Stomping In Coffee Table Glass

December 30, 2011

Walking On Broken Glass Music Video screen shot, June 12, 2010. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and indirect reference.

Three days after my seventh birthday — which also happens to be thirty-five years ago on this date — I witnessed one of the most bizarre and frightening things a kid should ever see with two parents in the midst of a divorce. It involved infidelity, jealousy, vindictiveness and violence. But the incident itself was part of a domestic situation that had been spiraling out of control for at least two years.

My mother officially filed for a divorce from my father Jimme in July ’76, after six years of putting up with his alcoholism and his threats of violence. In the two years since we’d moved to 425 South Sixth Avenue in Mount Vernon in August ’74, Jimme’s alcohol-laced threats had led to a stabbing (his own) and my own call

425 South 6th Avenue, Mount Vernon, NY, November 22, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

to the police (cut off by my folks mid-call). Things like finding him face-down in a pile of freshly cooked greens and chitlins and falling asleep on the Metro-North on Bicentennial Day with me and Darren in tow and ending up in New Haven, Connecticut didn’t help matters.

The fall after the divorce filing, me and my older brother Darren found ourselves in a strange limbo. Jimme hadn’t moved out, but was out drinking so much that seeing him at home was a random occurrence. My mother was home — sometimes — with Wednesday evenings reserved for bowling nights and occasional other nights out that weren’t easily explained except by my father’s accusations of cheating.

By October ’76, whenever Jimme was home, he found some way to get back at my mother. He put about $3,000 worth of my mother’s clothes and shoes into a bathtub full of hot water (about $10,000 in 2011 dollars). Me and my older brother Darren were there when he threw a brand-new thirteen-inch Sanyo color TV out of our second-floor window, this right around Halloween. Jimme also had repeatedly cut up the new furniture my mother had bought after filing for divorce.

My father’s drunken awareness of my mother’s new relationship with my eventual idiot stepfather Maurice led to a nasty incident that topped all of these, if only because I was wide awake for this one. My mother decided that it was time for us to finally meet the mystery man who had been in her life for the past several months, Maurice Washington. So for the first time in three days, we all gathered at 425, all to have a fried chicken dinner.

Two-layered tinted glass coffee table, similar to one my mother bought in 1976, December 30, 2011.

Jimme came home to bear witness to this gathering, and drunk as usual, flew into a rage. He started throwing food from the kitchen, then walked into the living room. There, with me and Darren sitting on the couch and Maurice and my mother watching, Jimme destroyed a glass-topped coffee table by stomping it in. Shards of glass were everywhere, including small bits in my father’s legs. He bled everywhere it seemed. I found myself hiding between the Christmas tree and the stairwell that led downstairs to the front door. Soon an ambulance and the police came — once again — to take Jimme to the hospital.

This was more than my mother could bear. She ended up in Mount Vernon Hospital for almost two months with a serious kidney ailment that turned out to be stress-induced. Darren and I stayed with our usual babysitter, one of my father’s drinking buddies in Ida. By the time my mother came out of the hospital, which was in April ’77, Maurice and my Uncle Sam had moved us into an apartment at 616 East Lincoln Avenue on Mount Vernon’s North Side.

But not before my Uncle Sam, a big man at six-foot-four and about 230 pounds, clotheslined Jimme over a fence in front of our old place as an act of vengeance. Me and Darren were there because my father had swept us up from our babysitter’s place on East Third Street and taken us to 425 to hang out for a few days, which meant us missing school as well. He’d managed not to drink for those two and a half days, and even made us lunch and dinner consisting of Kool-Aid, meatloaf, mac and cheese and string beans.

While Jimme went out to buy us some soda, my Uncle Sam and my soon-to-be-stepfather had come with the moving van. About a half-hour later, there was Jimme, about to walk through the gate into the front yard. The whole Deacon Jones-esque tackle seemed as if it were in slow motion, as I watched the 32-oz. glass bottle of Pepsi bounce twice on the sidewalk before landing in the grass, with only minor damage. The paper bag having landed right next to the front gate. And Jimme flipped backwards in the air, landing with a giant thud on the public sidewalk.

