My First Walk (and Making Plans)

August 15, 2013

Thirty-one years ago this week was the beginning of an inadvertent coping strategy that would lead me away from 616, out of Mount Vernon, New York, into Pittsburgh, and college, and grad school. (And eventually, to a worn-out right knee, leg exercises and a running regiment that I’ve adhered to for nearly a decade.) It was a walk that was literally my only time away from home and my summer of abuse at the hands of my late idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington (or Judah ben Israel). It was a walk in which I began to plan my escape from the madness.

From Boy @ The Window:

“It was August ’82, and I didn’t know if I’d make it to the end of the year.

“If masturbation were the only thing that I discovered that month, I might’ve begun aspiring for some other kind of life. Instead, I decided on another boring August day to do something else novel. I didn’t want to go to Wilson Woods again. We didn’t have any money anyway. I decided to take my siblings on a walk on the wild side, to walk outside our immediate neighborhood. First Darren and I took baby Maurice and Yiscoc in his new stroller out of 616 and walked to Pelham…The four of us walked and strollered down East Lincoln Avenue, across the stone bridge over the Hutchinson River Parkway into Pelham, and turned left on Fifth Avenue to go north. This was uncharted territory for all of us, especially me. I hadn’t been down in the city all year, and my life for most of the summer was spent between Wilson Woods, Pearsall Drive, and 616. North Pelham might as well have been Helena, Montana to me.

‘We don’t know where we’re going,’ Darren said.

‘Yeah, and?,’ I said in response.

‘Okay, but it’s your fault if we get lost, Donald,’ Darren said.

“We didn’t get lost. We walked until we hit Chester Heights, the beginning of the village of Eastchester. It was amazing in that it was much more suburban than Mount Vernon or the part of Pelham that I’d known up until that moment. The homes were luxurious by my standards. Everyone seemed to own a BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, or Peugeot. There weren’t many sidewalks around, only well-manicured lawns. We had walked into a ritzy community without any warning. But instead of becoming depressed or angry, it made me introspective. ‘Look at these houses!,’ I said to Darren as we walked by one Tudor-style home after another three-story mansion, broken up only by a few cul-de-sacs.

We walked across another bridge, this one with an overhanging meshed metal fence, across the Cross-County Parkway, and ended up in Mount Vernon for a brief moment. We veered right as we walked up a hill and out of Mount Vernon again. After walking through what appeared to be an enchanted forest, we discovered we were in Bronxville. Even at twelve, I knew that Bronxville was just about the richest community in America. And it looked like it, too. I began to think that the world was a cruel place, having rich Whites living so close to us yet their lives were so far apart from ours. Darren, having been around rich Whites through Clear View for nearly eight years, didn’t think too much of it.

“That’s when it hit me. If I wanted to live a better life, to have a nice house and a car and a family, it seemed to me that I needed an education, a college education. I wasn’t going to get there just graduating from high school, especially in Humanities, where the expectations for college were so high that some kids already knew that they were going to law school. I just knew that I couldn’t go through another summer of abuse. So I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get through the next five years. I’ve got to go to college.’ I knew almost intuitively that my choices were to continue to experience abuse without reaching for something that I thought I could do based on my smarts. Yet it seemed like an impossible task.

“So as we walked through the villages of Bronxville and Tuckahoe, ending up on North Columbus Avenue/Route 22, I began to think about what I wanted to get out of eighth grade. It seemed to me that the most important class for my future was Algebra, since that led to higher forms of math. I knew English and Social Studies would be really easy, but with success in Algebra, I could go into high school with a little more confidence.

“That’s when we passed by a ranch-style home with a stone facade. I looked and saw someone out in front I hadn’t seen since the end of the school year. It was Phyllis, outside in the front yard with her sister, apparently back from bike riding. She called us over, and the four of us talked. Phyllis asked what we’d been up to over the summer. This was the first Black family I’d seen during our two-hour walk.

