Seasons of Flu

February 26, 2013

God Bless You cartoon, January 2013, February 26, 2013. (http://www.cartoonaday.com).

God Bless You cartoon, January 2013, February 26, 2013. (http://www.cartoonaday.com).

I’ve had the flu three times in my life: February ’77, March ’86 and February ’93. I’ve had the stomach flu at least half a dozen times, including the week after I marched for my doctorate in May ’97. But given my IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) issues, the stomach flu’s nothing compared to full-on influenza.

I get my flu shots regularly these days, but twenty years ago, I knew nothing about protecting myself from the illness that has caused the deaths of 36,000 people on average every year. So it was during my second year of graduate school at Pitt. It was a particularly bad flu season in Pittsburgh — in fact, in the whole northeastern US — the winter of 1992-93.

What made that winter particularly terrible for me was the fact that I had four discussion sections of US History to 1877 students to teach that semester, 120 students in all. Not to mention the requirement of showing up for every one of Bill Stanton’s lectures, in which more than 200 students attended twice a week. I was in constant contact with students that semester, with office hours, my first letters of recommendation and students needing makeup exams.

Biohazard symbol (orange), May 29, 2009. (Nandhp via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Biohazard symbol (orange), May 29, 2009. (Nandhp via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I risked exposure to these unkempt, hygienically-challenged students at least four days a week from the beginning of January on. By the third week of February, I had a section in which six out of eighteen students had shown up with the flu or flu-like symptoms. They sneezed, coughed and breathed their way through my Friday morning class, leaving their biohazardous tissues on the conference table or in an overflowing garbage can.

My first symptoms showed up by the end of the day that last Monday in February. At first, I thought that I had caught a cold. I kept working full-tilt on my quantitative methods project to fulfill my last non-class-taking requirement before any potential PhD comprehensive exams next year. It was only a potential prospect, as I was also working with Joe Trotter and then graduate advisor John Modell on a deal to transfer my graduate school credits to Carnegie Mellon, in order to finish my history doctorate there.

So I barely noticed that Tuesday and Wednesday that my lymph nodes had swollen, my teeth started to hurt, and my body temperature seemed off. I attributed it to another cold snap, and had the nerve to even play a game of pick-up basketball up on the hill Tuesday afternoon. By the end of the day on Wednesday, though, I felt it all. I was way too hot one minute, cold and shivering the next, sweating all the while. My rose was red and running like a mucus faucet. And every part of me ached, like I was in the midst of going through three years’ worth of puberty, all at once, and all at the age of twenty-three.

I went home, hoping to be better in time for my discussion sections at 2 pm and 3 pm on Thursday. Even though I felt even worse, I went in to teach that next day, barely able to wait ten minutes for the 71B bus outside of my place on Highland Avenue. The two sections that afternoon were a blur, as my mouth was dry and my mind was a swirling mess.

The only medication I had was two packs of two-year-old Theraflu and some Advil. I’d taken one pack of the Theraflu before my sections that morning, which may have been why I felt like my mind was floating and my kidneys were flooding at the same time. My monthly TA paycheck for teaching was due to me via a direct deposit into my PNC Bank account at 12:01 am that Friday. Only then could I go get some more chicken noodle soup and safer Theraflu to take for my flu-ridden body.

Theraflu Maximum Strength, circa 1998, February 26, 2013. (http://drugstore.com).

Theraflu Maximum Strength, circa 1998, February 26, 2013. (http://drugstore.com).

I stood at the PNC Bank ATM at 12:05 am that Friday, February 26 — the one on the corner of Highland and Penn Avenue in East Liberty — shivering and looking from side to side in case some wannabe thug was on the prowl. I managed to get fresh meds and soup at Giant Eagle, and fell asleep at 1 am. Somehow I woke up six hours later, woozy, somewhat refreshed, and hoarse. I still taught my other two sections at 9 and 10 am.  Then I went home to rest, because I was to be part of some PAGPSA gathering  (see my post “James and the PAGPSA” from November ’12 for more) and presentation on campus at 6 pm that evening.

What did I learn from all of this? To stay away from sickly students, for one. To drink and take lots of vitamin C. That I should take the time off when I was really, truly sick. That flu shots were ninety-five percent effective at preventing people from picking up the flu of a given season. Most of all, that I was truly a part of this world, and that flu could kick ass in my super-strong immune system as well.