I was traumatized, to say the least. My grades throughout second grade reflected that, not that Ms. Hirsch and her low-expectations behind would’ve noticed. The fact that I no longer had any continuity in my life made it hard to want to be friends with anyone, a complete 180 degree turn from what I’d been like in first grade. Again, no one noticed. And Darren had also withdrawn, finding in The Clear View School something he didn’t have at home.


Reaching Level 42

December 27, 2011

We all get used to playing certain roles in life, no matter how uncomfortably those roles fit. Privileged, rich, powerful and entitled Americans are accustomed to shitting on the little guy and using all of their resources to maintain their separation from the rest of us. Attractive women — especially White blondes and Black women with music video bodies — tend to act as if the world’s purpose is to serve them. Religious people who somehow believe that it’s their role to tell every person they meet how to deal with all of the issues they face in life, without a real understanding of those people or their lives.

I’ve gotten used to the role of the eldest sibling over the past thirty years. This despite all of the growing pains I went through in the ’80s to take on this role, in spite of the fact that I have an older brother, one two years and eighteen days older than me.

My older brother Darren, as I put it more than twenty-five years ago, “abdicated the throne” of eldest brother by the time I was in the middle of puberty. That happened twenty-nine Decembers ago. Once our family went off the cliffs of the Himalayas and plunged into the hell of Hebrew-Israelites, abuse, abject poverty, responsibility became my motto. Add to that four more mouths to feed between ’79 and ’84, but with only enough food in the house to feed us twenty out of every thirty days, and it became obvious that someone had to do something.

Darren withdrew into the fantasy world that he’d constructed through his psychological imprisonment at The Clear View School in Briarcliff Manor, a school for the mentally retarded (see “About My Brother” post from December ’07). Except that Darren wasn’t mentally retarded. But he played up that role as life at 616 became tougher after the ’81 no-Chanukah, no-Christmas, no-Kwanzaa season. Darren would rock back and forth in his too-small twin bed, as if in a catatonic state. Or he’d spontaneously jump up and down by himself in our bedroom or while in the bathroom, making a high-pitched “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee” sound while nearly hitting the top of his six-foot frame on the ceiling.

Mostly, my older brother would make himself sound as stupid as he possibly could to get out of anything to do with all of the craziness at 616. His favorite answer to any question from our mom or from our idiot ex-stepfather Maurice was, “I Dunno.” And he’s say it over and over again. For nearly a year, stupid ass Maurice attempted to conduct a version of Torah study with us on Saturdays. Every time Maurice asked Darren what he learned, my brother would say, “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth…,” regardless of what book we were charged with reading. By August ’82, Darren was permanently excused from Torah study.

Darren did what he did to get out of going to the store, or washing dishes, or helping out with “those kids,” or anything that meant him acting like his IQ was higher than eighty-five. Some neighborhood guys who knew my brother then would ask me, “What’s wrong with yo’ brotha’, man?,” and I’d say, “Nothing.”

How did I know? Because for three years, every time he boarded his 7:40 am school bus to go to Clear View, off came his kufi or yarmulke. Because outside of 616, Darren ate whatever he wanted, whether it was a lard-based Hostess’ Apple Pie or a ham and cheese sandwich. Because Darren was smart enough to realize that perception for most people — most of us undiscerning and self-absorbed Americans, anyway — is reality, and that acting like he was severely mentally retarded would save him from the worst effects of living with a family that had fallen apart.

So everything fell on me. At first, it was going to the store and watching over my younger siblings Maurice and Yiscoc. By the time I began puberty, it was taking punches from Maurice and tracking down my father Jimme for money. By the time of Michael Jackson’s last single release from Thriller in early ’84, it was cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, protecting my four younger siblings, and maintaining some sense of sanity for myself and them. I did it because I had no choice, but I helped grow a jealousy and competition in Darren that he’s yet to give up on.

It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be who I am today without growing up the way I did. But who in their right mind would want to go through what I went through? At the time, it was so much better to be Darren. Only in the last ten years have I realized how much Darren gave up. His sanity, his piece of mine, his development as a human being, as a Black male. All shredded in his well-practiced Clear View persona.

