He went to a substance treatment center that had a special place for him in the choir. Finding God through song made him realize he was never lost.
- Posted on May 14, 2019
I grew up in a war zone. At least, that’s what the Brownsville section of Brooklyn seemed like in the 1970s. Gangs and drugs ruled the streets. My mother acted like a watchdog for me, my older brother and younger sister. “School and straight back home, you hear?” she cautioned every morning, packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for our lunch. At night Mama stormed heaven with her prayers to keep us safe.
She’d raised us all by herself since my dad left, taking any work she could find until she finally landed a union job on the housekeeping staff at St. Luke’s Hospital. No matter how tired she was, she would always make time to be with us. I wanted to show Mama how much I loved her, but the only gift I could give was music. “Sing to me, Norman,” she’d say, putting her feet up at the end of a long shift. “Sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ ” After a few notes, I could see the tiredness leave her face. Ever since I was little, people had praised my voice. It just came natural to me. I loved music almost as much as I loved my mother.
When I was 13 a friend told me about his church choir, and I checked it out. For the next four years I was in that church three, four days a week, attending choir rehearsals and singing on Sunday. It made Mama proud. There was no better way to keep me off the streets of Brownsville. But the time came when I did something I never thought I’d do. I disobeyed my mother. Mama had heart problems, and she had to slow down. She couldn’t be the watchdog she’d been before. I hung out with guys she would never approve of.
“Rehearsal,” I’d say when I came home late, but I’d been in an alley smoking marijuana. I started cutting classes, and Mama found out. “Please, Norman,” she begged, “don’t end up on the streets.” I had to get out of Brownsville, I decided. I left school in tenth grade and joined the army.
In basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., about the only thing I did right was attend chapel on the base and sing at Sunday services. Hearing those hymns kept my head straight. But when I was transferred to Fort Stewart I started getting into trouble. It was Article 15 after Article 15, the section of the code of military justice where you’re punished with things like extra duty, restriction to base, and forfeiture of your pay. Still that didn’t stop me from hooking up with guys who had an ample supply of marijuana.
After a while I got to be buddies with some men who had good singing voices. We formed a group—four guys, sometimes five. “Yo, what’s up, New York!” they’d call out to me. That was my thing, being a New Yorker. We sang gospel, jazz and R&B. We knew all the latest jams at the clubs. We went into Savannah and crashed parties, looking for girls. People usually let us stay when we offered to sing.
Music made me feel like somebody, and I’d gotten used to life in the army. After my three years were up, I decided to reenlist. But it seemed I was never far from trouble. Smoking pot had become a habit. Then I started thinking I could make some extra money by selling. One night I sold a bag of marijuana to an undercover MP. I asked for a discharge in 1982, and headed back to Brooklyn.
One of the first things I did was sing “Amazing Grace” for Mama. It seemed like the best of old times, but our happy reunion lasted only three weeks. High on pot one night, I was caught with a 9mm pistol in my pocket. My excuse was that I’d carried one in the army, but this time possession of a gun meant a year in jail—on Rikers Island. I was housed with hardened criminals. I was 21 years old and scared, maybe for the first time in my life. “God is in here with you, Norman,” Mama said. “And don’t you ever forget that.”
We lived in one-man cells, arranged on two levels around a quad. I could hear the other prisoners’ voices. A couple guys sang, and they sounded good. I got them to start harmonizing across the quad. Sometimes when we sang gospel, I could almost believe God was near me like Mama said. I was released after seven months and swore never to wind up in prison again. I married a woman whose father was a deacon at the church where I used to sing. Soon we were expecting a child. Carol had a job, and I found work as a truck driver. Somehow we scraped together enough money for an apartment.
But I was back in Brooklyn, back to all my bad habits. I’d always been heavy into pot, and now I decided to try cocaine. The sensation hit my body like fire. “This is it,” I said, as if there were no tomorrow. I fought to keep on with my life. On top of my truck job, I did gigs at parties as a DJ and singer, but on payday all I wanted was more cocaine. Just as I’d once lied to my mother, I lied to my wife. Most of all, I lied to myself.
That’s the last time, I’d say after a binge. My next step was crack cocaine. Once you start smoking crack, you’re off to the races. Eventually Carol moved out, taking our son with her, and I hit a low point. I slept on the street or crashed in crack houses, finally stumbling back to my mother’s for food and a bath.
One day in 1988, after a hard binge, I was headed to Mama’s. Coming toward me was a guy I used to get high with. It can’t be him. This guy looked like a million bucks. “Norman?” he said. “Look at you, man. How can you do this to yourself?” He told me to call a place called Daytop Village. “They saved my life,” he said, shoving a card in my pocket. “They can save you too.”
Mama cleaned me up. I begged money from her and went looking for a fix. The next morning I walked out of a crack house. Wasted men sprawled on the porch, all dope fiends like me. What am I doing here? I saw a truck racing down the street, and I stepped toward the curb. I wanted to walk in front of that truck, put an end to my miserable existence, but something held me back. Then a cop car screeched to a halt in front of me. I leaned on the car window: “You’ve got to help me.”
The cops took me to a hospital, and then Mama brought me home. She could hardly look at me, but I heard her praying under her breath. I had to do something. I found the card in my pocket and called Daytop Village. It turned out to be a treatment center for substance abusers, up in the Catskill Mountains, north of the city. They had a bed for me. “Can you sing, Norman?” the director asked when I arrived. You could have bowled me over. It was October, and they were preparing for the Christmas season.
I started working with the choir immediately, 16 people with glorious voices. For most of us, music was the only good thing in our lives. Everybody stepped back and let me take charge. I felt like somebody. I felt like I had something to live for. Memories of my life in Brownsville soon disappeared, swept up in spiritual music. If this is treatment, then I’m in heaven, I thought. I knew I had my mother’s prayers to thank. We sang in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas, and Mama was there. I was a new man.
I eventually became a counselor there at Daytop. I also found a woman to share my new life. I met Rachel at a nearby church soon after I finished treatment. We married and began working at a Daytop facility in Texas. We had two sons, Spencer and Julius. I was finally living the life Mama wanted for me, the life God wanted for me. I’d seen the worst, and God had pulled me through. I never dreamed my life could be so good. Then on December 29, 1998, Rachel and our boys were in a car accident. Six-year-old Spencer died.
Grief overwhelmed me. God had rescued me from the abyss of drugs, but nothing could push me past the pain of losing my son. “Pray, Norman,” my mother told me. “Pray like I did. I lost you for the longest time, but God was always with you, and that alone gave me strength. He’s with you now. He’ll give you the strength to go on.”
My mother was right. She was always right. God had been with me on the streets of Brownsville. He got me through prison and the crack houses, and he brought me to a place where I could do something worthwhile with my life. I remembered the words I always sang to Mama from “Amazing Grace”—“I once was lost, but now am found.” God is with me no matter what happens. He would see my family and me through the deepest pain. Once you know God has found you, nothing is truly lost.
This story first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Angels on Earth magazine.