My First Mugging

April 3, 2014

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

New York mugging, Granger (1857), April 3, 2014. (http://chroniclevitae.com).

This is another story not in Boy @ The Window, though it could’ve been. It was thirty-five years ago this week that a group of my preteen neighbors from the Pearsall Drive projects (now the Vernon Woods co-op community) jumped me on my way home from the store, beat me up and stole a grand total of four dollars. It seems like such a small thing now, getting mugged for the first time, a block from 616 East Lincoln, our apartment building on the eastern edge of Mount Vernon, New York. Still, I learned a few things on that first Saturday in April ’79 about myself, my older brother, my mother and humans in general, things that haven’t changed in the three and a half decades since.

That particular day was definitely a crisp early spring one, windy, partly sunny and cloudy, just warm enough not to need a winter coat. I’d barely been out the house at all since attempting to run away from home some four months earlier. In the months in between, I’d been engrossed in reading everything I could, especially World Book Encyclopedia, not to mention what I hadn’t already read in Charles Schulz’ Peanuts series.

I hadn’t been out the apartment to do much of anything other than go to school or to the store. So little was my time outside that when I had to do a full food shop, I’d forgotten a few basic rules about protecting myself. Like making sure that a group of nine-to-fourteen-year-olds weren’t following us home from the local grocery store. And making sure to take the most direct route home when I could, or a circuitous route home when necessary. Going west on the north side of East Lincoln, making a left on Station Place, then a left on Lafayette Avenue, then a final left on Bradley, walking four short blocks that would’ve left us in front of 616.

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

134 Pearsall Drive (now part of the Vernon Woods co-op complex), April 3, 2014. (http://trulia.com)

On this day, the circuitous route would’ve been better. But that would’ve meant me being better, too. I was already not feeling well when I left with Darren for the grocery store. I had a stomach ache, and the diarrhea that came with it. So my best bet was to go to the store at 671 East Lincoln with Darren, cross over to the south side of East Lincoln, and walk as quickly as we could back to 616.

Only, the half-dozen boys trailing me and Darren back home had crossed with us, and immediately tried to surround us near East Lincoln and Pearsall. Darren, to his credit, ran off for home, leaving me alone and holding two paper bags of groceries. Somewhere between “nigga” and “muthafucka” and “giv’ me the money,” I struggled and ran away with the groceries, where after a minute or two, I ended up in the bottom floor of one of the project buildings.

I was jumped again, punched in the face and the mouth until one of the wannabe thugs had busted my lip and left me bleeding down the side of my face. I somehow crapped on myself during the run, but hadn’t noticed because I was too busy trying to not get mugged. After they took the four dollars’ worth of change I had in my right pant pocket, another wannabe said, “Oh shit, the punk dukeyed on hisself!” They laughed and left me there, in this abandoned, junky apartment, garbage and groceries and two ripped grocery bags all over the room, bloodied and soiled.

I picked up all I could from what remained of the groceries and began the long one-block walk home. By the time I walked through the front door, there was my Mom, angry with me about the groceries. “What I’m gonna do with this!” she said. It was afterward that she noticed my condition. “You let them kids scare the shit out of you!,” she gasped with what seemed like a bit of laughter in her voice. I said, very angrily, “I told you before I left that I had diarrhea!,” then went into the bathroom and cried.

Oscar de la Hoya's face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

Oscar de la Hoya’s face after his beat-down via Manny Pacquiao, December 6, 2008. (AP via http://boxingscene.com).

My Mom came in later to help me wash myself down. In the meantime, I had a bruised left cheek, a busted lip, feces all over my lower body, and soreness all over my ribs and stomach. It took about twenty minutes in all, but by the time I was done and washed, I went into mine and Darren’s bedroom and fell asleep.

