Sharing Is Caring

November 27, 2009

A few days ago, the BBC reported a sickening fact on one of the provisions of the the Kyoto protocols from ’97. Of the developed countries that did agree to them — the US being the great exception — one provision was for them to contribute to a fund for developing countries in order to help them with environmental cleanup and to make the adjustments necessary to combat climate change. According to the BBC, a fund that should have $1.6 billion in it by now only has $260 million in contributions. Mouthpieces for the developed world apparently said in response that, well, “we given money and helped in other ways,” just not through this fund.

This may be true, but this isn’t much different from what my father once said to me when I confronted him about twenty-three years ago about his overall lack of child support. “I giv’ ya money every week,” he said. It was true. But only because I went through a Friday night or Saturday morning ritual for nearly five years to collect $50, $60, $100, or even $200 from him at a time. In all, Jimme have given me, my brother Darren and my family at 616 (indirectly, of course) about $3,500 between October ’82 and August ’87. If he had paid his proper share in terms of child support (at least twenty percent of income), in those years alone, the child support payments would’ve been about $25,000.

No, neither I nor Darren lived with him. Still, my father had an obligation because he was our biological father and therefore was part of the reason we existed at all. It’s not much different when it comes to international issues like environmental protection, alternative energy and climate change. The developed world eats up most of the world’s energy resources, had exploited the resources of the developing world so that they could be developed, advanced nations. And has used the developing world and the oceans to dump much of its waste. It’s only fair that the developed world should bear the brunt of paying for all of these things that the world as a whole must face.

This kind of talk makes me sound like a socialist I suppose. Not really. More like a social democrat. It’s a shame that Western Europe, China, Japan, India and the US have yet to formally agree to reduce emissions substantially, to bring online new energy platforms on a massive scale, to clean up the messes made around the world. The geopolitics of this situation is like watching my six-year-old son Noah try to negotiate his way out of doing the right thing, because sometimes he can only see his own needs and wants. So much of what our world does is about looking out for self and only self, knowing full well that this deliberate ignorance hurts us all.

Of course, the US is the worldwide leader in narcissism. We act as if taxes are like cyanide pills laced with traces of plutonium, especially for the wealthy. We talk as if the progressive income tax is a penalty for success, and that the poor are poor only because they’re dumb and lazy. Yet it wasn’t all that long ago when the system actually worked, when government could be trusted (for the most part) to do the right thing with public funds and revenues.

And yes, after the Nixon, Reagan and Bush (both) years — not to mention the flaws of JFK, LBJ, Carter and Clinton — we have good reason not to trust our government to invest our tax dollars properly. But it’s not as if the rich are going to employ people to fix the US’s roads, bridges and rails. Or that the affluent will build a new power grid, solar collection stations, provide incentives for building cars that run on hydrogen, or create a system of postsecondary education and healthcare that is truly universal. That’s what our government is for. This is why we pay taxes.

Yet all neocons and others of a selfish nature somehow still believe after all of these years that it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. That taxes are bad, that giving more and more tax cuts to richest five percent will create an atmosphere of investment rather than one of greed. Didn’t we already go through this in the 1920s and 1930s? Isn’t this why the New Deal had to happen in the first place? To have a government that responds to all the people, and not just the ones with the ability to line politicians’ pockets with checks and cash?

In the end, we get the government that we deserve because sit in stewing envy and awe over the richest folk in our country while those folk have the ears of our leadership. We need to force the government to do its job of raising all boats, of holding politicians feet to the fire, of sharing and spreading the wealth of the nation so that even the poor actually have real opportunities to rise out of poverty. Only if we make our government care about these issues will those with major means actually care to share in tax dollars.

Ironically, by insisting on more loopholes and tax cuts, the rich in many ways are working against their own interests. As they should know, they can’t — or at least shouldn’t — take their riches with them when they’re dead. And as average folk, we need to pay our fair share as well. After all, to those of us who have reason to give thanks, we also have reason to share what we have for our own — as well as others’ — benefit.

First Blitz, First Flight

November 24, 2009

I experienced a series of firsts the weekend and Monday before Thanksgiving ’87. I got blitzed, I took my first airplane trip, and I felt completely disillusioned about my life as a college student and a Black man. It was the worst of times, or so I thought at the time. Homelessness at the beginning of my sophomore year kind of trumped the travails of my freshman year at Pitt.

