What A Fool (Make) Believes

January 31, 2015

Inception (2010) movie wallpaper (scene of falling  too deep in a dream to come out of it), January 31, 2015. (http://www.alphatucana.co.uk/).

Inception (2010) movie wallpaper (scene of falling too deep in a dream to come out of it), January 31, 2015. (http://www.alphatucana.co.uk/).

I am a firm believer in the idea that just about everything in our lives happens for a reason, even if the reason involves multiple layers of chance adding up to a certainty. Meaning even the unexplainable, given enough time, study and webs of connections, can add up to a certain amount of truth, even if we as humans cannot except that limited truth.

Orange Crush can crushed, June 8, 2012. (Susan Murtaugh via Flickr.com).

Orange Crush can crushed, June 8, 2012. (Susan Murtaugh via Flickr.com).

The beginning of ’87 put me in the middle of that scenario regarding my masculinity and my relationships with everyone in my life. I knew that at seventeen that I’d already been an adult of sorts, with everything that was going on with my family at 616. But while I might have been an overburdened high school senior with adult responsibilities and adult-level decisions to make, psychologically and emotionally, I was still a twelve-year-old. One damaged by bearing witness to my stepfather beating up my Mom on Memorial Day ’82, the abuse I’d suffered at his hands afterward, and my ostracism my first years in Humanities in seventh and eighth grade. I was “a dog that been beat too much” by my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, and I’d started wondering if I had stayed one year too long before heading off to college, because my last year of K-12 wasn’t going so well either.

I was also in the middle of my second classmate crush in five years. I was more than three years removed from my most intense feelings for Crush #1 (outed at Wendy in Boy @ The Window), only to feel stomach flutters for the young woman who’d been my Crush #2 (Phyllis) for about thirteen months. Except I was too scared to tell anyone, including myself, of how I felt about her.

Nor did I really understand why I felt the way I did when I was around her. With Wendy, I could point to personality, intellect, quirkiness, among other attributes, and the fact that prior to seventh grade, I’d never met anyone like her. Phyllis, though, I’d known for more than five years, and while she was attractive and smart, it wasn’t as if she was so unique.

Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute (1979) album (with "What A Fool Believes" on Track 2), January 31, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Doobie Brothers, Minute By Minute (1979) album (with “What A Fool Believes” on Track 2), January 31, 2015. (http://amazon.com).

Still, even in the back of my more mature and emotionally cold part of my mind, I knew what it really was. Phyllis had made this beaten and abused dog feel better about himself in the worst of times, between seventh and tenth grade, back in his Hebrew-Israelite days. Even if that emotional altruism was more about saving me from hell in this life and the next, and less about liking me, her actions tugged my deeply bruised heart strings. Not Phyllis’ fault by any stretch. Just a reality. I was a “sentimental fool…tryin’ hard to recreate what had yet to be created,” like the fictional man in Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” (1979).

By my senior year, I thought about Phyllis from afar, just like I’d done with Wendy nearly five years earlier. With my imagination, I could almost imagine anything. Including all of the indicators of romance, from dating and joking to kissing, to getting together during holiday and summer breaks during college. Everything, except anything sexual. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how. It was because in the conscious side of my mind in which my emotional age remained at twelve, I couldn’t see any young woman my age as having a carnal side, of being anything other than a near-perfect being. Phyllis may as well have been a nymph or angel, and not a real person.

Somehow I knew I was setting myself up for a year of hurt. I knew that I had to grow up, to “be a man,” to find a way to actually say that I liked Phyllis, if only for myself to hear. And I did tell it, to myself, to her, to people I came for a time to trust. I even sent a letter to Phyllis after the fact, only to be hurt even more, just like the dumb ass Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins described in “What A Fool Believes.” “As he rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know…,” as the song goes. Only in my case, to crash and burn like the Hindenburg in New Jersey did in 1938.

Patrick Ewing blocking a Scottie Pippen shot, United Center, Chicago, March 14, 1996. (http://chicago.cbslocal.com).

Patrick Ewing blocking a Scottie Pippen shot, United Center, Chicago, March 14, 1996. (http://chicago.cbslocal.com).

