GOP/TPers’ Theme Music for Election 2012

May 30, 2011

Huckabee with Ted Nugent on guitar, Huckabee Show, FOX News Channel, May 14, 2011. Source: http://dailymail.co.uk

Ever since Mike Huckabee announced that he wasn’t running for POTUS in the Election ’12 cycle (after playing chords with Ted Nugent), I’ve been thinking about an appropriately snarky and sarcastic way to understand the GOP/Tea Party candidacy process. It’s been a bit confusing. Between Trump and Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, Pawlenty and Romney, Palin and Bachmann, I’d have a hard time finding a candidate I’d vote for even if I were a true American conservative.

But I do know what would help. Theme music to get our juices flowin’, to rile us up about how excited we should be that among these candidates is a challenger worthy of President Barack Obama. Heck, it’s worked before. Ed Meese and Don Regan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” as theme music in ’84. This despite the fact that these were protests songs of an America anti-common man and pro-war.

GOP/TPers can do the same in ’12. Here’s a list of songs to usurp — oops, I mean use — between now and November 6 of next year.

1. Genesis, “Illegal Alien” (1983), as in, “It’s no fun/being an illegal alien” — especially if the GOP/TPers take over in ’12.

2. James Blunt, “No Bravery” (2005), a truthful description of what it takes to run on the GOP/TP ticket, i.e., no independent thought.

3. ABC, “How To Be A Millionaire” (1985), which should be retitled, “How To Be A Billionaire,” since that’s the ultimate goal of the leaders of the GOP – “a million is not enough” could be the party’s new slogan.

4. U2, “Crumbs From Your Table,” (2004), which, if these folks are elected next year, will be all we’ll have to eat by the ’16 election cycle.

Crumbs on my table, courtesy of Noah's old elephant and a Lipton tea bag wrapped around trunk, May 30, 2011. Donald Earl Collins.

5. Chicago, “Hard Habit To Break,” (1984), especially in the refrain, “I’m addicted to you,” meaning easy money from top 1%, debt and low taxes, and oil, oh, sweet crude oil!

6. The Cranberries, “Zombie,” (1994), the sincerest hope of the GOP/TPers when it comes to what’s left of our voting populace.

Herman Cain, They Think You're Stupid Book Cover (more like We Think You're Stupid), 2009. Source: National Black Republican Association, http://nbra.info

7. Al Green, “One Of These Good Old Days,” (1972), a tribute to the way the Party of Corporations wants things to be for rich – it’s their climax song!

8. Prince, “1999,” (1983), except they would definitely change it to “1899,” the height of affluent largesse, corporate greed and monopoly-building (until the ’00s), and acceptable racism.

9. Creed, “My Own Prison,” (1997), one of the ultimate dreams of the GOP/TPers, that we’d build our own prisons and then put ourselves in them so they don’t have to worry about job creation.

10. Grover Washington, Jr., “Summer Chill,” (1992), what the party hopes their paid-off scientists can “prove” in a new study funded by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the Scaife Foundations, making “Drill, baby, drill” a reality in ANWR.

11. Public Enemy, “Welcome To The Terrordome,” (1989), most likely would be used by the GOP/TPers to promote gladiator-like games as a way to bring the unemployment rate down for those they can’t get to build their own prisons.

12. Sade, “The Sweetest Taboo,” (1985), a tribute to all of their in the closet and anti-gay party members willing to sacrifice the civil and human rights of LGBT Americans everywhere for a seat in Washington.

13. Maxwell, “…Til The Cops Come Knockin’,” (1996), the general plan for all elected GOP/TPers until they’re caught in illegal activities.

In addition, there’s Alexander O’Neal’s “When The Party’s Over” (1987), another example of what would happen to us, our country and our world if the GOP/TPers reclaimed and remained in charge. They’d suck the bottom ninety-nine percent of us dry until the good times are over, and then blame us for not letting them steal the plumbing, too. Please add to this list. I could’ve created an iPod list of a hundred appropriate songs, but fourteen’s just a start. Eat your heart out, Ted Nugent!