At forty-two years old today, I’m forever learning and relearning, but my ironic, goofy, sarcastic, contrarian, honest and caring, disdainful and cocky persona is well-marbled. Darren’s, sadly, remains trapped in jealousy and misery, and there’s nothing I can do about it.


Musical ‘Mates and Matters

December 24, 2011

The "A" Note, February 5, 2008. (Pearson Scott Foresman, via Wikipedia). In public domain.

If someone asked me what was the one thing that me and my classmates had in common during my middle school and high school years in Mount Vernon, New York, it would be a love of and for music. I wouldn’t have been able to draw this rather obvious conclusion five years ago. But, in the course of interviewing folks and writing and rewriting my Boy @ The Window manuscript since ’06, music seems to be the one common denominator that connected us all.

Take the fact that so many of my Class of ’87 classmates found their way into the underground or mainstream music scene over the past twenty-four years. At least one was a producer, a bunch rapped, played, sang, and danced their way into the industry, even if they’re not household names. Others did studio work, and at least two are doing music/sound work for the small and big screen.

These folks are Black, White, Afro-Caribbean and Latino, so, no, race doesn’t seem to be a factor. Was it something that was in the water or in Mount Vernon’s lead water pipes? Not likely. It really couldn’t have been instilled in us by Humanities, or going to Davis, Nichols or Mount Vernon High School, right? The official doctrine of the powers that were would’ve made our favorite music somewhere between Sinatra and Tchaikovsky.

It could be as simple and as complicated as the times we grew up in, the fellow travelers to which we were

Culture Club "Club Sandwich Tour" poster, September 27, 2011. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and subject of blog post.

exposed, the constant noise that was Mount Vernon public schools in the 1970s and 1980s. Living in a city in the early stages of decline, within shouting distance of Manhattan and a short walk to the Bronx. Having the level of Black and Brown diversity that we had, with a decent sized White minority in the school system, may be all that was needed to create the conditions for music to be our one common language.

It wasn’t just in my class, as the classes of ’85 and ’86 turned out the late Heavy D and Al B. Sure. Nor was it just in Mount Vernon’s public schools. There was something about Mount Vernon itself, a painful place for some, a cool and pleasureful one for others, that made music both a code for coolness and an escape from reality.

For my specific groups of Humanities nerds, renaissance folks and generally sharp classmates, though, the tastes ranged and even mingled. For the guidos and guidettes whom I labeled “The Italian Club,” the music was decidedly “White.” From “A” serenading 7S with The Police’s “Roxanne” ala Eddie Murphy, to the frequent blaring of Billy Idol, Bruce Springsteen and Foreigner from turbo-charged Camaros and Mustangs.

The Time promotional poster, circa 1990, July 6, 2006. (Mista Tee, via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and subject matter for blog post.

Then the was the obviously cool Black and Afro-Caribbean, with a clique for every occasion, whose music was also obviously “Black.” Teena Marie, pre-“Material Girl” Madonna, Phyllis Hyman, Prince, Luther Vandross, Doug E. Fresh, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Run-DMC, if it was Black and cool, they listened to it, and knew the exact date the new album would hit the stores. They drove around in their Nissan Maximas, Audis and old Cadillacs with this mesh of R&B, early rap and hip-hop, and crossover pop pumping out of their tinted windows.

Of course, that left the rest of us, the few who seemed to like a bit of everything. Crush #1 and Depeche Mode. Brandie Weston and her clique’s love of Boy George and Culture Club. V’s commitment to Billy Joel, at least a decade and a half too young to understand the full meaning of what we’d now call adult contemporary. Not to mention The Police, Sting, The Who, Rolling Stones, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears for Fears, a-ha, and so many others. But it didn’t stop there. For we, too, liked Luther, and Billy Idol, and John Coltrane, and Lisa Lisa, and Run.

I don’t know if my musical tastes were the most eclectic of all, or if mine remain so. But I can say this. I ran 4.75 miles yesterday, listening to Genesis’ “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” (album version), Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” U2’s “Beautiful Day,” Grover Washington Jr’s “Summer Chill,” Stevie Wonder’s “As,” Sting’s “A Thousand Years,” and Enigma’s “Silence Must Be Heard” along the way. It seems that I’ve always had a song in my head and theme music in my heart for every situation and every period of my life. For better and for worse, I have to give Mount Vernon credit for that, if for nothing else.


