Killing Joe Trotter

June 10, 2014

Yeah, I did it. I killed the man who kinged himself mentor over me. I took some piano wire, tightened it around my hands while listening to him yammer on an on about “running interference” to protect “my interests.

As the pointy-headed, smoothly bald and mahogany man gazed at my thesis, myopically gazing into nowhere, I pounced. I quickly jumped out of my seat and took Trotter from behind. He clutched at the wire with his elderly left hand as I pulled and tugged, hoping to prolong the bloody agony for as long as I could. Trotter choked for air, then choked for real, as spit, bile, blood and tongue all became his substitute for oxygen. Then, with one bicep curl and pull, I garroted his throat, and watched as his already dead eyes turned lifeless. All as his burgundy blood poured down his white shirt and gray suit. It collected into a small pond, where his pants crotch and his mahogany office chair met. Trotter’s was a chair that was now fully endowed all right. Thanks to my righteous stand.


Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

Tired, mentally drained, battery, March 2014. (

First, a disclaimer. I am in no way advocating killing Joe Trotter, or any other professor, whether they’re a great advisor or a terrible one (except perhaps in the case of literal self-defense). This was how I imagined what I could do to Trotter in the spring and summer of ’96, as our battles over my dissertation and my future turned from typical to ugly. By mid-July ’96, after his handwritten all-caps comments telling me to disregard my evidence on Black migration to DC during the Great Migration period (1915-30) — or really, the lack of evidence — I was mentally drained. I went back to our first big arguments over my future, the “you’re not ready” meetings from November ’95 and April ’96, and thought about what I could’ve done if I’d stayed in his office five minutes longer. That’s when I imagined killing my advisor for the first time.

By the time Trotter and my dissertation committee had approved my magnum opus, the week before Thanksgiving in ’96, I’d played that scenario in my head at least a dozen times. That’s when I knew I was burned out from the whole process. I may have become Dr. Collins, but I might as well have been my younger and abused self, the one who had to wade through five years of suffering at 616 and in Mount Vernon just to get to college.

Four months ago, I actually dreamed about killing Joe Trotter, exactly as described above, in his office, on a warm spring day like I imagined eighteen years ago. Keep in mind, I don’t think about Trotter much these days, other than when I write a blog post or am in a discussion of worst dissertation advisors ever. So when I woke up from this old-imagination-turned-dream, I had a Boy @ The Window moment and revelation. Did my struggles with Trotter open up old wounds, unearth my deliberately buried past? Did I see my fight with Trotter over my dissertation in the same light as my guerrilla warfare with my abusive and manipulative ex-stepfather?

I obviously brought baggage into my doctoral process that I’d hidden from everyone, including myself, and hadn’t fully resolved. The fact that Trotter was at times tyrannical, deceitful and paternalistic didn’t help matters. In some ways, then, Trotter must’ve morphed into Maurice Washington during the dissertation process, with me only half-realizing it once I was freshly minted.

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

Emotional and psychological baggage, January 2014. (

I actually went to Trotter’s office a few weeks after I graduated, to apologize for how our relationship devolved, and to grant him my forgiveness as well. Arrogant as my act was, I needed to make the gesture, to at least begin my healing process. I knew Trotter was beyond surprised, but he shook my hand anyway. I also knew, as I walked away from his Baker Hall office, that other than a letter of recommendation, Trotter no longer had anything to offer me. At least, anything that would help me resolve some deep, underlying issues.

It’s safe to say that of all the reasons that led to me writing Boy @ The Window, my problems with Trotter in ’95 and ’96 were near the top of the list. Still, I needed to kill the idea that Trotter was an indispensable part of my present and future, if I were to ever resolve the issues from my growing-up past.

When Those Close Put Up Roadblocks

June 7, 2014

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (

Detours vs. roadblocks, June 1, 2012. (

This was the best title I could come up with, since it’s about folks in my life with whom I’ve shared some affinity over the years, beyond family, and to a lesser extent, friendships. This isn’t about haters or crabs-in-the-barrel mentality per se. It’s simply the observation that as I pursue dreams and push through goals in life that some whom have the choice between being supportive or actively working against my interests, how more than a few have chosen to do the latter.

