The first time daddy found out about me, it was from behind glass during a routine visit to prison, when Ma lifted her shirt, teary-eyed, exposing her pregnant belly for emphasis. My sister, Lisa, then just over one year old, sat propped against Ma’s hip.
Reflecting on this time in her life, Ma would later explain, “It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way, pumpkin. It wasn’t like me and Daddy planned for this.”
Even though she’d been on her own and in trouble with drugs since age thirteen, Ma insisted, “Daddy and me were gonna turn around. Somewhere down the line, we were gonna be like other people. Daddy was gonna get a real job. I was gonna be a court stenographer. I had dreams.”
Ma used coke, shooting dissolved white dust into her veins; it traveled through her body much like lightning, igniting her, giving the feel, however fleeting, of something forward-moving, day in and day out.
“A lift,” she called it.
She started using as a teenager; her own home had been a place of anger, violence, and abuse.
“Grandma was just nuts, Lizzy. Pop would come home drunk and beat the crap out of us, with anything --- extension cords, sticks, whatever. She would just go clean the kitchen, humming, like nothing was happening. Then just act like Mary-friggin-Poppins five minutes later, when we were all busted up.”
The oldest of four children, Ma often spoke of the guilt she harbored for finally leaving the abuse --- and her siblings --- behind. She went out on the streets when she was just thirteen.
“I couldn’t stay there, not even for Lori or Johnny. At least they had mercy on Jimmy and took him away. Man, you bet your ass I had to get out of there. Being under a bridge was better, and safer, than being there.”
I had to know what it was Ma did under bridges.
“Well, I dunno, pumpkin, me and my friends all hung out and talked ...about life. About our lousy parents. About how we were better off. We talked ...and I guess we got high, and after that, it didn’t matter where we were.”
Ma started out small, smoking grass and sniffing glue. During the years of her adolescence, moving between friends’ couches and earning her living through teen prostitution and odd jobs like bike messengering, she moved on to speed and heroin.
“The Village was a wild place, Lizzy. I had these thick, tall leather boots. And I didn’t care if I was skinny as hell; I wore short shorts and a cape down my back. Yeah, that’s right, a cape. I was cool, too. Jivin’, man. That’s how we used to talk. Pumpkin, you should have seen me.”
By the time Ma met Daddy, coke had become a popular seventies trend, alongside hip-huggers, muttonchops, and disco music. Ma described Daddy at the time they first hooked up as “dark, handsome, and smart as hell.”
“He just got things, ya know? When most of the guys I hung around didn’t know their ass from their elbow, your father had something about him. I guess you could say he was sharp.”
Daddy came from a middle-class, Irish Catholic family in the suburbs. His father was a shipping boat captain and a violent alcoholic. His mother was a hardworking and willful woman who refused to put up with what she called “foolishness” from men.
“All you need to know about your grandfather, Lizzy, is that he was a nasty, violent drunk who liked to bully people,” Daddy once told me, “and your grandmother didn’t tolerate it. She didn’t care how unpopular divorce was back then, she got herself one.” Unfortunately for Daddy, when his parents’ marriage ended, his father left him, and he never came back.
“He was a real piece of work, Lizzy. It’s probably better he wasn’t around, things weren’t easy and he only would have made them worse.”
People who knew Daddy when he was growing up describe him as a lonely child and a “hurt soul” who never seemed to get over his father’s abandonment and his resulting status as “latchkey kid.” His mother took on a demanding full-time job to make ends meet and she worked long hours while Daddy was mostly alone, searching for an outlet, someone or something to connect with. Most nights, he spent evenings by himself, or in the homes of friends, where he became a fixture in other people’s families. Back at his house, he and Grandma grew distant, and things were mostly serious and silent between them.
“Your grandmother wasn’t the talkative type,” he told me one day, “which was very Irish Catholic of her. In our family, if you said the words ‘I feel,’ they better be followed with ‘hungry’ or ‘cold.’ Because we didn’t get personal, that’s just how it was.”
But what Grandma lacked in warmth, she made up for in her tireless devotion to securing her son’s future. Determined not to let Daddy suffer from the absence of his father, Grandma set out to give him the best education she could afford. She worked two bookkeeping jobs in order to put her only child through the best Catholic schools on Long Island. At Chaminade, a school with a reputation for being rigorous and elite, Daddy shared classes and a social life with a more well-to-do crowd than he’d ever known existed. Most of his classmates were given new cars as gifts on their sixteenth birthdays, while Daddy took two buses to school, his mother praying that the monthly tuition check wouldn’t clear through the bank before her paycheck did.