Reinventing the Writing Wheel

December 17, 2011

Inventing the Wheel cartoon, October 2, 2009. (Bill Abbott/http://www.toonpool.com/).

One of the side effects of having lived through the hell of my family struggles at 616 in Mount Vernon, New York between ’81 and ’89 was that I’d forgotten about the person I was before we became Hebrew-Israelites. As great as I am at recalling faces, smells, conversations, exact facts and phrases based on images and songs, I’ve been almost equally as good at blocking out whole sections of my personality. All in an effort to cope with the emotional pain and psychological trauma that is betrayal, abuse and neglect.

I have the unfortunate distinction of having seen myself as a writer in ’81 at the age of eleven, only to take nearly twenty years to see myself that way again. There were a few sign posts in the dark forest of confusion about my calling that I found on my way to getting back on the writing road. One of those sign posts was my teaching assistant and friend during my undergraduate years at the University of Pittsburgh in Paul Riggs.

Paul Riggs, Professor and Department Chair, Department of History, Valdosta State University (GA), December 17, 2011. (http://www.valdosta.edu).

Paul was the TA for my section of the Western Civilization II course taught by his advisor in Sy Drescher in the Spring semester of ’88. He was a second-year history grad student, a nice looking White guy for a nerd. Already in his mid-twenties with, his blonde-brown hair and around six-feet, Paul was a rarity on campus. So was his class. Paul found a way to do more than ask us a bunch of questions that were meant to quiz us on the textbook. We debated the significance of things like a richer diet and its impact on population growth and the expansion of European imperialism, the connections between Charles Darwin, evolution, and the advent of scientific racism at the end of the nineteenth century, and so many other things that allowed us to connect the dots.

Paul was also the first teacher I had at Pitt who assumed that I could do the work without acting as if I shouldn’t have been in their classroom. It helped that he occasionally indulged me. When our weekly discussion turned to the killing fields that had been northern France and Belgium for the bulk of the four years of World War I, I allowed my imagination to get the better of me. I made a comment that connected the tragedy of deadly trench warfare to a song by Sting called “Children’s Crusade.” I started quoting lyrics, like “virgins with rifles, a game of charade,” “the flower of England, faced down in the mud, and stained in the blood of a whole generation,” and “corpulent generals safe behind lines.”

I related it all to the documents book and Drescher’s lectures on the war that wiped out a generation of

Sting, The Dream of the Blue Turtle CD Cover (1985), December 17, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

young men in Western Europe. It took me two minutes of class time to draw all of the different connections. Paul, shaking his head at the end, got this incredulous smile on his face. All he said was, “um, you know Sting’s overrated?”

But Paul proved to be much more helpful a year and a half later. By then I was in my junior year at Pitt, no longer living in constant worry that I’d have to return to 616 to bury my mother and press charges against my idiot stepfather. By then, Maurice was my ex-stepfather, and thankfully so. For the first time in eight years, I kept a journal, putting together a series of stories based on my worst experiences at 616, on welfare, with my family, and in Mount Vernon.

All of it made me think about writing a book that looked at the sociological and psychological dimensions of the welfare system, for both recipients and for case managers charged with providing benefits. I wanted to make Westchester County Department of Social Services the centerpiece for such a book. I decided to talk to Paul about all of my ideas, not wanting to give away how personal this issue was for me. Paul asked me the questions that it would take another eleven years to answer. “What kind of writer do you want to be?,” and “How is history related to what you want to write about?,” he asked over the course of our conversation.

I really didn’t know the answers to either question. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to pursue an advanced degree, become a professor, or become a writer. But I knew that I needed to find out.

Still, one thing that I decided to do that would determine most of my career travels over the next decade is to make myself into the semi-dispassionate scholar I knew I needed to become in order to be a better historian, which I presumed would make me a better writer. Only to spend this past decade reconnecting to my emotions and passion, which has made me the writer I once hoped to become.


If Boy @ The Window Were A Movie…

December 10, 2011

Not So Young Man @ His Window, December 10, 2011. (Donald Earl Collins).