That this has occurred in my life mostly as I pursued my doctorate and pressed on as a writer isn’t a coincidence. The things I’ve worked the hardest for in life, the dreams most difficult to achieve, the amount of energy and pressing through needed to overcome my own doubts in the process — all came with an audience of detractors. A bit more than twenty years ago, some of my Pitt friends started falling by the wayside as I pursued my grad degrees, which is normal, but there were some pretty weird conversations I had with them as they did. One insisted on calling me “Dr. Don” about a dozen times during a PAT Transit bus ride one day in September ’92, laughing to the point of hilarity while doing it. I thought that he was going to choke on his own spit all the while, he was laughing so hard. Or that I was going to choke him myself if he said “Dr. Don” one more time!

Screen shot of character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) with "Sellout" addition (not an endorsement, by the way), October 31, 2013. (

Screen shot of character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained (2012) with “Sellout” addition (not an endorsement, by the way), October 31, 2013. (

Another guy — who eventually committed suicide in ’98 — told me straight up that people like me were “sellouts,” that “The Man” wasn’t going to accept people like me or him “no matta how many degrees we get” or don’t get. That was six weeks before my committee approved my dissertation, in October ’96. Luckily, I learned not to bring up my education to folks unless it was for professional purposes or unless someone asked.

That these were Black acquaintances from my days as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh was a bit surprising, considering that my tendency is to always encourage folks to pursue their dreams. I’d always assumed the worst of the folks — Black, White, Afro-Caribbean and Latino — that I grew up with in Mount Vernon, New York, precisely because their encouragement literally made me suicidal by the time I turned fourteen. By the late-90s, I realized this was more than a New-York-area-social-etiquette-disorder.

With writing and books over the past decade — especially with Boy @ The Window — I’ve experienced some of those same headwinds from folks who seemed to think they had a better idea for the direction of my life than I. When I first started working on my memoir at the end of ’06, I had a conversation with my Pitt and AED colleague Stacey, whom I’d known for sixteen years. Upon telling her about my project, she said, “You need to wait on that,” that I should “publish a few more books,” be in my fifties, before “writin’ a biography.” So I knew that she wasn’t going to buy a copy when it came out. Oh well!

Last fall, at an African American Alumni Council event at Pitt, it was one of my first opportunities to discuss the now published Boy @ The Window, which was immediately followed by public criticism. Right after I talked about the book, an older alumna walked right up to me, and got within a foot or so of my face — close enough to hug. “You’re too young to have a memoir,” she said with a smile on her face, and then walked away as if her’s was the final say on the topic.

At the least, it showed that most don’t know the difference between a memoir (on one period or aspect of one’s life, often with a look at the world beyond) and an autobiography (the story of my entire life). Boy, understand the genre before criticizing it or my role in it already!

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (

One foot in the grave (apparently), June 7, 2014. (

And, yes, I know. I see my Facebook friends especially posting other people’s sayings every single day. About letting go, moving on, forgetting the past, pushing past the haters, sitting in a lotus position, meditating and praying, and then drinking a wheat-grass smoothie. I do let go, I do forgive, and I don’t let the naysayers in my life have the final say. But letting go doesn’t mean I don’t get to highlight some truth, point out hypocrisy, and that I should just be quiet for the sake of being quiet.

It hasn’t been lost on me that most of these specific, potentially dream-destroying microaggressions have come from Black folk, male and female, well-off and immersed in poverty. Do I put these people in the same category as White literary agents who’ve said things to me like, “Oh no, not another abuse story!” or “There are too many black coming-of-age stories in the market?” Of course not. Gate keepers practicing ignorance in the midst of structural racism isn’t the same as people who may have internalized racism.

Or in the latter case, it could just be that my pursuit of what I’ve wanted and finally come to know for my life brought attention to dreams deferred, delayed and denied, by others and by their own fears of failure and success. If I’d let this stand in my way, I’d still be living in Mount Vernon, undoubtedly living in grinding poverty, wondering how could I let everything I wanted out of life get away from me.

On Regrets and Forgiveness

October 22, 2013

Emily Flake's "You only regret the things you don't do, Johnston," February 28, 2011. (

Emily Flake’s “You only regret the things you don’t do, Johnston,” February 28, 2011. (

One of the things I’ve read and heard from others so far about Boy @ The Window since April has been about catharsis. As in, “this book must’ve been cathartic for you.” I’ve said in response, “Yeah, it sure has.” But that’s not been the whole truth. In more than a few respects, Boy @ The Window has opened up a Pandora’s box of wounds I’d kept locked for years and years.

This might surprise some folks, especially the ones who attended Mount Vernon public schools, Humanities and specifically Mount Vernon High School with me. But there is a dark side to being me. Beneath my well wishes, good graces and generic smile has also been a person with deep regret, repressed anger, smoldering rage over what by far were the worst years of my life. All of which has translated into a person whose worst days since are days of blame — almost always of and for myself. I can forgive almost anyone or anything — my late idiot ex-stepfather, my father Jimme and his years of alcoholism, friends or superiors who’ve attempted to take advantage of me.