The irony was, as much as this upper-class, private school setting was meant to position Daddy for a life of success, instead, it would put my father at odds with himself forever: in this environment he became both well-educated and a drug addict.
Throughout his late teen years, Daddy read the great American classics; vacationed in his classmates’ beachfront summer homes, ignoring his mother’s incessant phone calls; and as a pastime, popped amphetamines beneath the bleachers of the high school football field.
Though he’d always been quick to learn and absorbed much of his rigorous education, the drugs made it hard to concentrate in school, so he slacked on homework and dozed in class. In his last year, Daddy applied and was admitted to a college located right in the heart of New York City. When graduation rolled around, he just barely squeaked by. Manhattan was meant to be his real start in life, college his springboard. But it wasn’t long before his high school setting recast itself around him, except now he was older and not in the suburbs of Baldwin, New York, but in the center of everything. In a few years’ time, Daddy came to apply his aptitude more toward peddling drugs than his college work. Slowly, he rose to the top ranks of a small clique of drug pushers. Being the most educated member of the group, he was nicknamed “the professor,” and was looked to for guidance. He was the one who drew blueprints for the group’s schemes.
Daddy abandoned school when he was two years into a graduate degree in psychology, a time during which he also gained some experience in social work, earning slightly above minimum wage. But the upkeep involved maintaining two very separate lives --- a legitimate attempt at the “straight life” versus the “high life” --- required too much effort. His lucrative drug earnings had a gravity far too powerful; it simply outweighed what an average life seemed to offer. So he rented an East Village apartment and worked full-time in the drug trade, surrounded by odd, lower-Manhattan types with criminal records and gang affiliations --- his “crew.” It so happened that Ma was hitting the same scene, right around this same time, floating in the same offbeat crowd.
Years down the line, they connected at a mutual friend’s loft apartment. Speed and coke were distributed as casually as soft drinks, and people discoed the night away surrounded by soft glowing lava lamps, the air perfumed by incense. They’d met a few times before, when Daddy’d dealt Ma speed or heroin. Coming from the streets, Ma’s first impressions of Daddy were something like an encounter with a movie star.
“You just had to see the way your father worked the room,” she’d tell me. “He called all the shots, commanded respect.” When they hooked up, Ma was twenty-two and Daddy was thirty-four. Ma dressed for the seventies, in flower-child blouses and nearly invisible short-shorts. Daddy described her as radiant and wild-looking with long, wavy black hair and bright, piercing amber eyes. Daddy said he took one look at her and loved her innocence, yet also her toughness and her intensity. “She was unpredictable,” he said. “You couldn’t tell if she was calculating or totally naïve. It was like she could go either way.”
They connected immediately, and in many ways became like any other new couple, passionate and eager to be with each other. But instead of taking in movies or hitting restaurants, shooting up was their common ground. They used getting high to find intimacy. Slowly, Ma and Daddy abandoned their crowds to be together, taking long walks down Manhattan streets, clasping hands, warming up to each other. They carried small baggies of cocaine and bottles of beer to Central Park, where they perched on hilltops to sprawl out in the moonlight and get high, anchored in each other’s arms.
If my parents’ lives had held different degrees of promise before they met, it didn’t take long for their paths to run entirely parallel. The premature start of our family leveled them, when they began living together in early 1977. Lisa, my older sister, was born in February 1978, when Ma was twenty-three.
In Lisa’s infancy, my parents initiated one of Daddy’s more lucrative drug scams. The plot involved faking the existence of a doctor’s office in order to legitimize the purchase of prescription painkillers that Daddy said were “strong enough to knock out a horse.” Typically reserved for cancer patients on hospice, just one of the tiny pills had a street value of fifteen dollars. On his graduate student clientele alone, Daddy could use phony prescriptions to unload hundreds of these pills per week, earning Ma and Daddy thousands of dollars every month.
Daddy went through great pains to avoid getting caught. Patience and attention to detail would keep them out of jail, he insisted. “It had to be done right,” he said. Meticulously, Daddy used the phone book along with maps of all five boroughs of New York City to carefully create a schedule of pharmacies they would hit systematically, week by week. The riskiest part of the scam, by far, was actually walking into the pharmacy to collect on a prescription, a task made riskier by the pharmacist’s legal obligation to phone doctors and verify all “scripts” for pain pills as strong as these.
Daddy devised a way to intercept pharmacists’ calls. The phone company at the time didn’t verify doctors’ credentials, so Daddy frequently ordered and abandoned new phone numbers under names he picked out of thin air, or sometimes he drew ideas from his former professors, Dr. Newman, Dr. Cohen, and Dr. Glasser. The pharmacists did indeed reach a doctor at the other end of their phone calls; a secretary even patched them through. But really it was only Ma and Daddy working together as a team. They worked long days, utilizing rent-by-the-week rooms in flophouses across New York City while friends cared for Lisa, who at that time was only a few months old.
