Toto’s “Africa” & “Reading” Too Much Into It

March 2, 2013

Toto's "Africa" (1982) Singles Sleeve, March 1, 2013. (

Toto’s “Africa” (1982) Singles Sleeve, March 1, 2013. (

There are as many reasons my musical tastes are eclectic as there are songs that I like and love. I can’t explain it. There’s no way I can explain why I think one song sounds as unimaginative and boring as Drake’s “Started From The Bottom,” while Nickleback’s “If Today Was Your Last Day” has been one of my favorite songs over the past three and a half years.

My imagination could take the corniest song and make it epic, a mantra, my theme music. Even a song like Toto’s “Africa” (’82-’83), a song that could be interpreted as reflecting White racialism as it related to Tarzan movies of a not-so-bygone era. Yet I’ve seen their video, and probably heard the song at least 3,000 times. It ain’t that deep, but it’s still a song I like.

So, a bit of context. My grades in the early Reagan years — especially in ’82-’83, when I was in eighth grade — didn’t at all reflect our family’s slide into welfare poverty, my ongoing issues with my idiot stepfather, my suicidal struggles or my search for a real relationship with God. What I had to lean on, more than my amazing memory or World Book Encyclopedia, my parents or even God, was my imagination.

The Spark of Imagination (via x-ray), March 1, 2013. (

The Spark of Imagination (via x-ray), March 1, 2013. (

With puberty and what would turn into a ten-inch growth spurt in a span of twenty months, I became enamored with sports. And the sport I became most interested in early on was football. The strike-shortened ’82 NFL season combined with the formation of the USFL and the coming-out party for soon-to-be draft pick Herschel Walker to get my attention. The vicious hits, the acrobatic catches, the powerful throws were things that I’d seen before. I saw them through the lens of an underdog now, a downtrodden member of an abandoned family who wanted to see folks who’d overcome impossible circumstances achieve great things.

The first person who represented that for me in sports was Joe Montana, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. The only ending to a football game I’d ever watched was the end of the NFC Championship Game the year before, with the play known as “The Catch.” I didn’t even know who Joe Montana was, even after watching Dwight Clark go up and catch a ball that was only meant for him.

He was the kind of person I wanted and needed to be in order to overcome what I thought was an impossible deficit. As far as I was concerned, I had to score about a hundred touchdowns to go from welfare to college, let alone anything after college. Yet it didn’t stop me from dreaming about rolling out right to the sidelines on fourth down, sucking in Dallas’ defense, and throwing a ball toward the right-side of end zone, toward the back line, just high enough for Clark to catch and Emerson Walls not to.

It was a dream that required some theme music, and luckily for me it was ’83. Michael Jackson’s Thriller had come out at the start of eighth grade, The Police were big, Toto and Rick Springfield were at their peak, and New Edition had put out there first hit, a Jackson 5 remake. All of it gave me something more modern to move forward with, to get silly about, to “march down field” to when I needed to gear up to get an important A. I’d accidentally found a way to escape my life without ever leaving Mount Vernon.

The Jungle (1906), by Upton Sinclair, 1st Edition, March 31, 2011. (GrahamHardy via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Jungle (1906), by Upton Sinclair, 1st Edition, March 31, 2011. (GrahamHardy via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Demontravel’s and Carraccio’s classes were the first two places in which I applied this approach to my life and studies. In Carraccio’s case, it was the reading and essay assignment for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) a muckraking tale of first-generation, Eastern European, Chicago meatpackers who worked and lived in grueling conditions and where some of them gave their lives — and livers — to Swift and other companies. I’d caught a cold, had a fever, was going to the store for Mom, and had just heard Toto’s “Africa” playing at C-Town in nearby Pelham.

The song served as my background music, giving me the energy and drive I needed to finish the book. I read The Jungle in one night, three hundred pages of it in four hours. I think Carraccio gave me a 95 on my essay. She pulled me aside to say, “You know, if you wanted, you could be a really good writer.” It might’ve been the only thing she said that I thought was right on the mark all year.