The Physics of a Bottomless Pit, February 27, 2013. (MatsuKami of deviantART via

The Physics of a Bottomless Pit, February 27, 2013. (MatsuKami of deviantART via

Yet there’s one person I’ve found very hard to forgive — myself. I hold myself to such high standards that it would be impossible for anyone other than Jesus to meet. And God knows I’m not perfect. But in looking at my past, my growing up years in Boy @ The Window, I’ve found that so much of my life’s force and energy has gone into redeeming myself for having to live through those terrible, terrible years. Even though I’ve been at a place in my life in which I’ve pretty much known myself, my passions, my calling, my abilities and limitations, for the better part of twenty years. Until recently, though, I hadn’t given myself any breaks from my past. Putting it under lock and key obviously didn’t work, and airing it for the world to read — while beneficial — had brought with it a truck-load of emotions that I had yet to work through.

As I wrote at the end of Boy @ The Window:

I can say without a doubt that Humanities did make a difference in my life. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without those six bittersweet and indifferent years. It makes any setback I might suffer today seem small and laughable by comparison. There are things I wish would’ve happened, things that would’ve made it easier to enjoy life and savor glorious moments even now. I wish Humanities had been as serious about developing me as a writer as it was about accelerated math and science classes. I regret not asking Phyllis out for a date. I lament not revealing more about the tragedies of my family life or my keen sense of humor to the few classmates and teachers I had some bond with, however weak. I wish I had trusted my instincts and never worn that kufi to Holmes or Davis. I know I should’ve stayed with football or tried out for basketball. And I wish I had the opportunity as a twelve-year-old to kiss Wendy one time. Admittedly, there’s a part of me that wishes I could kiss her now.

I imagine that if I had done all of these things, I would’ve been even more bruised up (especially in the case of Wendy), but at least I could’ve said I tried. Instead of looking back at my past and picking it apart like a forensic vulture.

But my deepest regret, and one that I hadn’t forgiven myself for, at least until recently, was for not calling the cops on my then stepfather after he beat up Mom on Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, ’82. Between my near-photographic memory and my training as an academic historian, it’s been hard to look at my past without reliving it.

How do you mend a broken heart?, 2005, October 22, 2013. (digitalman via deviantART at

How do you mend a broken heart?, 2005, October 22, 2013. (digitalman via deviantART at

I hadn’t figured out that I hadn’t forgiven myself until a few weeks ago. I realized that I hadn’t let go of the worst of my past. Now, letting go doesn’t mean that you forget your past, bury it or repress it emotionally. For me, it simply means not reliving the moment as if it happened last week instead of thirty-one years ago. To treat the moment as a memory, an important reminder that I am not Superman, that I couldn’t have saved my Mom from domestic violence anymore than I could’ve saved myself from poverty as a twelve-year-old.

You know, when I was younger, I thought that I didn’t have any regrets, any resentment or any dark side from growing up the way I did. We all tend to believe that pushing forward to a brighter future will take care of our past. That’s simply not true. We need to live in the present in order to achieve that brighter future. That means working through our pasts, and then letting it go. I should know.

My Day of Atonement/Bitter Hatred

September 14, 2013

Prayer at the Wailing Wail, Second Temple, Jerusalem, February 1, 2013. (Steve Ibrom). Released by public domain by author.

Prayer at the Wailing Wail, Second Temple, Jerusalem, February 1, 2013. (Steve Ibrom). Released by public domain by author.

“Yom Kippur ’83 opened me up to understanding why I no longer put my trust in Maurice’s God. I spent part of another September fasting and going to temple to atone for my sins. The temple was on Fifth Avenue and Second Street, just down the street from Washington Elementary School. I’d gone to temple maybe a half-dozen times since the spring of ’81, three of those times to have some rabbi with a ragged beard tell me that Yahweh had forgiven me for my wicked ways.

“And it left me thinking, ‘Well, what about Maurice? His sins are many, and we get treated the same? Does he get forgiveness even if the sin is still in progress?’ It didn’t make sense to me that I needed to starve myself for three days and ask for forgiveness in a situation where a fat, greasy SOB for a stepfather could steal from, cheat on, beat up on, and lie to Mom, get forgiveness, and keep on trying to do what he’d done before Yom Kippur. I said to whoever was a higher power, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ I didn’t get an answer, and nothing anyone at temple said gave me any answers either. I felt empty, as if everything I thought being in this faith was about was a farce, a morbid, diabolical joke that was played on me and my family. And Maurice was the devil himself.”

