More Than I Imagined
Who Can Cling to a Ramblin’ Rose?
I was dozing off one night when he made another of his grand entrances.
I first heard the screech of tires as his dark-blue Ford Bronco ran over a curb. Next came the mumbled curses as a set of jingling keys hit the pavement. After a long pause, the front door creaked open and heavy footsteps stumbled inside.
As I rubbed my eyes, I heard the crackling of a needle hitting a dusty record in the living room. The velvety voice of Nat King Cole filled the house, accompanied by the man’s drunken rendition of Cole’s “Ramblin’ Rose,” a country-flavored ballad about a spurned man who couldn’t keep his “wild and windblown” lover, because no one can “cling to a ramblin’ rose.”
I sighed and flopped back on my pillow. It’s him. Dad’s home for the night, I thought.
My father, Clifton Avon Blake, Sr., was a sailor—a merchant mariner, to be exact. Our home in West Baltimore was just one of many ports of call for him. That noisy late-night entrance during my childhood was typical. Dad had a habit of popping into and out of my life at the oddest hours of the night.
He’d wait until my younger brother, Pat, and I fell asleep before tiptoeing out of the house for trips that would take him as far away as South America or Asia. The day after he left, we’d be dispatched to a foster home and an assortment of caregivers. I’d hear nothing from him for six months to a year. And then, one random night, I’d hear some commotion outside. Stumbling half-asleep to the front door, I’d catch him barging in with his stuffed green duffel bag, his panama hat, and a loopy grin on his dark-chocolate face.
He was a rambling rose. I couldn’t cling to him even when he was at home. He slept like a hibernating bear for days after returning, his ragged snoring in the adjoining bedroom lulling me to sleep. And then he’d disappear to hit the neighborhood bars. The next morning, I’d find him splayed on the front porch, where he had collapsed after a night of drinking.
None of that mattered when I was a boy. He was my first hero. I could forgive him for anything. He looked like a Black Buddha, with his bald head, perpetual grin, and plump belly. He had the sculpted shoulders of a middleweight boxer and a broad, muscular chest that came from years of manual labor on ships. He thought he was hot stuff. In the summer, he paraded around our neighborhood with his shirt off, his greasy dungarees sagging so low that the crack of his ass always seemed to be visible. When I jumped onto those big shoulders to play-wrestle, he smelled like Old Spice cologne, Pall Mall cigarettes, and sweat.
“Stay cool and drink lots of water” was his credo, the cryptic phrase he invoked whenever I went to him for advice. He was the most exciting dad that a boy could ask for, a walking National Geographic. He had traveled to virtually every continent and had survived extended stints in three war zones and at least four brushes with death, including two in Vietnam.
He was also fun. One Saturday morning when I was about five, he summoned Pat and me to the cramped living room of our house. He was sorting through a stack of Nat King Cole records stacked on top of an oak stereo console cabinet, a lit Pall Mall cigarette dangling from his lips. He wore rust-colored corduroy pants and a tight white T-shirt. An ashtray and a wad of bills stacked next to a TV Guide rested on the coffee table. He had just returned from a trip to Vietnam, flush with money and tales of adventure.
He looked at us with a wide smile and started humming. “I’m going to teach you the words to a song,” he said. “Now watch me.”
“Oh, really? Right now?” Pat said before clapping his hands in delight.
“Yup, right now. Now sit down and listen to me sing.”
As we sat on a couch, he plopped a record onto the turntable. A jaunty piano melody filled the room, and my father started shimmying to the beat as he jumped into the vocals at the precise moment Cole started to sing.
“L is for the way you look at me,” he sang as he smiled at us, snapping his fingers to the beat. “O is for the only one I see. V is very, very extraordinary. E is even more than anyone that you adore can . . .”
He then squeezed between Pat and me on the couch, draped his muscular arms around our skinny shoulders, and said, “Okay, you try.”
“Nawww, Dad, play it one more time. I can’t remember it,” I said.
“Okay, from the top. L is for the way you look at me . . .”
We spent that entire morning giggling, fumbling along as we tried to remember the song. Whenever we flubbed a line, he got up from the couch and played the record from the beginning with a hearty “From the top.” When we finally sang a flawless rendition, he stood up, looked down at us with a big smile, and said, “Beautiful, sons. Beautiful.”
I can still sing every word to that Cole song from memory more than fifty years later.
My friends thought I had the coolest father, but I needed something more from him that he refused to give. I can’t think of anyone who was more spectacularly ill-equipped to answer the two questions that preoccupied me from the beginning: “Where is my mother?” and “What is my place in the world?”
If my father was “wild and windblown,” my mother was a phantom. I had no memory of her, and neither did Pat, who is less than a year younger than I am.
We shared the same mother and the same loss. We didn’t know what she looked like—the color of her hair or eyes—or the sound of her voice. Nor did we have any memory of her playing with us. There was no picture of her in my father’s house. I couldn’t remember even once using the word mom.
I came into the world with half my identity amputated. My mother’s name wasn’t even on my birth certificate. And my dad didn’t fill in those blanks. He never talked about my mother. Never explained why she was gone. Never said if she was alive or if we had relatives on her side. All he fed me were two scraps of information: Her name was Shirley, and she was white.
The white part would become a problem. Other than Pat, I didn’t know anyone like me while I was growing up in inner-city Baltimore in the 1970s. When I was born in 1964, interracial marriage was illegal in nineteen states, including Maryland.1 Three years later, the Supreme Court would declare such laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia,2 but interracial marriage remained taboo. Interracial couples were unheard of in my neighborhood and virtually invisible in the city. There were no visible biracial public figures like former president Barack Obama, singer Alicia Keys, or film director Jordan Peele. I never saw biracial kids in television commercials or on breakfast cereal boxes. Being “mixed” was a source of shame. We were objects of pity, “tragic mulattoes” supposedly trapped between two races, not accepted by either.
And Baltimore was no Berkeley—the city’s racial climate didn’t tolerate pushing racial boundaries. I’d always been told that Baltimore was part of the more racially enlightened North. But Baltimore’s political leaders pioneered one of the most insidious forms of racism.
In 1910, Baltimore’s City Council passed the nation’s first housing segregation law,3 which made it a crime for a Black person to move to a majority white block. Black families in Baltimore also couldn’t buy homes in many areas of the city because of redlining—a practice sanctioned by the federal housing authorities where banks refused to provide and insure home loans in or near Black communities.
I could sense those racial divisions even as a kid. There were certain neighborhoods you didn’t go into if you were Black. It was a city of working-class Irish, Italian, Black, and Polish enclaves. Most city residents lived in one of the nation’s largest collections of row houses: narrow, low-rise homes lined up next to one another and sharing a roofline. Many had white marble porch steps that we called “the stoop,” a social center of city life where neighbors gathered to gossip, drink, and people-watch.