Why My Mom Stayed

September 11, 2014

My Mom at 48 years old, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

My Mom at 48 years old, Yonkers, NY, December 23, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

I planned to write something about my Mom on her birthday again this October, focusing on her multiple roles as mother, breadwinner, domestic violence victim and evangelical Christian in that post. With the TMZ-released video of Ray Rice and the public response to the NFL’s misogynistic hypocrisy making the issue of domestic violence front and center this week, it makes sense for me to talk about my experience and my observations via my Mom this week as well.

First off, thanks to all the brave women who’ve tweeted, posted on Instagram, Facebook, WordPress and other places their experiences with domestic violence. Thanks especially to Beverly Gooden (@bevtgooden) for creating and using the hashtag #WhyIStayed in response to the barrage of criticism leveled at Janay Palmer Rice for marrying Ray Rice after his brutal act of violence against her. I know domestic violence and child abuse firsthand, as I watched my Mom experience the Isshin-ryu-Karate version of a knockout and concussion on Memorial Day ’82 at the hands of my then stepfather Maurice Washington.

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This wasn’t the first time Maurice had hit my Mom, as I’d learn years later, but it was the first time I witnessed it. I’d seen my Mom attacked before, by my own father when I was little. My father was often drunk and equally incompetent during his attacks, so any physical damage that was done was from my Mom beating him up. The psychological and emotional damage, though, flowed right from her first marriage to my father to her second one with Maurice.

For seven years and sixteen days after the day my childhood ended, my Mom and Maurice lived together as husband and wife at 616. I can say with one hundred percent clarity that there wasn’t a day between Memorial Day ’82 and the final fight that led to my late ex-stepfather moving out that I didn’t feel some sort of dread, a cloud of lethargy hanging over my head, even while at college at Pitt. That was partly because I’d made a point of running interference and taking abuse to make up for not calling the police on that day of days.

I didn’t know why my Mom couldn’t find the strength to kick Maurice to the curb, at least not before the middle of ’89. But there was an incident between me and Maurice about a year before he finally moved out, one where what he said afterward gave me additional insight into my Mom’s inaction.

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At least, I had to believe that, right? It just seemed we’d been through too much with a man who’d never paid a month’s rent, a phone bill, a Con Ed bill, a cable bill, and only bought Great Northern beans, rice and cabbage for his kids (my younger siblings) on the handful of days he decided to contribute to our malnourished family.

So finally, in the months after he left 616 for good, I asked. My Mom’s first answer was, “He fooled me. He fooled us all!” Her answer was completely unsatisfying, considering that I ran away from home to get away from Maurice when I was nearly nine years old.

The summer of ’89 wouldn’t be the last time I’d ask. Over the years, my Mom has given various explanations. “I thought he was a changed me,” she’d say, referencing their six-month separation in ’80-’81 and Maurice becoming a Hebrew-Israelite and “Judah ben Israel” in the interim. “What good would that done?,” my Mom would ask me in response, implying that she wanted to avoid a physical confrontation.

Really, I spent thirteen years reading in between the lines, asking relatives questions about my Mom, doing research and boning up on domestic violence and child abuse from a social science perspective, all for more substantial answers. Really, my Mom’s domestic violence experience, our fall into welfare poverty, and my child abuse experiences were the first reasons for me wanting to write what would become Boy @ The Window in the first place.

"Divorced at last" layer cake, or "Broken Marriage," March 2014. (http://www.nigeriancurrent.com/).

“Divorced at last” layer cake, or “Broken Marriage,” March 2014. (http://www.nigeriancurrent.com/).

By the time I did the family intervention in January ’02, I knew why. I knew that despite my Mom not remembering much from the beating, knockout and concussion she took in May ’82, she lived in fear. If for no other reason than from seeing the look of hurt on my face whenever the subject of her beating came up. Maybe not a constant, shaking-in-her-shoes fear, but the idea of having to force a six-one and overweight yet powerful man out of 616 probably scared my Mom. But that wasn’t her only fear. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window, “[w]e were already the children of one divorce, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see another one so soon.” I’m more than sure that my Mom felt the same way about herself and her relationships with my father Jimme and Maurice as well.