That’s what I wrote in Boy @ The Window about my last Yom Kippur as a Hebrew-Israelite. That Saturday, September 17, ’83, was the last time I went to temple, the last time I looked at any aspect of our bizarre and goofy mix of Judaism and Afrocentricity with a modicum of seriousness. By the time I left, I wasn’t in a forgiving mood at all. I hated my then stepfather Maurice, and hated the people who claimed that people like Maurice were descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Ancient Israelites.

Please understand. When I said, “I hated Maurice,” it wasn’t a euphemism for me in the fall of ’83. If I had access to a gun, I would’ve blown him away and gladly served time in prison for doing so. I had stomach ulcers in the fall of ’83, because I couldn’t stand the smell, sound or sight of the obese asshole. I all but prayed to Yahweh that he get hit by a Mack truck going eighty miles an hour down East Lincoln Avenue. I wanted him dead, and I wanted to piss on his ashes to boot.

Even at thirteen, though, I also understood that this kind of anger and rage wouldn’t help me in the long run between ninth grade and college. Or with sports. Or dating. Or in finding my own path to God or to anything else worth believing. My bitterness and hatred were so deep, about as deep as any love that I’d experienced up to that point in my life. Whether my Mom, my father Jimme, my Uncle Sam or my version of Wendy, all that love was nearly drowned out by my hate for my stepfather.

Even on my irony scale, this hatred broke all records. Especially on a day of atonement, where we all but sacrificed an unblemished lamb at the temple over four hours that Saturday. But I had other reasons to be bitter on this, the holiest of holy days. No bar mitzvah, no celebrations of Hanukkah, no participation in Hebrew-Israelite life for me beyond their 613 rules and regs for nearly two and a half years. I understood and yet didn’t understand this sense of pride and Blackness that came through in a near Asian religion that allowed for reincarnation and an post-Babylonian Israelite diaspora to Sub-Saharan Africa to boot. That confusion didn’t help me deal with a man who wasn’t one, but was a teenage bully who did everything he could to keep me and Mom in submission to him, with Yahweh and Torah as his excuse.

I knew after I left temple that Yom Kipper afternoon that it would be my last. I didn’t know how, but my days of wearing a kufi or yarmulke were on their way to an end. Still, with hatred and confusion in my heart and mind, I was also lost, more lost than the other ten ancient Israelite tribes undoubtedly were in the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest.

Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy,” My Reality

July 18, 2013

n  Cover of Earth, Wind & Fire's single "Fantasy" (1978), February 29, 2008. (Columbia Records). Qualifies as fair use due to low resolution and subject matter of this blog post.

Cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s single “Fantasy” (1978), February 29, 2008. (Columbia Records). Qualifies as fair use due to low resolution and subject matter of this blog post.

Below are two excerpts from Boy @ The Window about how I viewed Mount Vernon, New York and my world between the ages of ten and twelve:

“My only links to the great metropolis to the south were WNBC-TV (Channel 4), Warner Wolf – with his famous “Let’s go to the video tape!” line – doing sports on WCBS-TV (Channel 2), and WABC-AM 77 and WBLS-FM 107.5 on the radio. I found the AM station more fun to listen to, but I also liked listening to the sign-off song WBLS played at the end of the evening, Moody’s Mood for Love, with that, ‘There I go, There I go, The-ere I go…’ start. Music had been an important part of my imagination in ’79, with acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, Christopher Cross, Billy Joel and The Commodores. Not to mention Frank Sinatra, Queen, Donna Summer and Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album. The music also made me feel like I was as much a part of New York as I was a part of Mount Vernon. It left me thinking of the ozone and burnt rubber smell that I noticed as soon as I would walk down into the Subway system in Manhattan…

“Besides the occasional reminder of life outside of my world, of Mount Vernon, I was the center of my own universe. Mount Vernon was but a stage on which my life played out, a place I hoped would stay this way forever. I was an eleven-year-old who thought that my world was the world. I lived my life like Philip Bailey and Maurice White would’ve wanted me to. I came to see ‘victory in a life called fantasy’ as my own life, living as if my imagination and dreams could be made into reality. All I had to do was wish it so.”

(And yes, I know the actual lyrics are about a land called fantasy, but that’s not how I sang it back then).