By the end of ’88, though, I realized the truth. That my crush on Crush #2 wasn’t a real crush at all. It was my crutch, my coping strategy to deal with the fact that I really hadn’t felt anything about anyone in my life since those heady Wendy days. Those were my final days of childhood, those days before I’d learn for the second time in my first twelve and a half years how little control I had over my life, how little love and affection there was to find. As the song of that phase of my life went, I “never came near what [I] wanted to say, only to realize it never really was.” I never made Crush #1 “think twice,” and made Crush #2 reject me like Patrick Ewing in his prime smacking a basketball into the fifth row of Madison Square Garden.

I suppose that this happens to all boys and girls, men and women and transgender at some point or another in their lives. At twelve, it felt glorious, while at seventeen, it was painful and embarrassing. I’m just glad that I made it through that year, 1987 — though hardly happy to go and grow through the process — and came out on the other side of it ready to grow, risk and protect my heart again.

Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (http://newseum.org).

There are times when I wonder if exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities is really an eye-opening and life-changing exercise. Or, does the exposure merely serve to confirm the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes that Americans hold against each other? In today’s Washington Post, on the front page and above the fold, there’s an article titled “A Shattered Foundation,” with the smaller type “African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s [County] have watched their wealth vanish.”

Above the title and subtitle are a series of charts and statistics noting the national chasm of a gap in total wealth accumulation between Black families ($95,300) and White families ($678,800). The theme here is that since the housing bust and subsequent Great Recession, the burgeoning Black middle class of PG County has fallen on desperate times, as home equity — their main means for accumulating wealth — for tens of thousands of these families caved in on them.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article is pretty even-handed. But this is kind of tangential to my larger point. In any given three-month period of my life, for nearly as long as the forty years and two months I’ve known how to read in full sentences, I could’ve scanned at least one article or book about the cruelties of structural racism and capitalism. Even if I’d never grown up in poverty or experienced racial discrimination, there have been enough articles, op-eds, books, book chapters, poems, short stories, plays, letters to the editor and scripts written about disparities to cover the US a mile deep in paper. The fact is, no statistics on growing wealth gaps and persistent racial gaps in wealth and education have led to lasting changes in policies, politics or institutional structures substantial enough to end poverty or ameliorate the most vicious forms of racism in this country.

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (http://galleryhip.com).

Then again, there are some folks whose business depends on mantras like the “growing wealth gap” or “closing the achievement gap…as the civil rights issue of our time.” Technocrats in corporate education reform, social scientists in the world of conservative and “libertarian” think-tanks, neoliberals and so-called American liberals in search of compromises to strengthen the American middle class. They all turn to these statistics to tell their stories, to sell their experiments and their research, to promote their politics. It’s as if the statistics on racial and socioeconomic gaps in wealth and education provided a high, like crystal meth or a speedball. In some ways, for these groups, a five-story brothel in which they practiced S&M would be more appropriate for their use of misery statistics.

I am hardly suggesting The Washington Post‘s Fletcher or I or any other journalist, academician or writer should cease making their points with statistics about racial and socioeconomic disparities. But America’s poor and poor people of color or falling-through-the-cracks middle class are far more than “statistics on a government chart” (to quote The Police’s “Invisible Sun“). These are real people with families and lives, people who represent generations of lives in which this construct of racial capitalism has limited their choices and their opportunities, whether they believe in fate or not. So-called objectivity has never been sufficient, and neither have been statistics. What we need is a revolution in thought and in action, quiet or otherwise.

The Comedy of a Tragic Upbringing

January 10, 2015

John Leguizamo playing 'Abuelo' in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (http://www.pbs.org).

John Leguizamo playing ‘Abuelo’ in Tales from a Ghetto Klown, PBS Arts Festival, July 2012. (http://www.pbs.org).

Over New Year’s weekend, I watched John Leguizamo’s HBO comedy special Ghetto Klown (2014), based on one of his one-man autobiographical Broadway shows. I don’t think of Leguizamo as funny in the same way I think of Lewis Black or Dave Chappelle or Eddie Murphy. The sweet spot for me in terms of what is funny or not funny is a routine that makes me think for a second or two, not just laugh out of sheer expectations for a funny delivery or line. Otherwise, I’d think of D.L. Hughley as a great comedian, instead of as a vile one with equally vile opinions on race and culture.

