancy for a dark-skinned Cuban immigrant. Despite our very real fear of my father skipping bail and fleeing to Central America, our home became collateral against his bail. We lived in a state of anxiety until the day the trial started, in Downtown Brooklyn, the day before my 15th birthday. In February of 1998, he was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
My parents were nearly fifty when I was born, and my childhood with them was lonely. My father and mother were out of the house before dawn, hours before I had to be awake for school. My mother would wake up before 3:30 am to prepare for her waitressing job at a diner in Maspeth, Queens. The smell of cigarette smoke and Aquanet during her morning routine would wake and nauseate me, and to this day, the smell of a cigarette before 8am brings back a loneliness that can ruin my entire day. My father, meanwhile, would depart at 5am to do whatever it was he did at the factory that made ‘Sweet-n-Low’, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He wouldn’t return until around 5pm, when he would shower, eat dinner and fall asleep watching tv on the couch. The antithesis of my outwardly-charming and brash, but unaffectionate and often-drunk, mother, my father had an air of class and regality about him– always impeccably dressed, accessorized and coifed, and despite his schedule consuming most of his time, when he was with me, he was gentle and affectionate, and taught me things he knew about motorcycles and guns and CB radios. The schedule remained the same, day in, day out, until on Christmas Eve of 1994, he left for work at 5am as he always did and he never came home.
From that point on, my secure and loving relationship with my father was completely stubbed out. My mother, already an alcoholic, devolved further into a nervous breakdown. More booze, more pills. At eleven years old, I became her caretaker. I learned to be her designated driver at twelve. By the time I was fifteen, I had revived her on two separate occasions with CPR before the ambulance showed up. I went from being a child who was constantly ignored by my parents, to the only thing in my mother’s life, simultaneously her reason for living, and a weapon she could use to hurt the man she loved who abandoned her after 35 years of marriage.
My father called regularly. He never truly disappeared from my life, but at that point I was so enmeshed in my hatred of him, along with my mother, that there was no space for any of the light of his love to shine through. My mother would force me to engage on these calls, but would simultaneously expect me to be cruel and distant to him. She would listen in on these phone calls. I was not allowed to tell my father I loved him – if these words accidentally slipped my mouth at the end of our call she would brand me a traitor and ignore me for days. I was playing a game that had constantly shifting rules, and that I could not win, and I remain frustrated by her selfishness to this day.
Years later, after my mother’s death, my father would tell me he had no choice but to leave. My mother’s drinking was out of control, and he was exhausted—and that part, I understood. I knew what my mother’s love and attention was like– and it was eviscerating. But no apology ever followed his explanations, and he only said he tried, and our situation wasn’t his fault. Today I know that this is the lie he tells so he can live with himself, forcefully ignoring the fact that he left his 11-year-old daughter to care for a woman who he, a grown adult, couldn’t bear to.
And then he went to prison.
I didn’t visit for the first three years he was incarcerated. The memory of the robotic recording introduction of his phone calls is seared in my brain for all eternity. “This is a collect call from an inmate at a Federal Correctional Facility. This call will be recorded and monitored. Please press one to accept the charges”
When I did begin to visit, years later, it was a struggle. I didn’t want to go. Visitation was on Sundays, and I had just started college. My mother and I, both hungover, would sit in hours of traffic in both directions on the New Jersey Turnpike. In those first years of visiting, I would spend most of the allotted time outside the building, smoking Marlboro Reds and talking to the prison guards. When I did take the time to actually sit across from my father, the visits were filled with stories about the underground economy created by the inmates, with cans of smoked fish as currency. My father, forever a hustler, thrived in it. He had a guy who cut and dyed his graying hair for two cans a week, and a guy who made him eggs over easy in the kitchen every morning for three cans a week. The stories were funny, and he was warm and personable, and for a few hours a month I was able to forget how much I hated him, and how angry I was for his abandonment. Sitting in that grey room on Sundays allowed something to shift in me, if only temporarily. The truth was that I knew very little about my father, but in prison, I was forced to sit and have conversations with him, to watch how people interacted with him– how fellow inmates would walk up and introduce themselves. “Hello sir”, they would say, passing our table, and shake his hand and tell us how great of a guy my father was, and that it was an honor to know him. On occasion, even a guard would come over and talk with us, as if my father was their coworker rather than their ward. Most of these men were no more than half his age, and my father garnered respect from all of them in a way I had never understood as his child.
Twenty years later, I believe the men in that prison got the version of my father that I had always wanted. They saw a selfless, respectful man who could be counted on by those around him. In this place that was meant to dehumanize him, my father proved that, in this parallel universe, he was above anything thrust upon him– by this institution, my mother, or myself.
In 2004, FCI Fort Dix had a Father’s Day Picnic, and opened the gates of the prison to the families of the inmates. On previous visits, we had only seen the awkward booths, fluorescent lighting, and vending machines of the visiting room, but now, for the first and only time, we were allowed to walk around the property and socialize with other inmates and their families. The scene was almost normal– even quaint– if you were able to ignore the guards and their semi-automatic weapons.
A youngish man was sitting on a picnic table, playing the guitar and singing in a voice that I recognized, but couldn’t place. I asked my father, “Who is that? Why do I know his voice?” My father responded, “That’s my roommate, John. I think he was a musician before he was in here”. It hit me and I knew– my father’s roommate was The Fugees’ John Forte.
John had been serving a sentence of 14 years in prison after being found guilty of possession of 31 pounds of liquid cocaine with intent to distribute in 2001. He finished his performance and my father introduced us. I don’t remember what we talked about– probably whatever forgettable banalities that come to mind when you’re trying to forget the prison yard, the guards, and the guns.
I do remember that he said that he would get my address from my father and that he would write me a letter. And he held to his word.
It was a real pleasure to meet you this past Father’s Day. It was especially enjoyable to have the opportunity to share my love of music with you and other guests. In my opinion, every new audience is more special than the last. Fort Dix is no exception.
Last Tuesday we relocated to our new facility. Definitely a change – some better, some worse. But we will adapt, grow and prosper. In usual fashion. Hopefully, in the next few days I’ll get my hands on our instruments and we’ll make music again. Resume the regularly scheduled program.
I pray these few words find you well, safe and happy. In the presence of good company and the music to match. Who knows, maybe something really good will occur which will give me another venue beyond this existence – someplace where I’ll debut a new set of songs for you and yours. That’d be nice.
Time, if nothing else, passes. May you live the best possible life, not too far behind or too far ahead, but in the moment. If I’ve learned nothing else these past few years it’s that happiness begins and ends with you. Real and tangible. Believe me.
Jessica, take care of yourself, your mother, and your father. He’s a damn good man”
Be well and safe in everything you do –
Over the years, this letter has become a gateway to exploring the feelings of closeness and admiration I felt for my father in that Fort Dix visiting room. I am able to step in and out with this small bit of proof of what I felt and what I saw in my father during those visits. It is a portal to a place where I can witness a better version of this person who is half of me.
Today the letter is over 16 years old, but is in perfect condition and remains one of my most prized possessions. John Forte gave me the gift of posterity. The gift of picking up an object and evoking a version of existence where my father and I had a relationship built on love and respect. Even if only for a few hours a month on Sundays. For that my gratitude is unending.
Thank you, John. You’re a damn good man.
John Forte received a presidential pardon from President George W. Bush and was released from custody in 2008.
Mario Mederos was released from prison in 2005. He is now 84 years old.