A Real Piece of Work

June 29, 2010

Gabe Kaplan as Kotter (an image sub for my former boss)

“You’re a real piece of work,” my former boss Joe Carbone said to me one day, about this time twenty years ago. He smiled when he said it, though, which made me take the statement less seriously than I would’ve otherwise. It was my introduction to the politics of my new workplace for the summer of ’90.

For ten weeks between June and August ’90, I worked at the main office of Westchester County’s Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains. My immediate supervisor that summer was Joe Carbone, a highly-placed higher-up in the department. It turned out that he lived three blocks from me on East Lincoln in Mount Vernon, and that one of his kids graduated a year ahead of me at MVHS. Small world as usual. That gave us a little something in common.

When it came to work, though, I think our styles were a bit different. I worked as hard and as quickly as I could to finish the database-related projects he’d assign, then I worked as hard as I could to get to know the other staff and the other aspects of the office. And when that ran out, I’d work on getting ready for my senior year and my project on the resegregation that occurred in magnet schools in the ’80s. It was in that context that Carbone had called me “a real piece of work.” I guess I didn’t look like I was working that hard. Or maybe it was too obvious that I found my school research more interesting than my database work. Or maybe he just envied the way I used my time when I ran out of things to do (or things to make up to do, for that matter).

Whatever it was, I wasn’t the model worker, at least in the sense that I worried about my job, about pleasing my bosses more than the quality of my work, about making things merely look good. Carbone may well have been saying as much, constantly comparing me to some guy who worked for him in ’89 who was a junior at Yale. Like the Ivy League moniker alone was supposed to impress. If there had been one thing I learned in three years of college, that differential equations, primary resource grad-level research papers, and scholarly monographs looked about the same in the hands of a good Yale or Pitt student. I was glad to hear those comparisons go away after my first six weeks there.

Still, despite this “real piece of work” issue, Carbone remains the best supervisor I ever had. He made my tasks and duties clear, gave me room to work and make mistakes, introduced me to a wide variety of colleagues and work styles, and, if the mental health field had been my passion, would’ve been a great mentor for sure. He was my Kotter and I saw myself as his Horshack.

Yesterday also reminded me of the contrast between someone like Carbone in the workplace and the people I worked for when I was a manager in a social justice fellowship program in DC nine years ago. We had a meeting with our funder in New York in June ’01. Having met with funders before, I already knew the deal, and had explained that deal to the program assistant and associate in the days leading up to the meeting.

Napoleon's Mother (aka Ms. Wisdom). Source: Robert Lefevre, Letizia Ramolino, 1813

But apparently that wasn’t enough. My immediate supervisor and his all-wise supervisor’s supervisor and so-called mentor (henceforth known as Ms. Wisdom) had us meet twice to discuss this meeting and what each of us were to discuss, right down to the exact words we should use. They discussed protocol and etiquette, as if we were in nuclear disarmament talks with the former Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Iran and Israel all at the same time.

When I pointed out at the second meeting that these meetings were in fact redundant and panic-inducing — very politely, I might add — I got pulled into the superintendent’s office and accused of not taking the meeting up in New York seriously. Ms. Wisdom told me that I could quit at any time, and that she “would be around long after” I was gone. At least she was wrong about that prediction.

It made for a very stressful preparation for a meeting about the state of a program that had only been around for two years. Still, despite the lack of sleep, the micromanaging and threats, I felt ready, and I hoped that the other staff were ready as well. None of that

Napoleon I. Source: Jacques-Louis David, 1812

mattered, though, once the meeting in New York was underway. My immediate boss was so keyed up that he literally did all of the talking for our group of six. When I say all, I mean all except for two comments from me, one from Ms. Wisdom, and one from our program associate. By the end of the two hours, I thought that the man would’ve jumped on the conference table and done a jig for an additional $100,000.

My ex-boss was euphoric of course, even though the director at the time (now the executive director of the ACLU) specifically said that we “should consider looking for alternate sources of funding” for the program to ensure its viability after 2004. I thought then that he and Ms. Wisdom were real pieces of work. Even at the time, that reminded me of Joe Carbone, and gave me something to smile about. Maybe I’m a real piece of work, too. But at least I’m one in progress.