It was April 7, ’79, and I already knew that I couldn’t count on my older brother to help whenever there would be a crisis. I knew that my Mom cared about me, but apparently not enough to keep me protected. I knew that the assholes that lived around me wouldn’t have minded it if I’d been run over by a Mack truck, as long as they could get a dollar out of me. I knew, most of all, that I needed to look out for myself as much as I could, since there weren’t any cousins or other family around to look out for me.

So when at the end of ’83, the city had sold the projects at Pearsall Drive to a real estate developer, though I was sad for a few individuals, I wasn’t sad in general. Those wannabes had helped make one relatively small aspect of my life — going to the store, going outside and going to Wilson’s Woods — miserable. And with so much misery in my life already, I was glad to see many of those kids move away.


Reaching Level 42

December 27, 2011

We all get used to playing certain roles in life, no matter how uncomfortably those roles fit. Privileged, rich, powerful and entitled Americans are accustomed to shitting on the little guy and using all of their resources to maintain their separation from the rest of us. Attractive women — especially White blondes and Black women with music video bodies — tend to act as if the world’s purpose is to serve them. Religious people who somehow believe that it’s their role to tell every person they meet how to deal with all of the issues they face in life, without a real understanding of those people or their lives.

I’ve gotten used to the role of the eldest sibling over the past thirty years. This despite all of the growing pains I went through in the ’80s to take on this role, in spite of the fact that I have an older brother, one two years and eighteen days older than me.

My older brother Darren, as I put it more than twenty-five years ago, “abdicated the throne” of eldest brother by the time I was in the middle of puberty. That happened twenty-nine Decembers ago. Once our family went off the cliffs of the Himalayas and plunged into the hell of Hebrew-Israelites, abuse, abject poverty, responsibility became my motto. Add to that four more mouths to feed between ’79 and ’84, but with only enough food in the house to feed us twenty out of every thirty days, and it became obvious that someone had to do something.

Darren withdrew into the fantasy world that he’d constructed through his psychological imprisonment at The Clear View School in Briarcliff Manor, a school for the mentally retarded (see “About My Brother” post from December ’07). Except that Darren wasn’t mentally retarded. But he played up that role as life at 616 became tougher after the ’81 no-Chanukah, no-Christmas, no-Kwanzaa season. Darren would rock back and forth in his too-small twin bed, as if in a catatonic state. Or he’d spontaneously jump up and down by himself in our bedroom or while in the bathroom, making a high-pitched “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee” sound while nearly hitting the top of his six-foot frame on the ceiling.

Mostly, my older brother would make himself sound as stupid as he possibly could to get out of anything to do with all of the craziness at 616. His favorite answer to any question from our mom or from our idiot ex-stepfather Maurice was, “I Dunno.” And he’s say it over and over again. For nearly a year, stupid ass Maurice attempted to conduct a version of Torah study with us on Saturdays. Every time Maurice asked Darren what he learned, my brother would say, “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth…,” regardless of what book we were charged with reading. By August ’82, Darren was permanently excused from Torah study.

Darren did what he did to get out of going to the store, or washing dishes, or helping out with “those kids,” or anything that meant him acting like his IQ was higher than eighty-five. Some neighborhood guys who knew my brother then would ask me, “What’s wrong with yo’ brotha’, man?,” and I’d say, “Nothing.”

How did I know? Because for three years, every time he boarded his 7:40 am school bus to go to Clear View, off came his kufi or yarmulke. Because outside of 616, Darren ate whatever he wanted, whether it was a lard-based Hostess’ Apple Pie or a ham and cheese sandwich. Because Darren was smart enough to realize that perception for most people — most of us undiscerning and self-absorbed Americans, anyway — is reality, and that acting like he was severely mentally retarded would save him from the worst effects of living with a family that had fallen apart.

So everything fell on me. At first, it was going to the store and watching over my younger siblings Maurice and Yiscoc. By the time I began puberty, it was taking punches from Maurice and tracking down my father Jimme for money. By the time of Michael Jackson’s last single release from Thriller in early ’84, it was cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, protecting my four younger siblings, and maintaining some sense of sanity for myself and them. I did it because I had no choice, but I helped grow a jealousy and competition in Darren that he’s yet to give up on.

