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A father substitute in the drug world

13 February 2007 at 05:22 | 905 views

By Mary Wiens,

When I first meet Naran Morgan(photo), he’s raking up leaves in the front yard of his home in Scarborough. Naran’s wearing a touque, a sweatjacket, and a broad smile as he comes over to the van to greet me.

Courteous and welcoming, Naran seems every inch the proud new homeowner - a very different role for a guy who did his first drug deal at age 16 and has been jailed three times for everything from stealing a car to armed robbery. It’s hard to believe that this change is permanent, as he tells me stories that show how deeply involved he was in Toronto’s drug scene.

A New Lifestyle
That first day the man gave Naran an ’8-ball’ (an eighth of an ounce of cocaine). "I did my stuff and came back. He took the money I made, gave me some of it and gave me another one to go back out so that started a repetition of what became my lifestyle after that."

Naran had already gone to jail once as a young offender, for car theft. The drug dealing landed Naran in jail again, this time as an adult.

He says his biggest mistake was thinking that the older men who took him under their wing had any interest in him once he was behind bars. "I was accepting it," says Naran, "because I still wanted a male figure around me. I never looked that they were teaching me stuff that was wrong. I was doin’ a lot of the runs, but they were doing the benefitting of it."

Once in jail, he learned something else about the business.

"When I was in jail, none of them came to visit me, only my Mom. But I was still trying to seek that male role model thing."

A Substitute Father from the Street
Male role models - they’re on Naran’s mind a lot. He soon found another one. Another drug dealer who made Naran his second-in-command. And he remembers how good it felt, to think he mattered to an older man.

"We’re downtown on Dundas, sitting in one of those little spots," says Naran. "Everybody’s glorifying him, because he’s the big dealer on the block and he’s showing me to other people, like ’this is my youth, he’s working for me.’ We walked down the block and everybody had to acknowledge me." He remembers the dealer telling his contacts, "if you guys want me, call Naran, ’cuz he’s working for me."

The man called Naran ’son’, and Naran called him ’father’. "Everybody really thought I was his son," says Naran. "Looking back, I was definitely looking for a father figure. My mom tried to do everything she could do, but I was lacking things a male wanted to do with a male - that whole acceptance from a bigger male - someone to watch my back."

His Real Father - Just A Memory
Naran had very little of that protection growing up. His mother and father separated when he was still a toddler, and he was raised by his grandmother, while his parents went their separate ways - his father to the U.S. and his mother to Toronto.

All the more telling then how vividly Naran remembers the few times he saw his father. His earliest memory is at age 6, taking a shower together. He remembers his father soaping him up. Naran’s 31 now but the intimacy of that single moment is as vivid as though it were yesterday.

"Just admiring him and his height. My Dad is 6’8". He was like a giant to me. A big man, light skin, goodlooking. My Mom says I look just like him, just like my Dad."

And yet this father whom Naran idolized, didn’t see his son again until Naran was 11. Naran’s father had returned to Jamaica for a visit, staying with relatives just up the street from the house where Naran lived with his grandmother.

He remembers how excited he was that his father was coming to see him, dreaming of the things they would do together. It didn’t turn out that way.

"The whole two weeks, he was never trying to see me. It was more like me forcing myself on him," Naran recalls. "I was never his first preference. I’d be on the front porch talking to him, asking him what is it we’re going to do today, and he said he’s busy, go up to your mom’s house."

Walking down the porch steps he suddenly realized why his father was so busy, "Me walking out towards the gate, I saw his girlfriend coming up, and I was kind of devastated. I wasn’t the only kid without a dad, but I was really looking forward to that dad thing because I never had one."

The girlfriend didn’t know who he was, but to his neighbours Naran was a familiar sight, running errands for them to the grocery store, chopping down trees, feeding their goats. "So this was my little hustle," says Naran, "and I had made about two-hundred dollars."

At some point, near the end of that two-week stay, Naran’s father asked if he could borrow the money from him. Naran was thrilled. "Being my Dad, I felt so good thinking I could help him."

He ran home to get the money from the box he kept in his grandmother’s room. His grandmother was furious and warned him he’d never see the money again. "But I didn’t care," says Naran. "This was my dad."

Two days later, Naran ran back up the street to see his father again and found he’d left - without saying goodbye.

The Man of the Family
At 14, Naran moved to Toronto to stay with his mother, who by that time, had started a new relationship. It didn’t last long after Naran moved in. His mother and her partner often argued and one evening, it turned violent.

Naran remembers his step-sister running frantically into his basement bedroom and telling him her dad was hitting her mom. Naran ran up the stairs, grabbed a knife from the kitchen, pinned the man up against the wall and told him what he’d do with the knife if he didn’t leave.

"He saw in my eyes that I was serious," says Naran. The man left, not even staying around long enough to pack his clothes.

Not long after that, Naran began selling drugs. It was during his first jail term that he had his last contact with his father - a letter from a jail in Florida.

"So imagine that, " Naran says. "You’re reading a letter, your dad is telling you to behave yourself, don’t get in trouble."

Even after years of abandonment, the letter meant a lot to Naran.

"It still felt beautiful getting a letter from your dad. The whole point he’s in jail, trying to tell me I shouldn’t make these decisions, still trying to do the dad thing, just too far behind."

Naran says he wrote back, "How about this, if you get out, you can come visit me and see how we can create back our father-son relationship."

But there would never be another opportunity. Two years later, Naran’s father died of stomach cancer.

Hard Time
It was during that stay in prison, when Naran discovered what it meant to be robbed of his manhood.

"Jail takes away your pride, takes away your dignity. Guys asking you to bend over, and spread your cheeks, telling you when to go to bed," says Naran.

I ask him whether there were any men he looked up to inside. He laughs.

"Girlfriend," Naran says, "when you walk in the first day, they ask you to strip, bend over, by then you’re called by your last name or a number. You’re not identified as a person. Jail takes a lot away from you. Takes a lot out of you, the person."

By now, Naran was a father himself. He remembers breaking down in the visiting room, when his girlfriend brought his son to see him.

"It affected me to, like, the core of my soul. I’m in Don Jail, my son is like 18 months, just standing up on the counter, hitting the glass, and saying, ’Dad, Dad."

It was one of many turning points for Naran - but the change from drug dealer to family man didn’t happen overnight.

A Turning Point
At 29, when Naran was released from jail for the third time, he went back to what he knew best - selling drugs. He remembers having an argument one night with someone over a drug deal and going back to his apartment to get his gun.

"I was going to do the guy something," Naran says, and was heading out the door when his son began crying. Naran laid down the gun and picked him up. But Jamal wouldn’t stop crying, so finally, lying down on the couch with him, the two fell asleep together.

The next morning Naran’s girlfriend found the gun lying on the floor, next to Naran and their son Jamal, still asleep on the couch. She was furious, says Naran, but what he remembers even more clearly was the dawning realization of what he’d been spared. "I could have done something that would have cost me or someone else their life. From that point on, for real, my son made a difference in my life. I started to look at life differently."

Looking back, Naran says his life was defined by his search for a male role model. He wants to be a different kind of role model for his son. But he’s swimming against a powerful tide. The statistics show that in some black communities, growing up without a father has become the norm. There are no guarantees that things will be different for Naran and his son. Only Naran’s deep desire to do things differently than his own father.