The prescriptions themselves Daddy created with the help of his crew. He gave friends in a printing shop a cut of his profits in exchange for an ongoing supply of illegal, custom-made rubber stamps bearing the names of the phony doctors and a supply of legitimate-looking prescription pads. With the help of his connections, and for the cost of twenty-five dollars per pad, Daddy transformed blank prescriptions into gold, a stamp-by-stamp moneymaking machine. By design, Daddy said, his plan was “airtight” and would have continued to work if not for Ma’s slipup.
Though he did claim responsibility for at least half of the mistake, admitting, “We never should have been using from our own supply, that’s a rookie move. Getting hooked on your own stash fogs your head, makes you desperate.”
But there was no way to tell whether it was Ma’s addiction that made her desperate enough to ignore the obvious red flag, or if it was simply Ma’s typical impatience. Daddy had been careful to warn Ma of the signs that a pharmacist was onto you: surely, if you dropped off a prescription for highly suspicious pain meds at a pharmacy one entire day prior, there could only be one reason for a pharmacist to instruct you to wait twenty additional minutes when you arrived --- he was calling the police, and you should get out of there as fast as possible. Daddy had warned Ma of this scenario, made it perfectly clear.
But on the day of her arrest, Ma, who was known for being relentless and never backing down from something she wanted, would later explain, “I just couldn’t not come back, Lizzy. There was a chance he was gonna give me the pills, ya know? I had to try.” She was handcuffed in broad daylight and marched unceremoniously into a nearby police cruiser by an officer who had responded to the call hoping (correctly) that he would catch the criminals responsible for hitting countless pharmacies throughout the five boroughs. Unknowingly, Ma was already pregnant with me.
For over a year, the Feds had been compiling evidence that included a paper trail and a string of security camera footage that undeniably linked Ma and Daddy to nearly every pharmacy hit. If that wasn’t enough, when the Feds kicked in the door to arrest Daddy, they found bags of cocaine and dozens of pills littered across the tabletop of their East Village apartment, along with luxury items like a closetful of mink furs, dozens of leather shoes, leather coats, gold jewelry, thousands of dollars in cash, and even a glass tank holding an enormous Burmese python.
Daddy, who had orchestrated and executed the majority of their illegal activities, was hit with numerous counts of fraud, including impersonating a doctor. On his day in court, for dramatic effect, the prosecution wheeled into the courthouse three shopping carts brimming with prescriptions, all of which bore Daddy’s handwriting and fraudulent stamps. “Anything to say for yourself, Mr. Finnerty?” the judge asked. “No, your honor,” he said. “I think that speaks for itself.”
In all of this, they almost lost custody of Lisa permanently, but Ma maintained strict attendance in a parental reform program in the months between her arrest and her eventual sentencing. This, combined with a very pregnant belly on her day in court, solicited just enough leniency to get her set free.
Daddy wasn’t so lucky. He received a three-year sentence. He was transported from holding to Passaic County Jail in Patterson, New Jersey, the day Ronald Reagan was elected president.
On the day Ma was to be sentenced, she brought with her two cartons of cigarettes and a roll of quarters, certain that she would do time. But in a move that surprised everyone in the courthouse, right down to Ma’s lawyer, the judge looked her over with pity, then merely ordered probation and called the next case.
The bail money, one thousand dollars --- the very last of my parents’ earnings from their heyday --- was released to her in a check on her way out the door.
Check in hand, Ma saw an opportunity to start over, and she took it. The bail went for cans of fresh paint, thick curtains, and wall-to-wall carpeting for every room in our three-bedroom Bronx apartment on University Avenue, in what would soon become one of the most crime-ridden areas in all of New York City.
I was born on the first day of autumn, at the end of a long heat wave that had the neighborhood kids forcing open the fire hydrants for relief, and had Ma lodging loud, buzzing fans in every window. On the afternoon of September 23, 1980, Daddy --- in holding, but awaiting his sentence --- received a phone call from Charlotte, my mother’s mother, informing him that his daughter had been born, with drugs in her system but no birth defects. Ma hadn’t been careful during either pregnancy, but both Lisa and I were lucky. I peed all over the nurse and was declared healthy at nine pounds, three ounces.
“She looks like you, Peter. Has your face.”
From his cell later that night, Daddy named me Elizabeth. Because Daddy and Ma were never legally married and he wasn’t there to verify paternity, I got Ma’s last name, Murray.