Great Northern Beans and Rice

June 25, 2010

Great Northern Beans (they never looked this good growing up)

It’s been twenty-eight years since I unwittingly carried a $10 bill halfway hanging out of my right hand for a hoodlum named “Pookie” to steal at Wilson Woods Pool in Mount Vernon, leading to so many evil things occurring in my life. But I’ve talked about this already. I’ve talked about my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington and his equally idiotic attempt at making me a man in his own decrepit image. I’ve even talked about the domestic violence that I was exposed to first and second-hand by him. What I talk about now is a variation on a theme, and a story that won’t be in Boy @ The Window — it would disrupt the flow of the period of time in question.

It all started with the usual at 616. It was the end of January ’86, and we were short on money. It was the middle of the week, so it wasn’t as if I could track down my father Jimme for a couple of extra bucks. So my mother, out of a rare sense of desperation — since there wasn’t any food to eat at 616 — turned to my then stepfather for help. As par for the course since ’83, his response was to call me over. “Boy, go get some Great Northern Beans and rice,” he said. It was the eighth occasion in five years that he had paid for a meal for the family — which only happened to include four of his kids, and he chose the cheapest thing he could think of.

“That’s it? That’s all we get?,” I said in response to his wonderful act of generosity. “Boy, I feed my family,” the lipid-laden idiot said. Being an idiot myself for a moment, I said back, “Oh, all you’ve ever done is just buy a couple of meals!,” as I turned around to go to the store.

Maurice jumped me from behind, knocking me head-first into the kitchen wall, and just kept punching me. He got me twice in the mouth. I obliged by covering up and then biting down on his knuckles on the second mouth punch, which caused some cuts and bleeding. My mother walked in and got between us. For once, the dumb ass had nothing else to say. He was angry and breathing hard, as if he’d been in a three-rounder with Mike Tyson. I was stunned, but I stood my ground, with my fists balled up. After scowling at the fool for a few seconds, I left for the store.

The damage that this last incident of physical abuse caused is with me to this day. My stepfather chipped my upper front tooth on my right in two places, and caused enough damage to one of my lower front teeth that I would eventually need a root canal done on in seven years later. So yeah,  I should’ve kept my mouth shut — literally — when it came to issues with my abuser.

On the other hand, given our unhealthy obesity times today, Great Northern Beans and rice isn’t such a bad meal, right? For vegans, I’d imagine that this is a very good meal. But not when the person you despised most in your world when you were a teenager’s buying it, and buying it in a begrudging and miserly way.  Of course, now beans and rice are actually expensive and considered healthy food by the arugula-eating sector of our society. Go figure.

School’s Out — But Should It Be?

June 23, 2010

Source: Country Square Apts, Carrollton, TX

This week, my son Noah began his 10-week summer vacation from school in earnest. So far, he’s at his daycare, swimming three days a week, and bowling today. He’s not the only one. So many of my former students at the high school level have been celebrating their summer vacations from school. For some, Memorial Day weekend was the official beginning of summer. For others, particularly in New York, June 25 is the last day of school this year. Most are somewhere in between.

Great for all of them. They are young, they are students, they should be happy to not be stuck in the regimentation that is K-12 education for two and a half months. But the reality is, it shouldn’t be this way. Our American school year should be at least thirty days — or six to seven weeks longer (counting holidays) — than it is right now.

We complain about students coming back to their next school year having forgotten a good portion of what they learned the previous school year. Yet parents complain that a longer school year means higher income and property taxes and a disruption of summer vacations. Teachers and teachers unions refuse to budge on this issue, for they want higher pay (and rightly so) for teachers on a full twelve-month (as opposed to a nine or ten-month) contract and guaranteed time off. School boards can’t afford to do a 210-or-more-day school year. The costs of keeping open school facilities, school food programs, paying teachers and staff, are already hard enough to meet during the current school year format.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. We’re in the second decade of the twenty-first century, expecting to compete with the likes of Japan, China, India, Brazil, Russia — heck, Cuba, the EU, even Canada — with a system designed as we understand it today between 1890 and 1920. That’s just wrong. If anything, we should take a page from the modern university and two-year institution and stagger our K-12 school year into a quarter or fifths system, with two to three weeks off between each quarter or fifth. If we made the standard nine-week marking period ten weeks long — with at least two weeks off between each marking period — it would extend the standard school year from the end of August to the end of July, leaving a full month off for teachers and students alike. There would be no need for a summer marking period. But if you had one, as such, it could then only run two to three weeks.