But November ’87 was still painful and shameful. The downward spiral of my first semester started with a burglary. While I took a bathroom break at my computer lab job in the Cathedral of Learning, someone stole my Calculus textbook. I felt violated, especially since it happened at work. It made me more distrustful of the people I worked with and of Pitt students in general.

Crush #2’s response to my letter to her about her emasculating comments about me back in the summer made matters worse. Her letter, dated November 2, was in purple ink, with heart-shapes and circles for dots over “i”s. Reading her letter was like reading the liner notes off of a Prince album in those days. Like the song “I Would Die 4 U,” Crush # 2 had decided to limit her English skills to the ’80s equivalent of text messaging, a real revolution on both their parts. I remember she started, “Thank U 4 your card 2day,” an insult to my intelligence. She wrote indirectly that she did like me at one point in time, but added “but we’re in college now . . . around lots of nu people” She admitted that I was her and her sister’s topic of conversation back in July, but “I needed 2 get over that.” She hinted that I shouldn’t write her again, and that was it. No apologies, no attempt to understand how I felt.

After Crush #2’s wonderful, text-message-like response, I all but stopped going to class. I missed most of my classes the month of November, only showing up for exams or if my mood had let up long enough to allow me to function like my more typical self. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I allowed my dorm mates to cheer me up by getting a couple of cases of Busch Beer. These were the Pounder type, sixteen-ounce cans. After getting Mike to get us the cases, we went back to Aaron’s room and started drinking. I downed four cans in fifteen minutes, and was drunk within a half hour. I started throwing around the word “bitch.” Anytime anyone mentioned Crush #2’s name, or any woman’s name for that matter, and one of us said the B-word, we drank some beer. I was drunk, but not so drunk I didn’t know what was going on around me. That night, my geeky acquaintances started calling me “Don” and “Don Ho,” since I was the life of that illegal party.

I barely recovered from my bender in time to go home for Thanksgiving that Monday, November 23. I was in a fog. I still managed a few firsts. That trip back home was my first on an airplane. I took a Continental flight from the old and decrepit blue hangar that was Pittsburgh Airport into Newark, with the late Craig “Ironhead” Hayward on the flight sitting in first-class. He was a senior and the starting running back for the Pitt Panthers. Besides being a great player, he was a bit of a party animal and had gotten into fights with Pitt Police. I remember the student newspaper having him in their police blotter, allegedly body-slamming a patron at the O while being arrested for a being a disorderly drunk. Yet in his sober, not-with-his-peeps state, he was a normal guy who knew how to be polite, even on this flight.

I also missed my first flight, and ended up waiting six hours at Newark for another seat. That was my first time in first-class, and it was wonderful. I also went to my first college basketball game at the old Fitzgerald Fieldhouse. With Charles Smith, Jerome Lane and Demetrius Gore, they were a really good team with a really unimaginative coach. I still blame Smith for causing my Knicks to lose to the Chicago Bulls in the ’93 Eastern Conference Finals with his hiccups at the end of Game 5.

It was the first series of events in which I couldn’t use music, sports or my imagination to escape. I hadn’t realized that I was attempting to escape myself, not just my immediate past or Mount Vernon. I spent the last three weeks of that semester depressed, as if draped in a fog, unable to face the world. Still, I fully understood that I couldn’t drink my way out of my problems. I was obsessed with a woman that felt sorry for me, had friends at Pitt who weren’t really my friends, and was homesick for a place that really wasn’t mine to call home.

Most of all, after five years of hiding my emotions and opinions, I no longer knew how to be me. As a result, I didn’t know how to be the man I should’ve been, even at the ripe old age of eighteen. I finished up the year wondering how to find myself, how to not spend the rest of my time at Pitt sullen and sober, as if I lived in a war-torn state. Luckily, thinking about Crush #2 as a “triflin’ ass” was, for better and worse, a good start toward recovery for me. That allowed me to find a place for all of my rage and sadness, to get back to being a good student again. That temporary turn to the dark side was another first for me.

Basketball, Anyone?

November 18, 2009

On a beautiful Monday afternoon, I decided to take advantage of the unusually warm November weather to shoot around, run a lay-up drill, work on my mid-range jumper, to pretend that I still have the athletic skills of a twenty-seven-year-old. I left our flat and walked the couple of blocks to the court on Spring Street and Georgia in Silver Spring.