Yeah, you could say that I was seriously music deprived, didn’t understand the cultural symbolism or archetypes in the song or video, or simply had and have bad tastes. Y’all may be right, too. But for me, Toto’s “Africa” struck the right note, lifted my imagination, and found the goofball within.

The Story of a Picture

February 12, 2013

MVHS ID Picture (with horizontal flip), February 12, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

MVHS ID Picture (with horizontal flip), February 12, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Many thanks to those of you who’ve responded so far to my post “Potential Boy @ The Window Book Covers” from last week. I truly appreciated all of the feedback and well wishes.

I’m sure that you noticed the one thing every potential front cover for the manuscript had in common — at least, besides the title. The picture I used on all the draft covers was of me not quite two months from my sixteenth birthday, my second Mount Vernon High School ID picture, taken in November ’85. I use this picture because there are only have a dozen or so surviving pictures of me from the period between February ’75 and November ’95.

Who knows? Between the extended Collins and Gill families, occasional photos taken by friends, acquaintances and colleagues, there could be another half-dozen more. A Sears portrait picture of me in March ’75, a couple of pictures that happened to include me from my senior year at MVHS, and a picture of me with my Uncle Sam at my graduation on June 18, ’87. That’s all I have to work with from the Boy @ The Window years, 1981-89.

There weren’t many opportunities for me to capture myself in picture mode during those years. But if I had to have one and only one picture that could encompass the physical and psychological strain, the emotional strife and torment that life and school was for me back then, the MVHS ID picture would be the one. As my good friend Cath already noted, I looked tired with “Samsonite” bags underneath my eyes the morning I took that picture.

That morning was Friday, November 8, ’85, and not a particularly memorable one at that. It seemed like I was always tired, especially before lunch, which was sixth period that year. Maybe I was hungrier than normal that morning, because I often went without. Or maybe, as usual, I hadn’t gotten a full night’s rest, sleeping in the same room with my older brother Darren and two of my younger brothers Maurice and Yiscoc. Or maybe it was a week of making extra runs to C-Town in Pelham or Milk-n-Things for food. It may well have been that I expended too much energy in Meltzer’s AP US History class second period, and I hadn’t properly paced myself.

Whatever it was, I was tired, more tired than usual. I was also fed up with the whimsical decisions of the mercurial staff at MVHS. They were the ones a full two months behind in taking ID pictures for our class, as our ninth-grade IDs were only designed to be actively used for two years. Yet they saw fit to pull us out of class fifth period to take pictures that second November Friday.

Tandy TRS-80 III, February 12, 2013. (

Tandy TRS-80 III, February 12, 2013. (

It was bad enough I had to miss Ms. Walters’ Pascal class, where I was just starting to feel comfortable with the material and the Tandy TRS-80s (or Trash 80s, as we nicknamed them). Now the idiot powers that were had the entire Class of ’87 — more than 600 of us at the time — standing in a wrapping-around-the-room line adjacent to the cafeteria, waiting for them to take our ID pictures.

The process for me lasted over an hour, but not quite seventy-five minutes. By now, it was time for my sixth-period lunch. I’d grown tired of idiot kids trying to cut the line, hearing dumb-ass conversations about music and sports and hair, and standing while the numbskulls with the camera and laminate machine took forever to process one picture at a time.

When I finally came up, I was imagining myself with a baseball bat smashing up everything while screaming as loud as I could. Only to hear the idiot with the camera yell, “Smile for me, honey!” I was nobody’s “honey,” especially the middle-aged Italian woman yelling at me to smile on command! So I narrowed my eyes — and stopped just short of rolling them — and bit down on the right corner of my lip as they took my picture.

That I was in my ripped gray zip-up hoodie, with a faded powder-blue Puma t-shirt underneath it wasn’t a surprise. It was one of a combination of clothes I wore to school as part of my “five-day rotation,” as I called it back then (an homage to baseball). I wouldn’t have worn that combination, though, had I known that MVHS would have my picture taken that day.