For those who find that solution unsatisfactory, there is another solution. Keep the standard nine-week marking periods, but stagger the summer sessions. Half of the students and teachers will have the period between early June and mid-July off, and the other half, mid-July to the end of August off. That would provide the break necessary for recovery from the school year, provide sufficient time for families and teachers to take vacations, and would extend the teaching contracts of teachers an extra four to six weeks.

No matter what anyone proposes, there will be many who will fight to oppose the extension of the school year.  I don’t know too many people who need — or more importantly, can afford — a ten or twelve-week vacation with their kids. Teachers spend part of their summers in professional development anyway, so teaching a few more weeks wouldn’t diminish their teaching skills. And students — well, many students do extra work during the summer months anyway. Why not make that work standard? Oh well. Here I go again, swimming upstream!

The Silent Treatment

June 21, 2010

Source: Screen Shot from The Roots, “Silent Treatment” Music Video, Geffen, 1995

Right after the MVHS graduation ceremony at Memorial Field in June ’87, it started. I’d walk down the street to the store, and bump into one of my suddenly former classmates, say “Hi,” and get no response at all. The few times I bumped into a certain Ms. Red Bone, she’d stare straight at me, then straight through me, all as I said “Hi.” She just kept on walking, as if I had phased out of our space-time continuum into a parallel universe. By the beginning of August, I honestly thought that these people, my classmates for so long, were showing their true colors. They just didn’t like me, not me because I’d been a Hebrew-Israelite or me because I was poor or me because I listened to Mr. Mister. It was all about me, something within me that they detested.

“You can’t pay any attention to that. They’re all just jealous,” my new friend E (see “The Power of E” posting from August ’08) said when I told her about the ghost treatment over lunch one day. She and I worked for General Foods in Tarrytown that summer.

“Of what? Of me?,” I asked in disbelief.

“It’s because you’re not trying to be anybody except yourself,” she said.

“That’s a good theory,” I thought, but I didn’t really believe it. E was fully in my corner, and much more obvious about it than anyone else.

This pattern of treatment had only occurred two other times. Once was in sixth grade, after I came to Holmes with my kufi for the first time. My best friend Starling stopped talking to me, and refused to even acknowledge my presence for nearly two weeks before our second and last fight. The other was earlier in my senior year, in the weeks after the final class rankings were posted. Some in the Class of ’87 were upset with me because I was ranked fourteenth in our class. Three of them responded by not talking to me at all. They’d walk by me in the hallways, looked at and through me, and kept going without so much as a nod. That went on from mid-December through the beginning of March.

The Black “Party All The Time” folks in my class, the popular and dapper folks, snickered whenever they saw me. So I guess that they decided that to acknowledge me after graduation would me contaminating themselves with the knowledge that I was still alive, still figuring things out, still not cool enough to be bothered with.

Three years later, I bumped into one of these folks on my way home from my summer job with Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains. I was walking home to 616 on East Lincoln, having just gotten off the 41 Beeline Express. It was after 6:30, and I was beat from another day of database work and my research preparations for my senior year at Pitt. Coming in the opposite direction toward North Columbus was a party-all-the-timer, a popular, slightly light-skinned dude named J. Since I assumed that he would walk by me as if I were thin air, I started to walk by him as if he weren’t there.

Surprisingly, J stopped me and said, “Hi, Donald.” He said that he needed to talk to me, to tell me that the path that I walked in high school, while weird, was a better path than the one that he was on. He told me about his mind-bending experiences at Howard, about his dropping out and need to take care of some serious emotional and mental health issues. After a year of work at Pitt and in Westchester County, I could tell, too.

At first, I was taken aback. I mean, this was a guy who laughed at me for nearly six years, who’d never lowered himself to so much as to give me a thumbs-up while in school. Now J was sharing the most intimate of details about his life with me? I asked him, “Why are you telling me this?” Among the other things he said, the thing that stuck with me was, “Because you’re true to yourself.” I gave him a handshake, and wished him well.

That was nearly twenty years ago. I guess that J and others were under a lot of pressure — peer pressure, girl pressure, family pressures — to be cool, to be successful, to be something other than themselves. None of this justified how they treated me back then. Nor does it justify how any of them may see me now. I’m just glad the only silent treatment I get now is from my wife when I’ve taken a joke too far. At least I know that she’ll talk to me again, eventually.


