- The Legend of Lonnie Lion
Two pieces of my pops’ advice stuck with me— Don’t marry a white girl and Never pick the skin off chicken. It’s the best part. I don’t pick the skin off of chicken ’cause he was right about that. And even though it was just my pops playing around, I can’t see the first piece of advice sitting well with my mom, Nicoletta. [End Page 32]
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My pops was big enough to block doorways, and Mom was small enough to almost fit her whole body into one of his pant legs. It’s hard for me to imagine them together. They met back at the University of Washington. She was his tutor, the type of tutor who wrote essays for players on the Huskies football team to pay her tuition. Pops grew up an army brat and spent some time on Fort McChord when Big Daddy, his own pops, was stationed there. It made sense for him to stay in Washington. How my mom, an East Coast girlie, ended up in Washington, I don’t know. She doesn’t speak much on it but still yells “U Dub!” every time she sees someone rocking the gear, and I shake my head.
He left the university a year early to turn pro. Mom was a year ahead, so it worked out. He was a D-end, first for the Tampa Bay Bucs and then for the San Francisco 49ers. My mom took the football bread that was coming in and became a self-taught architect and real-estate developer. She made some investments, made money, at least, that’s how she tells it. But she had Italian hustle like that, so I buy it. I don’t know many stories from the bliss times. I know that she played tennis well, and after I was born, my pops got a few sets in with her every day so she could lose that baby weight and get back in shape. Afterward, they’d bike through the burnt-out California hills, those rose-gold, cracked slopes that jutted up between the houses and kept all the lives private. My pops is fat as shit now.
I was around six when they split—before I can really remember. His body was too shot to keep playing football, and he left to try and make some moves in LA for a bit. Mom got us a studio in Koreatown to stay close. For reasons I didn’t understand, the money was all gone. My mom and I slept in the same bed together with a baseball bat next to the night-stand. No one ever broke in, and Pops never came back.
After LA had squeezed him for the last of his football dollars, Pops moved back up to Washington and had a kid, my little sister, Whitney, with his high school sweetheart. I was around nine then, and our communication went radio silent for a while. My mom and I came east to Rhode Island to be with her mascarpone-colored family. But some years later, when I was old enough to fly alone, she would still send me to visit my pops, would buy the plane tickets and drive me to the airport. She never tripped over the lack of child support and even smiled each time she walked me to the security line. The smiles were always nervous— Come back you, the you I’ve been building for years. Come back the way [End Page 34] I’ve made you. Pops would send me home with my suitcase filled with FUBU and Coogi off the discount-clothing racks, clothes my mom accidentally ruined in the wash.
The summer I was thirteen I clocked the Sea-Tac Airport for the first time. Pops was waiting at the gate in beat-up loafers and sweats. That’s the way he rocked: comfortable. He had long since lost his celebrity status in the city as a football star. Back in his...