steven ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*While sitting at a light on a popular L.A. retail avenue, I noticed a woman in her early thirties striding past the shops, holding the hands of a preteen girl and boy.

There was a man, too, maybe in his late thirties. Though clearly with the mom and kids, he maintained an innately negotiated distance.

I know that humble public formation anywhere: There, bless his heart, goes a man dating a single mother. Based on the measured proximity of his chastened gait, I’d say this was his debut outing with both mom and children.

I looked at him and wondered if he already knew that no matter how physically imposing, intelligent or charismatic he may be, to truly get that woman, he must submit his intentions to the consideration and mercy of her children. I know what I’m talking about. I had to deal with Tyrone.

Back in 1987, when she was 29 and I was 33, Janiece and I broke the cardinal Single-Parent-Dating Rule: even though we’d gone out only once, I agreed to meet her seven year old son.

I knew the possible peril of involving kids in an adult relationship too soon. But rendezvousing with my date and her little one in the parking lot of the Glendale Sizzler, I forgot all about that. I was captivated by Tyrone’s sad, inquisitive eyes, full eyebrows, flat nose and a bit of a hook head. Janiece’s son was a miniature Sammy Davis, Jr.

He took one look at me, turned to his mother and said, “Mama, he’s old.” She laughed nervously. My smile tightened. It was downhill from there.

During dinner, Tyrone wouldn’t talk to me. However, anytime I tried to engage his mom, he’d interrupt with questions or finish her answers. I kept imagining him in a black tuxedo, his bow tie undone, managing in one of his tiny hands a half filled tumbler of whiskey and a lit cigarette. The kid really did look like Sammy.

The next day Janiece apologized for her son’s behavior. His father, she said, split before Tyrone was born. Anytime a man appeared to get close, he’d become protective. I understood. Whether he is aged five or thirty-five, a son can be hell on his mother’s suitor.

However, protective instincts are one thing; a force shield is another. If I called and Tyrone answered, he’d offer a begrudging “Hold on.” And then he’d hang up. I’d visit and he’d suck his teeth and sit between us on the couch.

He really showed out at the zoo. Rude to strangers; ordering stuff and then refusing it. I was once a kid, too, I reminded myself. But I was never this kid.

When Janiece asked me to accompany the little gremlin to the restroom, I took the opportunity to let him have it. “Look, fella,” I said firmly, getting down in his little face, which I’d just seen on TV the other night with Peter Lawford in a 1968 movie called “Salt And Pepper.” “You’ve given me nothing but attitude. Now, I’m through with your mess. You understand? Cut it out. Wash your hands and let’s go.” He didn’t make a peep, but he looked to be fuming. Something told me Janiece might be, too, when Tyrone finally relayed to her my restroom soliloquy.

Sure enough, next day, her message on my machine felt detached. Later, on the phone, Janiece forced some uneasy small talk, before saying someone wanted to talk to me. Then she gave the phone to Tyrone.

In a clear little voice I’d never heard like this, he asked if I would come to his school’s Father’s Day assembly. He said please. I told him I would, he thanked me and gave the phone back to his mother. Maybe he hadn’t told mom about the restroom talk.

“I didn’t put him up to it,” Janiece, said, embarrassed. “He asked if he could ask you. I told him no, but he kept asking.” Ty’s mom graciously thanked me–and then said she wouldn’t blame me at all if I revoked the offer after what she was about to say.

She’d changed her mind about getting involved with me. She enjoyed my company, but all the time alone had her shaking in her boots at the idea of actually developing feelings for someone. “I’m too scared to try,” she said.

I told her I understood. And I did, though I didn’t like having to. But I had as much regret in not getting to know Ty.

On the day of the assembly, while walking into the auditorium, Tyrone let go of Janiece’s hand and grabbed mine. Personally, I thought he was the best dancer on the stage. But then, you can’t do better than Sammy.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]