June 19, 2010

Me and My Uncle Sam, June 18, 1987. Source: Donald Earl Collins

Twenty-three years on, as the British would say. To think that it’s been that long since the Class of ’87’s graduation from Mount Vernon High School. Wow. I’ve talked about various aspects of the last days of my time at MVHS, in Humanities and in Mount Vernon already. This one’s only about the actual ceremony.

My high school graduation ceremony at Memorial Field in South Side Mount Vernon went well enough, except it didn’t. It was a hot, hot mid-June day, about eighty-seven triple-H degrees. It was likely hotter for the guys, as many parents — my mother included — made us wear suits underneath our heat-absorbing burgundy polyester gowns. The girls, at least, wore yellow, the other school color for caps and gowns. It was a good day all right. Except that an eighty-eight year-old White guy stole the show. George Gibson graduated with our class, having fulfilled his requirements for a high school diploma some seven decades later than the kids from his generation. At least the few who made it to high school back then, as most kids in early twentieth-century never made it past middle school.

My father Jimme showed up to the ceremony drunk as a skunk. My mother and my Uncle Sam, whom I hadn’t seen in almost three years, had to keep him from insulting the other parents. In retrospect, in might’ve been good to take him Capozzola, Prattella and Estelle Abel’s way. Valedictorian and salutatorian got the opportunity to represent our class on stage, each giving overworked  and unimpressive speeches. That wasn’t bad, for they had stolen the show the week before at MVHS’ Honors Convocation. That was the good thing about the old White guy. Local TV news covered Gibson instead of the Class of ’87’s top two students, which I laughed about when I watched the 11 o’clock news later that evening.

The picture with me and my Uncle Sam was the first non-school related picture I had taken in something like eight or nine years. Who knew that it’d be the last picture taken of me in Mount Vernon for the next two decades? If I’d known that twenty-three years ago, I would’ve bought a camera that spring, at least before graduation.

After throwing our burgundy and yellow caps in the air, we went over to our now former classmates — who were now friends, lovers, acquaintances, and in some cases, foes — to say good-bye, to embrace and hug, to cry and scream and dance and twirl around in the air with. Afterward, I walked home, minus family and friends, trying to make sense of the moment. Not fully realizing that the moment we threw our caps in the air, Mount Vernon was no long my home, and I was no longer welcome.

Another Day In Paradise

June 17, 2010

Source: Virgin, Atlantic, WEA. The image is used as the primary means of visual identification of the article topic.

A little more than twenty years ago, Phil Collins (no relation) released the first song from his …But Seriously album, “Another Day In Paradise.” In the context of the times, it was part of a series of pop music songs that sought to arouse a social justice consciousness in the late-’80s, to stem the “Greed is good” culture that had evolved during the Reagan Years. Though overwrought and a bit like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer, “Another Day In Paradise” — a song about homelessness in America — was the final #1 hit of the ’80s, and the first one of the ’90s as well.

That song has as much relevance today as it did twenty and a half years ago, and not just with the issue of homelessness. The current BP oil deluge crisis, the manipulation of the housing market, our growing personal and national debt, even the tampering with our food by corporate giants like Tyson, Monsanto, and Con-Agra. All fall into the paradigm of a society faced with ills of its own making yet in nearly complete ignorance of its own participation in these disasters. Our addiction to oil is stronger than any individual’s addiction to crack cocaine or crystal meth. The housing market and our net debtor status reflects greed run amok and nearing the speed of light. And the food crisis — with the obesity and health crisis it has created — is an indication that our narcissism and greed knows no bounds.

Progressives and others on the left — people even more left than me — tend to act as if these corporations aren’t affected by their own evil decisions and policies, that the ills that they have created will only affect our adult children and grandchildren. In fact, that’s how our representatives in government talk as well. But, as we are seeing with the pictures of oil and mud-soaked pelicans and turtles, that’s simply not true. What’s been happening to our environment, energy, food and economy affects all of us, rich and poor, now, not in twenty or fifty years, but now.

The rich can and do clean up the crap that affects us all better than we can because they have the money to do so. But they still breathe the same polluted air, eat the same GMO foodstuffs — especially if they run Monsanto and Con-Agra — and drink the same contaminated water that we drink. They’re just too rich and ignorant to realize that we’re all in the same rickety boat, and that with each windfall profit, their putting the nails in their own coffins too.