It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be who I am today without growing up the way I did. But who in their right mind would want to go through what I went through? At the time, it was so much better to be Darren. Only in the last ten years have I realized how much Darren gave up. His sanity, his piece of mine, his development as a human being, as a Black male. All shredded in his well-practiced Clear View persona.

At forty-two years old today, I’m forever learning and relearning, but my ironic, goofy, sarcastic, contrarian, honest and caring, disdainful and cocky persona is well-marbled. Darren’s, sadly, remains trapped in jealousy and misery, and there’s nothing I can do about it.


A Baseball Bat and a Father’s Absence

July 19, 2011

One Louisville Slugger, July 19, 2011. (Source/http://businessweek.com)

Today my father Jimme (his birth certificate name, as he actually goes by Jimmie) turns seventy-one. He’s in better health now than he was ten, twenty, and especially thirty years ago. That’s because this time in ’81, my father had apparently died for a few seconds on the operating table as doctors drilled into his brain to relieve pressure after a man did his best to dispatch him from this world. The incident, operation and time in the hospital meant that Jimme would be out of my life for almost fifteen months. It meant that I’d have a question to answer: what does a preteen boy do when his father is absent, and his best friend has shunned him? For that matter, what does a Black kid do under those circumstances?

But I’m jumping ahead of my story here. For over a week in July ’81, my father lingered in an ICU bed in Mount Vernon Hospital after he’d been reported dead in the Obituary section of the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. Jimme ended up in the hospital because he’d made fun of another, bigger drunk, calling him a “po’

Grandpa, Me, and Noah, September 12, 2010. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

ass muddafucca” at what we called “Wino Park” on South Fulton and East Third. So much was the humiliation that the man marched home, grabbed a Louisville Slugger, and returned to repeatedly smash my dad in the head until he was unconscious. Luckily, Jimme has a classic Collins head, hard enough to be used as a wrecking ball or 120 mm shell.

His near-death experience was not all that shocking for us, at least not obviously so. My father’s life in the New York City area had turned into a slow motion tragedy of errors long before I was old enough to witness one of his drinking binges and hangovers. And Jimme regularly went on alcohol-laced benders, ones that began on payday Friday and ended on Monday or Tuesday. As he liked to say, he “got to’ up” almost every weekend — “tore up” for those unfamiliar with Jimme-ese. This was going on for years before Mom had filed for divorce in July ’76.

Jimme also had a habit of saying, “O’ bo’, I can’t do dis no mo’. Gotta stop doin’ dis. Nex’ week, nex’ week. I’ll stop drinkin’ nex’ week.” All while shaking his head, his eyes down, ashamed of how he felt and looked once the binge had ended. Jimme never said “now” or “this week.” It was always next week with him. If there was any week where “nex’ week” should’ve been the week, it was that Friday in early July.

With that incident, the next time I’d see my father would be July ’82, being threatened by my stupid stepfather, who chased Jimme out of 616 for trying to see me. Dumb ass Maurice was in the middle of his five-week, abuse-and-break-Donald program, and didn’t want my real father interrupting his efforts to turn me into his prag. Witnessing that incident wasn’t a pleasant experience.

From July ’81 through August ’82, with Jimme absent and Starling no longer my friend, I really had no other Black males in my life with whom I could draw inspiration. My older brother Darren? He was already jealous of me and had withdrawn into the world of The Clear View School, acting out his role as a mentally retarded kid who wasn’t mentally retarded. My uncle Sam (my mother’s brother)? Really? I’ve seen him more in the past ten years, with me living in suburban DC, than I saw him through the ’80s and ’90s.