Black Male Id-entity & the F-Bomb

May 26, 2011

Gay Rights Month isn’t for another six days, as it’s still May. But in light of Joakim Noah’s unfortunate anti-gay slur outburst, “Fuck you, faggot!,” it makes sense to start this year’s conversation a week early.

This is more than about the NBA, gay athletes in the closet or what professional athletes should and shouldn’t say to fans and to each other. The behind-the-curtain issue here could just as well be about Black male identity (whether heterosexual or gay) and how Black males express themselves to each other and to the rest of the world.

My first memories playing with a group of Black males in Mount Vernon, New York are all negative. When I was six in ’76, a group of preteens on the neighborhood playground near Nathan Hale Elementary on South 6th Avenue tried to force me into sucking one of their dicks, practically sticking it in my face to do so. I got away before being truly scarred for life. After we moved to 616 East Lincoln Avenue in April ’77, our first time playing outside was spent running away from the other kids, who greeted us by throwing rocks at us and calling me and my brother Darren “faggots.” (see my June 1, 2009 post, “In the Closet, On the Down Low” for more).

When I was nine, I played basketball on a court near 616 for the first time with a group of kids from my building. After throwing up an awkward brick and an air ball, I got five minutes of “You terrible!,” “You need to sit down!,” “You’re never gonna be an athlete!,” “You need to get back to reading them books of yours!,” and “You shoot like a faggot!”

Even though I eventually learned how to dribble with both hands, shoot a j, make layups, block shots, and on rare occasions, dunk a basketball, I’ve been leery being around other Black males on the basketball court. One would think after playing pickup with former Pitt basketball players while in grad school that I’d completely forgotten what happened to me back in the spring of ’79. But I hadn’t, at least on an unconscious level. I often watched what I said, I mean, down to every single word. Not to mention how I walked, where my arms were, and how I held my head. Still, I sometimes felt inadequate on the court, whether I went 8-for-9 or 2-for-7, blocked a shot, stole a ball, or got knocked down guarding someone six-foot-six and 260 pounds.

But I figured out something in those years of playing pickup at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon and other places in Pittsburgh and DC over the years. That blending in doesn’t matter. Fools — even ones with momentary lapses in judgment like Joakim Noah — will be fools because on the playground or court, it makes them cool in the minds of their peers.

Yes, this isn’t just a Black male issue. Sean Miller, currently coach of the University of Arizona men’s basketball team — not to mention an all-time Pitt basketball great — once played a prank on me our freshmen year. He called me up in my Lothrop Hall dorm room late one night, offered me a blow job, and called me a “faggot” in the process.  So being called a “faggot” or saying that something or someone is “gay” is part of our culture on and off the basketball court, for Black and White males to be sure.

But unlike Michael Wilbon, I can’t excuse it because it’s commonplace and therefore it may be difficult for some young men to immediately stop themselves from saying “faggot.” Nor can I rationalize this like Touré (a.k.a. TouréX on Twitter) attempted to do in a Twitter exchange with me a couple of days ago. He compared the use of “faggot” to “nigga,” with the idea that both words have more than one meaning and that the meaning can sometimes be positive, depending on context.

I can see the argument for “nigga,” even though I don’t like it when younger men use it to affirm each other and especially me. But “faggot” meaning “less than a man?” Or “stupid” or “dumb?” So is Noah or Kobe more of a man for telling someone else they’re not a man? Even in context, this isn’t positive — it’s potentially soul-destroying, and not just for someone being called a faggot.

Of the preteens and young boys who called me “faggot” growing up, at least three have served hard time. Is there a direct connection? Of course not. Still, it seems that a culture steeped in the requirement of being cool, finding quick and easy success and putting down others while doing so lends itself well to a crash-and-burn mentality that so many of us have about our lives.


Balkis Makeda’s 2nd Coming

May 23, 2011

Queen of Sheba traveling to Solomon: A fresco in Ethiopia, Date Unknown. Source: http://www.expedition360.com/journal/archives/2007/05/. In public domain.

Yesterday, my youngest brother Eri turned twenty-seven (Happy Birthday again, bro!). He was the fourth baby my mother gave birth to in a five-year span. I’d been pissed before about all that had happened with us regarding my mother, my stupid (ex)-stepfather, our poverty and being on welfare, and the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing. But now, along with Eri’s birth, came with it an elderly trespasser at 616, courtesy of the fifty-four-inch waist — and waste — of an idiot Maurice.