The Arrogance of Youth, Grad School Style

June 5, 2012

Me taking the most thuggishly-goofy-arrogant picture I could, June 5, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks I’ve met and known over the past three decades who think that they could sum me up in one word – arrogant. I know beyond a doubt that’s what Crush #1 thought of me back in ’82. I know that some my grad school classmates and friends varied between seeing me as “aloof,” “arrogant,” “cocky,” and “focused” in my five and a half years of master’s and doctoral work. And I know that one person I worked with in the past fifteen years thought of me as arrogant, even though I doubt that he would know what arrogance looked like if he saw it in the mirror every day, which he did (see my post “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1” from November ’11).

Former Sen. John Edwards [and new symbol of arrogance], after acquittal/mistrial, Greensboro, NC, May 31, 2012. (AP/Chuck Burton via Salon.com).

But arrogance isn’t simply cockiness run amok, or people bragging about what they intend to do without doing it, or doing it and then showing off with a Tiger Woods’ fist pump or my occasional cross-kick. It’s making assumptions about the things of life as if the march to success is a given, as if victory is guaranteed, like taking the next breath or being able to stand upright.

I did that in the spring and summer of ’93, in the transition between my grad school days at the University of Pittsburgh and my more successful yet gloomy times at Carnegie Mellon. I was a year removed from my great first year of master’s work (see my post “The 4.0 Of It All” from December ’11), and a summer removed from working for Westchester Country Department of Community Mental Health in Mount Vernon for the last time (which I will discuss later this summer). The way I saw things, I knew that God was on my side, that my hard work would pay off, that everything I did led to more success, or more money in my pocket.

I acted on those beliefs that March, April and May. I wanted to move out of my crappy studio and drug-infested apartment building on Penn Circle South in East Liberty, to what I called grad student’s row — Stratford Avenue — off North Negley and Penn Avenue between East Liberty and Friendship. I even put a deposit down on a one-bedroom apartment at the beginning of March, anticipating that I’d find something work-wise for the summer. “Something would come up,” I often thought and said. So typically American of me!

Terrell Owens, somewhere between arrogant and suicidal, 2012. (http://queensofkings.com).

I had applied for three fellowships that year, including a summer fellowship through Pitt and the Ford Foundation’s Predoctoral Fellowship Program (via the National Academies). I just knew that I’d get at least one. But the least laid plans of the arrogant often lead to the land of losses. Throughout April and May, I received rejections for all of my well-received, coming-in-second or “Honorable Mention” applications. Not to mention that my soon-to-be former grad program wouldn’t allow me to teach a US history course, though they didn’t have anyone else to teach it other than me at the time.

I realized after my mid-May root canal (see my “Facing The Tooth” post from May ’12) that I was about to enter a tough summer financially. I managed to get back my deposit for my dream apartment two weeks before I was due to move in, paying my Penn Circle South studio rent in the process. Then, with $350 to work with until further notice, I waited.

It wasn’t until the end of the first week in June that, after some qualms about my over-qualifications, Randy Brockington and the Allegheny County Department of Federal Programs hired me to work on a report. They wanted me to assess the work of their staff on the Job Training Partnership Act portion of their department. And all to the tune of $6 an hour. My mother spent the next four years teasing me about it. As if I had another option, as if coming back to 616 for the summer would be less torturous than falling six weeks behind on my rent and receiving an eviction notice.

I made one minor adjustment in my halcyon days of grad school that in-between summer of ’93. To simply not assume anything to be a sure thing, even when it was, to make Richard Marx’s “Don’t Mean Nothing” my mantra when it came to anything around money. Who knew that a little more than two months later, me and my friend Marc would have a controversial article in Black Issues in Higher Education? Who knew that less than two years later, I’d have a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, this despite my advisor? Life is a funny, ironic walk.


Facing The Tooth

May 14, 2012

My front teeth, including slightly darker lower tooth (right/my left), two root canals later, May 14, 2012, (Donald Earl Collins).