Leguizamo’s hardly the funniest comedian. But then again, he’s always been more than one thing. He’s essentially a playwright, an actor, and comedian, which means Leguizamo’s a very elaborate storyteller. In most of his work, a nonfiction storyteller. I’ve seen some of his other one-man work before. With Ghetto Klown, though, I saw and felt the sense of tragedy and regret that I hadn’t seen in his other plays and specials. Especially when it came to his family — specifically his father — and his closest friends.

When Leguizamo went through his routine about how his mother and father were upset with him about he had portrayed them in his plays as somewhat selfish and oftentimes neglectful and abusive, I understood. I’ve only written one book about my life, and my Mom and dad have both been offended by the idea that I could write about them without their permission or blessings. Leguizamo used them as bits for his comedy and Broadway stage routines for years. That’s a lot of courage, and it’s a lot of tragedy to expose, too.

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (http://quazoo.com).

Transmutation of lead bars into gold, March 2013. (http://quazoo.com).

I’ve thought about it a few times over the past fifteen years. What if I decided to do a stand-up routine that included elements of my upbringing? How would I do that? How would I make domestic violence and child abuse and poverty funny?

I’d start with my father, who I’d call Jimme and my father interchangeably, since that’s been the nature of our relationship for forty-five years. I’ve been able to imitate his language, his drunken stupor, his evil meanness and off-kilter mannerisms since I was fifteen. It would be easy enough to do all of his “po’ ass muddafucka…” insults in bar scenes, all while getting robbed and beaten up by other alcoholics.

I could also do my now deceased ex-stepfather Maurice, especially his constant threats to put me in the hospital or kill me. “Watch dat base in yo’ voice, boy, ‘fore I cave yo’ chest in!,” he started saying to me once my voice changed with puberty. I could imitate Maurice when he weighed over 400 pounds and wore size-54 Fruit-of-the-Loom briefs around 616, with enough fat and dinginess to make me wanna puke.

I could even imitate my Mom, at least on the threatening front. If I argued with her too long about something important that she didn’t want to talk about (like paying bills, for instance), she’d tell me, “Shut up o’ I’ma gonna cut the piss out of you.” Or I could run around a stage singing at the top of my lungs to evangelical Christian music while also acting like my younger brothers, who’d get into knockdown fights in the living room while my Mom was in her spiritual zone.

The fact is, some of the best comedy grows out of tragedy. It may not be funny to the respectable middle class types or the respectability politics types. They both would prefer people “forget about” their pasts and “just move on,” as if these issues are taboo. But you can’t be a very good comedian or writer without confronting your upbringing in some way.

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (http://deadline.com).

Richard Pryor doing stand up, posted August 11, 2014. (http://deadline.com).

I attempted at times in Boy @ The Window to inject some sarcasm or comedy in many of the tragic scenes in the book. Because they reflecting my thinking in the moments in which they occurred, whether in ’82 or ’88. The few people who commented on this aspect of the memoir didn’t like the comedy or the language. It was because they couldn’t reconcile the mild-mannered version of myself that I presented to the world in high school or in academia with the way in which I grew up.

Watching Leguizamo in Ghetto Klown reminded me of what I learned in watching Rodney Dangerfield (who himself was sexually abused and neglected by his parents growing up) and Richard Pryor (the son of an active and neglectful prostitute) over the years. We all have baggage and demons to deal with every day of our lives. We ignore that past and those evils at risk to ourselves and every person we’ve ever loved. We must turn the tragedy of our upbringing into something that isn’t just a cancer of pain. Be it through storytelling, autobiography, even the kind of comedy that those whose lives were much more stable growing up can appreciate but can never fully understand.

Back to My Future, Forward to the Past

January 1, 2015

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly on a hoverboard in 2015 in Back To The Future Part II (1989), screen shot, January 1, 2015. (http://youtube.com).

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly on a hoverboard in 2015 in Back To The Future Part II (1989), screen shot, January 1, 2015. (http://youtube.com).

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s 2015, and the fictional year from Back To The Future (1985) has become reality. Yeah, right! There are no hoverboards — at least, ones that actually work, anyway — we still drive with internal combustion engines, and Whites still only vote for folks of color when they are truly desperate for some elusive change.

For me, though, 2015 confirms the reality that time really is an illusion, as I’ve spent time over the past thirty years imagining what life would be like in 2015. That imagining started in ’85. At fifteen, I could barely wrap my head around the idea that I could live to thirty years of age, much less that I could make it to forty-five.