Upon my arrival, there it was. A court still wet nearly three days after the last rain storm. Shredded and matted fall leaves were everywhere. Apparently a crew had cleaned off the piles of leaves that had been there the week before. But I guess it would’ve been too much trouble to sweep the court clean of the debris that they helped create by using shovels without brooms and rakes. It made the court dangerous, if not downright unplayable. I was fuming, and not just because of the court’s condition that day.

I think that Montgomery County Parks and Recreation has a bias against basketball courts and the people whom the workers think use them most often. I’ve used courts all over the county over the past decade, and the problem is usually the same. Lots of dirt and other debris. Torn nets that haven’t been fixed in months or no nets at all. Crooked rims and poles set at ten and a half or eleven feet off the ground. No gates or other obstructions to keep balls from flying off the court into a parking lot or into the street. It’s as if they don’t want the residents of Montgomery County playing b-ball.

Even when renovated, the county has skimped on the quality of its repairs. Take the revamped court at Jessup Blair Park on the DC-Silver Spring border. They closed the field used for football and soccer for a full year to let the trampled area heal, to put new sod and grass down. The tennis court got a new gate and nets and so on. They took away surface area for the basketball courts in the process, with only one full-sized court now. They raised the height of the hoops. Presumably to keep some ball hog who’s only five-seven from ripping the twine, because they probably can’t jump high enough to dunk on a regulation hoop. They even made the b-ball surface the same as the tennis court’s which looks nice, but itself now needs repair.

I guess I should be used to the short-shrift given to basketball in many communities because of “the element” it could attract — you know, White guys who think they can hang because their hip-hop language skills are better than mine. Pittsburgh did a lousy job with its basketball courts, too. But then again, Pittsburgh did a poor job on all of its park and recreation facilities. Montgomery County, to say the least, isn’t the ‘Burgh. With higher local taxes and property taxes, the least they can do is to keep the courts clean and safe so that I don’t drive for a lay-up on wet pieces of leaves with broken glass hidden underneath.

What they really ought to do is what they do for the tennis courts and soccer fields. Set the courts to the correct dimensions, replace the nets regularly, clean when necessary. It would also help if they fenced in the courts. It would be nice if I didn’t have to run through a Brier patch or gouge my eye on a tree branch to keep a ball from bounding into a parking lot. My goodness, even DC Parks and Recreation can afford to do that, and they haven’t had any money for years!

All I’m asking is that Montgomery County maintains and repairs its basketball courts the same way it does the other parts of its parks. It would be nice to see my tax dollars at work on something I use at least forty times a years. Or, I guess, the county could wait until someone gets hurt because of shoddy work. Maybe then they’ll do the right thing.

Birthdays For Me to Remember

November 16, 2009

Two people who’ve had some influence in my life celebrate birthdays today. Well, maybe celebrate isn’t the best word. The once-great Dwight Gooden turns forty-five today. And a friend and former grad school classmate at Carnegie Mellon turns the big four-oh today. Two different stories, two different messages taken from two people born on the same day in November.

Gooden’s story is fairly well known, one of supreme promise and potential, but killed by the Mets leadership and by his own problems with cocaine and alcohol. It’s a sad story, only tempered by the fact that for a brief moment, Gooden was the best pitcher in major-league baseball. Period.

It’s a story all too common, of too much too soon with too many expectations from too many people. Gooden turned the perennially mediocre New York Mets into a yearly playoff contender. In ’85, Gooden’s streak of sixteen straight victories kept my Mets in a playoff run with the more talented St. Louis Cardinals. I should know. My ears were hooked to the radio, and when they weren’t, my eyes to the TV as he won game after game after game. All on the way to a 24-4 record, 1.53 ERA, with something like eight shutouts and sixteen complete games. Oh yeah, he also struck out 268 batters in 276 innings pitched. No one, except save Bob Gibson, had a year that was so dominant and so intimidating. And all at the age of twenty years old.

But between Davey Johnson and Mel Stottlemyre, the drugs and the alcohol, Gooden’s overworked arm and inebriated mind began to fail him well before he could enter his prime years. Gooden had won well over 100 games in his first six seasons, but would never have the chance to build on that amazing record. At forty-five, Gooden is an example of what could’ve been but wasn’t, a cautionary tale of needing balance and meaning in one’s life outside of the thing that makes one a prodigy. No balance or meaning — Dwight Gooden. Balance. meaning and support — Tiger Woods.