…who would I hire to play the characters in my memoir? Especially if I could reach across space and time to pick actors with the range necessary to play complicated characters, like yours’ truly, for instance. Hmm. I have a few ideas:

Rob Brown, ala Finding Forrester (2000) – He’d been a perfect character to play me during my high school years, between the blank stare and face, his height, and his ability to show awkwardness around Whites in authority.

Rob Brown as Jamal Wallace in Finding Forrester (2000) Screen Shot. (http://filmdope.com).

Khandi Alexander, ala The Corner (2000) – While she isn’t nearly as tall and is a bit chestier than my mother, her affect as the down-and-out West Baltimore mother on the groundbreaking HBO miniseries fits here.

James Avery – He would be in the role of my idiot ex-stepfather, with his bulging eyes and belly, and with his flashes of rage, yeah, he’d been perfect.

Clarke Peters, ala The Wire, Treme – I thought about someone like Sammy Davis, Jr. playing the role of my father, Jimme, but Davis’ acting range wouldn’t have been enough to capture both my father’s drunken rage and the comedy that often served as an overlay to my encounters with my father growing up.

Clarke Peters at Edinburgh Festival 2010, August 6, 2010. (Ausir). Released to public domain via GNU Free Documentation License.

Jesse L. Martin – The man’s acting range is enormous, and would capture the complexities of playing someone like my older brother Darren, a super-shy kid who himself played the role of someone mentally retarded while also having taught himself to read at the age of three. Only, Darren didn’t know how to stop.

Jesse L. Martin at Annual Flea Market and Grand Auction hosted by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, September 26, 2006. (Insomniacpuppy). Released to public domain via Wikipedia.

Harold Perrineau, ala Oz – His face alone captures a lot of emotion, and show does the way he says his lines, something that I’d want from someone playing my best friend from elementary school. Perrineau’s face would also capture duplicity, a necessary ingredient for betraying a friendship. Just like many of the characters in the HBO series Oz.

Thandie Newton – This was a tough one, as I also thought about Rosario Dawson in the role of Crush #1. But Newton has quirkiness as an actor that Dawson lacks at times, and for all of the wonderful traits of the character known as Crush #1, quirkiness is key.

Thandie Newton at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, September 2007. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/gdcgraphics/1639139527/in/set-72157602744288487/). Released to public domain via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Ray Liotta – Not nearly as tough, this despite the fact that the real “A” had blondish hair when we were kids. Liotta’s meanness, his laugh, his Italian coldness easily capture what “A” was like as my tormentor in seventh grade.

Nathan Fillion, ala Firefly (2002-03), Serenity(2005) – the near-perfect actor to play the contrarian one, “JD” (see my post “The Contrarian One” from February ’11), his aloofness, his sense of superiority, his maverick affect throughout our years in Humanities together.

Nathan Fillion as Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly (2002-02). (Wikipedia.org).

Alison Arngrim, ala Little House on the Prairie (1974-82) – She played Nellie Olson on the show, a bratty, well-off girl who only knew how to view the world through her own selfish lens. She could play any number of my former White classmates, especially many of the ones who left Humanities between the end of eighth and the beginning of tenth grade.

Little House on the Prairie's Nellie Olson as played by Alison Arngirm, circa 1977. (http://www.flickr.com/3595/3433153010_b5f3cae12a.jpg).

Gabrielle Union – as this actor has done the affect of pissed off and Black preppie well over the years, she’d be great for the role of Crush #2, the one the main character (me) becomes obsessed with in the six months after graduating high school. Like the character, Union can crush hearts.

Rita Moreno – A fixture in the acting business for more than sixty years, one of a handful to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony Award, she could easily slip on the role of a guidance counselor like the chain-smoking, stereotyping bigot Sylvia Fasulo. The only other person who’d fit this role is Callie Thorne from the USA show, Necessary Roughness.

Brian Dennehy – There aren’t many actors who could play my late AP US History teacher Harold Meltzer. You see, you’d need to be able to spit, to tell long and strange stories, to have moment of macabre laughter and moments of bitter rage. Dennehy, though, has experience doing all of those things, though not in one role. Plus, he’s tall and rotund enough for the part.

