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!


Finding Home

August 30, 2010

Highland Building (tall) and 6007 Penn Circle South (short). Source: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com

A flat at 48 Adams Street in Mount Vernon, New York. Followed by one at 24 Adams Street. Then 48 Adams Street again. Then the entire second floor of the house at 425 South Sixth Avenue. After that, a 1,200-square-foot apartment on the third floor of the front building of the 616 East Lincoln Avenue

48 Adams Street, circa 2006

complex. After going to Pittsburgh for college, a dorm room at Lothrop Hall my freshman year. Five days of Howard Johnson’s and sleeping on a concrete landing on the fifth floor in a stairwell at Forbes Quadrangle (now Wesley Posvar Hall) the beginning of my sophomore year. A poorly partitioned one-room flat with a shared kitchen and bathroom in a firetrap for a row house, 25 Welsford Avenue, the rest of my sophomore and all of my junior years at Pitt.

The above is every place I’ve lived during my first twenty years on the planet. I never felt at home in any of those places, and when I’d come close, something violent or life changing would occur to remove that feeling of at least a sense of minor uneasiness. Alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, second marriage, financial pressures, religious stupidity, more domestic violence and abuse, more siblings, financial collapse, college, homelessness, lack of funds and privacy defined the spaces in which I lived between ’69 and ’90. I was mostly lonely and yet hardly alone for all of those years. I had about as much space to think and write as I would’ve had in a bathroom stall at Grand Central before the renovations there during the ’90s (a story for another post). Which is why most of my Mount Vernon classmates and friends can testify to dozens of “Donald sightings” — me walking everywhere — between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

I made the decision after my junior year to find my own place, my own space, as close to or as far away from Pitt’s campus as I could. I took a week off from my summer job at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains at the beginning of August ’90 and took the express Greyhound to the ‘Burgh. I stayed with my friend Terri and her mother — a blog post unto itself — while looking all over the city and its po’ White and Black trash suburbs for anything between $150 and $300 a month in rent, one with my own kitchen and bath.

I found a nice place in Wilkinsburg, only discouraged by the distance it was from the East Busway East Busway near East Liberty stop. Source: http://www.pittsburghtransit.info(Pittsburgh elected in ’64 to spend twenty years building a busway instead of a subway to connect downtown with the suburbs — talk about being cheap!) and Pitt. Not to mention feeling uneasy about a slightly older next door neighbor who looked like she caroused a bit too much. I looked at places in Shady Side, Squirrel Hill, Highland Park, North Oakland, off Braddock Road and near Frick Park, even the Manchester and Friendship neighborhoods (somewhere between middle class, affluent, and student housing). The rent was either too rich for me or the places looked a bit run down.

Finally, on my next to last day to look, I found a place at 6007 Penn Circle South in East Liberty, right

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, down the street. Source: http://www.citizendia.org

across from the Shady Side neighborhood. It was a one-room efficiency (calling it a “studio” would make it sound better than it was). I had a kitchenette area with a sink, counter, cabinets, a stove and oven with a ventilation fan, and a fridge. I had my own bathroom and enough closet space for my meager clothes and toiletries. I was within walking distance of Giant Eagle, the big grocery store in the area, as well as the busway. The Highland Park Zoo bus, the 71B, as well as the 71C, ran their way to Oakland and Pitt. And Pitt was within my walking distance back then — it was more than two and a half miles from Penn Circle South to the Cathedral of Learning.

It was $220 if rent for each month was paid before the first day of the month, and $245 if not. I took the 450-square-foot flat, this despite some of the riff-raff living in the building, the hole-in-the-wall bar Constantine’s within a couple of blocks, or Kelly’s Bar for the down and out across the street. The heating and cooling, the toilet and shower, the food in my fridge was all mine. My friends Kenny, Elaine, Marc all thought it was a dump. Maybe so, especially compared to the places I’ve lived since. But it was my dump. Those eight and a half years there, I learned so much about myself and life and God and women and love. I learned how to live my life while I was in apartment 204. That began twenty years ago today. The building’s now gone (at least, it was slated to be), but the memories remain.


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