That left my idiot stepfather, who, at least in the summer of ’81, was there, and had gotten back together with

Wolf in sheep's clothing, a false prophet (a symbol of my ex-stepfather), November 2008. (Source/flickr.com)

my mother, and had converted us into Hebrew-Israelites. This must’ve been why I clung so hard and so long to my kufi identity, even when I knew that something was wrong. With this sudden change in religion, from lethargic and unacknowledged Baptists to Afrocentric Black Jews. With me treating my stepfather as if he really was a parent of mine. With me wanting to prove myself to others in ways I never felt I needed to before.

This wasn’t something I was conscious of, at least in ’81 or in the first half of ’82. I wish I had been. At least, then, I would’ve realized. That, more than anything else, I missed my dad and my best friend. And I was using my stepfather and his religion as a piss-poor substitute for both.


Summer Camp

June 20, 2009

I’ve had more than a few friends ask me, “Are you sure your doctorate’s not in psychology?” over the years. I usually laughed it off, saying that well-heeled historians are ones that can look at the human condition through a variety of disciplines. But that’s hardly the whole truth. I have a lifetime of experiences that have enabled me to play the role of pop psychologist and psychiatrist, mostly because of Darren and issues related to him.

For example, if this were any summer between ‘77 and ‘83, these would’ve been years I could’ve gone with my older brother to his summer day camps at The Clear View School in Dobbs Ferry, upper Westchester County. For four summers I did go with Darren to his private school for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, between ‘77 and ‘80. It was a strange experience, but I learned a lot about diversity, the human psyche, and perceptions of intelligence. I hardly realized how much until much later, in my years in the workforce and in grad school.

The first two summers at Clear View were a blur for me. I remember a few things. Like going to see Star Wars for the first time. Or going swimming, learning how to ride a bike, bowling, and lots of other fun activities. In that sense, Clear View was a fun place to be. I picked up a bunch of things there that I would’ve never learned at 616.

It wasn’t until my third summer there, the summer of ‘79, that I noticed the distinct differences between myself and Darren’s friends and classmates. Not to mention between Darren and them. It came as a bit of a shock to realize that Darren simply didn’t belong at a school for the mentally retarded — he was acting out at times in order to get whatever he wanted. As for me, I seldom had any lengthy conversations with the other kids. Not for lack of trying, though. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade for me, and I’d already become used to talking politics and pop culture with a few kids my age.

I ended up talking mostly with staff, summer staff or regular staff. It didn’t matter. Even as socially awkward some of the teachers were, it was far better than forcing a conversation with a kid who might’ve had the equivalent abilities of Noah at two and a half or three years old. I had nothing against the kids at Clear View. They obviously suffered from Down’s syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder, severe brain injuries and so on. But at nine years old, I recognized the differences, and they were in stark contrast to anything I’d ever seen from Darren. I knew by the middle of that summer that my older brother wasn’t mentally retarded. I also knew, deep down, that staying at Clear View would do permanent damage to his psyche and destroy his best chances at living a normal life.

A visit to Mrs. Holtslag’s (Darren’s psychiatrist’s) Hastings-on-the-Hudson home in ’79, in which the front sat on a hill, the back on stilts, all overlooking a pale sandy-rock beach and the Hudson River below, was further evidence of both his relative normal-ness and of what bothered me about Clear View. This was my first experience of visiting anyone from an affluent or upper-middle class background, and certainly anyone White. A bunch of kids were there, including Darren. My older brother’s well-practiced autistic behavior — similar to at least three of his friends — was what bothered me about the visit. That, and being in a house I’d only seen before in a Hollywood movie. Wow, I remember thinking. Psychiatrists must make a ton of money.

I learned about other things affluent and White through my summers at Clear View in ‘79 and ‘80. That Darren’s initial diagnosis had changed, from “mildly mentally retarded” to “emotional mentally retarded.” That Clear View’s tuition was $33,000 a year – about $55,000 in today’s dollars. That New York State was paying for all of the tuition. That our group of healthy-eating White counselors thought that a cottage cheese and cucumber sandwich on whole wheat was a normal lunch. And that they were moving in ‘81 to a lush private campus in Briarcliff Manor.

