Moving (On) To Pittsburgh

August 26, 2012

241st Street-Wakefield Subway Station, Bronx, NY, August 25, 2012. (jag9889 via In public domain.

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.

Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian passing the 1895 Bryn Mawr Interlocking Control Towerat Bryn Mawr, PA, en route from New York to Pittsburgh, June 6, 2011. (Centpacrr via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-by-sa-3.0.

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.

Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear

June 28, 2011

AED’s DC Office, circa 2008, before the sign came down. Source:

It was ten years ago on this date that I began to think seriously about quitting New Voices and AED, the Academy for Educational Development, the subcontractor for USAID and the State Department in trouble these days (see my “USAID suspends District-based nonprofit AED from contracts amid investigation” post from December ’10). In the end, I probably should’ve on this date. I realized that most of the people I worked for and with cared more about money than Wall Street investment bankers, and had an addiction to fear greater than a junkie’s addiction to heroin. And, most sadly, I began to see signs of what my former immediate supervisor would admit two and a half years later, his bipolar disorder.

I’d seen signs of Ken’s mental illness as early as February ’01, but the first time I realized that I worked in an organization that thrived on fear was after me and my wife returned from our honeymoon in Seattle, at the end of May that year. All during the month of June, as I did site visits in Tulsa, Jackson, Mississippi, Fairbanks, Alaska and Durham, North Carolina, and visited my maternal grandparents in Arkansas, all fear was breaking loose in the New Voices offices at AED. Our funder, the Human Rights and International Cooperation unit at the Ford Foundation in New York, had called for a meeting to discuss the progress of the New Voices Fellowship Program to date.

I didn’t think all that much of it at the time, with me doing site visits almost every week and having done presentations for funders and academicians, including the Spencer Foundation, what was now the Gates Foundation, and a few corporate foundations over the previous five years. But as soon as I returned to the office that last Monday in June ’01, I realized that nearly everyone I worked with directly was on pins and needles about our Thursday afternoon meeting on East 43rd Street in Manhattan. Ken was on a higher level of worry than the rest of the staff, but it wasn’t a good worry. He had our program assistant and associate printing new copies of memos and other meeting materials every time he came up with a new sentence, found an error or realized he wanted orange paper for program statistics instead of lavender.

Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy Screen Shot (though Sandra wasn’t as aged, her attitudes definitely were), 1989. Source:

What made this even worse was that on Tuesday, Ken’s boss Sandra — whom I regularly called “Driving Miss Daisy” because of her bigoted semi-liberal ways — called an additional meeting to emphasize how crucial this meeting was to the future of New Voices. After ten minutes, Ken, the program assistant and associate all looked like Bush 43 and former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson did on September 15, ’08, when the US financial markets melted down. When I politely pointed out that “we need to be ready, but not scared” in presenting our results to date to the folks at Ford, another meeting was called.

Except this Wednesday afternoon meeting was just between me and Driving Miss Daisy. She called me out on the carpet for “disrespecting” her. She told me, “if you don’t like it here, you can leave,” and that she’ll be at AED “longer than [me].” It made me feel as if I had to worry about my job for doing my job. Meanwhile, Ken was going over word for word what each of us would have to say the following afternoon in New York, as if one bad choice of words would cost us $2.25 million, money we’d already received from Ford.

After a rough night of sleep before an early Amtrak from DC to New York, I arrived at Penn Station refreshed and glad that I didn’t ride the same train with the rest of the Nervous Nellies. They were already at Houlihan’s, eating an early lunch, with Ken obviously more relaxed from whatever he had to drink by the time I arrived.

The Ford Foundation, 320 East 43rd Street, New York City, November 19, 2007. Source: Stakhanov (permission granted)

The Ford Foundation, 320 East 43rd Street, New York City, November 19, 2007. Source: Stakhanov (permission granted)

The meeting itself was where something kicked in for Ken, what appeared to be a natural high at first. After Sandra and Yvonne (Ken’s actual immediate supervisor, even though Ken never listened to her) did the introductions, Ken took over the two-hour meeting. He talked over me, the program assistant and associate, even the program officers in the spartan meeting room. Ken’s euphoric fear was so strong that he didn’t trust us to speak on behalf of New Voices, meaning that it was a waste of time and money for anyone other than Ken to be there.

Or was is? The imam-suit-wearing program officers from Anthony Romero (who was within a few months had moved on to become the Executive Director of the ACLU) to Alan Jenkins (now co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda), who had sat silently through Ken’s soliloquy, finally spoke in the final fifteen minutes of the meeting. Romero said, “Maybe it’s time for AED to consider looking for alternate sources of funding” for New Voices “over the next couple of years.” That was my take-away from the whole ordeal.

But it wasn’t for Ken. He was on one of his blue-crystal-meth-like highs again, giddy like a kid getting a ten-speed bike for Christmas. Yvonne looked ready to go, while Sandra the wise-one was just happy it was over. I wondered, out loud to the group, if the not-so-veiled hint provided by Romero meant that the unit and foundation’s priorities were changing. I, of course, was accused of worrying too much. Too bad none of the senior staff understood the definition of irony.