A funny series of events occurred on the transition from Pitt PhD student to Carnegie Mellon doctoral student in the spring and summer of ’93. Well, not really funny at the time. Nineteen years later, the months between April and October ’93 look like a semi-hilarious blip on my screen of life compared to what I’d gone through before and have faced since. But for a three-week period in April and May of that year, one of my teeth helped me both begin grad school at Carnegie Mellon and brought home the truth of my impoverished existence at the same time.

The week before the end of spring semester at the University of Pittsburgh — as well as the end of six years of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral work there — I woke up with a throbbing that went around the left side of my jaw. It radiated up through my left cheekbone, ear and temple. It was a toothache, one that I assumed was stress-related. Between the transfer to Carnegie Mellon, my efforts to move out of my crappy studio in East Liberty, and my search for summer work, I assume that it was just me grinding my teeth.

I relieved my stress and pain the way any normal twenty-three year-old male would. I took some Advil, went to sleep, hung out with friends and at hole-in-the-wall bars once the semester was over, and had myself a pretty good time. I took the approach that “everything will work itself out” to all the worries I had.

I also met with Carnegie Mellon’s History department’s graduate advisor that first week, John Modell (I learned later that he had been Joe Trotter’s dissertation advisor back in the mid-1970s). Modell cleared me to take the written part of the PhD comprehensive examination that the department’s second year students could take at the end of the year, which in ’93 was on May 14. Modell cleared me despite the fact that my first course as a Carnegie Mellon student wouldn’t begin until the end of August.

Then, after a week or so pain-free, I woke up a little after 5 am. I snapped up in my bed, knowing that

Severe premolar tooth decay (abscess), December 17, 2006. (Lycaon via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0 license.

something was wrong. Then, the pain came. It was like Mike Tyson had punched me in the left side of my jaw and I’d fallen head-first onto a boulder. The pain shot up and around like a puck in an NHL playoff game in overtime. The toothache was back, and it wasn’t going away.

Dumb-ass me, who rarely took meds for headaches, much less a rare toothache, tried to gut it out for a couple of days without much medicine at all. I went to Pitt that Monday and Tuesday to see if there was any chance to pick up a course to teach for the summer. There, I discovered how cold the History department administrators were regarding my time there. It turned out that there were two courses available. Even though I technically could’ve taught those courses, they held my transfer to the “other program” against me.

That made my pain worse. I couldn’t eat without a construction team of bacteria pounding my jaw. I couldn’t have a conversation without feeling brass knuckles punch my face in. I certainly couldn’t sleep more than four or five hours, and then only sitting up in a chair. By Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t think straight anymore.

I finally walked across the bridge on South Highland Avenue to a dentist’s office next to the local neighborhood laundromat, and after an hour, scheduled an appointment for 2 pm that Friday, and picked up a prescription for 800 mg Motrin pills. For someone as drug adverse as me, it might as well have been heroin. I was taking two at a time — the equivalent of eight Advil tablets — between Wednesday evening and Friday morning. In doing so, it became obvious that my lower left front tooth was the culprit, and that my dentist was correct. I needed a root canal procedure to drain the abscess.

Second floor of Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 2, 2010. (Daderot via Wikimedia). In public domain.

So it was that on that fateful May 14, with three more horse-sized Motrin pills in my system, that I took my written comprehensives on the second floor of dark and factory-like (with its sloped floors) Baker Hall. I hadn’t studied at all, and all I really wanted to do was sleep. I chose two questions: one on women’s history/rights and historiography, the other on immigration history. From 9 am until about 12:30 pm, I wrote page after page on both subjects and conjured all the books and articles that I knew on both topics, which turned out to be quite considerable. I found the comps quite easy. Easier than any hoop that I had to jump through while at Pitt.

Still, I felt the throbbing of my tooth. Not the pain — the Motrin did its job — just the nerve in the tooth and the blood supply pushing pass the well of abscess in that tooth. I handed in my essays (I filled out four booklets’ worth of essays) and meandered my way to my dentist’s office. The root canal surgery took about two hours, but it only seemed like a dream, as I fell asleep off and on throughout.

I floated the two blocks home to 6007 Penn Circle South, secure in the fact that I passed my comps (as it turned out, with high distinction, although one of the examiners was puzzled by the fact that I had used sources not taught by any of the professors in the department). Just before I hit my pillow, ready to snore for the next fifteen hours, I thought, “Boy, is this going to be a long summer!”