I left the room, grabbed what I believe was “murder burgers and suicide fries” for lunch at the cafeteria, and torpedoed them down my throat about fifteen minutes before gym. I was poor, hungry, tired, pissed, determined and greasy, in so many more ways than one, that day — in fact, every day. For one picture on one day, though, I inadvertently showed it all.

My Beef With Cory Booker’s Food Stamps Experiment

December 5, 2012

Cory Booker at the 2011 Time 100 Gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Cory Booker at the 2011 Time 100 Gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

I like Cory Booker. I worked with someone at Academy for Educational Development in the mid-00s who told me stories about Booker while she knew him at Stanford and her contact with him over the years. I’ve admired his work in Newark, for the most part, and the fact that he’s been a personable, in-your-face Twitter-accessible mayor who has fought hard for his city over the past decade.

But this week-long “I feel your pain” publicity stunt through living on $30 in food stamps (the SNAP program) seems a bad idea at best, and just plain disingenuous otherwise. Booker’s argument has been the need to raise awareness of how difficult it is to live on food stamps for the most impoverished of us, in Newark or anywhere else in the US. After being critical of Booker’s slumming it via food stamps on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I received this response from Booker through tech guru and Princeton doctoral candidate Omar Wasow:

“@decollins1969 @corybooker said you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t understand them & you can’t understand w/out shared experience”

Really? I didn’t know that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been homeless, old and sick and out of work before ramming through the Social Security Act of 1935! Or that Lyndon Johnson had been a sharecropper or beaten up for marching to Selma before pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965!

President Bill Clinton (in context of "I feel your pain" quote), July 23, 2009. (

President Bill Clinton (in context of “I feel your pain” quote), July 23, 2009. (

What worries me, though, more than anything else, is how messiah-like this tweet sounds. It would be a different story if so many politicians and journalists hadn’t run this experiment before (see my post “Slumming Lords Spinning Stories Out Of Suffering” from October ’10). It would be even more different if this experiment really opened up a dialogue on the paltry social safety net and deep poverty. Not to mention the working poor and the millions from the struggling middle class who have fallen into poverty since the start of the Great Recession more than four years ago.

But as someone who’s had way more than one week or one month’s worth of experience with poverty, WIC, welfare checks, case workers with Westchester County Department of Social Services, and of course, food stamps, I actually find these attempts to walk in the shoes of my youth — among millions of others who’ve lived in welfare poverty — insulting on so many levels (see my posts “The Five Sense of Poverty,” “Hunger,” and “Shopping at C-Town“).
Here’s what I lived with between ages twelve and seventeen (October ’82 through August ’87). As the second-oldest child and only other sane person in a household of six, then seven, then eight persons (including my four younger siblings, born between ’79 and ’84), I had many adult responsibilities. I negotiated over the phone with Con Edison and NYNEX/Bell Atlantic when we fell behind on the heat bill or the telephone bill. I walked my mom’s $275 rent check (often three weeks late in ’82 and ’83) over to the super’s office for payment, and usually was at the receiving end of verbal insults and threats for being late.
I went to Waldbaum’s, C-Town and other grocery stores almost every day after school, sometimes three times in one evening (because my mom often forgot items). I also washed clothes with my older brother Darren once a week, watched over my siblings, cooked about one out of every five meals from ’84 until I went off to college in ’87.
Lab mice "Avatars" implanted with cancer to treat cancer, October 5, 2012. (

Lab mice “Avatars” implanted with cancer to treat cancer, October 5, 2012. (

This is the short list. In doing all of this, especially once we went on welfare in April ’83 (after the birth of my now deceased sister Sarai), I learned a lot about how little Americans thought of the poor, and how little the federal government thought of people like me and my family. The average budget for my mom to raise a family of six kids with a consistently unemployed and wayward idiot (now late) stepfather was a monthly welfare check of $558, $75 in food stamps, and about $50 in WIC benefits.
Even in the best months, it meant a week to ten days with little or no food in the house. Great Northern beans and rice, $5 spaghetti and meat sauce dinners, and days without was a typical month. Unless, of course, my weekly weekend excursions to track down my father Jimme in Mount Vernon, the Bronx and sometimes in Midtown Manhattan at his favorite watering holes yielded enough extra funds to keep me, Darren and my family in food and clean clothes during the leaner times each month at 616.