Brad Dourif, ala Dune (1984), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – He’s weird enough to play the role of Regis, one of my older friends from my undergraduate days at the University of Pittsburgh, someone who was there for me the semester I went through homeless and three months without money.

Brad Dourif at the Lord of the Rings-Convention Ring*Con in Bonn, Germany, November 23, 2002. (Diane Krauss). Released to public domain via GNU Free Documentation.

I could go on and on. But that’s unnecessary here. This ensemble cast, with the right script — and a time machine — would make Boy @ The Window come alive, and have me blushing and crying over and over again.


Simple. Foolish. Thinking. Folk.

December 7, 2011

Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai) music video screen shot, 1997. (http://www.vid81.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of photo's low resolution.

On all sides of the political divide, we bear witness to some of the most unsophisticated thinking that anyone looking back on this time in history could ever possibly imagine.

It’s not just that GOP/TPers like Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry don’t know basic American history or about a constitutional amendment that directly affected their lives as young adults. It’s not just the racial, socioeconomic and gender-based bigotry that Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have given us for months. It’s among supposedly liberal and moderate political animals as well. It makes me question not only the political process. It makes me think that we should recheck the lead content of our water (tap and bottled), our vegetables and our meat.

Gingrich’s statements over the past few weeks are much more than “unfortunate,” as Tony Kornheiser — an eighty-five-year-old impersonating a sixty-three-year-old — said on his ESPN DC radio show Tuesday. No, Gingrich’s statements are ahistorical, flat-out wrong, borderline racist, and downright nasty toward poor Americans and their children.

Say Anything... movie poster with cropped picture of Newt Gingrich at CPAC conference in Orlando, FL (taken September 23, 2011), December 7, 2011. (Quentin X and Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia/Donald Earl Collins). Released in public domain via cc by 3.0.

To a crowd in Iowa last Thursday, Gingrich said, “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday…They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless it is illegal.” Unfortunate is when you mistakenly drop your flash drive down a garbage disposal. This was so bigoted that it was actually dumb beyond words. And even I thought Gingrich had a bigger brain than this.

This comes only a few weeks after telling the Occupy Wall Street protests to “get a job after you take a bath.” As if getting a college education only to become a $60,000 student loan debt-slave and find oneself unemployed is funny. No, Gingrich, you’re a slime ball, utterly out of touch with America and Americans. At least, any Americans who live in 2011 with less than $10 million to draw from.

But the reactionary right isn’t the only group that has spoken foolery of late, showing us how corrupt our system of politics and government is in our age. Media types of all strips have spoken like simpletons as well. Take Charles M. Blow, visual Op-Ed columnist with the New York Times, who frequents on Twitter as a “pox on both your houses” type. Somehow, though, when people talk about not voting at all, his ability to be rational declines almost as far and as fast as Newt Gingrich’s.

Usually Blow does his SMH sign when he reads 140 characters of what he considers foolishness. Not on November 21. On that day, he tweeted, “I must say that I’m shocked at the number of tweets I’m getting from ppl, seemingly prog, who sound resigned to not voting. Shocked!” Blow followed that with “Voting isn’t just about the right to complain. It’s a demonstration of power. Same as wiggling your fingers in the air, but w politicians.”

The question I have for Blow and voting purists is, what alternative universe do you think we’re living in?

Charles M. Blow, visual Op-Ed columnist, New York Times (cropped), January 18, 2009. (Flickr.com via Arlene M. Roberts). In public domain.

Where money isn’t the key to everything in American politics, and doesn’t determine everything from who runs to literally rigging the system on Election Day? And people considering the possibility of not voting are crazy? Really?

Yes, I know how many people fought and died for my right as a Black male to vote in these United States of America. I’ve been teaching about it for half my life. But that America doesn’t exist anymore. This America, this one where Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry are viable candidates, where progressives with ideas for making our nation better are told they’re being “unrealistic,” is one where normal behaviors often aren’t rational ones. In this case, voting for two sides of virtually the same coin makes no sense to many.