I did get something out of that summer. Another layer of eclectic-ness to add to my already eclectic music tastes. Donna Summer, meet Kool & The Gang. Billy Joel, meet Barbra Streisand. I did get to see Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. But I also saw affluent White parents who’d occasionally visit, sometimes with their “normal” kids in tow. It made me realize that despite all of the hardships of life, many of these mentally retarded and developmental disabled kids had it better financially than anything I would see for more than twenty years. That’s hardly to say that this wasn’t a hardship, either for the parents or the kids in question. It was something I noticed, an ironic twist between the psychology of race and class and the psychiatry involved in working with both.

I provoked my mother into at least thinking about getting Darren out of Clear View after my last summer there in ‘80, six years after my father Jimme had him placed there because of Darren’s shyness. Darren at twelve had been institutionalized long enough to become more comfortable around the mentally retarded than in mainstream settings. He threw a temper-tantrum, kicking and screaming on the floor of our neighborhood laundromat when my mother suggested that she should send him to our local public school. My mother gave up, saying that “Darren only listens to White people,” and Darren stayed at Clear View for another seven years. This was typical Mom, taking the path of least resistance when the best option was often the more difficult one. It’s sad, but I still haven’t given up, on Darren or my mother.


About My Brother

December 6, 2007

This Sunday, December 9, my older brother Darren Lynard Gill turns 40 years old. It should be a day of pride, of tears of joy and long-suffering, of wondering about entering the prime decade of his life and my soon joining him there. With our relationship and my older brother’s life as such, there is only the hope that both get better before it’s too late for us.

You see, Darren had both the blessing and the curse of being the first-born son of our mother and our father Jimme Collins (they weren’t married at the time Darren was born) when he was born in ’67. It was a period in which both of our parents were still people full of hopes and dreams. It when my father was nothing more than an occasional social binge drinker and my mother was on the verge of becoming a supervisor of Mount Vernon Hospital’s Dietary Department. Darren became the embodies of their hopes and dreams.

And it should’ve been obvious that at least one of their hopes in Darren came true during his toddler years. All during her first pregnancy, according to my mother, my Uncle Sam, and a number of my mother’s friends at the time, all my mother prayed about was for Darren to be healthy and brilliant. She got what she wished for when Darren turned three. Sometime in 1971, my brother had taught himself how to read. The story goes that Darren was sitting at the dinner table in our second-floor flat at 48 Adams Street while my mother and father and me were milling about. Suddenly, they noticed that Darren had picked up a box of Diamond Crystal Salt and began reading the words on the box. Not just the letter, the actual words “salt” and “diamond” and “crystal”! If he hadn’t been moving his finger from left to right as he was doing this, I don’t think my mother and father would’ve believed what they’d witnessed at all.

This story doesn’t exactly take Darren to the academic decathlon. There was something else Darren inherited from my mother and father besides a high capacity for analytical thinking. He was also extremely shy and didn’t like being around lots of people. For both of them, this shyness needed to be taken care of, as if being shy is some sort of curse. My mother’s solution was placing Darren in Headstart in ’73 and ’74 (delaying his start in public school a full year) so that the shyness issue wouldn’t be one when he started school.

Jimme took this idea one step further and farther. He decided one day that Darren was too much like himself. After seeing an ad for a special school in Upper Westchester County called Clearview, he took us up to Dobbs Ferry (where the school was located at the time) so that Darren could be examined by a group of professionals. After a battery of psychological exams and an IQ test, they determined that my brother was mentally retarded. Darren would begin school in September ’74 at the Clearview School as a day student. Neither of our lives would ever be the same.