You see, my stupid stepfather invited his Hebrew-Israelite matriarch “Balkis Makeda” to stay with us. The woman claimed to be a reincarnated Balkis Makeda (Queen of Sheba and wife of King Solomon of the ancient Israelites), and was the catalyst in Maurice’s Hebrew-Israelite conversion during his separation from Mom between October ’80 and April ’81.

Because of Maurice — um, excuse me, Judah ben Israel — and our fearless leader “Balkis Makeda,” we followed a number of un-Torah-like practices. This included the requirement that we all were to believe that she was the reincarnation of the Queen of Sheba, living among us in the twentieth century as an average person and showing us the way to Yahweh and ultimate truth.

Bar of Ivory Soap, December 28, 2009. Source: Erin Gifford, http://couponcravings.com/2009/12/cvs-free-ivory-soap.html.

We stopped using Ivory Soap at home because our leader had a dream once about rats gnawing on a bar of it. Baby Maurice couldn’t use a soap that’s 99.44 percent pure because of Makeda’s dream, and we switched to Zest. (The real reason, I think, was because the soap was white — like Whites ethnically — and considered the opposite of pure by many in the Hebrew-Israelite community).We weren’t allowed to use the word “Hello” when greeting someone in person or when answering the telephone. Maurice explained that “Hello’s got the word Hell in it, you know, Hell-low!” We’d somehow be committing someone to eternal damnation with a universal English greeting.

Now in her seventies and in declining health, the geezer was moved in before Mom could seriously object. What a situation! Six kids, including me, plus Mom, Maurice, and an old woman living together in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. We now needed to behave like good little Hebrew-Israelites with this woman in our house, so as to not embarrass my stepfather. Yeah, right!

One of the other rules of our absurdly orthodox practice was that Mom couldn’t cook or do any familial tasks for the next three months. She was “unclean” because she’d just given birth to Eri. This might’ve made sense in the deserts of ancient Canaan, with no antibiotics and drugs to deal with unclean issues of blood and other bodily fluids. It didn’t now. Plus I didn’t remember Mom not cooking for three months after Yiscoc and Sarai were born. This was suck-up time, plain and simple.

Maurice made what was an abyss of bad even worse by cooking dinner for three days. Three straight nights of over-boiled and under-ripened cabbage drenched in its own juices and seasoned to high heaven with red and black pepper. My stepfather could’ve been the founder of a new weight-loss diet. Mom, of course, asked me to take over her cooking duties, which I did for the next six weeks (see my “Top Cook” post from May ’09).

The woman couldn’t stand us, and especially couldn’t stand me. She probably sensed how much I couldn’t

A child in the Black Hebrews community, in Dimona, Israel, September 5, 2005. Source: Dror Eiger, http://flickr.com/photos/95465714@N00/41252116. In public domain, as file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

stand her and her idiotic notions of Judaism, even with the context of being a Hebrew-Israelite. All I knew was that when I cut through all of the words and nuggets of truth, ritual and superstition, that “Makeda” was full of crap, and had fostered the conversion of my stupid stepfather, the only person I knew who was even more full of crap than her. I was already a Christian in the closet by then. Now I faced the prospect of revealing my spiritual conversion in the middle of such a grand mess. But I knew I had little other choice.

Within weeks of “coming out” to Mom, Maurice and my classmates at Mount Vernon High School (see my post “Kufi Emancipation Day” from September ’09 for more), the older woman moved out, under pressure from Mom. Both, ironically, were under pressure from me, as I threatened to move out myself. She died in Section 8 housing on Mount Vernon’s South Side in February ’85. I dare say that she wasn’t the reincarnated Makeda. For the only one who could’ve learned a lesson from a lifetime of poverty and cult-like rituals would’ve been her, not us.


Ego Inflation

May 18, 2011

My PhD Graduation, Thackeray Club, Pittsburgh, PA, May 18, 1997. Angelia N. Levy

May 18th. Another year, fourteen years now, in fact. I’ve been Dr. Collins to my students and the world of academia officially for that long. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about the values and limits of having a doctorate in history over the course of the past decade and a half. One of them is how easily egos are inflated by it. And everything else gets inflated in the process of having an ego that could challenge the Himalayas for supremacy.