“Of course I didn’t go into any detail about what we’d been up to. After all, the one thing that the past year had taught me was not to open up my mouth and say everything that was on my mind! So I let her and her older sister Claudia do most of the talking. They’d gone somewhere, somewhere down South to visit family. It looked like they were having a good time, the time of their lives compared to us.

‘Do you live around here?,’ Phyllis asked.

‘Oh, we’re on a long walk and just happened to be in the neighborhood,’ I said.

‘Okay,’ she said in response.

“In the neighborhood. Sure, if Bronxville, Eastchester, Pelham and 616, all part of our eight-mile trek, was all part of one gigantic neighborhood. After about ten minutes, we continued home. Darren was more excited about seeing Phyllis and her sister than I was.

“Yet it wasn’t that I was unexcited… I finally had a plan, a long-term plan, for dealing with the situation at 616. I knew that there would be a lot of smaller steps that I’d have to take before even getting to college, much less getting a degree…Otherwise I really didn’t have anything else to look forward to, except what I thought would be a very painful life and an extremely early death.”

That walk — and the hundreds of walks (and runs) I went on all through eighth grade and high school –was the difference between becoming a professor and a writer and having died well before the turn of this century. If not literally, then certainly psychologically.


Class Silence

September 20, 2010

Mum's the word on class.

One of the things that has driven me nuts over the past three decades is how we in this country walk in silence around issues of wealth and social class. We must never speak of our wealth, or poverty, lest we risk embarrassing ourselves or appearing arrogant. All Americans with an income between $20,000 and $20 million a year are middle class, not upper middle class, not affluent, not rich, just middle class.

Any mention of the top three percent in income (people whose income is more than $250,000 a year) amounts to class warfare, even though they control some 35-40 percent of the nation’s $57 trillion in wealth. No, poverty and affluence are relative, not absolute, and can only be measured subjectively,

Atacama Desert in Chile. Driest desert on Earth and place to stick our heads. (Public Domain)

through one’s own experience. Which is why any mention of our troubles is closer to sacrilege than declaring that there isn’t a God, especially in a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its money.

There are ways to measure affluence and poverty regardless of cost of living and inflation. And please spare me the comparisons between the poor in the US and the poor in the Global South (Third World to those of you who like making other distinctions between fellow humans that actually dehumanize). I’ve seen too many corrugated roofs in Arkansas and Louisiana (all before Katrina), too many outhouses in rural Arkansas and Mississippi, too many families sleeping in the streets in San Francisco and New York, too many malnourished kids in Oklahoma and in DC to hear that “our poor are the richest poor people in the world” song-and-dance.

It’s simple really. Truly middle class people own a car and a home, or at least, have the option of doing both, with a steady income from a permanent job or from an established niche for work. If folks have one and rent an apartment or home, and aren’t really in a position to buy, they’re right on the borderline of the American middle class, but not quite there.

Of course, this definition does not mean that everything’s all right. Tens of millions of Americans, including yours truly, are struggling to pay car notes, student loans, mortgages and rent — not to mention credit card and other debt — and maintain a middle class or lower middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, there are millions more who are working toward middle class, but aren’t quite there. They may say they’re middle class, but they’re really working-class or working poor.

Upper middle class or affluent Americans do more than own a house or a car. They own quality homes and quality cars, a Volvo or an Acura, maybe even a Lexus. They take at least one vacation a year with their families or friends, to other parts of the US, and on occasion, international trips. They eat at restaurants with their families at least as often as they eat a home-cooked meal. When shopping for groceries, sales are fine, as long as the sales aren’t on off-brand products like Faygo or Giant, Safeway or Krasdale. They have life insurance on every family member, 529 plans for their kids and contribute at least half as much to their 401K as their employer does in any given year (more than that if self-employed).

I’m certainly not arguing that the lives of the upper middle class or affluent or sub-rich are like being on Real Housewives or Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Yet so many in our public discourse make their lives now and times growing up sound humble, as if they grew up like me or others I’ve known over the past thirty years. People like Bill Cosby, Bill Gates or Bill O’Reilly, Dinesh D’Souza or Rush Limbaugh. It’s well beyond dishonest. It’s disgusting, and it helps to perpetuate the myth that the only reason all of us aren’t affluent is due only to our lack of hard work.