Truly, that’s what growing up poverty and with abuse did for me. It created the impression that life was cheap and short. Dating, marriage, a kid, being a father, working on a third career? Heck, I spent so much of my life at fifteen constructing a sound track and a reality beyond my everyday circumstances, just to get by! I lived vicariously through my Mets and Giants especially. My conscious mind provided little space for constructing a reality based on my circumstances or the natural progression of a modern American life.

Collage of me at 15, 30 (with my wife), 40 (with my son), and 45, January 1, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

Collage of me at 15, 30 (with my wife), 40 (with my son), and 45, January 1, 2015. (Donald Earl Collins).

Gradually, I had to let go of most of my coping strategies in order to at least live for a better future, not just imagine it full of new technologies. I had to begin to place myself there as a whole person. It helped that I spent most of the 1990s in grad school and as a freshly minted professor teaching graduate courses in education foundations. Both helped me in looking at the past in order to understand my present and push for the future I wanted. Despite the betrayals and my mistakes along the way, I made it to thirty, mostly as the person I wanted to be.

Still, like most people, I have baggage. I have the kind of baggage that’s actually easy to ignore, and even easier to bury so deep into one’s mind and spirit that it would take the power of a flux capacitor to unearth. In writing about portions of my past over the years, I’ve dug up all of those haunts and demons, some of which I wish I hadn’t known existed in the first place. Writing about myself has been painful. But having a clear and complete understanding of every layer of onion from my past going back to 1969, and 1974, and 1976? It clears the air, even as it has induced five-alarm-fire headaches.

Beyond me, myself, and I, it has been absolutely necessary to live in the present, to find joy in both small and big moments, especially around the people in my life so near and dear to me. From my son’s first steps to his discovery of sarcasm, from watching my wife’s labor to receiving my first royalty check for Fear of a “Black” America. All of it was more significant than a new car, a better cut of steak, a fragrant glass of wine, or the latest version of the iPhone.

A Philips MRI machine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden, February 12, 2008. (Jan Ainali via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

A Philips MRI machine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden, February 12, 2008. (Jan Ainali via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Speaking of our devolving material culture, I can’t help but make this observation now that we’re in 2015. We spend so much time and effort exalting ourselves over the latest technological innovations, the next version of some new piece of gadgetry. Seriously, when was the last time a new invention came around that truly transformed our lives writ large for the better, that was transformative in every way possible? The iPhone? Please! Phones have been around since the 1870s, and mobile phones since the 1970s. And, I don’t think the tens of thousands of Chinese factory workers really enjoy making these gadgets for our benefit. Flat-screen HD TVs? Gimme a break! The TV’s been here since the 1920s, and adding clarity with hundreds of channels has just make the size of its “vast wasteland” that much bigger.

Face it folks. There hasn’t been a major technological breakthrough since the inventions of the MRI machine and the microchip in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Personal computers, Google Chromebooks, Fitbit trackers, electronic fuel injectors, the Internet and those millions of apps? They are all derivatives of technologies that are as old as I am.

Let’s credit Apple and Microsoft and Google for new innovations. But we haven’t had any major breakthroughs worthy of Back To The Future. Hydrogen-fuel-cell and nuclear fusion technologies? They remain somewhere between a limited experiment and a pipe dream. A matter-energy converter so that we can stop growing and killing our food? We’ve barely discovered 3D-printing, and that’s still years away from everyday usage. Technology that can scrub the air of greenhouse gases without killing every living thing on the planet at the same time? Someone’s buried it somewhere.

MR angiogram in congenital heart disease, technically known as Partial Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage, February 22, 2011. (Jccmoon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

MR angiogram in congenital heart disease, technically known as Partial Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Drainage, February 22, 2011. (Jccmoon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Perhaps that’s what has happened in my lifetime. That with the killing of millions from war, disease, settler colonialism, out-and-out racism practiced on a societal level, unbridled capitalism and the constant quest for the immediate big profit, we’ve killed those people. A Black kid who could’ve created a faster-than-light drive. A Palestinian girl who may have developed a food replicator. An affluent White boy steered toward Wall Street who may have once thought through the idea of carbon capture from the upper atmosphere. Apparently we have none of this, because we don’t want that future. We only want to imagine that future while wallowing in the -isms of our pasts and presents, minus any wisdom or understanding.