My friend from my Carnegie Mellon days was a different case. A professor now at a school in the Chicagoland area, he had learned from the excesses of others long before our paths ever crossed. There were few people I spent more time to during my last two years of grad school. Our conversations were all over the place, from sports to music, from studies to social issues. That was how I found out that he shared the same birthday as Gooden. He was really one of maybe three White students at Carnegie Mellon that I could have a conversation with without having my guard up for something bigoted or self-serving. Or even as part of some nerdy scheme to one-up me in a class or with a professor.

That changed on October 3 of ’95. The day of the O.J. Simpson verdict was already a bizarre one for me. I honestly didn’t understand why there was such a mix of emotions between the elated Blacks in DC and angry Whites in L.A. I figured that despite the verdict, I could just walk to Carnegie Mellon — the land of lily-White conservatism — and not expect the subject to come up.

Well it did, and with the one person I didn’t expect it to. My friend went on for ten minutes about jury nullification and racial bias and Simpson’s abuse of his ex-wife, as if I had anything to do with the verdict or the outpouring of emotions that day. I found the whole thing, including this conversation, pretty much like a soap opera. I assumed that the only reason that he talked to me this way was because I was Black, and somehow ecstatic over the “Not Guilty” verdict. I only pointed out how badly the trial was handled, making things worse. I ended the conversation thinking that if this was what my friend could be like when he was emotional, then I didn’t want to talk with him anymore.

And in my last years in Pittsburgh, our conversations grew fewer and farther apart. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy talking with him. I realized that even as friends, there were certain lines that couldn’t be crossed. We never invited each other over to watch a game or hang out. We certainly never read each other’s research or other writings. And we never had another conversation about what happened in the History grad student bullpen that cloudy day in October ’95. If I learned anything from him and that incident, it was that we were friends, but not on any deep level, and that race and other issues remained barriers to a meaningful friendship, especially for him. Still, I hope that despite their problems and inner turmoil, that today was a good birthday for the two of them.

Food, Glorious Food

November 14, 2009

When I was ten, I dreamed of becoming a chef and the owner of my own restaurant. Every time me and my older brother Darren went out with my father Jimme, I’d bring home some of the leftover garbage and used it to turn my part of our room into a miniature city with local bistros and other eateries. I took my Matchbox cars — fifty in all — and pretended that my city was populated with the adult version of characters from Schulz’s Peanuts series. Yes, even Charlie Brown had his own upscale restaurant, with steaks and shrimp that almost all could afford to eat. For the less affluent, Burger King and Mickey D’s were at the other end of this eatin’ and disco-in’ side of town.

My dream, of course, was hunger induced. It was ’80, the first year that my mother income-to-inflation ration had declined so much that we didn’t always have food in the house. Cereal had become a luxury we couldn’t afford, so I almost always went to school with only a glass of milk to keep me going. I ate on the free and reduced lunch program at Holmes Elementary, and dinner had become our main meal. After my mother and then idiot stepfather Maurice separated for the first time that October, we had even less food to eat. For Maurice had taken half of the frozen meats my mother had ordered — beef, chicken, ham, and a whole leg of lamb — with him when he left. All while my mother was at work.

I had few dreams about what I wanted to do in life prior to sixth grade. I think I went through the police office/firefighter phase all during kindergarten and first grade. Then, nothing. Divorce, shacking up, second marriage and baby brother Maurice was my home life. With the occasional sprinkles of Jimme about one Saturday every five weeks between April ’79 and April ’81. We didn’t take vacations. So between the school year, holidays, summer day vacations at Darren’s Clearview School for the mentally retarded, and Jimme outings, there wasn’t much to our drab lives.

Except for the rare time out on The Avenue (Fourth Avenue between West 1st and West 3rd Streets, a strip of shops, delis, a bodega or two and small eateries) or even rarer times in the city, that was my life. But when I did get out, the things I remembered the most were the sights, smells and sizzles of food. Eating at Papa Wong’s restaurant on Gramatan Avenue was a real treat for me even at seven or eight. They had great egg rolls, pork, shrimp and chicken fried rice. I loved the place. It smelled the way I thought a Chinese restaurant ought to smell. Ginger, sesame, soy, onions, scallions and garlic. It’s too bad the restaurant burned down suspiciously in ’82, with nothing to replace it with but a parking lot for nearly a decade afterward.