I, for one, will vote next year, and — barring Van Jones running or something — will vote for Obama. But unlike Gingrich or Blow, I’m not arrogant or traditional (or foolish) enough to believe that my ideas for how people should behave are the only ones worth considering.


The Last Mugging

December 6, 2011

East Prospect, Mount Vernon, New York, where Foodtown (once Waldbaum's) and Rite Aid (formerly Genovese) are today - about 30m from where I was mugged in '83. (http://maps.google.com).

Twenty-eight years ago yesterday was the last time I was mugged, the last time I had to fend off wannabe thugs. As important as the challenges I face in my life are now, the ones I faced just before my fourteenth birthday were a thousand times more intense, if for no other reason than I nearly took the path of suicide back then.

For whatever the reason, December ’83 was spent without food at 616, this time in the welfare and food stamps era. My mother hadn’t received her welfare check on time. She went to Maurice for money to buy groceries, a necessarily rare move. I’d rather had gone to A (see “The Legend of ‘Captain Zimbabwe‘” post from May ’09) for grocery money than to my stepfather. He came to me and gave me twenty dollars to go to the store.

“Donald, do not lose this money. I don’t want no excuses. I want all my change back. If you have to, catch the bus,” Maurice said to me. I had already missed the last 7 bus going into Mount Vernon, and I knew that by the time I’d finish shopping that I would miss the last 7 for the return.

After shopping for Great Northern beans and rice and some beef neck bones and spinach at the Waldbaum’s on East Prospect — which cost $6.50 by the way —  I walked out with the intent of cutting down Park Avenue to East Lincoln and avoiding most of the potential for a mugging. But it seemed that Maurice’s God had other plans for me. I barely got to the poorly lit corner of Prospect and Park before I was ambushed by four guys, all around my age and size. Part of it was my fault, as the Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips that held that corner had closed the year before, a casualty of the recent recession. I saw other people around, but none came to my aid.

So here it was that I was jumped by a bunch of dumb kids with dumb parents trying to beat me up and take thirteen dollars from me. Apparently I must’ve learned something from my idiot stepfather, because I was able to kick, punch, and bite my way out of the mugging at first. I kicked one dumb ass in the balls, bit another’s arm, punched someone else in the jaw. I kept going until someone was able to hold me long enough to reach into my pocket and take the money. Then they took off, running across one of the bridges into the South Side.

Grocery bag torn to shreds, food on the ground, shirttail hanging out, I took off after them, now thinking only about what I’d face at home if I didn’t come in with Maurice’s money. They went east up First Street, turned right up South Fulton, and then left on East Third. With groceries in tow, I just couldn’t keep up.

It was after 9 by the time I got back from Waldbaum’s and my mugging. Mom was worried, actually worried, while Maurice was just pissed.

My mother was more concerned about what happened during the actual fight. I told her about what happened.

“You see someone you know?”

“I think one of them’s named C,” I said.

C and his older brother lived in the equally impoverished building next door, 630 East Lincoln. C’s older brother was in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade with me at Holmes. I hadn’t seen either of them much since elementary school, but I recognized him immediately as the one who said, “Give me the money, muthafucka!” Those were some ugly kids, inside and out.

In an unbelievable turn, my mother took me the next morning to the Mount Vernon Police Station, its juvenile division, to have me press charges, look at mug shots and ID my attackers. It didn’t take me long to ID C and his henchmen, all of whom had juvenile records. Before I left, they had hauled C into the station for booking. I was glad to see that my fists had done some damage to his face.

I went to school that day with my mother and ended up signing in around sixth period. One of my classmates saw me as I was leaving Vice Principal Carapella’s office, on my way to gym. We talked for several minutes about what had happened. He gave me a high-five. It was maybe the second or third time in three years that anyone cared to ask me about what was going on with me outside of school.

That whole twenty-four-hour period was overwhelming. I spent most of that evening at 616 asleep. I spent the rest of the month until my fourteenth birthday considering how to off myself. I spent part of my birthday standing thirteen feet over the Hutchinson River Parkway, on top of the stone facing looking down at the traffic while tears streamed down my cheeks.

All because I had lost hope, and my life was filled with contradiction. Luckily, I found a reason to live, and a reason to begin to see good in others, at least outside of 616.


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