He had watched his mother and aunt in the kitchen and studied their tricks for roasting chicken and grilling pork chops with garlic powder and seasoned salt. By the time he was ten, he could cook for the whole family. When I ask what first drew him to the stove, he tells me about a time when he was a boy and his mother was sick: “I said, ‘I’ll go down and fix you something.’ She said, ‘That’s the best soup I ever ate.’ Maybe she was making me feel good. But she ate it all.”
But cracks in the family’s foundation turned into sinkholes.
Memories of Vietnam stalked his father, who lost himself to alcohol and began running an after-hours gambling hall out of a nearby house. “A gyp joint,” Merritt calls it. He says his father started giving him beer at age seven. “He woke up and got liquor before he went to work and came home with a bottle in his pocket.” (Charles Jackson died some 20 years ago, of cirrhosis.)
Hearing a bang in his parents’ bedroom one night, Merritt dashed upstairs to find a hole in the wall and a .38 revolver in his father’s hands. His dad was convinced Vietcong were on his tail. When his father turned his rage on his mother—bruising her face and bloodying her lip—Meguiel thrust himself between them, hoping to deflect his father’s anger onto himself.
When I ask Merritt’s mother why he quit school at 17, Eula Jackson says a boy who had moved in down the block pressured him to skip classes.
But when I tell Merritt what his mother said, he shakes his head. There were plenty of other reasons for his dropping out, he says, not least a desire to prove himself his own man.
In school, kids teased Meguiel about his size, calling him Pillsbury Doughboy. After he dropped out, no one messed with him: He had a .22 revolver and a homeboy who had his back. The pair often passed the school day in the park with a bottle of wine.
While driving around together one morning, I asked Merritt what became of that friend. He slowed his truck and pointed to a gas station at the corner of Florida Avenue and Third Street, Northwest: “He stands there and begs for change.”
• • •
For all his shortcomings, Merritt inherited from his parents a belief in the virtues of work. A month after quitting school, he got a job as a stock clerk at Woodies department store and then, at 18, as a dishwasher at a downtown DC restaurant. He met a woman who worked as a table busser there, a Jamaican immigrant ten years his senior. Soon a son, Meguiel Jackson, was born.
He and the boy’s mom weren’t committed, though, and two years later, in 1982, he married a woman who made sandwiches at a downtown Wendy’s, where he was a cook. They were both 21, and she had a young daughter from a previous relationship. They moved in together. Merritt left his son’s upbringing to the boy’s mother.
When Merritt was 25, his mother, then an executive housekeeper at Howard, helped him get a second job, as a daytime janitor in the school’s dorms. He traded up restaurants, too, leaving fast food for an evening job at a Bob’s Big Boy in Aspen Hill. He worked his way up from dishwasher to first cook and made enough of an impression on his bosses that the company sent him to culinary school, from which he returned as the restaurant’s head chef.
The extra pay lifted his new family from a one-bedroom apartment in Columbia Heights to a two-bedroom in Aspen Hill. But the long hours took a toll. To let off steam, he and a waiter he’d befriended began drinking together on the job, from 10 pm until their midnight quitting time.
“I’d get off work at 12 o’clock, go home, and get up hung-over at 4 o’clock” for his janitorial job, he says. “I did that for five years.”
By the time he finally left the cooking job, it was too late to reverse the damage his alcoholism and financial insecurities were doing to the marriage. In his rush to outfit their new life with all the trappings of success—a new Toyota 4Runner, a leather living-room set—he and his wife had piled up $72,000 in credit-card debt. When I ask about the discolored scar tissue on his knuckles, he tells me it was from a night when he grew so frustrated that he drove his fist though a door, prompting his wife to call the police.
The couple split in 1991, and his life entered a tailspin. He filed for personal bankruptcy and moved into an apartment on South Capitol Street with a female housekeeper he worked with at Howard. They started smoking three to four $10 bags of crack on the weekends. It soon became a $150-a-day habit. The apartment “turned into a crack house,” he says. “People came to the door all hours of the night, just to get high and smoke.”
Yet even in the grips of addiction, he kept showing up for work. After lunch, when work slowed, he closed the door to the tiny janitorial office in the basement of Carver Hall, an all-male dorm, and got drunk. He kept a bottle of rum in the desk drawer and served himself in a 7-Eleven soda cup. He wore sunglasses indoors to hide his dilated eyes and chewed gum against the odors.
Some nights, when he was too strung out to get home, he slept on the floor of the janitors’ locker room, a violation of rules. Then one night he fathered another child, a girl, in a brief encounter with the wife of a friend’s friend—a woman he says came on to him after he’d downed too much Jack Daniel’s. He bailed on that daughter, just as he had his son. Though he sent money from time to time, both were raised by their mothers and grandparents.
I ask how his life spun so out of control. “After the divorce, I had to figure out: What am I going to do?” he says. “I was young, mad, angry. I was angry that I messed up my marriage, that I worked so hard for this woman—the money, the cars, the furniture I bought. And then I’m out here assless with nothing.”
If working hard and doing right had led to this, what was the point? he asked himself. Why not just take the fastest route to feeling good?