One of the more stunning and thoughtful moments I had during the graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon on that hot and sticky Sunday in ’97 — besides the dreadful realization that my own mother was jealous of me — was shaking Peter Stearns‘ hand on stage. The Napoleonic red-and-white-haired Stearns — currently the university provost at George Mason — was the Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences at

Provost Peter N. Stearns, George Mason University, 2008. Source: http://provost.gmu.edu.

Carnegie Mellon at the time. Having to touch his rough yet clammy right hand as they read off the names of the doctorates that afternoon brought back quite a few not-so-pleasant memories of why I found Carnegie Mellon a terrible elitist (as opposed to elite) school to attend for four years.

I’d most recently co-presented with Stearns on how to successfully finish a doctorate that March, which wasn’t so unpleasant. Except for the fact that most of his presentation was off-the-cuff ego-stroking. Except that the lessons learned from writing a dissertation in six weeks in ’64 were mostly irrelevant to the students in front of us that day. Except that I already knew that Stearns was equally polite and dismissive of my presentation by proxy.

Too bad hand sanitizers — or as my son Noah calls them, hanitizers — were in their infancy in ’97. For as I shook Stearns’ hand, the memory that crept to the fore was my other experience working with the man, when I was a teaching assistant for two sections of his world-famous World Stereotypes, oops, World History course in the fall of ’94. He spent lecture after lecture entertaining mostly White college freshman with dirty jokes about beer and sex in covering World History Plato-to-NATO style. I spent most of my teaching time attempting to refocus my group of students away from stereotyping South Asian women as “demur” and Arab men as horn dogs.

Then the end of that semester came, and I turned in all of my grades. I had a few students with D’s and F’s because they had failed their exams, or hadn’t shown up for class really, or both. One of those students was a White male freshman who’d only been to class twice, had failed one exam and barely passed his final. I received an email from Stearns two days before the end of the semester ordering me to change the student’s grade from an F to a C. The reason: “[h]e’s a good kid…he showed up for a couple of my sections…” [emphasis added]. I send an email back that basically read, “So?” Stearns repeated his order to change the grade, in person, which meant that I needed to change the grades of five other students so that their grades weren’t worse than the student that Stearns had coddled.

It was the one and only time I found myself inflating grades. That exchange confirmed so much that I heard and suspected about the father of college-level World History. Stearns was mercurial, egotistical and played favorites, who somehow were usually White and often male. I knew of at least one former grad student who’d all but been blackballed from finding academic jobs because of him. I also knew that he arbitrarily provided vastly different pay levels to grad students and instructors when he was the history department chair.

Denholm Elliott in A Room With A View, 1985. Source: http://content8.flixster.com/photo/13/52/75/13527526_gal.jpg

When my future wife first saw Stearns in ’96 at some history department conference in which my then advisor Joe Trotter forced me to do a presentation, she said that the five-foot-four man looked like the late British actor Denholm Elliott, especially from the movie A Room With A View (1985). That’s really in insult to Elliott. A better comparison would be between the actor who played the emperor in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Or, more specifically, like the late actor Jack Nance’s character Nefud from Dune (1984). Very mean of me, I suppose, not to mention, a digression.

As I began to walk off the stage after shaking Stearns’ hand, I felt agitated, and thought of all that I’d gone through with him and with Carnegie Mellon in general. Ultimately, like the characters I mentioned above, Stearns was and remains an imperialist, building an academic empire in his image and crushing all opposition (real and imagined) along the way. His legacy will be the multiplication of inflated student egos who believe they understand the world but instead really only understand how to see the world in their own egocentric ways.

Jack Nance as Nefud in Dune, 1984. Source: http://www.aveleyman.com/FilmCredit.aspx?FilmID=5459


The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel

May 16, 2011

Dr. Jack L. Daniel, University of Pittsburgh, 2004. Pitt Magazine. http://www.pittmag.pitt.edu/summer2004/feature1.html. The use of this photo falls under fair use under US Copyright laws because this blog post is in fact about the subject in this photo.

