I’m now a quarter-century removed from leaving my original hometown, Mount Vernon, New York, for Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh. Wednesday, August 26, ’87 wasn’t my first day of adulthood, but it turned into my first day of freedom from the disappointment that my years in Mount Vernon and at 616 East Lincoln Avenue had turned into. It’s been a long road of triumphs and setbacks, of mistakes and sins, of excellence and miracles (see my post “Trip to the ‘Burgh” from August ’09).
But I’ve frequently wondered what would’ve happened if I’d stayed in Mount Vernon, or, at least, somewhere in or near New York City. Would I have turned out like my older brother Darren, a forty-four year-old who’s never been able to shake off the years of psychological torture he endured at 616? He was caught between my mother believing him to be retarded and being in a school for the mentally retarded as a kid with an above-average IQ for fourteen years. Darren never had a chance to build on him teaching himself to read at three and teaching me how to read at five (see post “About My Brother” from December ’07).
Outside of the upper-crust lily-Whiteness that was his Clear View School experience, Darren’s never known a middle-class adult life, a middle-class education or people he could talk to about his experience in order to move on from it. My brother lives around 233rd Street in the Bronx, as isolated now as he was at 616, trapped in our 616 past and in the warped thinking that has retarded his growth as a human being for nearly forty years.
Or would I have turned into my youngest brother Eri, a twenty-eight year-old frequently angry with the world? He’s been taking solace in a father (my ex-stepfather) who was never there for him and in his father’s twisted sense of Afrocentric Judaism? Unlike me and my older brother Darren, who at least knew what it was like to live in a time when even we experienced some sense of the old American Dream, Eri never had that chance.
Poverty, the grinding-with-millstones kind, and joblessness are really all that Eri’s seen the past three decades. Job Corp and the Army National Guard have really been his only times away from the daily anguish of 616 and Mount Vernon. And with the death of our sister Sarai two years ago, I know that he’s felt even more angst and isolation. Leading Eri to begin the process of re-upping with Uncle Sam for this fall.
If I had stayed, my story would likely have ended up somewhere between Darren’s and Eri’s. I would’ve somehow gone to college, maybe Westchester Community College, Hunter or possibly Fordham. But the drama of living at 616 and the constant reminders of the worst years of my life all around me would’ve made demon-slaying a near-impossible task.
It was bad enough occasionally bumping into Crush #1, Crush #2 or one of my silent treatment classmates during the holidays and summers I was away from Pittsburgh between ’87 and ’92. Seeing them regularly and knowing that they only saw me as a twelve-year-old asshole or socially-inept seventeen-year-old? That would’ve stunted me (see my post “The Silent Treatment” from June ’10). I simply wouldn’t have felt that I had the space — geographically or psychologically — to move on from those morbid times.
Even if I somehow found the focus of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan combined to complete a bachelor’s degree, I would’ve needed to make the decision to leave the area anyway. Especially if I had any other aspirations besides helping my mother take care of my younger siblings, including going to graduate school.
All the decisions I made after August 26, ’87, in fact, wouldn’t have occurred if I had stayed at 616, in Mount Vernon, even anywhere in the New York City area. I would’ve been too close to allow my mother to be beaten by my ex-stepfather again. I would’ve been too embarrassed by my father’s increasing alcoholism. And I would’ve been too angry with myself for all of the fun I’d denied myself while my former high school classmates were living what I assumed was the equivalent of Sheila E’s “Fabulous Life.”
There would’ve been no decision to even risk being homeless my sophomore year for a degree — much less actually being homeless for nearly a week. There then wouldn’t have been a decision to change my major to history, much less rediscovering myself as a writer years later. I wouldn’t have ever seen myself as worthy of happiness, or seen myself as handsome, or seen myself through the eyes of others as funny or charming or goofy. Instead, I could’ve counted on anger, rage, disappointment and misery to be my four emotional companions, ever ready to introduce themselves to the New York City area.
We often need change to move on from the demons of our past and present. Thank God I made the decision to literally leave 616 and Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh. That decision has enabled me to remember the past without wallowing in it.