I also know with certainty my Mom would never want me to write about her, especially about her as a victim of domestic violence. But she wasn’t the only one to experience it. I may be able to live my life successfully despite it, but I’ll never be able to un-see what I saw nearly thirty-two and half years ago. It put me on a very long road, one that involved my own conflicting feminism and sexism (though with zero tolerance for violence against women). Or, what I call damsel-in-distress syndrome, where I always want to help, even when that help is unwelcome.

There are millions of reasons why women get married or stay in relationships and marriages, some of them rational, some based in fear, many who stay because abuse does untold damage to self-worth. I may not fully understand what it’s like to be a woman who’s been abused, but I do understand what it’s like to be the son of one. Most of us who don’t know of these horrors need to be quiet, read, and listen more.


The Long-Term Legacy of Humanities’ Soft-Bigotry

September 10, 2014

This week marks thirty-three years since my first days in the gifted-track Humanities Program, a fairly diverse group of very smart and (some) pretty creative students. Despite the common refrain among administrators of this long-gone program, me and my Humanities classmates weren’t the “crème de la crème” when it came to critical or independent thinking. In recent years, I’ve learned that their views on politics, religion, sports, entertainment, family and so many other things are so typically and sadly American.

Since the creators’ premise for the Humanities Program was to develop the whole person, and not just academic success, it seems to me that the program failed in terms of providing a holistic education. That our parents and other authority figures helped shape the opinions and beliefs we take to adulthood is part of my observation here. The disappointing part for me, though, has been the fact that these opinions have gone unadulterated over the past twenty-five or thirty years.

This isn’t an indictment of everyone I’ve ever known from Mount Vernon, New York, or from Mount Vernon public schools, or from MVHS, or even from my Humanities years. There are more than a few individuals who I am so glad to have reconnected with in person or through Facebook, Twitter and WordPress in the past decade or so. Everyone has the right to their beliefs, their ignorance, their opinions, however ill-informed or illogical. But there are consequences to never challenging one’s own beliefs, ignorance and opinions. Consequences that include victim-blaming, xenophobia, religion-as-politics, respectability politics, jingoist hyper-patriotism and colorblind racism.

What I’ve observed over the past ten or eleven years is that, when taken as a whole, it seems that I grew up around and reconnected with a group whose beliefs and opinions differ so much from my own. So much so that it really strains my memory to think that I grew up there. As my wife said to me on her first visit to Mount Vernon in Christmas ’99, after seeing a burned out Mazda smack-dab in the middle of downtown, “You sure you weren’t adopted?”

You Can’t Go Home Again to a Place That Was Never Home

I suspected some stark differences by the time I started working on Boy @ The Window in earnest in ’06. Any number of the ex-classmates I interviewed expressed opinions that I’d heard long before about “illegals,” about how Mount Vernon was some sort of middle-class haven, about our Humanities class being a faux “Benetton commercial” or a “mini-Fame.”

These were the kinds of opinions I remembered hearing from their parents and our teachers back in the ’80s. The sense of paternalism and entitlement, or the sense that MVHS was dangerous or “a jungle” or full of “animals.” It reminded me that there were many classmates who I’d met in seventh grade who’d transfer to private or parochial school or had enrolled in “better” schools in other districts by tenth grade because their parents were terrified by the so-called dangers of a mostly Black and Latino high school, with poverty and criminality being the unspoken words here.

I’ve faced off with the son of our late former principal Richard Capozzola several times on my blog and on Facebook in the past three years over this very issue, of how MVHS was run like a prison-prep program. His rationale for justifying Capozzola’s anti-Black draconian policies at MVHS consisted of “my dad was a great dad” and that I “wouldn’t have survived a day” at MVHS without his father as principal. The frame of MVHS as a war-zone or prison with students of color assumed to be criminals within this frame, this son of Capozzola couldn’t recognize even if Spock did a mind-meld to give him a dose of the Black experience.

Uncritical Melody, On Mount Vernon and the World

Neil DiCarlo, ex-classmate, right-winger, and one-time candidate for NY State Senate out of Putnam Valley, October 15, 2012. (http://archive.lohud.com/).

Neil DiCarlo, ex-classmate, right-winger, and one-time candidate for NY State Senate out of Putnam Valley, October 15, 2012. (http://archive.lohud.com/).

My observations aren’t limited to race or MVHS per se. Among my former classmates, with everything from affirmative action to Zionism, from political parties to education reform, from immigration reform to religious diversity, so many have views that range from conservative to right-wing. For some, every question can be answered with Leviticus or Ephesians, and any disagreement with a condemnation to Hell. For others, the frame for these issues are a “both sides do it” or “let’s look at both sides.” As if any issue involving climate change or social injustice is an algebraic equation, as if these issues are about finding some preposterous balance, rather than about exploitation or oppression.

But where I’ve found myself most at odds with some of my ex-classmates is the very issue of Mount Vernon itself as a city or a nurturing environment. It’s not as if I’ve never acknowledged the reality that if one didn’t grow up in poverty, or had connections to city politics, church or community leaders, or at least thirty cousins within a mile of your domicile, that Mount Vernon was a pretty good place to grow up. It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for many people I grew up around.

Yet time and again, as I’ve told my story here and as I began to put Boy @ The Window together between ’06 and ’11, some of my former classmates and a couple of my former neighbors have opined that I have an ax to grind. Yeah, actually, I do, but not about Mount Vernon per se. About the poverty, abuse and ostracism I experienced growing up there, that shaped my experiences there, that authority figures often ignored. In those things, I do have a point that I have and will continue to hammer away at with the sledgehammer I have at my disposal. Too often, my former classmates believe that the only Mount Vernon that should be on public display is the one that emphasizes their raceless or supercool middle-class experience.

Some of My Classmates = Conservative America

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope from Scandal, a show about damage control, controlling the narrative, September 15, 2011. (http://scandal.wikia.com).

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope from Scandal, a show about damage control, controlling the narrative, September 15, 2011. (http://scandal.wikia.com).

Even in this, there’s a conservative perspective. One that says, “don’t rock the boat, don’t express a perspective that’s different than the narrative we want to put out to the world.” I know from experience and as an educator that sweeping truth into a dustbin and expressing only acceptable opinions — or acting as if all opinions, when expressed respectfully, are equal to each other — hurts us all, but especially those who are shut out of the conversation. I wish that so many of my ex-classmates had learned this while growing up in Mount Vernon, while in Mount Vernon public schools, while in Humanities with me.

I’ve come around to Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough’s way of thinking. America is a center-right nation, just as the Founding Fathers intended. Or, to be most precise, America’s DNA is one that has always had the “this-is-a-heterosexual-White-man’s-country” mutation baked into it, a gene that morphs to the point of virtual immutability. A fair number of my ex-classmates also have this mutation, which may explain my inability to fit in more than my kufi, Hebrew-Israelite status, or living at 616 in the midst of poverty domestic violence and child abuse.


On Tolerance and Not Wearing My Kufi Anymore

September 6, 2014

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) quote on superiority and tolerance, September 6, 2014. (http://thousayest.wordpress.com).

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) quote on superiority and tolerance, September 6, 2014. (http://thousayest.wordpress.com).

Today’s date marks three decades since I decided to stop wearing my kufi in public, my first day of tenth grade at Mount Vernon High School (NY). It also marked my coming-out party (so to speak) as a Christian and a day of defiance toward both my Mom and my idiot stepfather Maurice Washington (now deceased), all of which is well-documented here and in Boy @ The Window.

What I haven’t spent much time or space writing about was how my one-time classmates received me in terms of my kufi or the Hebrew-Israelite religion during the three years between the start of seventh grade in ’81 and the end of ninth grade in June ’84. Sure, I’ve talked about Alex and the “Italian Club,” kufi battles and other incidents involving my classmates in which bullying or attempts at bullying occurred. How much were these incidents about me, about me being poor and Black, about me being weird and Black, about me and my kufi? It wasn’t always clear.

What was clear was that the vast majority of my classmates, though they may have given me weird looks or quietly snickered, said nothing to me one way or the other about my kufi or my religion. But on that first day of tenth grade, the day I stopped wearing my kufi, my classmates were hardly silent at all.

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I wondered most of all about my Jewish classmates, at least the ones who actually practiced Judaism. With Josh as the one exception, they to a person never said a word or asked a single question about my religion or my kufi. This despite the fact that fundamentally, I was an Orthodox Jew between ’81 and ’84. I didn’t get an answer while I was in Humanities or at MVHS. Years later, I interviewed one of my former classmates, whose father was a rabbi at one of the largest synagogues in Westchester County. I asked him about the silence. “I thought nothing of it,” he said, as he’d been “taught to respect other people’s beliefs.”

On some level, I could accept this answer at face value. But even at the moment of the interview, I didn’t find this former classmate’s answer enlightened or satisfying at all. His answer on the surface demonstrates the very definition of tolerance. Yet tolerance through silence is the absolute minimal definition of respect for differences. Tolerance is hardly the same as accepting or embracing differences, defined by taking active steps to understand and empathize with different peoples and cultures. Not to mention taking the extra step of working to protect those people and their differences from the intolerant.

Standing ovation, opera house unknown, May 21, 2012.(http://www.thelmagazine.com).

Standing ovation, opera house unknown, May 21, 2012.(http://www.thelmagazine.com).

I knew on some level even in ’84 that many if not most of my Jewish classmates had remained silent because the idea of Blacks as Jews in terms of religion or genetics was barely in their consciousness. It’s still hard for many Jews I’ve known over the years to accept now, even with a population of Ethiopian and other East African Jews living and working in Israel. It’s difficult to embrace the mosaic that is the Jewish diaspora, even with evidence pointing to communities made up of the descendants of some of the so-called Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel living in southern Africa and northern India (as documented by the Discovery Channel in documentaries over the past fifteen years). Me as a kufi and yarmulke-wearing Black teenager practicing Judaism had to be weird and beyond the pale for those classmates.

The way the rest of my classmates reacted to the end of my Shalom-Aleichem-days was also an example of minimal tolerance, or really, intolerance. In six years of Humanities, I’d never gotten that many of my classmates to pay attention to me for longer than an answer to a history question unless it was for ridicule or for a presentation or an award. The fact that at least two dozen had something positive to say about my lack of a kufi, or upon further inquiry, my turn to the Christian side, told me all I needed to know about my status with my classmates for the previous three years.

I’m hardly excluding myself from this notion of intolerance. My view of myself as a Christian in those first months after I converted was one that set me apart from Catholics, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nation of Islam and Jews alike. I didn’t necessarily think or say things about these different religions or the classmates who practiced them. I just ignored those differences while giving every appearance that my nondenominational view of Christianity, my Bible-quoting and toting self, was the only lens through which anyone should view themselves and the world around them. It would be another year before I recognized my own childishness regarding my views of spirituality, religion and tolerance.


First Day and Last Day of School This Week

September 3, 2014

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY,  November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Cecil Parker Elementary School (formerly Nathan Hale ES), Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’ve written about parts of this before, back in my first days of blogging about my life and times as a student. But this week is especially poignant. Yesterday (September 2) marked twenty years since I sat through and passed my PhD dissertation overview defense at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, making me ABD (All But Dissertation, an official PhD candidate). Tomorrow (September 4) will be forty years since my first day of school, attending kindergarten at the Nathan Hale Elementary School (now Cecil Parker ES) in Mount Vernon, New York. It was a school two buildings and an asphalt playground down from our second-floor flat, 425 South Sixth Avenue. In between was nineteen years and 363 days of time as a formal student, going from learning how to read “Dick and Jane went to the store” to writing a “book” about multiculturalism and Black Washington, DC.

I’m sure most of us don’t remember so much of what occurred in between day one and day 7,303 of student-hood. I remember plenty, though. I remember the morning being unusually cold and having to wear a windbreaker or a raincoat (according to a weather website, the high that day was only 69F, and it actually rained at some point during the day). Kindergarten was only a half-day endeavor back then, so I remember getting released to come home for lunch and spending the rest of the day playing with my Tonka toys and watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

Contrast that with a warm first Friday in September ’94, at a time when I’d met some new first-year PhD students in the History program, Carl, Jeff, Susannah and a few others, who all seemed surprisingly interested in my dissertation work. I think it was just that I was one of their first points of contact, going through something they themselves hoped to do within a few years. Either way, I’d been preparing to defend my eighty-page dissertation overview for the previous six weeks, in between working on a migration studies research project for Joe Trotter and keeping an eye out for dissertation grants that I firmly believed were necessary for me to get out of grad school with my sanity intact.

As I walked up the sloped, dark, factory-mimicking hallway on the second floor of Baker Hall to what would be two hours of interrogation from Trotter, Dan Resnick, Bruce Anthony Jones and Department Chair Steve Schlossman (among others in the conference room that morning) with my “entourage,” I had this two-decade juxtaposition in mind. I actually started thinking about the long path from kindergarten to PhD, and all the bumps, bruises and breaks along the way. About how on a September 2nd morning six years before, I’d been homeless and came within days of dropping out of college. About how none of this would have been possible without my older brother Darren, who taught me how to read on Christmas Day ’74. Or, for that matter, without my third-grade teacher Mrs. Shannon encouraging my Mom to buy the entire set of the ’78 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia, which led to me reading through that set between December ’78 and April ’79.

Even J. Anthony Lukas‘ Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985) was in my head as I laid out my papers and dissertation overview as references for my overview defense. I’d only read the book in the previous year. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book for nonfiction lived up to the award it earned Lukas, as he went to excruciating lengths to make the process of desegregation by busing, White fears, and Boston’s racism and racial divide come alive.

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Front cover of Common Ground (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas, September 3, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

In reading about what the White parents did to stop busing in September ’74, it forced up a memory of watching the evening news my first two days of school about Boston’s White community rioting over busing and desegregation. The picket signs, the bottles and rocks. I remembered asking my Mom about it then, but I don’t think she gave me a direct answer. Lukas, though, did, twenty years later.

Finally, I thought about my Humanities classmates as I sat down and had gone through all of the pleasantries with my dissertation committee and other professors and grad students in the room. I thought about how classmates like Josh and Danny ridiculed me as a savant, who told me that history essentially was only trivia, that I couldn’t do anything with it other than “go on Jeopardy.” In some ways, they were right. They just weren’t correct on September 2, ’94.

All of this gave me a place to start. So when Trotter asked me, “What in your life has prepared you for this moment?,” I knew from which parts of my life’s journey to pick. Only to realize that in starting at the beginning, I was nowhere near full circle.


There’s Know Place Like Home…

August 29, 2014

Dorothy's heel-clicking in screen shot from The Wizard of Oz (1939), August 29, 2014. (http://vivandlarry.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws - low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Dorothy’s heel-clicking in screen shot from The Wizard of Oz (1939), August 29, 2014. (http://vivandlarry.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws – low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Yes, the title’s a deliberate play on words. In no small part because of Facebook and Boy @ The Window, I am reminded every day of where I grew up, Mount Vernon, New York. But all too frequently, those who think they know me either assume that Mount Vernon’s so far from New York City that I seldom spent time there. Or, more recently, some have assumed that my experience of The Big Apple is a recent phenomenon, as if I only started spending time in the five boroughs when I hit my mid-thirties.

Neither is true, of course. In many ways, I’m as much of a child of The Bronx and Manhattan as I am of Mount Vernon. I spent countless hours catching the 2, 3, 5 and 6 trains between 241st, Dyre Avenue, 180th, Pelham Parkway, 149th, 110th, 125th, 72nd, 86th and so many other stops. I used to know where to get the best brownies in the area, in Wakefield, at a bakery near some taxi stands and between the 238th and 241st Street stops. I could tell you which bars my father Jimme frequented, which bars he didn’t, what pizza shops had slices to die for, and what places to avoid near Times Square. I’d been to Mets games, Ice Capades, the Bronx Zoo, a Puerto Rican Day and a Pulaski Day parade, concerts at Van Cortlandt Park, even MOMA before I graduated high school.

One of the reasons I could do all of this by the time I was fifteen was because of all the times Jimme had taken me and Darren down to the Bronx and Manhattan. Mostly to watch him pick up his paycheck from the Levi brothers at their cleaners on 20 West 64th or on East 59th. But between ’82 and ’85, I learned where nearly all of my father’s watering holes were, and on the most desperate of weekends, could track him to one of them in order to get money for myself and to help out my Mom at 616. While my classmates would occasionally take the Metro-North into the city to take in a Broadway play or go to a Knicks game, I was learning about the city in all of its varying inequalities and nuances by looking for and working for my father.

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Fast-forward to the end of August ’93, just a few days before I began the Carnegie Mellon University phase of my grad school and doctoral journey. I had been short on money that whole summer, unemployed for six weeks after transferring from Pitt, working as an “intern” for six dollars and hour, and nearly $600 behind on rent at one point in late June. I’d survived the eviction notice and a summer in which I learned who my truest, closest friends were. I took a few days from my personal drama to visit my Mom and my siblings at 616, and in the process, decided to track down my father for a few extra dollars, as well as to see him for the first time in over a year. It had been that long because Jimme had accused me of faking my master’s degree when I lasted visited him.

Central Park, looking out toward Midtown's West Side, New York, NY, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Central Park, looking out toward Midtown’s West Side, New York, NY, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

But I wasn’t fifteen anymore. Instead of a long walk and the Subway, I took the Metro-North down from Pelham to Grand Central, took the S (Shuttle) over to Times Square, and the 1 train to 66th, and walked over to the Levi’s cleaners on West 64th. Only to find out Jimme wasn’t in that day. I then remembered that the other Levi brother had a dry cleaner on East 59th. I walked the ten blocks over there and found the other Levi brother in the midst of arguing with clients and barking orders to his Latino and Afro-Caribbean underlings. My father was doing a cleaning job for him at some high-rises down near Gramercy Park.

I rode the 4 train down to 23rd Street, got my east-west bearings, and walked toward a set of high-rises near FDR Drive. Though I’d forgotten the address, I knew somehow that Jimme would be in the most expensive-looking high-rise or set of high-rises in the bunch. I found a guard, who sent me to the floor where Jimme and his co-worker John were working.

As soon as Jimme saw me come off the elevator, he said, “Bo’ watcha doin’ up here? How the hell yo’ find me?”

“You’re not the only one who knows The City, you know” I said.

It’s no wonder I feel a bit insulted when people either tell me I’m from upstate New York or that I’m not a New Yorker. I know the city better than at least a third of the people who live and work there every day.


Big Feet and Football Tryouts

August 20, 2014

Aerial view of refurbished fields (for track and field, football, softball and tennis) across from MVHS (and the Cross County Parkway), Mount Vernon, NY, circa 2012. (Google Maps)

Aerial view of refurbished fields (for track and field, football, softball and tennis) across from MVHS (and the Cross County Parkway), Mount Vernon, NY, circa 2012. (Google Maps)

Three decades ago this week, I tried out for Mount Vernon High School’s junior varsity football team and made the team. Only to immediately quit. Mostly because I realized that there was too much going on at 616 for me to be a Humanities student, a blocking wide receiver (the coaches had an unimaginative view of offense) and a jack-of-all-adult-responsibilities at home.

What made the decision easier was something my Mom did that made my tryouts harder. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

Screen shot 2014-08-19 at 9.55.52 PM

I ended up making the team, but they wanted me to sit on the bench for a year while I bulked up to at least 175 pounds. The most I’ve ever weighed was 238 pounds at six-foot-three, and I weigh 228 now. It took me until ’10 before I wore my first pair of size-fifteen sneakers that actually fit (I wear size sixteens now). The idea of me as an offensive lineman simply because my sneakers were two sizes too big was and remains ridiculous. Thanks Mom, and thanks, coaches!

The one lesson I took with me from the process of trying out was that I couldn’t rely on my Mom to help me do the things I wanted to do with my life. Nor could I rely on her encouragement (or lack thereof) in that process. It wasn’t an assessment based on anger or disappointment. I’d only begun to figure out that my life was my life, and the decisions I needed to make needed to be my own.


How Nixon’s Resignation Made Me A Self-Aware 4-Year-Old

August 6, 2014

President Richard Nixon delivering his resignation speech (cropped screen shot) ahead of impeachment over Watergate, abuse of power, August 8, 1974. (http://washingtonpost.com). In public domain.

President Richard Nixon delivering his resignation speech (cropped screen shot) ahead of impeachment over Watergate, abuse of power, August 8, 1974. (http://washingtonpost.com). In public domain.

I have a deeply personal perspective from which I saw President Richard Nixon’s resignation forty years ago. It’s a perspective that has ordered my steps nearly every day for the past four decades. If it weren’t for a kitchen accident and his televised resignation speech, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today, or the person I’ve been over the past 14,610 days. Nixon and my kitchen accident combined to “pop my memory cap,” to quote a line from the original Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Total Recall (1990) scene where fake memories meet real ones (a.k.a., "memory cap scene"), August 5, 2014. (http://www.rellimzone.com/).

Total Recall (1990) scene where fake memories meet real ones (a.k.a., “memory cap scene”), August 5, 2014. (http://www.rellimzone.com/).

That Thursday evening, August 8, ’74, was the very first time I became continually self-aware, forming memories like a video camera records scenes, with thoughts of myself and the world around me. I didn’t understand everything I saw, of course. But I did know that I saw what I saw, and for more than just a few moments.

Seeing Nixon’s big head on my Mom’s 19-inch color Zenith wasn’t my first memory, though. I remember crawling by my Mom’s TV set in ’72 at our second-floor flat in which we shared a kitchen with another family in Mount Vernon, NY. I remember because it was the first time I’d seen numbers, the numbers being 1972 with a copyright symbol in front of it. (I told a graduate student friend of mine about this first memory once – she told me it would be impossible for me as a two-year-old to remember specific numbers. What did she know?) I also remember the closing theme song from the show that was on immediately before Another World, which I figured out in later years was NBC’s other soap opera Days of Our Lives.

"Tide Gives You A Fresh, Clean Wash" commercial (cropped screen shot), circa 1970 (guess our babysitter took this literally), October 14, 2013. (http://article.wn.com).

“Tide Gives You A Fresh, Clean Wash” commercial (cropped screen shot), circa 1970 (guess our babysitter took this literally), October 14, 2013. (http://article.wn.com).

Two other memories prior to August 8, ’74 stand out. One was me escaping from the front yard at 48 Adams Street and walking down the block to the local asphalt playground, with basketball hoops and jungle gym included. I remember playing with much older boys, having fun, and my Mom whupping me from the playground all the way down the block back to the house. The other was when our babysitter Ida bathed me and my older brother Darren in a tub full of scolding hot water with Tide Detergent. I was so angry, I called her a “Bitch!” Angry likely because I was itching all over, the b-word likely because my Mom and my father Jimme used the word like it was a period to end a sentence. Miss Ida backhanded me like I was going cross-court as a tennis ball at the US Open. All of this happened when I was three.

The flood gates opened the following summer of ’74, though. It started because of a traumatic injury. My Mom was cooking in the shared kitchen at 48 Adams, making some kind of chicken dish. She had the oven door open, having just taken the chicken out of it and having placed it on the stove. I asked her if I could have a bite. Of course my Mom said, “No, Donald, it’s too hot!” I didn’t listen. I tried to climb up to the top of the stove by using the open oven door as a step stool, and lo and behold, I scorched my right leg when I put it on the inside of the door. I remember my Mom screaming, “Oh my God!” as I fell to the floor, screaming along with her.

My second-degree leg burn, 40 years later - darker area circled is faded mark that was once on the right side of my right calf, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

My second-degree leg burn, 40 years later – darker area circled is faded mark that was once on the right side of my right calf, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The skin around the burn area was gone (if it had happened today, it would’ve been a pretty good second-degree burn, and I probably would’ve ended up at the hospital), leaving a white — not pink, white — circular burn mark. My Mom applied ointment and a bandage, made me take two Bayer aspirin for the pain, and told me to calm down and be quiet. She plopped me down on the couch in the living room, which was slightly to the right of the TV.

I was still crying in pain from the shock of seeing, smelling and feeling my skin being seared in the kitchen. As my Mom sat me down, a man with a gigantic head appeared on the television screen, a man I vaguely knew as the President of the United States. I really didn’t understand much of what President Nixon said, but I do recall my Mom shaking her head, and Cronkite calling it a “sad time” for the country. Given how sad I already felt, I think I might have felt sorry for the man with the big head on the TV set.

From that moment on, I’ve had continual memories. I remember my Mom taking me to Darren’s Headstart program somewhere around South 2nd or South 3rd Avenue in Mount Vernon the next day to pick him up, seeing the man with the big head wave with his fingers sticking in the air before going on a helicopter ride, and then being dragged to Met Grocery Store on South Fulton Avenue for groceries, all with a painfully sore leg. Luckily, my Mom caught us a cab home.

And the week after that, we moved to 425 South Sixth, next to Nathan Hale Elementary, where I would go to kindergarten the following month. And the week after that, my father Jimme introduced Darren to The Clear View School, after an argument with my Mom about him “drinkin’ up all his money again.” Ah, the parallels between big historical events and key moments in my life haven’t stopped since!


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