Last week I started a conversation about my three weeks of starvation in order to secure my entry into graduate school through my post, “Sometimes Starvation.” I’m continuing that conversation with today’s post. For it was that on this date twenty years ago that divine intervention came in the form of a voice inside my head, leading me to a meeting with then University of Pittsburgh Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs, Dr. Jack L. Daniel.

Even as I turned down the opportunity to go back to Mount Vernon and work up in White Plains with Joe Carbone and Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health for the summer of ’91, a name kept popping in my head. And I didn’t know why. I’d only met Jack Daniel on two occasions, both during my freshman year at Pitt. I was a Challenge Scholar, in the inaugural class of Challenge Scholars no less, a merit-based half-tuition scholarship meant to attract more students of color to Pitt, and Dr. Daniel was the author of the program.

I knew that he was a professor with expertise in Black communications. I also knew that he was one of the activists who helped bring the Black Studies Department to Pitt in ’69 by occupying the central computing system on the seventh floor of the Cathedral of Learning, back when he was a freshly minted Ph.D. Other than that, I had zero contact with the man in my four years of undergrad.

For once, I listened to the voice inside my head and, after some coaxing of Dr. Daniel’s assistant, made an appointment with him to discuss my financial options for going to Pitt for my history MA. I figured that I had nothing to lose. I really only hoped that there was an extra $1,000 or two left in his budget that would at least help to feed me through my first year of grad school.

That Thursday, the sixteenth of May, I arrived at my 2:30 pm meeting with Dr. Daniel on the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Learning, not knowing exactly what I was going to say. I walked into the Office of the Provost, where the stale stone of the super-tall building turned into the sights and smells of dark wood, cherry, mahogany even. We exchanged pleasantries, shook hands, and I sat down feeling like I was in sixth grade instead of like I’d recently finished my bachelor’s.

I started. “I’m looking for a little extra money for grad school this fall, so that I don’t have to borrow money to cover tuition and eat,” I said. Dr. Daniel then asked

“What was your GPA here?”

“A 3.4,” I said, rounding up from a 3.37 average.

“What about your GRE scores?”

“60th and 7oth percentile on math and reading,” I said.

“What about your major?,” Dr. Daniel asked.

“I was a history major with a 3.82 average,” I said with a smile.

Then Dr. Daniel got this look on his face, like he was actually angry, like there was a piece to the puzzle that I was missing. “Hold on for a second, I need to make a phone call,” he said.

He called Pitt’s History Department Chair, who at the time was one of my future grad school professors, Van Beck Hall, and spent the next couple of minutes chewing him out about my record and about why I hadn’t been awarded a fellowship. I sat there with a stone face, not wanting to give away the sense of glee I felt watching Dr. Daniel on the phone while verbally beating up on a department chair. Politely, of course.

After he got off the phone, he said, “You’ve got your money for school next year.” My mouth fell open, and not just because I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. Then Dr. Daniel explained how his office had worked with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (and the other major schools within the university) to create a new fellowship to attract more students of color and women into Pitt’s grad programs. He also explained how some departments and programs had resisted communicating the existence of this new fellowship program to potential grad students. I apparently was another case demonstrating how some folks within the university simply refused to address Pitt’s lack of diversity at the graduate level.

I was beyond thankful. Incredulous, thankful, even speechless. I couldn’t stop shaking Dr. Daniel’s hand. Despite three weeks and a loss of twenty-plus pounds, I played basketball at Pitt’s athletic center that evening, making shots as if I’d been on an athlete’s diet for the past three weeks. I was more excited about the possibility of grad school being paid for than I was about getting my first paycheck of the summer that Friday.

The following Tuesday evening, the twenty-first of May, I saw Dr. Daniel walking down Fifth Avenue outside of the Cathedral of Learning as I was on my evening walk home from work. I told him that I’d gotten the paperwork for my full-tuition fellowship and $7,000 graduate student assistantship stipend for the ’91-’92 school year. As he walked away after I said, “Thank you!,” again, I yelled “You’re the man!” All Dr. Daniel did was stretch out his long arms, shrugging it off as if he’d given me a nickel to buy a Tootsie Roll.