But before Darren became an institutionalized version of his shy and wonderfully intelligent self, he gave me the same gift he gave himself. I started kindergarten at Nathan Hale the same fall he started going to Clearview. I already knew and recognized my ABC’s, but couldn’t always make out or sound out words, and didn’t recognize them in sentence form. One afternoon between Christmas and New Years at the end of ’74, we sat down and went through sentence after sentence until I could recognize and read a sentence. He literally changed my life, and I didn’t even know it.

For years after that we remained close. We’d fight like all brothers fight. The main issue besides Clearview was my mother, who treated Darren as if he really was retarded while treating me more favorably because I wasn’t shy like Darren. Between my mother and father’s divorce in ’76-’77, my mother’s second marriage to Maurice, and the kids, poverty, abuse and bizarre religion that would come into our lives on the North Side of Mount Vernon, distance began to grow between us.

The key changes included a temper-tantrum that Darren threw in the middle of a Pelham laundromat in the summer of ’80, when my mother suggested that it was time to move my twelve-year-old brother into a “normal school.” It also included all of the abuse I took from my stepfather two summers later while Darren was off at Clearview’s summer day camp having the time of his life. By the time puberty struck, Darren was jealous of me and I was finding it hard to relate to him and survive 616 East Lincoln at the same time.

Darren would remain a student at Clearview until the year after I finished high school. For fourteen years, the state of New York covered his $33,000-a-year (in 1982 dollars) tuition, as he just slid under the public school accommodations radar for the mildly mentally retarded. I always knew that Darren was retarded, even though he now mimicked the severely retarded students he’d spent day after day with over the years. Through a dispensation granted by the Mount Vernon Board of Education, Darren graduated with the rest of the Mount Vernon High School Class of ’88, even though he had not spent a day in a public school.

From that point on, Darren was jealous of everything I did. I score a 5 on the AP American History exam, and Darren would take the CollegeBoard score sheet and dump it in the garbage. I get into the University of Pittsburgh, and Darren would enroll in college at home for a semester just to prove that he was just as good as me. If I said I was dating someone, Darren would stop talking to me altogether. Even during our Thanksgiving visit to Mount Vernon last year, Darren became angry with me because I offered and gave him a ride home in my family car, even though he wanted to walk in the pouring, freezing rain. I’ve never been able to have a normal conversation with him for fear of pissing him off or making him feel bad or him letting me know how much better my life has been compared to his.

The truth is, I do feel guilty sometimes about where Darren is in his life. For nearly twenty years, Darren has lived in a one-room flat, where he shares a bathroom and a kitchen in South Side Mount Vernon. His jobs have never paid more than $10 an hour. He’s often too afraid to say “Hi” to a woman he’s attracted to. He’s never learned how to drive and hasn’t taken a college-level course since the end of ’88. I’ve tried many, many times to reach out to him, to give him comfort and out of my hard earned wisdom and knowledge. I went through with my family intervention in ’02 in part because I wanted Darren to see what went wrong for our mother and Jimme as far as his education was concerned. Darren rejects almost all that I have to say and give him out of hand, with a smile of meanness that is praying hard for my failure in this life.

My wife says sometimes that she’s surprised that Darren hasn’t tried to kill himself yet. I’m not, if only because someone with Darren’s level of misery wants to see other people suffer with him, in this life, not in the next. That’s why he regularly visits our mother on Sundays for dinner, to remind her of one of the biggest mistakes she’s ever made. It’s why he regularly calls our father for money, to remind him of the idiotic decisions he has made on Darren’s behalf. It’s why Darren wears a permanent smirk on his face, to conceal his contempt for us all.

But I do want to remind him and anyone who knows either of us one thing. I wouldn’t be the intellectual I am today if Darren hadn’t taken the time to teach me how to read. He stepped in the breach to save me from years of catch-up in public school at a time when no one else in my life was willing or able to. Darren is a better person than me, because without him I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today. Happy Birthday Darren! I love you very much.


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