The “Are You Sure’s” and Doubting Sylvias

December 30, 2014

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio, c. 1601-02, uploaded April 13, 2005. (Dante Alighieri via Wikipedia). In public domain.

We all have doubters in our lives. Even if the only doubters turn out to be ourselves. As someone without much of a roadmap for any success, doubt has been a constant companion, one that I often had to ignore to experience any victories in my life. To have those with influence pretend to be on my side but add to those doubts, though. As a twenty-year-old, it was somewhere between bewildering and rage inducing. As a forty-five year-old who regularly advises students, love ones, friends and others about their futures, looking back at those doubters, it’s almost unforgivable the seeds they attempted to plant.

Of all the non-relatives in positions to advise me, few were worse than my high school guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo. For four years, Fasulo forced me to listen to her “Are you sure…?” questions about difficult classes, the colleges I wanted to attend, the career paths I thought about taking. Her patrician Vassar arrogance toward me as the poor Black kid drove me up a wall every time I walked into her cigarette-filled office.

"Raleigh's First Pipe in England," an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt's Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

“Raleigh’s First Pipe in England,” an illustration in Frederick William Fairholt’s Tobacco (1859), June 8, 2014. (Materialscientist via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I hated having Fasulo as my counselor especially once it was time for me to apply for college. She was condescending, demeaning and chain-smoked up my clothes for my troubles. Most of all, I hated having to reveal things about myself to her that I otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Like my family’s financial situation. Fasulo became only the second person I would tell that we were on welfare, that my father and mother had divorced and that he hadn’t made a child support payment since ’78. I had to talk to her about my role in my family as acting first-born child and my responsibilities. It was necessary and humiliating at the same time.

Despite and not because of Fasulo, things worked out for me in the end. Going to Pitt, meeting the people and the professors I’d become friends and colleagues with, was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. Still, I had one parting shot from her in the middle of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the holiday season in ’89, and I took time while home in Mount Vernon to visit my favorite teacher, the late Harold Meltzer. I had just missed him, but bumped into Fasulo. It was about as fortuitous as having diarrhea and being nowhere near a toilet with toilet paper.

She asked me where I was in school, and I told her about my considerations for graduate school, law school and the world of work. It was a toss-off sentence, my attempt to end a conversation, not begin one. “Being a lawyer’s hard work,” Fasulo said in response. She then went on to tell me about 70-hour work weeks and billable hours and the bar exam, as if any of this was supposed to be surprising or would somehow scare me. I cut her off, saying “You know, you’re not my counselor anymore, so thanks but no thanks for your advice,” and left her office while she tried to explain her idiotic perspective.

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com via http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/).

Tiki Barber, the personification of a doubter, at the American Museum of Natural History, October 16, 2008. (Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com via http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/).

A quarter-century later, and though I am more than content with the fact that I opted for a PhD over a JD thirteen out of every fourteen days (people with law degrees do make more money on average), I sometimes question if the PhD in history was worth it. After all, a JD is far more portable. A JD would’ve served me better in my nonprofit and consulting careers than having to explain a doctorate. I wouldn’t want to think that I went in the direction of a graduate program for five and a half years simply because I had a conversation with a racial elitist.

It’s probably more likely that I didn’t go to medical school to earn an MD because my Mom and my idiot late-ex-stepfather both told me I couldn’t be a surgeon because I had “ten thumbs.” By more likely, I mean highly unlikely on both counts. I ultimately did what I wanted to do educationally speaking, despite own my doubts, despite the doubts of those who believed it was their job to advise me. But constantly asking, “Are you sure, Donald…?” isn’t exactly the best way to advise or mentor anyone, especially someone in their teens or a literal twenty-year-old. You lay out options, you ascertain what’s going on in their heart as well as their mind. You introduce them to other people who could provide better advice, based on direct expertise or experiences. Otherwise, you’re a doubter, not an advisor or a mentor.

Out There In The World

December 13, 2014

Last week, my son went with his classmates on his first overnight trip without me or his mother, a middle school “camping” trip in the forests of Montgomery County, Maryland. He was gone fifty-two hours, just a bit more than two days, checking out wildlife and sitting around a campfire. My son came back on his bus, worn out with equally worn out sneakers and clothes, smelling of river and bad cafeteria food. Boy did I miss him. But at least I knew where he was, more or less.