Sometimes Starvation

May 12, 2011

Me (at 185 lbs) & Mark James (Cropped), Pan-African Graduate & Professional Student Association, University of Pittsburgh, February 27, 1993. Lois Nembhard.

My last semester at the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad (Spring ’91), I took a one-credit Weight Training course. I wanted to learn how to use free weights and weight machines so that I could build muscle tone. I wanted a course that would be easy for me to pass, one in which I could burn up my anxieties while awaiting word about my graduate school future.

Over the course of the semester, I did build muscle. I weighed 175 pounds in January. By my last class on the twenty-third of April, I weighed 183 pounds. I was proud of the fact that the eight-pound gain was all muscle.

But with the end of the school year and undergrad at Pitt came a crisis. Even though I’d start work on the twenty-nine with the PAARC project at Western Psychiatric as a full-time employee, I wouldn’t receive a paycheck that Friday, the third of May. Instead, I’d have to work for three weeks before receiving pay. After a year of underemployment as a student (I only worked ten or twelve hours a week because I couldn’t pay the other half of my tuition via student loans and keep my work-study allotment at the same time), I thought I was finally over the hump.

It was bad enough that despite my degree, which qualified me for $8.50 an hour, Andrea Hegedus and the other PAARC  bosses only saw fit to pay me at $5.20 per hour. Now I knew that I’d have to figure out how to live on $30 for the next three weeks.

The first week went well enough. I brought lunch from home, consisting of a dried-up hamburger on wheat bread one day, leftover spaghetti the next, and a couple of days in which I didn’t eat lunch at all. That was because I saved my baked chicken and spaghetti leftovers for dinner. I also conserved money by walking the two and a half miles between my apartment on the East Liberty/Shadyside neighborhood border and the Oakland neighborhood in which Pitt and Western Psychiatric are located. Each way.

My Route To/From Work, 6007 Penn Cir S, Pittsburgh, PA 15206 to Atwood St & Forbes Ave - Google Maps, May 12, 2011.

By the end of the second week, I was down to my last $5. It was the tenth of May, and I had another week before payday. It was bad enough I walked five miles to and from work every day and skipped lunch all that second week. The PAARC folks used me to do everything from going to Giant Eagle to buy half-and-half for their coffee to running across Pitt’s campus hunting for books and making 3,000 copies of X and 2,200 copies of Y. Mind you, they hired me to design databases and input data. Surprise, surprise, I had a headache at the end of every work day.

That Friday, I got a call from my old job at Westchester County Department of Federal Programs. It was my boss from the previous summer and holiday season, Joe Carbone, wanting to know if I’d come work for him another summer. Working for him had been a wonderful experience. But the reason I stayed in Pittsburgh was because I wanted to explore the option of grad school as far as possible, even if it meant getting doors slammed in my face. I couldn’t do that while working in White Plains and living at 616 all summer. So, reluctantly, I said, “No, I can’t do it this year,” knowing that I’d get an earful from Mom once I told her my decision.

The one and only time in my life I dined on these, May 12-16, 1991. Source: http://www.stevegarufi.com/ramen1.jpg

It seemed a ridiculous decision two days later. I was down to my final $2.10. I went to Giant Eagle that Sunday, bought a six-pack of ramen noodles for a dollar, and two packs of Kool-Aid for forty cents more. I had enough to by a can of soda, maybe some candy, and that was it until the seventeenth of May.

What compounded my confounding decision was that I remained sixth on the teaching assistant fellowship waiting list in Pitt’s History Department. What made that worse was the fact that no fewer than four students had passed me on the list since I’d first seen it four weeks earlier, all White and male.

Somehow, though, I had faith beyond my circumstances that things were going to work out just fine. I guess all those years of malnutrition at 616 helped me. By the week after my first paycheck for the summer, grad school at Pitt was a done deal, and I had food to eat again.

I weighed myself about five days after my starvation diet at the student athletic center. I weighed 167 pounds, which meant that my weight had dropped to nearly 160 pounds by May 17, and had only begun to recover. I could see nearly all of my ribs, front and back, not to mention my collarbone.

By the Wednesday after three weeks of little and no food, none of that ordeal mattered. For the miracle that I’d hoped in happened just days after my infamous “No” to Joe Carbone. (to be continued).