No Good Teaching Deed Goes Unpunished

May 13, 2011

It’s never really been much of a surprise to me how much we don’t appreciate good teachers. I should know. A few semesters ago, a student of mine filed a complaint against me because she couldn’t see my lecture notes well enough due to some issue with the LCD projector for my classroom. Mind you, she admitted that she didn’t have her glasses that day. When I didn’t allow her to interrupt me in the middle of class over the issue, she stormed out, yelled a couple of obscenities at me, and slammed the classroom door shut.

I know, it’s much worse on the K-12 level, between incorrigible students and insolent parents, school and district administration. Not to mention the pressures of NCLB, initiatives like Race to the Top (or bottom, really) and private foundations with their own agendas. Add to that article after article blaming teachers unions for being on the wrong side of corporatized education reform that emphasizes math and science and test scores over humanities and social science and critical thinking.

Former NYC DOE Chancellor Joel Klein’s now among them, in his lengthy (really, too long) piece on “The Failure of American Schools” in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, laid much of the blame on teachers and teachers unions. Not our nation’s economic woes, an overemphasis on math and science, or a system that was created not to teach academic excellence, but to weed out the so-called weak-minded. It’s no wonder that the average career of a teacher is five years!

A quarter-century ago on this date, my former teacher Harold Meltzer’s good deeds came to fruition through our AP US History class and our AP exam that year. We learned in September ’86 –  the beginning of our senior year — that three of us (including yours truly) all scored 5′s on the AP American History exam on this date. That meant that three of us had earned six college credits a year before enrolling in any university. There were at least four others who scored a 4, guaranteeing them three college credits. Another five scored a 3, considered a passing score by colleges and the College Board.

It was the best an MVHS AP class had ever done on any AP exam up to that point in the high school’s history, and should’ve been a crowning achievement for Meltzer and the school. Yet instead of praise or at least a “Congratulations,” Meltzer was treated as if he’d shown up MVHS by his boss, Social Studies Department Chair Larry Smith, a red-headed man who looked like a character from Dune. He snickered at me every time he saw me with Meltzer. Neither Superintendent William Prattella nor Richard Capozzola saw fit to honor Meltzer or our class for our achievements. It was ironic, because MVHS won a Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence award from the US Department of Education a few months later, off of the work of teachers like Meltzer, as well as Humanities students.

There were rumors that some of the White parents were unhappy with Meltzer’s methods of teaching, which typically involved us interpreting history rather than answering straightforward history trivia questions. More than rumors, actually, as I walked in on a meeting between Meltzer and a parent my senior year. That mother demanded an A for her daughter in Meltzer’s AP US History class. What wasn’t exactly a rumor, either was that Smith was looking for any excuse to take AP US History away from Meltzer. Especially since it was so shocking that both White and Black students did equally well on the exam that year. Of course, there were other, more deeply personal issues between the two men that likely involved jealousy and other not-so-secret secrets.

For our part, our cohort stopped talking to Meltzer altogether. Sure he was eccentric, even a bit strange and unorthodox as a teacher, but at least he cared. And by the way our scores turned out, he didn’t deserve the cold shoulders he received from most of my classmates our senior year. It bothered me when I’d see Meltzer saying “Hello” to one of us as we passed his Room 275, only for one of us to walk by as if Meltzer had phased out of our space-time continuum.

I was sure that some of it was related to Meltzer being a “confirmed bachelor.” But mostly, I thought that despite Meltzer’s lack of a normal teaching style, that my classmates were total assholes toward him. Meltzer spent the week before the AP exam after school with us going over every conceivable fact of American history for the more anal of us. It was above and beyond, and also unnecessary. Because Meltzer had taught us enough about egalitarianism, critical and independent thinking, and “coming to the point at once” in the first months of his class for all of us to do well.

Meltzer died from a number of ailments at the age of sixty-six in early January ’03. But one thing I was sure of that hastened his decline was the bitter and broken heart he had from the way he’d been treated in his last years as a teacher. I just hope that I brought a little bit of laughter to the man in his final months and weeks. Or at least, something to smile about.