There have been so many moments since then where my Earth, Wind & Fire visions have collided with the reality that life for me and people who look like me has hardly been a fantasy. I had to get over my idiot ex-stepfather’s abuse in order to even listen to Earth, Wind & Fire again, because he was a fan as well, and I didn’t want us to both like the same music. But even more than that has been the reality that there are people, places and things who’ve (and that have) come through my life and stood in between me and all the things I wanted out of life. Individuals like Joe Trotter or Ken, policies like racial profiling and redlining, institutions like Columbia University or the former Academy for Educational Development.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889), by Marie Spartali Stillman, March 7, 2006. (Charivari via Wikipedia). In public domain.

The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889), by Marie Spartali Stillman, March 7, 2006. (Charivari via Wikipedia). In public domain.

While some of these instances have been disappointing in the sense of betrayal that I felt, the disillusionment that came with these incidents of discrimination and harassment pushed me ever closer to the person and writer I wanted to be. I don’t know what to make of how I’ve been feeling about the Zimmerman trial and verdict, the response of so-called White liberals and more obviously racist and gleeful White teabaggers over the past five days. I’ve felt badly for Trayvon Martin’s family, Rachel Jeantel and for so many others who’ve been figuratively beaten down by media coverage and stereotypes over the past months.

But I didn’t think I was angry. Not until I went for a run this morning. It’s was a comparatively pedestrian 3.1-mile run after I’d done a five-miler a day and a half before. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” started playing on my iPod as I was running uphill. All it made me think about was all the challenges that I and so many others have had to face because of individual bigotry and fear and institutional racism and indifference. I know that many things in life aren’t fair. What I realized at that moment, though, was that there really are folks in this world who wish evil and unfairness on people like me. That’s their fantasy!

That made me angry again, but not for too long. For I also knew that I had the power to ask for forgiveness, as well as the power to forgive others. It’s a power that no one can take away from me, that enables me to be honest about where I am, and clear-headed about where I want to go. That power, among others, does truly help bring my “mind to everlasting liberty.” Even in the face of the evil, indifference and ignorance that I see every day.

Sarai, 30 Years Old Today

February 9, 2013

Sarai (with Maurice) at 12 years old, Yonkers, NY, November 21, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

My sister Sarai (with Maurice) at 12 years old, Yonkers, NY, November 21, 1995. (Donald Earl Collins).

It’s another February 9, more than two and a half years since my sister Sarai Washington passed away from complications due to sickle-cell anemia at the age of twenty-seven. Today would mark her thirtieth birthday. But given how Sarai’s life began, given her disease and the average life expectancy of people with it, it’s just as well that she isn’t here to become thirty. Sarai would likely be in pain, with skin bruises and lesions, laying on a hospital bed, in the middle of yet another blood transfusion.

My sister’s life and death is a constant reminder to forgive. It especially reminds me that forgiveness for us simple, linear humans is a constant process. It’s one in which we overcome our own feelings with the determination to love and to seek wisdom and grace. That Sarai had to endure sickle-cell anemia for twenty-seven years, five months and two days — or 10,015 total days — could feel me with enough anger so that I’d spend the rest of my life in hatred and contempt.

Not so much toward God. Even in eighth grade, I knew enough to know that people often cause their own calamities, and yet choose to blame God for the perditious decisions they made. No, there was a time I blamed my mom, from the time I learned that she was pregnant with Sarai and for years afterward. Why? Because I also knew about sickle-cell anemia, how it was a genetic disorder, and how two people with the trait had a one-in-four chance of passing on the full-blown disease to one of their progeny. And I knew this because my mom explained the basics of it to me when I was eight years old.

My mother worked at Mount Vernon Hospital, where they very well could’ve run a genetic test for the disease at the prenatal stage. Of course, that would’ve given my mother a rather difficult decision to make about my eventual sister’s viability. But then again, she knew before the birth of my other siblings Maurice and Yiscoc that my now deceased idiot stepfather also possessed the sickle-cell trait. That she didn’t have any of them tested was, well, lazy and shameful.

I could’ve easily blamed my now dead ex-stepfather Maurice. He was a walking disaster area, as everything he touched turned into crap. Maurice never did anything in his life that didn’t hurt someone at some point. He never once cared enough about Sarai (or any of his other kids, for that matter) to make sure they were born healthy and whole. Forget about what happened to them after they were born. Maurice’s only real interest was telling guys standing on corners about his latest sperm injection. He also liked to buy cigars after the women had to endure the pregnancy and labor, abandoned by him in most meaningful respects in the process.

