Today's Reading

My parents met in the summer of 1964. Mom-Mom was working as a notary in the Fidelity Bank in Philly. She was rolling out with some girlfriends to a party, and one of them told her she just had to meet this man. His name was Will Smith.

In many ways, Mom-Mom is the total opposite of my father. Whereas Daddio was the boisterous, charismatic center of attention, Mom-Mom is quiet and reserved; not because she's shy or intimidated, but because she "only speaks when it improves on silence." She loves words and always chooses them carefully—she speaks with an academic sophistication. Daddio, on the other hand, was loud, spewing the lingo of a 1950s North Philly hood rat. He loved the poetry of his profanity—I once heard him call a man a "dirty rat, cocksuckin', low-down, mangy pig fucker."

Mom-Mom doesn't use profanity.

It's important to note here, that back in the day, Daddio was the man. Six foot two, smart, good-looking, the proud owner of a fire-engine-red convertible Pontiac. He was funny; he could sing; he could play the guitar. He could lock people into him—he was always the dude standing in the middle of a party with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, a master storyteller who could keep a room buzzing.

When Mom-Mom first saw Daddio, he reminded her of a tall Marvin Gaye. He was savvy and knew his way around people. He could talk his way into a party, get free drinks and a table near the front. Daddio had a way of moving through the world like everything was under control, it was all going to be fine. This was comforting for my mom.

My mother's memory of their first days together is just a blurred montage of restaurants and clubs, strung together by a stream of jokes and laughter. Mom-Mom couldn't get over how funny he was, but most important to her, he was ambitious. He had his own business. He had employees. He wanted to work in white neighborhoods, with white people working for him.

Daddio was going places.

My father wasn't used to interacting with women of my mother's educational accomplishments—Man, this bird's smart as a muthafucka, he thought. Daddio was the street smarts to Mom-Mom's book smarts.

My parents had a lot in common, too. They both had a passion for music. They loved jazz, blues, and, later, funk and R&B. They lived through the glorious Motown days and spent much of it dancing together in musty basement parties and jazz clubs.

But there were strange commonalities, as well—the stuff that startles you and makes you think, This must be God's plan. Both of my parents had mothers who were nurses who worked night shifts (one was Helen; one was Ellen). Both of my parents had short-lived marriages in their early twenties, and they both had daughters. And in perhaps the strangest coincidence, they had both named their daughters Pam.

My parents got married in a small ceremony at Niagara Falls in 1966. Soon after, Daddio moved into my grandmother Gigi's house, on North Fifty-Fourth Street in West Philadelphia. It wasn't long before they combined their very different strengths and talents into an effective team. Mom-Mom ran Daddio's office: payroll, contracts, taxes, accounting, permits. And Daddio got to do what he did best: work hard and make money.

Both of my parents would later speak fondly of those early years. They were young, in love, ambitious, and they were movin' on up.

• • •

My full name is Willard Carroll Smith II—not Junior. Daddio would always correct people: "Hey! He ain't no mutherfuckin' Junior." He felt like calling me "Junior" diminished both of us.

I was born on September 25, 1968. My mom says that from the moment I showed up, I was a talker. Always smiling, yapping, and babbling away, content to just be making noise.

Gigi worked the graveyard shift at Jefferson Hospital in Center City, Philadelphia, so she'd take care of me in the mornings while my parents were at work. Her house had a huge porch, which served as my front-row seat to the drama of North Fifty-Fourth Street, and a stage on which I could join in the theatrics. She'd prop me up on that porch and watch me jibber-jabber with anybody and everybody who walked by. Even at that age, I loved having an audience.

My twin brother and sister, Harry and Ellen, were born on May 5, 1971. And counting Mom-Mom's daughter Pam, just like that there would now be six of us under one roof.

Fortunately, the North Philly entrepreneur in Daddio was alive and well. He had gone from repairing refrigerators to installing and maintaining refrigerator and freezer cases in major supermarkets. Business was taking off—he was expanding beyond Philly into the surrounding suburbs. He started to build a fleet of trucks and hire a crew of refrigeration and electrical technicians. He also rented a small building to use as his base of operations.

Daddio was always hustling. I remember one particularly frigid winter, cash got tight, so he taught himself how to repair kerosene heaters. They were all the rage in Philly at the time. He put up a bunch of flyers, and people started bringing him their broken heaters. Daddio figured out that once he'd fixed a heater, he'd have to "test" it for a couple days, to make sure it was working. At any given time, he'd have ten or twelve kerosene heaters "being tested for the quality of his work." That many heaters will easily warm a West Philly row home, even in the coldest of winters. So Daddio canceled our gas service, kept his family warm and toasty for the winter, and got paid for it.
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