Trip to the ‘Burgh

August 26, 2009

My years as a full-fledged adult now number twenty-two. On this day and date, I left 616, Humanities, MVHS, Mount Vernon public schools, Mount Vernon and NYC behind for the first time. Even though I’d call New York City and Grand Central Station “the third armpit of hell” for the next seven years, I had plenty of times during my undergraduate days in which I missed the sights and smells of New York, the constant buzz. Not to mention quality deli meats, good pizza, Clover Donuts, the noise of Subway cars and Metro-North trains. But from the moment I started getting ready, truly ready to go, I had already left these things behind.

It was the last Wednesday in August when I took my five suitcases, Army bag, and two boxes by cab from 616 to 241st. But not before a long and tearful good-bye with my mother, Eri, Sarai, and Maurice. Yiscoc didn’t wake up to say good-bye until I was practically out the door. My stepfather insisted on giving me an extra fifty dollars for my college journey. I thought for a second about turning it down, and decided against it. “This was the least he owed me,” I thought. I felt bad about leaving, especially for Eri, who was just a little more than three years old. Darren and I took my stuff downstairs to the Reliable Taxi cab at five in the morning, got to the Subway stop and met Jimme there. We quietly rode the train to Penn Station on West 34th, where I’d catch the 7:50 am Amtrak for Pittsburgh. Once it was time to catch the train, Darren and Jimme helped with getting all of my stuff on the train, most of which I half-realized I probably wouldn’t need. We hugged, and Jimme actually teared up. This was the second time in a row I’d seen him sober, and he seemed happy for me.

The train ride to Pittsburgh was much longer than I expected. My assumption was that since Philly and Pittsburgh were in the same state that the ride wouldn’t last more than a couple of hours. What I didn’t know was that once we pulled into the City of Brotherly Love that the engineers would have to uncouple the electric engine and connect a diesel one. What I didn’t know was that the trip across the state of Pennsylvania was a long and windy one, with hills and mountains, small towns and tunnels. What I didn’t know was that there would be a boring recording describing the construction of track through the Allegheny Mountains which led to the creation of Horseshoe Lake. I took two naps, listened to five tapes, and with all of that, still had an hour and a half to spare. I ended up talking with a young Catholic priest during that time about the nuances of Christian faith and how Christians often misapply their faith in secular situations.

We pulled in about thirty minutes late, just before 5 pm. I immediately found a phone book and called for a Yellow Cab. I waited, and waited, and waited, all while about six cabs came up and picked up other passengers from my train. I looked at the downtown skyline and thought, “It doesn’t look like a hick town so far.” Yet the cab drivers sure acted like it was. They refused to make eye contact with me, much less pick me up. After an hour, I called Yellow Cab again, this time threatening them with a lawsuit. “If I don’t see a cab real soon, I’m contacting the NAACP and filing a discrimination lawsuit!,” I yelled to the dispatcher over the phone. Within three minutes I got my taxi. I was already beginning to think that Pittsburgh wasn’t my best choice for pursuing higher education.

My first drive through the heart of Pittsburgh reminded me of what people had been saying for years about New York and how great it was. Once we passed through downtown, which took less time than driving through Mount Vernon, we went through these decidedly working-class neighborhoods and Black communities that looked at least they belonged in South Side Mount Vernon. Then we reached the Oakland section of the ’Burgh. School buildings, college dorms that looked like silos, shops and restaurants abounded. Just before we turned left off of Forbes Avenue, I saw it, the Cathedral of Learning, for the first time. I was starting to feel better about my decision.

The driver turned left again, off Atwood and onto Fifth Avenue, then a right onto Lothrop, where, of course, Lothrop Hall was. It was an eleven-story dirty uranium-brown building, where years of coke soot had built up. There were few students or staff around. I went through security, using my high school ID for the last time, and the guard gave me a temporary dorm pass that I could use until I got my Pitt ID. My dorm room was on the third floor. It overlooked a drab and empty yet clean courtyard. I was lucky, since there was a good chance I might’ve ended up with a roommate. The dorm rooms at Lothrop went to one student apiece. I was so exhausted from all of the emotions and stresses of the day. I grabbed some junk food from the vending machine in the lobby, called my mother to tell her I was fine, somehow found the Mets game on my portable radio, and fell asleep in my twin bed.

Despite all that had happened at 616, in Humanities, MVHS and in Mount Vernon, I was homesick the last third of the semester. Not homesick because I missed having my ex-stepfather say, “take that base out of ya voice before I cave ya chest in.” Not homesick because I missed spending my Friday evenings and Saturdays tracking down Jimme at some dive in the Bronx or in Manhattan. I think that I was homesick because I was still reeling from crush #2, which made me realize that I never really had a home in the first place.

It took me a bit longer — about a year or so — to realize that despite the ‘Burgh’s lack of almost anything I’d normally describe as city or city-suburban life, I could still make the place my home. At the very least, the University of Pittsburgh was relatively more diverse, urban, and exciting than compared to the rest of the area. That was the reason I was there, after all. Still, I gave myself the room necessary to criticize the university and the city when I saw fit. But I also took time to look around, to see that whatever else was or wasn’t going on, I was in charge of my life now, and safe from the slights, hurts and abuses of my past.


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