And there’s the grudge I’ve held against myself. As I’ve said in Boy @ The Window and in various blog posts (including “Pregnant Pauses” from November ’12), I never wanted Sarai here in the first place. Not because I hated kids or her. I knew what her birth would mean, especially after a year in which we were without food at 616 one-third of the time and three-weeks behind on rent every single month. With my mother’s hours cut at Mount Vernon Hospital, we were on the verge of going on welfare, and I’d been taught by my mom to hate that. We were about to become a racial cliché, living and breathing racial stereotypes, and that went against everything my mother and nearly two years of living as a Hebrew-Israelite had taught me.

So how do I forgive? It’s simple, really (well, maybe not so simple). Forgiveness for me is a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) moment. Jesus said on the cross, just before he died, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” I realize that even when we think we know what we’re doing, we don’t really know — we’re not omniscient, after all. We’re never fully aware of the effects of our decisions and actions, of all the intricacies and long-term implications.

That’s why and how I forgave and forgive — my mom, Maurice and myself. It’s the one thing I can honestly say I learned from Sarai, especially today, on her thirtieth birthday.

Jacksonville Visit

January 24, 2013

Me and My Father Jimme, Mall, Jacksonville Waterfront, August 27, 2007. (Angelia N. Levy).

Me and My Father Jimme, Jacksonville Waterfront, August 27, 2007. (Angelia N. Levy).

Under almost no circumstances could I have ever seen myself visiting Jacksonville. A nuclear holocaust, the collapse of the federal government, a super-flu pandemic, perhaps. And that would be a hypothetical maybe at best. But I did visit, for the first time, eleven years ago this week, to see my father Jimme for the first time in since Christmas Eve ’94. It was a life-changing event, and for once, for the better.

It was a memorable visit because after three years of talking over the phone, I finally would get to see Jimme and his new family (see my post “Finding My Father for the First Time” from November ’11). It was a calm-before-the-storm two-day visit, nestled in between the sturm und drang of the ’02 New Voices Winter Retreat in Atlanta and my family intervention at 616 in Mount Vernon (see my post “The Intervention” from January ’08).

I honestly had few expectations. I knew Jacksonville covered a lot of acreage as a city, but was basically Georgia south more than it was a major city in Florida. I knew that the town had a high poverty rate, and I knew that they had the Jacksonville Jaguars. Not much more than that was in my memory banks as I touched down on my flight from Hartsdale International Airport to podunk Jacksonville’s airport on a rainy Sunday in January.

Glass extension of Jacksonville International Airport, January 24, 2013. (

Glass extension of Jacksonville International Airport, January 24, 2013. (

Collins family members besides my father were there to greet me, including a couple of second-cousins. They were much more excited to see me than I was to see them, mostly because I hadn’t been prepared to meet extended family on this trip. They gave me a brief tour of the city — although I wasn’t going to see much in the rain (and there wasn’t much to see to begin with). Still, I was happy that they were happy and chatty and welcoming.

Meeting my father’s second wife Mary was interesting, if only because she shared my mother’s first name. Though loud in so many ways, she was also very kind, very Christian and very warm to me. Like most folks, she made assumptions about me that I couldn’t possibly live up to, like viewing everything in life through the lens of the Bible. It made for a lively dinner discussion on the subject my second night there. Ms. Mary has kept her conversations with me much shorter since that first visit.

But the most important part of my visit, though, was the two days I spent with my father. This was my first time seeing him completely sober since ’88, and this was nearly five years since he had given up drinking. The change in his physical appearance was dramatic, as he now only looked his age, and not twenty years older than his age. He looked better and strong than he had in years, maybe decades.

That wasn’t all that had changed. Me and my father talked about everything, from family to work, politics to writing, education and religion over those forty-eight hours. He shared his secret to his new diabetes diet – a case and a half of diet soda per day and no water intake.

My father, Silver Spring, MD, September 8, 2012. (Noah M. Collins).

My father, Silver Spring, MD, September 8, 2012. (Noah M. Collins).

I spend our last conversation telling my father about what I was about to do in Mount Vernon, that I was going to spend an evening airing out three decades of dirty laundry, for the sake of my younger siblings. That’s when he apologized to me about his alcoholism and all the things he had put me and my older brother Darren through growing up. I told him that I’d forgiven him a long time ago.

It was a touching moment out of several touching moments that visit. I left that Tuesday morning, in awe of the fact that sometimes people can and do change for the better, even miraculously so. Even in a place like Jacksonville.


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