Every story whether it be fiction, nonfiction, dramatic, happy or sad, all have the same structure, they all have a beginning, a middle and an end.
The same goes for people’s lives. The story you are about to read, I can assure you, is true, with real-life events that just happen to be some of my earliest memories.
As I got older they were discussed only once with my mother, and it was recommended that I leave it alone.
I was born on May 17, 1972, in south west Philadelphia, in a private hospital to Harry and Virginia D’Ascenzo, the last baby to be physically birthed there before it was razed to the ground.
My father was an already feared and respected local as well as international legend in the annals of organized crime. While it existed in strength, it was a veritable Who’s Who of the East Coast Mob.
Chaos began when I was between 18 months and 2 years old. I am much less sure of my age than I am of the events, which remain etched in crystal in my mind to this day, over 40 years later …
I remember waking up in my mother’s arms with very many strange men who were all similarly dressed, moving all throughout house and my dad was not there. There was only my mom and her calming influence amidst something that I did not understand. That for me was for some reason, very scary …
Over the next couple of years my father was there, just not in the home. My mother and I would take trips every weekend to go see him at “school” or “college.” Of course, I’d figured out later where he really was during the years he was not there.
I met some very interesting people; my favorite being Charles Spicer, who was a lawyer, a published writer and poet and a bank robber, though not in that order. He had already been to school for 26 years, and over time to me became Uncle Chuck.
Something else that I became truly fond of, one could even say ravenous for, was Dairy Queen (DQ) hot dogs. There was a DQ on the way to “school” and over time the waitresses would all greet me by name and ask me if I was excited to be going to see my dad at “school” and smile and ruffle my hair or pinch my cheeks. ‘Cause, hey, I was kinda cute. And they would give me two hot dogs without the bun and some french fries. And there I would sit, blissfully turning two into four, sometimes six, to the wonder of everyone, except of course, my mom. And then off we would go to see my dad.
During this time, as can only be expected, I became very attuned to the safety and peace that was Mother and home. This lasted for quite a few years. About until I was a little over 5 years old and that is because Uncle Chuck got dad home early on an appeal.
I remember being down the street from the house and someone told me my mom needed me home. Through the front door, into the kitchen where my mom was sitting, I looked at her and she said, “turn around,” which of course I did. And I saw him standing in the corner smiling at me, oblivious. I had walked right past him.
Man, I ran and jumped into his arms and he picked me up and hugged me tight and once again my world was complete.
At this point my dad kept me with him pretty much all the time, and for me it was cool. For him it was back to business. I met the people that worked in a company that was named after me, Mark Construction Contracting and Demolition. I thought that was neat. Anyway, time passed, and it must have been a few months later …
I remember sitting in the living room, sitting on the floor. My parents were on either side of me and they began to argue and it was very loud and it was the first one I’d ever experienced so I really didn’t know what to make of it.
Anyway, the yelling continued for what seemed a very long time, with me sitting there on the living room floor tracking the progress like a tennis freak, out at Wimbledon, my little head swiveling back and forth with each verbal volley.
Now at some point, just as in tennis, a point was scored and the action came to stop. It was my mother who scored and the silence was deafening. And instead of pressing her advantage she spun off and silently retreated to the bathroom where she entered and pushed the door semishut behind her.
At this point something occurred that I, in some primitive part of my mind, understood yet was unable to fully process, like the deer that senses changes yet is frozen an instant before the instinct kicks in and sends you into action. You see, my father still hadn’t moved and when I looked at him, he was staring at me with an intensity that was unsettling.
He then looked at the partially shut door where my mother had retreated, looked back at me and when he did there was something there that I didn’t know, that was not safe and scared me. He then proceeded to the bathroom, walked in and again pushed the door partially shut but not completely closed. I was waiting for the yelling to begin again or maybe talking, anything but the continued silence that was happening.
So I got up and walked over to the door and still nothing. I couldn’t even hear breathing. It was like they disappeared. So I pushed the door open. At first I thought they were hugging, then I realized two things, one was that my mom was facing the wrong way, the second was that her feet were off the floor.
My father was 5 foot 10, around 218 pounds with a 19 ¾-inch neck. He was a onetime pro boxer and a judo instructor in the Marines where he fought in WWII and Korea. Not to mention just naturally being as hard as the frozen cobblestone streets of Philadelphia he grew up on where his name was synonymous with strength, respect and danger.
When the situation as I perceived it clicked into place, I somehow knew that I had to do something to change what was happening. Somehow I knew that my mother needed help. I ran and wrapped my arms around my father’s waist as far as they would go. Anyway, I tried to move him and I might as well have been trying to shake an oak. I remember at this point my father looking down at me and turning my mother, still locked in his arms, slightly away from me and I remember feeling helpless for what was probably the first time in my life.
So there I was holding my father. He had no shirt on, dress pants that were tan, with black dress shoes and a black leather belt. To this day I can fall into memory and smell the leather. I remember the softness of his side against my cheek and that is when it hit me. So I opened my mouth as wide as I could, turned and bit for all I was worth.
That was the last thing I remember until I woke up on the floor, cradled in my mother’s arms and she was rocking me and crying. There was quite a bit of blood everywhere. My mother thought I was dead because when I bit my dad his instinct was to strike, which was what he did, his elbow connecting squarely with my forehead.
My dad was not there for a couple of days, but he came home and life went on, like nothing ever happened.
It was maybe two weeks later that my mom and I went to DQ and I sat and waited for my dogs and mom set the tray down. I grabbed one and bit it and instantly gagged and spit the offending piece onto the tray, looking at the hot dog in my hand completely uncomprehending what it was that was happening.
My mom somehow knew what it was and said, “Give it to me, baby” and I did. And she began to peel it, removing the outer skin, then handed it back to me. I looked at it, bit it and was able to chew it and swallow it. From that moment on, for the next three, almost four years, my mother would patiently peel my hot dogs with care and love and a smile that I knew was just for me.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I was able to process that incident and realize that when I bit that first hot dog, it was like biting my father again. But what really gets me is how my mother just knew, and she knew how to fix it.
To the day he died, my father walked around with what looked like a bullet wound in his side. He never again spoke of the incident. What he did do was begin to train me, physically as well as criminally. The way he saw it, I, as a child, was able to do what no soldier of country or street was able to do. I, as a child, stopped Harry D’Ascenzo in his tracks.
Now that my father is passed, and my mother, well it’s been many years since we have spoken and truthfully, I really don’t know if she is alive or not, but I have to say, this time she was wrong. It’s not over, for I carry it with me still. I will not let it own me, but it continues to live within me. One demon among many.
Mark D’Ascenzo, 44, is in the San Francisco County Jail for burglary.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.