A new crib in my own freshly decorated nursery awaited me at home. Ma never got over the look on her caseworker’s face when she arrived to check on us. Lisa and I were dressed in brand-new clothing, the apartment was spotless, and the fridge was packed with food. Ma beamed proudly and received a glowing report. She was issued steady income from welfare to take care of us, and we started on our new beginning, as a family.
The next few years were mapped by Ma’s solo visits to Daddy, and her efforts to gain assistance in her role as a newly sober, single parent. Once in a while, through the side door of nearby Tolentine Church, a nun passed Ma free bricks of American cheese and oversized tubs of salt-free peanut butter that came with loaves of uncut bread in long, brown paper bags. With packages filling her arms, Ma would stand still for the sister while she waved the sign of the cross over the three of us. Only then were we allowed to go, Lisa helping to push my stroller along.
These supplies, along with raisin packets and oatmeal, were what we had for breakfasts and snacks. Down at Met Food supermarket, pork hot dogs were only ninety-nine cents for a pack of eight. Dinners were these discount franks cut into thick slices, with warm scoops of boxed macaroni and cheese.
When it came to clothing, although we’d never met her, Daddy’s mother helped us. On holidays she mailed packages from a place called Long Island, where Daddy said the streets were lined with beautiful houses. The boxes were reused from bulk purchases of paper towels or bottled water, but they carried treasure inside. Under layers of newspaper, we found bright clothing, small kitchen supplies, and freshly baked, sweet-smelling walnut brownies in decorative tins, which collected in a clumsy stack next to the “no-frills” cans in our kitchen cabinet. Polite little notes written in careful script --- which Ma never bothered to read --- came pinned to the opening cardboard flap, sometimes with a crisp five-dollar bill taped neatly inside.
Ma threw away the notes, but kept the money wrapped in a rubber band in a small red box on the dresser. Whenever the wad grew thick enough, she took us to McDonald’s for Happy Meals. For herself, she picked up packs of Winston cigarettes, beer in tall, dark bottles, and Muenster cheese.
When I was three years old, Daddy fanned out his release papers beside me on the king-sized mattress in my parents’ room. I stared up in wonder at the sound of a man’s voice in the apartment; at the way Ma moved gingerly around him in the afternoon sunlight. His movements were quick and impatient, making it hard to focus on the features of his face.
“I’m your fath-er,” he enunciated loudly from under his newsboy cap, as though his sternness should impact my understanding.
Instead, I hid behind my mother’s legs and cried softly in confusion. That night, I spent the evening alone in my own bed, rather than beside Ma. My parents, together for the first time in my life, were muddled voices rising and falling unpredictably through the thick door that separated our rooms.
In the months that followed, Ma grew more laid-back about keeping up with things. Chores were neglected; dirty dishes sat untouched for days in the kitchen sink. She took us to the park less often. I sat at home for hours waiting to be swept up in Ma’s activities, and couldn’t understand why they no longer included me. Feeling pushed out by these changes, I became determined to find my way back to her.
I learned that Ma and Daddy shared strange habits together, the full details of which were hidden from me. Ritualistically, they would spread spoons and other objects along the kitchen table in some kind of urgent preparation. Over the display, they communicated in quick, brief commands to each other. Water was needed --- a small amount from the faucet --- and so were shoelaces and belts. I was not supposed to bother them, but observing their busy hands from a distance was allowed. From the doorway, I often watched, trying to understand the meaning behind their activity. But each time Ma and Daddy were done setting the strange objects across the table, at the very last minute, one of them would close the kitchen door, blocking my view entirely.
This remained a mystery until one summer evening when I parked myself in my stroller (which I would use until it finally gave under my weight) in front of the kitchen. When the door was closed to me again, I didn’t budge from where I sat, but remained and waited. I watched roaches weaving their way in and out of the door crack --- a recent addition to the apartment since Ma had stopped cleaning regularly --- while each minute dragged by. When Ma finally emerged, her face was tense, her lips pursed together.
Sensing that they had finished, I said something that would be retold to me in story form for years.
I raised my arms into the air, and gave a singsong, “Al-l-l do-ne.”
Taken off guard, Ma paused, leaned in and asked disbelievingly, “What did you say, pumpkin?”
“Al-l-l done,” I repeated, delighted at Ma’s sudden interest.
She yelled for Daddy. “Peter, she knows! Look at her, she understands!”
He laughed a light laugh and went about his business. Ma remained there at my side, stroking my hair. “Pumpkin, what do you know?”
Thrilled to have found my place in their game, I made a habit of seating myself in front of the kitchen each time they retreated inside.
Eventually, they left the door open.
Excerpted from BREAKING NIGHT: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard © Copyright 2011 by Liz Murray. Reprinted with permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.
Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard