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. ( 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. ( 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.

Screen shot 2014-08-29 at 6.28.50 AM

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.

Mothers’ Meeting Day, 1997

May 17, 2014

Normally I do a post every May 18th on a topic related to my PhD graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon. They usually revolve around two subjects: Joe Trotter and my Mom, betrayal and burnout. For once, I have no intention of doing a post on the seventeenth anniversary of officially becoming “Dr. Collins” and all of the baggage that I brought/came with that. Instead, today’s post is about the day before, Saturday, May 17 ’97. It was the day that my Mom and my future mother-in-law would meet each other for the first time, during my Mom’s one-and-only visit to Pittsburgh during my twelve years there.

I covered the cost of my Mom’s round-trip flight on US Air from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh, knowing that she wouldn’t have been able — or, as it turned out, willing — to see me graduate otherwise. That Friday evening, May 16th, was my Mom’s first time on an airplane since she was pregnant with me, the summer of ’69, when she visited her family in Arkansas. She’d already missed my ceremonies at Pitt for my bachelor’s and master’s in ’91 and ’92 respectively, and, as a result, I hadn’t gone to my graduations those years either.

So I made it easy for her this time around. Or rather, me and my then girlfriend Angelia made it easy for her. I gave up my studio apartment that weekend, because my Mom wasn’t comfortable with me putting her up in a hotel. Angelia cleaned my apartment from top to bottom — including the moulding at the bottom of my apartment’s walls. The place wasn’t this clean the day I’d moved in back in ’90!

But with so many other things that week, my Mom showed little appreciation for the significance of this trip, or for what we were doing to make this trip as convenient for her as possible. I went through Friday night and Saturday at Angelia’s apartment on the edge of East Liberty, about a twelve-minute walk away, where I hadn’t done an overnight before. I spent the first half of the next day going back and forth between my Mom, Angelia, my high school friend Laurell and her sister Naomi and unofficial surrogate (who were all staying at the Downtown Marriott).  I took my Mom to both Pitt and CMU, to show her the place of my ten years’ working toward something much more important than a second high school diploma. I might as well have been taking my son to both campuses when he was a newborn!

Around 2:30 pm, I realized we needed to get to Angelia’s mother’s place in Homewood for a mid-afternoon meal. That was next on the schedule. I think we took the bus, the 71D from a block off CMU to Homewood, and walked the three blocks up a steep hill to Monticello Street. There, Angelia’s mom extended a long greeting, a hug for which my Mom hardly seemed prepared. Angelia was also there, and had bought a KFC bucket meal for the four of us to share.

After a few pleasantries, it started. How my mother and eventual mother-in-law, in their first-ever meeting, spent three hours discussing their failed marriages and the horrible nature of Black men the day before my graduation, I really don’t know. I was in a fog, worn out from a week’s worth of insomnia and from the growing realization that my Mom didn’t really care about my journey or accomplishments.

I stayed and respected my elders, maybe too much. Three hours listening to stories I already knew, between my first-hand knowledge of my father Jimme and my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice, not to mention the stories Angelia had told me about her mother’s trials (luckily, Angelia never witnessed these, because her mother’s marriage was over by the time she’d turned two). A concussion here, a bruised lip there. A broken jaw, a fractured arm. Alcoholism and abuse, and men, working or unemployed, not paying any bills. “Men are no good,” my Mom said over and over again.

Of course, I didn’t count, for as far as my Mom was concerned, I wasn’t a man, because I’d spent the previous decade as a student. But that wasn’t the worst part. My Mom did a bunch of revisionist history in telling the story of “raisin’ six kids” and her doomed two marriages, somehow writing me and Darren and the decisions she had some degree of control over out of this story.

I’d never been part of a conversation like this as an adult. As a six or ten-year-old kid on The Avenue in Mount Vernon with my Mom and her hospital friends, yes, but not since those times. I felt as if I might as well found some stoop outside, sat down with a 40, and fallen into a deep sleep.

Even Angelia’s mom wanted to change the subject by the middle of hour number three. Instead, she used her elderly-ness as a excuse to beg off more conversation on the topic of misogyny, told me that she was proud of me, said that she was excited about going to the CMU ceremony, and retired for the evening. I wish I could’ve gone upstairs with her and done the same. I instead had the distinction of dropping my Mom off at my apartment, picking up Angelia and going down to Station Square to eat dinner with Laurell, Naomi and Archie. And that was all the day before the graduation ceremony!

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.

A Baseball Bat and a Father’s Absence

July 19, 2011

One Louisville Slugger, July 19, 2011. (Source/

Today my father Jimme (his birth certificate name, as he actually goes by Jimmie) turns seventy-one. He’s in better health now than he was ten, twenty, and especially thirty years ago. That’s because this time in ’81, my father had apparently died for a few seconds on the operating table as doctors drilled into his brain to relieve pressure after a man did his best to dispatch him from this world. The incident, operation and time in the hospital meant that Jimme would be out of my life for almost fifteen months. It meant that I’d have a question to answer: what does a preteen boy do when his father is absent, and his best friend has shunned him? For that matter, what does a Black kid do under those circumstances?

But I’m jumping ahead of my story here. For over a week in July ’81, my father lingered in an ICU bed in Mount Vernon Hospital after he’d been reported dead in the Obituary section of the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. Jimme ended up in the hospital because he’d made fun of another, bigger drunk, calling him a “po’

Grandpa, Me, and Noah, September 12, 2010. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

ass muddafucca” at what we called “Wino Park” on South Fulton and East Third. So much was the humiliation that the man marched home, grabbed a Louisville Slugger, and returned to repeatedly smash my dad in the head until he was unconscious. Luckily, Jimme has a classic Collins head, hard enough to be used as a wrecking ball or 120 mm shell.

His near-death experience was not all that shocking for us, at least not obviously so. My father’s life in the New York City area had turned into a slow motion tragedy of errors long before I was old enough to witness one of his drinking binges and hangovers. And Jimme regularly went on alcohol-laced benders, ones that began on payday Friday and ended on Monday or Tuesday. As he liked to say, he “got to’ up” almost every weekend — “tore up” for those unfamiliar with Jimme-ese. This was going on for years before Mom had filed for divorce in July ’76.

Jimme also had a habit of saying, “O’ bo’, I can’t do dis no mo’. Gotta stop doin’ dis. Nex’ week, nex’ week. I’ll stop drinkin’ nex’ week.” All while shaking his head, his eyes down, ashamed of how he felt and looked once the binge had ended. Jimme never said “now” or “this week.” It was always next week with him. If there was any week where “nex’ week” should’ve been the week, it was that Friday in early July.

With that incident, the next time I’d see my father would be July ’82, being threatened by my stupid stepfather, who chased Jimme out of 616 for trying to see me. Dumb ass Maurice was in the middle of his five-week, abuse-and-break-Donald program, and didn’t want my real father interrupting his efforts to turn me into his prag. Witnessing that incident wasn’t a pleasant experience.

From July ’81 through August ’82, with Jimme absent and Starling no longer my friend, I really had no other Black males in my life with whom I could draw inspiration. My older brother Darren? He was already jealous of me and had withdrawn into the world of The Clear View School, acting out his role as a mentally retarded kid who wasn’t mentally retarded. My uncle Sam (my mother’s brother)? Really? I’ve seen him more in the past ten years, with me living in suburban DC, than I saw him through the ’80s and ’90s.

That left my idiot stepfather, who, at least in the summer of ’81, was there, and had gotten back together with

Wolf in sheep's clothing, a false prophet (a symbol of my ex-stepfather), November 2008. (Source/

my mother, and had converted us into Hebrew-Israelites. This must’ve been why I clung so hard and so long to my kufi identity, even when I knew that something was wrong. With this sudden change in religion, from lethargic and unacknowledged Baptists to Afrocentric Black Jews. With me treating my stepfather as if he really was a parent of mine. With me wanting to prove myself to others in ways I never felt I needed to before.

This wasn’t something I was conscious of, at least in ’81 or in the first half of ’82. I wish I had been. At least, then, I would’ve realized. That, more than anything else, I missed my dad and my best friend. And I was using my stepfather and his religion as a piss-poor substitute for both.

What A Fool Believes

August 23, 2010

Wall Collapse Rattles Mount Vernon High School -, April 13, 2010

Mount Vernon really has changed, and unfortunately, not for the better. I’m talking about in the past four years, and not just since I left for college and Pittsburgh twenty-three years ago this week. As some of you may know, I was threatened the week of my sister’s death and funeral by a young thug because I stopped him from choking his girlfriend in front of me and her three-year-old daughter.

That’s not a completely accurate description. I yelled “Hey! Stop!” as I ran toward the side gate of 616. I saw a short, nappy-headed, unkempt-corn-rowed-haired, light-skinned thug. At first, he was yelling, “Get out the godd**m car you B***H” at a young woman in a blue older-modeled Toyota Camry, punching his fists on the driver’s side window at the same time. Then, when she did get out, she grabbed her three or four-year-old daughter and attempted to get toward the side gate. The fool then pushed her up against the back right side of the car and proceeded to wrap his hands around the young woman’s neck, as if no one else was around.

I was on the telephone with my father, talking to him about the rough week it had been, standing outside to get away from folks for a moment or two, staring across the gates and driveway to the five-story red-brick sister complex 630 East Lincoln when I witnessed this episode of domestic violence. After I yelled and distracted the dumb ass, the young woman ran inside with her daughter. Then the short butt attempted to run up on me, telling me to “mind your own godd**m bisness, you stupid f**k!” He tried to get in my face, but at five-foot-four, he was much too short to intimidate me with rage. I told him if he took another step, that I’d call the cops. He did, and then I dialed 911.

“Oh, you think your life’s miserable now! It just got a whole lot worse for you and your family. And for what? You willing to risk your life for her? For a b***h?,” the stupid ass said as he gradually backed out of the yard and then outside the 616 gate. Apparently he wasn’t as stupid as he looked, as he kept moving farther away while yelling “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, you stupid f**k!” Finally, I said something. “Yeah, I’m a stupid f**k. You and your homies could beat me up, kill me, put me out of my misery. But I’m not the one walking away, you are!” Mr. Thuggish Ruggish Bone then disappeared.

There were numerous other reminders that what was once my hometown would never be again. The fact that neighborhoods that were once affluent White ones were now a mixture of White, African American and Latino, and weren’t so affluent anymore. The closings of Athena’s and Baskin-Robbins and other businesses in once ritzy Fleetwood, the rundown sense that I saw in faces Black and White and Brown all during that week.

Other parts of the city had long succumbed to poverty, crime and neglect, but with the middle class regardless of race in full flight, the uphill battle for a thriving bedroom suburb was now an unorganized retreat, with carnage all along the way. The newest thing I saw in Mount Vernon during my midsummer night and day-mare was the track behind Mount Vernon High School and the construction crew working on a new wall for the southwest corner of the building.

I know that a fair number of my Mount Vernon-based or nostalgic readers will think me biased, ungrateful even for having grown up in a town that they themselves found enriching and enjoyable. If that is the case, then that’s wonderful. Your Mount Vernon wasn’t the one I experienced, and “your blues ain’t like mine” (as the late Bebe Moore Campbell would say), sorry to say.

Aside from the atypical experience of dealing with the death of my sister, the Mount Vernon I grew up with and the one I witnessed last month were one and the same. My time growing up there included unpleasant moments with young punks and thugs, far too much rage and violence and poverty for me to stick around after high school. The difference now is, the city as a whole has become a reflection of my worst experiences, and not a “city on the move.” Silver linings like Ben Gordon or Denzel Washington or not, anyone who refuses to acknowledge that this is the reality for most living in Mount Vernon should tune into a 70s station and look up Michael McDonald for advice on foolishness and wisdom.


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