Or eating at Arthur Treatcher’s Fish & Chips on Prospect and Park before it closed down that corner for two years at the end of ’82. I loved their crispy chicken medallions with the chips — splendid! Carvel’s Ice Cream shop a block west on Prospect was also a good place to eat, even if the customer service sucked more times than not. I think I drove myself to lactose intolerance about five years early because of that place. Man, I miss those chocolate-on-vanilla ice cream sandwiches!

But nothing for my precious few dollars topped Clover Donuts. If you could take a Krispy Kreme glazed and genetically cross it with a Dunkin Donuts glazed, you’d end up with the best glazed donut ever! And that’s exactly what Clover Donuts sold. Not to mention those juicy, grilled and amazing Sabrett Hot Dogs. It was all a “kick in da head” for me growing up. On almost every visit I made after high school, I made a stop there for a glazed donut, their nuggety yet soft chocolate glazed donuts, and a hot dog. I might’ve not liked many things about Mount Vernon, but Clover Donuts was one thing I really enjoyed.

But by the time I hit my mid-teens, I realized that Mount Vernon’s food had changed, and not for the better. Papa Wong’s was long gone, and so was Arthur Treatcher’s. My home life at 616 meant that most of my shopping time was spent in Pelham at C-Town or in one of their inferior eateries. The pizzerias made slices that varied from sucky to pretty good, but were common and unimaginative enough that they blended together for me. At Mount Vernon High School, the deli in nearby Chester Heights easily surpassed anything I’d eaten sandwich-wise outside of the city.

Speaking of, going down to 241st in the Bronx, and then to Manhattan, changed my view of food for good. My years working with Jimme and Darren in Midtown, on the Upper East and Upper West Side, near Spanish Harlem on 90th and around Lincoln Center introduced me to great delis and bodegas. As well as a glimpse of what real upscale restaurants looked like. The best deli food I ever had from one at the crossroads between Broadway and Columbus between 65 and 66th Street, across from Lincoln Center. The smell of pastrami sizzling on the grill, the thick cuts of turkey and corned beef, the interracializing of cookies, my first taste of a blondie. It all happened there for me in ’84 and ’85, and sorry to say, I was spoiled by that food. Not to mention a place with a great Cuban pork sandwich, pizzerias with sauces that would make me want to bite the lower right corner of my lip, they were that good.

It’s safe to say that these experiences had have as much influence on what I eat and what I like to cook as growing up with a great cook in my mother at 616. From veal or lamb stew to matzo ball soup, from beef and broccoli to empanadas and Jamaican beef patties, and from fried chicken and corn bread to duck a l’orange to fettuccine alfredo with shrimp and chicken. I love it all, so it’s a good thing I work out and/or run three to four times a week.

Unfortunately, restaurants and eateries aren’t the same everywhere. It took me almost a decade to find the best deli, pizzeria and Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh, and we moved two years later. It’s been ten years in the DC area, and Hollywood East Cafe — easily the best Chinese we’ve had down here — has been closed for almost six months. In this case, I can’t even go home again. But, I do have a skillet, a spatula and a mixing bowl!

Walls and Secrets

November 11, 2009


Crane removing part of Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate, December 21, 1989. (SSGT F. Lee Corkran/US Dept of Defense). In public domain.

Crane removing part of Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate, December 21, 1989. (SSGT F. Lee Corkran/US Dept of Defense). In public domain.

This Monday should’ve been a momentous occasion for us in the US. It was the twentieth anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the effective end of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Although it would be a bit more than two years before the Soviet Union collapsed, and with it, the Warsaw Pact. Still, it meant that the fear that I and millions of others grew up with — the one about having a day of mushroom clouds and shock waves, gamma radiation and the end of civilization — was over, or at least, abated somehow. But knowing my fellow citizens as well as I do, I know that most of us gave as much thought to this as we do to where our tap water comes from.

More of us give more serious thought to Chris Brown and Rihanna, my Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, and who our friends date and break up with than we do of our world beyond ourselves. Which is sad. Because if gave the larger world even a modicum of thought, maybe we would have the better world that so many of us want, but don’t want to work for. While the idiot American media spent as much time talking about where they were when the Berlin Wall began to come down, the rest of the world, at least, spent a bit of time thinking about what’s actually happened geopolitically speaking in the past generation.