Finding Home

August 30, 2010

Highland Building (tall) and 6007 Penn Circle South (short). Source: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com

A flat at 48 Adams Street in Mount Vernon, New York. Followed by one at 24 Adams Street. Then 48 Adams Street again. Then the entire second floor of the house at 425 South Sixth Avenue. After that, a 1,200-square-foot apartment on the third floor of the front building of the 616 East Lincoln Avenue

48 Adams Street, circa 2006

complex. After going to Pittsburgh for college, a dorm room at Lothrop Hall my freshman year. Five days of Howard Johnson’s and sleeping on a concrete landing on the fifth floor in a stairwell at Forbes Quadrangle (now Wesley Posvar Hall) the beginning of my sophomore year. A poorly partitioned one-room flat with a shared kitchen and bathroom in a firetrap for a row house, 25 Welsford Avenue, the rest of my sophomore and all of my junior years at Pitt.

The above is every place I’ve lived during my first twenty years on the planet. I never felt at home in any of those places, and when I’d come close, something violent or life changing would occur to remove that feeling of at least a sense of minor uneasiness. Alcoholism, domestic violence, divorce, second marriage, financial pressures, religious stupidity, more domestic violence and abuse, more siblings, financial collapse, college, homelessness, lack of funds and privacy defined the spaces in which I lived between ’69 and ’90. I was mostly lonely and yet hardly alone for all of those years. I had about as much space to think and write as I would’ve had in a bathroom stall at Grand Central before the renovations there during the ’90s (a story for another post). Which is why most of my Mount Vernon classmates and friends can testify to dozens of “Donald sightings” — me walking everywhere — between the ages of twelve and eighteen.

I made the decision after my junior year to find my own place, my own space, as close to or as far away from Pitt’s campus as I could. I took a week off from my summer job at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health in White Plains at the beginning of August ’90 and took the express Greyhound to the ‘Burgh. I stayed with my friend Terri and her mother — a blog post unto itself — while looking all over the city and its po’ White and Black trash suburbs for anything between $150 and $300 a month in rent, one with my own kitchen and bath.

I found a nice place in Wilkinsburg, only discouraged by the distance it was from the East Busway East Busway near East Liberty stop. Source: http://www.pittsburghtransit.info(Pittsburgh elected in ’64 to spend twenty years building a busway instead of a subway to connect downtown with the suburbs — talk about being cheap!) and Pitt. Not to mention feeling uneasy about a slightly older next door neighbor who looked like she caroused a bit too much. I looked at places in Shady Side, Squirrel Hill, Highland Park, North Oakland, off Braddock Road and near Frick Park, even the Manchester and Friendship neighborhoods (somewhere between middle class, affluent, and student housing). The rent was either too rich for me or the places looked a bit run down.

Finally, on my next to last day to look, I found a place at 6007 Penn Circle South in East Liberty, right

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, down the street. Source: http://www.citizendia.org

across from the Shady Side neighborhood. It was a one-room efficiency (calling it a “studio” would make it sound better than it was). I had a kitchenette area with a sink, counter, cabinets, a stove and oven with a ventilation fan, and a fridge. I had my own bathroom and enough closet space for my meager clothes and toiletries. I was within walking distance of Giant Eagle, the big grocery store in the area, as well as the busway. The Highland Park Zoo bus, the 71B, as well as the 71C, ran their way to Oakland and Pitt. And Pitt was within my walking distance back then — it was more than two and a half miles from Penn Circle South to the Cathedral of Learning.

It was $220 if rent for each month was paid before the first day of the month, and $245 if not. I took the 450-square-foot flat, this despite some of the riff-raff living in the building, the hole-in-the-wall bar Constantine’s within a couple of blocks, or Kelly’s Bar for the down and out across the street. The heating and cooling, the toilet and shower, the food in my fridge was all mine. My friends Kenny, Elaine, Marc all thought it was a dump. Maybe so, especially compared to the places I’ve lived since. But it was my dump. Those eight and a half years there, I learned so much about myself and life and God and women and love. I learned how to live my life while I was in apartment 204. That began twenty years ago today. The building’s now gone (at least, it was slated to be), but the memories remain.


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