Some of the dorms at Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center, Rockville, MD, December 12, 2014. (http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/).

Some of the dorms at Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center, Rockville, MD, December 12, 2014. (http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/).

I did no such trips like the one my son did until the day I went off to Pittsburgh and college, some twenty-seven years ago. Let me repeat. Not one overnight trip on my own or with my classmates growing up. The closest I came to being out in the world, other than my 10,000 walks to the store or up Route 22 or down in the Bronx, was in the years my father Jimme would take me and my older brother Darren for a day, only for it to turn into a weekend. With a couple of exceptions, all of these extended excursions occurred before we started working with our father in the city in the fall of ’84. Most of them happened before I turned thirteen and had to resort to hunting down my father every Friday or Saturday for a few extra dollars, for me and for helping out my Mom.

At least a dozen times between April ’79 and September ’84, we ended up with Jimme overnight. In the days without cellphones and with my father never having his own landline, he’d and we’d have to call my Mom from a pay phone to let her know how we were. There were plenty of those nights in which I didn’t want to call my Mom or go home.

Lionel Richie on a mock-missing-person's flyer, March 20, 2011. (Chris Glass/Flickr.com).

Lionel Richie on a mock-missing-person’s flyer, March 20, 2011. (Chris Glass/Flickr.com).

This despite the fact that every time we did an overnight or, on three occasions, back-to-back overnights, Jimme was lit. How it happened depended on at what point during the weekend he’d pick us up. If my father came over early enough on a Friday evening to take us out for a pizza or Mickey D’s or a movie, he’s sometimes have a Miller or a Schlitz with him, in his coat pocket, ready to drink after the sober version of himself had picked us up from 616. Or, much more often, Jimme would fulfill his Saturday fatherly duties by picking us up, usually between 10 am and 1 pm, take us out to eat, and then swing by one or more of his drinking buddy’s places, where he could get his fill of beer or malt liquor, move on to stronger stuff, and lose track of time.

Ida’s place, Lo’s stoop, Pam’s den, it really didn’t seem to matter to our father. These were his easy places to drink, to hang out, to tell the world how much of “a big shot” he was. All the while, money would spill out of his pocket, scooped up by his hosts to cover groceries, rent, mortgages, car notes, and street drugs. But we didn’t really notice that until I hit thirteen.

Our last extended weekend with Jimme was in August ’84, right after my j.v. football tryouts, just before the start of tenth grade. We went over to Pam’s apartment off South Fulton, just a couple of blocks away from Adams Street, where we had lived as a family before I started kindergarten. Those days were long off by now. Instead, I saw my father in a completely sloshed state, really, for the first time, with the mind of an adult. Pam, for her part, was wasted, on some form of cocaine, crack or powdered, I didn’t know for sure.

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2009), screen shot of him drinking, drooling, December 3, 2010 (http://dudleydoody.com).

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007), screen shot of him drinking, drooling, December 3, 2010 (http://dudleydoody.com).

By the end of the day that last Saturday in August, he could barely stand up. Pam had some music on, Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” as it was in the middle of the bridge portion. While it was playing, Jimme tried to dance to it, with a thick string of drool hanging from him bottom lip and all the way to his right pant leg. He stumbled to his left, then his right, as the song went, “dun-dun-dun, dun-dun-dun, du-du-dat-dat-dun-dun-dun,” via a guitar string and a synthesizer. We had to sit him down on Pam’s ’70-style couch to let him snore and drool for an hour and a half before taking him back to his place that Saturday evening. On the way out, we bumped into my classmate Dahlia and her grandmother. They lived in an apartment complex across the street. How embarrassing!

We didn’t call my Mom to let her know what was going on. So when we came home late that Sunday afternoon, she was pissed. But she didn’t seem that concerned about her safety. Instead, it was all about, “What? You think Jimme’s a good father now?” and “I need someone around here to go to the store.”

As much as I loved my Mom, she didn’t realize that we needed moments to escape, even if it meant being with our alcoholic father and being around his equally drug-addled friends. Those were our overnights before we reached adulthood.

We Didn’t Start The Fire…But…

December 7, 2014

Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start The Fire" (video screen shot), 1989. (http://denverlibrary.org/).