So, you see Cory Booker, your publicity endeavor really teaches us little about the realities of poverty, hunger and nutrition for the poorest among us, whether in Newark, Mount Vernon, New York or the rest of the US. (Except that you have no experience stretching a dollar). Your food stamps experiment will do what it always does – get the media’s attention. But to understand the embarrassment, the cold stares, the harshness of what I went through and millions like me are going through now? One week and $30 isn’t even close to good enough.

Shopping at C-Town

September 9, 2010

C-Town Sign, Plainfield, NJ. Source: Plainfield Today,

I’ve spent very little time walking down memory lane regarding Crush #1 this year. Partly because I’m sure some of my readers are sick of hearing about my love for her, and partly because I’m sure she’s sick of hearing about herself. But this short story is more about me than her.

Twenty-seven years ago this week, I experienced my first — and nearly my last — embarrassment around food stamps at the one-time C-Town grocery store near the corner of Park Avenue and East Prospect Avenue in Mount Vernon. I was shopping after 7 pm for groceries after a quick stop at Mount Vernon Public Library early on in my freshman year at Mount Vernon High School. It was right around the last Rosh Hashanah I’d recognize as a Hebrew-Israelite, a Wednesday or Thursday night. I was buying some pinto beans, Carolina Long Grain Rice, beef neck bones and other healthy yet cheap things to eat for the next few days.

It’d always been a struggle to shop for my family during the Hebrew-Israelite years, to find kosher food, to buy strange things like matzohs or kosher salt. But it had become stranger for me earlier that year, when we ended up on welfare and using food stamps after April ’83. By that fateful evening, I’d maybe used my

Vintage Food Stamps. Source:

mother’s food stamps a half-dozen times. Other times, I’d used my father Jimme’s money to pay for the groceries, the indignity of using food stamps was so great. And when I shopped in Mount Vernon, I was acutely aware of the possibility that I could bump into one of my better-off classmates while paying for groceries with my stereotypical food stamps. As far as I was concerned, they already had too many things they could make fun of me about as it was.

So as I finished combing the slender and short aisles of C-Town for kosher bargains, I began my trek to the cash registers at the front, relieved that I hadn’t bumped into any folks I knew. Only to run into Crush #1, having beaten me to the cashier that was open at the time.” Damn,” I thought, one of the few times before the age of twenty-one that the word damn ever invaded my thoughts. She was polite enough to say “Hey, Donald,” to engage me in a short conversation about the start of high school.

Although I was usually grateful to be in my first love’s presence, all I wanted to do at that moment was run away, get out of the store as fast as I could. Instead, I went through the motions, answering her questions and asking a couple of ones about the teachers we had in common that year, like Cuglietto and Murphy. Luckily for me, she didn’t linger after she paid the cashier, and said her laters while I was still being rung up. I quickly handed the cashier my $20 in food stamps, told them to keep the Monopoly money change, and walked around the corner and down Prospect to 616 at Warp Factor 3.

The funny thing about getting older — not old, but older — is that it would take a lot more than food stamps to embarrass me these days. Especially now that you can get welfare checks and food stamps through direct deposit and EBT cards. I’m sure that Crush #1 thought nothing of our short conversation that evening, and neither did I, other than feeling awkward about the reminder that I was completely out of my league, not only from a relationship standpoint, but in terms of my lot in life overall. Boy, I’m glad that things have changed — that I’ve grown — so much in past twenty-seven years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a blog to remind me of my ridiculous past.


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