As the richest country on Earth — for the time being, at least — we’ve never reconciled our democratic ideals with our capitalistic obsessions. What helps maintain some sense of order, though, is our silence and quiet, desperate acquiescence to ever-increasing economic divisions in a country full of allegedly middle class people. As a song from Enigma goes, however, we should “question the absurd” here, as “silence must be heard.”


The World Is Not Enough

June 15, 2010

Mount Everest from from Kalapatthar in Nepal. Photo Source: Pavel Novak Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

A few years ago, at my social justice fellowship job in DC, I worked with probably the worst program assistant in all my years of work. He was a twenty-two-year-old graduate of U Virginia or some other four-year institution in the heart of the Confederacy, and this was his first professional position. In eight months’ time, he managed to screw up in every conceivable way. He sent out professional emails with the signature, “Scooby Dooby Doo.” He’d address me with, “Yo, wass up,” as if we were friends. He slept in one day during our summer conference, and showed up hung over and in the clothes that he’d worn the day before another day. He couldn’t even do a mail merge without turning it into the German loss at Stalingrad. It took all of these screw ups and more before my boss was ready to entertain firing him. My former boss’ lament was, “He’s young. He’s just trying to figure things out.”

It’s one of the biggest and most hypocritical statements I’ve heard, and not just at my former job. We make excuses for youth — at least some youth — because we believe that somehow, some way, these folks will one day find themselves and take over the reins of our society and world. If this were a universal thing, that would be fine with me. But it’s not. If you’re educated, middle class or affluent, White and male — and sometimes female — the above is what people say about you when you screw in ways that would’ve gotten me fired inside of a week, whether at sixteen, nineteen or twenty-two.

The fact is, we live in a society in which for those folk whose concerns have grown beyond money, food,

Bungee jumping off the Zambezi Bridge, Victoria Falls, Africa, 1996

shelter and basic education and health, the everyday world isn’t enough. We think that youth and young adults have the mandate to search for themselves and screw up at all costs, because, well, the world is already theirs to inherit.

We don’t make excuses for poor White males, or Blacks, or the millions of undereducated youth regardless of race, gender and wealth the same way we do for the likes of the fully advantaged. Do we normally call it a mere mistake when a young woman of color gets pregnant at seventeen, or when someone like the author and poet R. Dewayne Betts (of his memoir A Question of Freedom) somehow ends up an accessory to a violent crime at sixteen? Of course not! We condemn both, treat them like they’re full-fledged adults, and hope that they rot out of our sight, media and mind.

From Holden Caulfield in the late J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to the real-time Chris McCandless in the movie and book Into The Wild, the well-off mandarin class has embraced the contrarian and narcissistic perspectives that some youth have of our flawed and brutal world. Instead of fighting for a better world, the fictitious Caulfield and the real-life McCandless both went off in search of a reality that never existed anywhere except in their own minds. Ultimately, one took his own life, while the other put themselves in a position to lose his in not-so-wild Alaska.

Wooden sailing boat Kleine Freiheit – 70 year old gaff cutter

I don’t object to the likes of thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero climbing Mount Everest with his father. Nor do I object to sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland’s attempts to circumnavigate the world solo, despite the dangers of such. What I do have problems with, though, are the underlying assumptions and reasoning behind such feats. This isn’t just about man versus nature or about finding oneself through an epic struggle. Really, it’s about the reality that our world — at least for the kinds of folk that I’ve described here — isn’t enough for them anymore. It certainly wasn’t enough for their parents.

We celebrate these youth as if this is the way to live, and that right and wrong and consequences don’t matter. At some point, we need to get over our affluent obsession over youth, over ourselves and our collective lamenting of the state of our world, if we ever hope to grow up and fix whatever ails us and our world.


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