When President Reagan said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in Berlin in ’87, even our bungling fortieth president was talking about more than a wall. He was speaking of a geopolitical and cultural wall between peoples who otherwise had so much in common, so much so that it was disheartening, even criminal to maintain separation because another superpower needed nation-states as buffers. Really, what Reagan was speaking of was well beyond his own neo-conservative thinking. For the wall that really needed tearing down was the one in our own minds, the one that says that we can’t do or say or be a certain way because the cultural and political norms of our society say otherwise.

It’s what I took from the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89 and Reagan’s speech in ’87 anyway. Sometimes, though, we must put a wall around those things in our minds that would keep us from thinking, being and doing those things that others in our lives would ridicule. In my little case, it was majoring in history, finishing my degree and possibly going to grad school for more degrees that would lead to steadier employment, if not high-paying jobs. In our money-is-everything world, that’s an invitation for family and so-called friends to clown on us, to say that what were about is like spending another decade in school to “earn another high school diploma.” It’s limited thinking, the kind of thinking common behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War era. Or at least, that’s what our leaders and the international academic community have said.

It’s tough to walk to beat of our own drums, especially if we know in our bones, minds and spirits that we were born to do and say certain things in which others in our lives vehemently disagree. And when we become side-tracked by the pressures of people and events and things of this world, it becomes doubly-hard to find our way to our proper path. Without folks in our lives who can help, or at least listen, it can be a lonely, if rewarding road.

Not too many weeks after I was swept up in end-of-the-Cold-War-fever, I realized something about the previous eight-and-a-half years of my life. That I’d been living my life for the sake of others, be it God, my mother, my younger siblings, or for the euphoria of an A or A+. That just about all of the real friends I had came out of my Pittsburgh experience. That I was no longer living in fear of having my chest caved in (as he liked to say) by my now ex-stepfather.

At the beginning of ’90, I did a bit of an experiment. I still kept in contact with about a half-dozen or so of my former classmates from my Humanities days. Which in my case meant that I wrote them far more often than they wrote or called me, if they did any of that all at. I stopped writing. I only wrote them or called if they responded in kind. I found out fairly quickly that I really only had one friend from my gifted-track days.

So I built my own wall in the first few months of the 90s. I deliberately yet unconsciously managed to put everything bad that happened between April 13 of ’81 and September 2 of ’88 inside of that wall. I only opened it up to a handful of my closest friends, and often revealed the most gut-wrenching of events in the most academic and dispassionate of ways. It worked very successfully for nearly thirteen years. But in having a child, being a married man, working with thousands of students and doing work to benefit thousands more, I realized it was time to tear down this wall.

I couldn’t write and revise Boy @ The Window without tapping into this past, and all of the emotions involved with it. For most of us, it unfortunately takes an event like the fall of the Berlin Wall for us to be introspective and conscious of the world beyond our own nose. For me, that’s an everyday thing, something I think we all should aspire to at least a few times a year.

The Last Teacher Crush — Rosemary Martino

November 4, 2009

I have written — quite extensively I might add — about the late Harold Isaac Meltzer over the past two and a half years. I still have plenty more to write about my favorite and probably best teacher between seventh grade and my doctorate. But I’ve neglected to mention that there have been others. Others whom did manage to reach me as a student and a person during my Boy @ The Window years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a short list. In six years of Humanities, about six teachers in all would fit the mold of above-average or outstanding, while at least twice as many would be somewhere between mediocre and miserable.

Once again, I’ve digressed into the negative. I had one teacher, and only one teacher, that made my senior year at MVHS worthwhile. It was first-period AP English with a Rosemary Martino. She was someone whose aspirations beyond teaching were obvious, which both took my breath away and brought frightening chills to my bones. For she wanted to write, not just teach about writers, but actually write. Even in grad school, I only knew of one professor who loved to write beyond scholarly analysis, and his writing chops were atrocious. Oops, I went there again! Anyway, Martino could talk about the art and craft of writing for days if the course had been about more than reading the existential and the utilitarian for our eventual AP English exam.

But our AP English teacher wasn’t a favorite of mine at the beginning of the year. She was immediately disappointed with us because we weren’t particularly motivated to do the readings and the work. Almost none of us had touched a tomb during the summer of ’86, and we were exactly motivated to read at thirty-five or more pages per hour to start the school year off well. We started with Albert Camus’ The Fall, a bit of swirling existential thinking about the nature of inhumanity in human nature. Oui, oui — more like Oy vey! We moved on to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment, a seven-hundred-page marathon read of humanity at its worst that took us from mid-October through early December. Martino’s choices, though impressive in complexity, didn’t exactly inspire.