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (video screen shot), 1989. (http://denverlibrary.org/).

As the rest of this sentence goes, “we poured gasoline and kerosene all over it.” And by “we,” I mean everyone who has been or remains in denial of the role poverty, greed and systemic racism plays in our lives. Every. Single. Moment. Every. Single. Day.

As an eclectic music lover, as a historian and as an educator, there are few songs I hate more than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Well, maybe Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” (1990) or anything by Chicago after Peter Cetera quit the group in ’85. The song was released in the fall of ’89, during my junior year at Pitt, when I’d become a history major. Every time I heard the song, I wanted to strangle Joel with it. This is the same man who wrote “Just The Way You Are” (1977) and “New York State of Mind” (1976), right? First, he wasn’t even singing in most of the song. “Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team?” Wow, I bet the coked-up songwriters for Thompson Twins wasn’t booked that weekend Joel wrote these lyrics, no?

State of Denial (2006) front cover, by Bob Woodward, December 6, 2014. (http://amazon.com).

State of Denial (2006) front cover, by Bob Woodward, December 6, 2014. (http://amazon.com).

There’s one big beef I have with the song more than any other, one that’s relevant even a quarter century later. The issue of denying responsibility. Yeah, those poor White Baby Boomers, how terrible it must’ve been for so much to happen in your lives, with so little that you could do about it, too! It’s true, though. Whether it was “JFK” being “blown away,” or the “Russians in Afghanistan,” the song is about fucked-up shit that happened between the late-1940s and when the Baby Boomers approached middle-age by the end of the 80s.

The problem was and remains the reality that they’ve been putting fuel on this fire that’s allegedly been “always burning since the world was turning.” I mean, who voted for Nixon in ’72 or Reagan in ’80 or ’84? Who’s blindly supported every Israeli policy for as long as they’ve been able to vote, policies that have helped incite terrorism? Who’s been in constant denial of American violence and racism as a generation, despite contributing to it their whole lives? The very same generation whom Billy Joel and his idiotic lyrics represents, that’s who!

Die-in in front of Verizon Center, Washington, DC, December 5, 2014. (Samuel Corum, @corumphoto, via Twitter).

Die-in in front of Verizon Center, Washington, DC, December 5, 2014. (Samuel Corum, @corumphoto, via Twitter).

So now in 2014, with America and the world the way it is, with daily protests now over grand jury denials of indictments for police killing unarmed Blacks, with Gaza and Nigeria and Kenya and Ukraine, with wealth so heavily concentrated in so few hands, what do these “We Didn’t Start The Fire” types have to say now? “Trayvon, Michael Brown, Garner in a chokehold?” “Hawking, Gaza, twerking from Azalea?” As if we wee Americans can abdicate responsibility for their deaths, like Pontius Pilate did in effectively condemning Jesus to crucifixion, but washed his hands of his role in the process. Who’s been front and center in supporting a police state, in advocating policies that criminalize Black and Brown bodies for taking a breath, in turning the American Dream of a middle class into a get-rich-quick scheme? Hmm, let me think about this one…

Outside of the small minority of Whites who are truly upset about and are actively involved in protests against this latest round of American injustice, many Whites have expressed how enraged they are. About die-ins in front of the Verizon Center before a Washington Wizards game. About delays in getting to their destination because the Beltway or the Lincoln Tunnel or some other thoroughfare’s been blocked by protestors with “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” signs. For this very-much-not-silent majority, these protests and the outrage and yearning for social justice they represent are major inconveniences.

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose in pre-game warm-ups, dressed in his "I Can't Breathe" protest shirt, United Center, Chicago, December 6, 2014. (http://chicagotribune.com).

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose in pre-game warm-ups, dressed in his “I Can’t Breathe” protest shirt, United Center, Chicago, December 6, 2014. (http://chicagotribune.com).

Well, that’s too effing bad! You spend your life in denial, in assuming that anything racial isn’t your fault. You deserve inconvenience, you deserve to get smacked in the face with reality while drinking your beer at a basketball game, expecting Black players to stay in their entertainer role. You don’t want to think about the real world and your role in maintaining stereotypes and oppression in it? Oh well! Grow a pair! Not of balls, though. Grow a pair of lobes! Because none of us wide-awake, “Black Lives Matter” types are going anywhere.


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