Sometimes Starvation

May 12, 2011

Me (at 185 lbs) & Mark James (Cropped), Pan-African Graduate & Professional Student Association, University of Pittsburgh, February 27, 1993. Lois Nembhard.

My last semester at the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad (Spring ’91), I took a one-credit Weight Training course. I wanted to learn how to use free weights and weight machines so that I could build muscle tone. I wanted a course that would be easy for me to pass, one in which I could burn up my anxieties while awaiting word about my graduate school future.

Over the course of the semester, I did build muscle. I weighed 175 pounds in January. By my last class on the twenty-third of April, I weighed 183 pounds. I was proud of the fact that the eight-pound gain was all muscle.

But with the end of the school year and undergrad at Pitt came a crisis. Even though I’d start work on the twenty-nine with the PAARC project at Western Psychiatric as a full-time employee, I wouldn’t receive a paycheck that Friday, the third of May. Instead, I’d have to work for three weeks before receiving pay. After a year of underemployment as a student (I only worked ten or twelve hours a week because I couldn’t pay the other half of my tuition via student loans and keep my work-study allotment at the same time), I thought I was finally over the hump.

It was bad enough that despite my degree, which qualified me for $8.50 an hour, Andrea Hegedus and the other PAARC  bosses only saw fit to pay me at $5.20 per hour. Now I knew that I’d have to figure out how to live on $30 for the next three weeks.

The first week went well enough. I brought lunch from home, consisting of a dried-up hamburger on wheat bread one day, leftover spaghetti the next, and a couple of days in which I didn’t eat lunch at all. That was because I saved my baked chicken and spaghetti leftovers for dinner. I also conserved money by walking the two and a half miles between my apartment on the East Liberty/Shadyside neighborhood border and the Oakland neighborhood in which Pitt and Western Psychiatric are located. Each way.

My Route To/From Work, 6007 Penn Cir S, Pittsburgh, PA 15206 to Atwood St & Forbes Ave - Google Maps, May 12, 2011.

By the end of the second week, I was down to my last $5. It was the tenth of May, and I had another week before payday. It was bad enough I walked five miles to and from work every day and skipped lunch all that second week. The PAARC folks used me to do everything from going to Giant Eagle to buy half-and-half for their coffee to running across Pitt’s campus hunting for books and making 3,000 copies of X and 2,200 copies of Y. Mind you, they hired me to design databases and input data. Surprise, surprise, I had a headache at the end of every work day.

That Friday, I got a call from my old job at Westchester County Department of Federal Programs. It was my boss from the previous summer and holiday season, Joe Carbone, wanting to know if I’d come work for him another summer. Working for him had been a wonderful experience. But the reason I stayed in Pittsburgh was because I wanted to explore the option of grad school as far as possible, even if it meant getting doors slammed in my face. I couldn’t do that while working in White Plains and living at 616 all summer. So, reluctantly, I said, “No, I can’t do it this year,” knowing that I’d get an earful from Mom once I told her my decision.

The one and only time in my life I dined on these, May 12-16, 1991. Source: http://www.stevegarufi.com/ramen1.jpg

It seemed a ridiculous decision two days later. I was down to my final $2.10. I went to Giant Eagle that Sunday, bought a six-pack of ramen noodles for a dollar, and two packs of Kool-Aid for forty cents more. I had enough to by a can of soda, maybe some candy, and that was it until the seventeenth of May.

What compounded my confounding decision was that I remained sixth on the teaching assistant fellowship waiting list in Pitt’s History Department. What made that worse was the fact that no fewer than four students had passed me on the list since I’d first seen it four weeks earlier, all White and male.

Somehow, though, I had faith beyond my circumstances that things were going to work out just fine. I guess all those years of malnutrition at 616 helped me. By the week after my first paycheck for the summer, grad school at Pitt was a done deal, and I had food to eat again.

I weighed myself about five days after my starvation diet at the student athletic center. I weighed 167 pounds, which meant that my weight had dropped to nearly 160 pounds by May 17, and had only begun to recover. I could see nearly all of my ribs, front and back, not to mention my collarbone.

By the Wednesday after three weeks of little and no food, none of that ordeal mattered. For the miracle that I’d hoped in happened just days after my infamous “No” to Joe Carbone. (to be continued).


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