I knew I needed to read more, and read for arguments, plot, hidden plot, characters and character development, the tone and pitch of narration, the shifts in the narrative, and so on. That took time, and lots of it. Time I didn’t have between two other AP courses, college applications, SATs, not to mention my continuing saga at 616, as I’d become the go-to-child for every adult chore imaginable, short of working a full-time job. Of course, it didn’t help that I spent most of my spare moments in October ’86 watching or listening to every play the Mets made on their way to a World Series championship. I had a really wonderful teacher at the wrong time in my life. I should’ve found a way to have taken classes with her the year before.

So I spent about half of twelfth grade treading water in Martino’s class. My grades were barely adequate C+’s from mid-October to mid-February, sneaking in an occasional A or A- whenever I found two hours and a quiet place to write. I even managed an “Outstanding” A on my Dostoevsky essay in December, this despite only skimming the last third of his long and winding road. What helped was that I also had Martino for Philosophy from Socrates to Sartre. For whatever reason, I took to the half-year course better than I did AP English. Martino’s curriculum seemed more free-form and her lectures much more opinionated than in the full-year course. Her obsession with the existential and the dehumanizing made Dostoevsky easy to understand. Based on my 616, Humanities and MVHS years, I could certainly relate to existential philosophy on a personal level.

Martino shifted gears from the existential novel to poetry and plays for a while at the beginning of February, from Archibald Macleish’s “You, Andrew Marvell” and Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. She even threw in a creative writing assignment. The assignment was for us to write a short story. I wrote a short story titled “The Way It Is,” corny I realized even at the time. A better title would’ve been “On the Brink of Obsession” or “Role Reversal” or “A Pathetic Tale.” The story was about me and my crush # 2 and a take on some of our more coy conversations over the previous three years. Except that I had switched our names, feminizing my name and masculine-izing hers in this story. I handed the essay in, talked about it in class, and yet not a single person, including Martino and crush # 2, picked up on the not-so-subtle hint in the story.

We also read the late Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This time around, the post-modern, post-structural, neo-Marxist perspectives on dehumanization and the end of the world as some of us knew it didn’t bother me. My grades went up again, even though my concentration and my time-to-task had dropped. I wrote my essay on Catch-22 the night before it was due, in my mother’s bedroom, in front of my stepfather’s portable TV, with the Rangers winning a close game. I started doing so well that Martino said to me one day before class, “you know, if you’d work harder, you could become a really good writer.”

I looked at her for a second. Martino was a very attractive teacher in her late-twenties, with that burning-the-candle-at-both-ends look around the eyes. She had short brown hair and was about five-three or five-four. Besides that, she was an aspiring writer in her own right. Martino had published a few short stories, was a big Anne Rice fan, and wanted to follow in her footsteps. So when she paid you a compliment, you tended to pay attention. Despite the backhanded nature of her praise, I thought very quickly of the image of the starving artist, the famous-after-death ones like Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson. “I don’t want to become a starving artist,” I said in response. The idea of being a writer was still an attractive one to me, but I wanted to do and be something that would at least make it possible to have three squares a day. Martino didn’t push the issue. I thought I hit a sore spot with the “starving artist” image. She still talked with me first thing in the morning about the news and about her writing, but left my aspirations alone.

I only have a few regrets regarding all of the teachers I had between September 8 of ’74 and November 22 of ’96. One of them was that I didn’t attempt to get to know Rosemary Martino better. Meltzer may have inspired to me to write more. But it was Martino whom inspired me to write better, more literary, with some degree of passion and opinion, and not just facts. While the psychological and social dysfunctions of Humanities prepared me well for graduate school, my classes with Martino did help me with no less than five undergraduate courses at Pitt.

In the process, she managed to do something that even Meltzer couldn’t do. Martino awakened the writer in me, the writer that had been on hibernation since Memorial Day ’82. After her class, I couldn’t entirely say that I had no idea what to do with my life besides taking another classmate’s sardonic advice and appearing on Jeopardy. I will forever be in her debt because of it. So, Rosemary Martino, whatever your reading, writing or doing these days, many, many thanks!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 776 other followers