The lyrics to Phil Collins’ song go something like this at the end:

You can tell from the lines on her face
You see that she’s been there
Probably been moved on from every place
Cause she didn’t fit in there

Except the “she” in the way I see these lyrics today isn’t a homeless woman. It’s the riches of our planet, as we rape and torture it into what we hope is submission, ignoring the signs that the consequences for our greed are already too high for us to pay. Our paradise world has already been turned into a living hell for millions all over the world — from half-century-long oil spills in Nigeria (see In Nigeria, Oil Spills Are a Longtime Scourge – NYTimes.com ) to the half a million victims of the Union Carbide toxic gas leak in Bhopal, India in ’84. With Katrina in ’05 and this BP disaster this year, maybe this is only our procrastination, incompetence, narcissism and greed chickens coming home to roost.

The World Is Not Enough

June 15, 2010

Mount Everest from from Kalapatthar in Nepal. Photo Source: Pavel Novak Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

A few years ago, at my social justice fellowship job in DC, I worked with probably the worst program assistant in all my years of work. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate of U Virginia or some other four-year institution in the heart of the Confederacy, and this was his first professional position. In eight months’ time, he managed to screw up in every conceivable way. He sent out professional emails with the signature, “Scooby Dooby Doo.” He’d address me with, “Yo, wass up,” as if we were friends. He slept in one day during our summer conference, and showed up hung over and in the clothes that he’d worn the day before another day. He couldn’t even do a mail merge without turning it into the German loss at Stalingrad. It took all of these screw ups and more before my boss was ready to entertain firing him. My former boss’ lament was, “He’s young. He’s just trying to figure things out.”

It’s one of the biggest and most hypocritical statements I’ve heard, and not just at my former job. We make excuses for youth — at least some youth — because we believe that somehow, some way, these folks will one day find themselves and take over the reins of our society and world. If this were a universal thing, that would be fine with me. But it’s not. If you’re educated, middle class or affluent, White and male — and sometimes female — the above is what people say about you when you screw in ways that would’ve gotten me fired inside of a week, whether at sixteen, nineteen or twenty-two.

The fact is, we live in a society in which for those folk whose concerns have grown beyond money, food,

Bungee jumping off the Zambezi Bridge, Victoria Falls, Africa, 1996

shelter and basic education and health, the everyday world isn’t enough. We think that youth and young adults have the mandate to search for themselves and screw up at all costs, because, well, the world is already theirs to inherit.

We don’t make excuses for poor White males, or Blacks, or the millions of undereducated youth regardless of race, gender and wealth the same way we do for the likes of the fully advantaged. Do we normally call it a mere mistake when a young woman of color gets pregnant at seventeen, or when someone like the author and poet R. Dewayne Betts (of his memoir A Question of Freedom) somehow ends up an accessory to a violent crime at sixteen? Of course not! We condemn both, treat them like they’re full-fledged adults, and hope that they rot out of our sight, media and mind.

From Holden Caulfield in the late J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to the real-time Chris McCandless in the movie and book Into The Wild, the well-off mandarin class has embraced the contrarian and narcissistic perspectives that some youth have of our flawed and brutal world. Instead of fighting for a better world, the fictitious Caulfield and the real-life McCandless both went off in search of a reality that never existed anywhere except in their own minds. Ultimately, one took his own life, while the other put themselves in a position to lose his in not-so-wild Alaska.

Wooden sailing boat Kleine Freiheit – 70 year old gaff cutter

I don’t object to the likes of thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero climbing Mount Everest with his father. Nor do I object to sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland’s attempts to circumnavigate the world solo, despite the dangers of such. What I do have problems with, though, are the underlying assumptions and reasoning behind such feats. This isn’t just about man versus nature or about finding oneself through an epic struggle. Really, it’s about the reality that our world — at least for the kinds of folk that I’ve described here — isn’t enough for them anymore. It certainly wasn’t enough for their parents.

We celebrate these youth as if this is the way to live, and that right and wrong and consequences don’t matter. At some point, we need to get over our affluent obsession over youth, over ourselves and our collective lamenting of the state of our world, if we ever hope to grow up and fix whatever ails us and our world.


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