There’s Know Place Like Home…

August 29, 2014

Dorothy's heel-clicking in screen shot from The Wizard of Oz (1939), August 29, 2014. (http://vivandlarry.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws - low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Dorothy’s heel-clicking in screen shot from The Wizard of Oz (1939), August 29, 2014. (http://vivandlarry.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws – low resolution and relevance to subject matter.

Yes, the title’s a deliberate play on words. In no small part because of Facebook and Boy @ The Window, I am reminded every day of where I grew up, Mount Vernon, New York. But all too frequently, those who think they know me either assume that Mount Vernon’s so far from New York City that I seldom spent time there. Or, more recently, some have assumed that my experience of The Big Apple is a recent phenomenon, as if I only started spending time in the five boroughs when I hit my mid-thirties.

Neither is true, of course. In many ways, I’m as much of a child of The Bronx and Manhattan as I am of Mount Vernon. I spent countless hours catching the 2, 3, 5 and 6 trains between 241st, Dyre Avenue, 180th, Pelham Parkway, 149th, 110th, 125th, 72nd, 86th and so many other stops. I used to know where to get the best brownies in the area, in Wakefield, at a bakery near some taxi stands and between the 238th and 241st Street stops. I could tell you which bars my father Jimme frequented, which bars he didn’t, what pizza shops had slices to die for, and what places to avoid near Times Square. I’d been to Mets games, Ice Capades, the Bronx Zoo, a Puerto Rican Day and a Pulaski Day parade, concerts at Van Cortlandt Park, even MOMA before I graduated high school.

One of the reasons I could do all of this by the time I was fifteen was because of all the times Jimme had taken me and Darren down to the Bronx and Manhattan. Mostly to watch him pick up his paycheck from the Levi brothers at their cleaners on 20 West 64th or on East 59th. But between ’82 and ’85, I learned where nearly all of my father’s watering holes were, and on the most desperate of weekends, could track him to one of them in order to get money for myself and to help out my Mom at 616. While my classmates would occasionally take the Metro-North into the city to take in a Broadway play or go to a Knicks game, I was learning about the city in all of its varying inequalities and nuances by looking for and working for my father.

Screen shot 2014-08-29 at 6.28.50 AM

Fast-forward to the end of August ’93, just a few days before I began the Carnegie Mellon University phase of my grad school and doctoral journey. I had been short on money that whole summer, unemployed for six weeks after transferring from Pitt, working as an “intern” for six dollars and hour, and nearly $600 behind on rent at one point in late June. I’d survived the eviction notice and a summer in which I learned who my truest, closest friends were. I took a few days from my personal drama to visit my Mom and my siblings at 616, and in the process, decided to track down my father for a few extra dollars, as well as to see him for the first time in over a year. It had been that long because Jimme had accused me of faking my master’s degree when I lasted visited him.

Central Park, looking out toward Midtown's West Side, New York, NY, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Central Park, looking out toward Midtown’s West Side, New York, NY, August 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

But I wasn’t fifteen anymore. Instead of a long walk and the Subway, I took the Metro-North down from Pelham to Grand Central, took the S (Shuttle) over to Times Square, and the 1 train to 66th, and walked over to the Levi’s cleaners on West 64th. Only to find out Jimme wasn’t in that day. I then remembered that the other Levi brother had a dry cleaner on East 59th. I walked the ten blocks over there and found the other Levi brother in the midst of arguing with clients and barking orders to his Latino and Afro-Caribbean underlings. My father was doing a cleaning job for him at some high-rises down near Gramercy Park.

I rode the 4 train down to 23rd Street, got my east-west bearings, and walked toward a set of high-rises near FDR Drive. Though I’d forgotten the address, I knew somehow that Jimme would be in the most expensive-looking high-rise or set of high-rises in the bunch. I found a guard, who sent me to the floor where Jimme and his co-worker John were working.

As soon as Jimme saw me come off the elevator, he said, “Bo’ watcha doin’ up here? How the hell yo’ find me?”

“You’re not the only one who knows The City, you know” I said.

It’s no wonder I feel a bit insulted when people either tell me I’m from upstate New York or that I’m not a New Yorker. I know the city better than at least a third of the people who live and work there every day.


Why Black Men Carry A Public Anger

March 21, 2012

Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested by Cambridge Police, Cambridge, MA, July 22, 2009. (http://assets.nydailynews.com/img/2009/07/22/alg_henry-louis.jpg via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of historical significance of photo and topic and its poor resolution.

I hadn’t planned on posting this piece until June, when it will be twenty-five and fifteen years since my shopping while Black incidents literally a block apart on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But in light of the Trayvon Martin murder — and that’s what this is, a murder — at the hands of the racist vigilante George Zimmerman more than three weeks ago, it makes sense to do this post now.

Tower Records, 1961 Broadway (NW corner of 66th and Broadway, Lincoln Square), New York City, November 22, 2006. (Stuart Johnson via Flickr.com). In public domain.

Tower Records, Friday afternoon, June 19th, ’87, the day after I graduated from Mount Vernon High School (see more from my “The Day After” post from June ’08). With high school now over, I was in a celebratory mood. I took the 2 train from 241st to 72nd and walked the six short blocks to the great Tower Records on 66th. I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, and Glass Tiger (yes, Glass Tiger — absolutely terrible).

I went into the store and began to browse the R&B and Pop/Rock sections for tapes. There I noticed some plastic wrapping on the floor, as if someone had taken a tape out of its case and stolen it. While I thought about the wrapper on the floor, three White security guards came out of nowhere, grabbed me and dragged me to a storage room downstairs.

“We got you for stealing,” one of them said, presumably the store’s head of security.

“You don’t have me for anything. Is this because I’m Black?”

“Well, how do you explain the wrappers we found on the floor and the tapes in your bag?”

“The wrappers were on the floor when I got there and the tapes . . .”

“You’re going to jail, asshole, when we bring the cops in here!”

“First of all, I’m not going anywhere. The tapes are all mine, and some of them I bought in this store last Friday. I have the receipt at home. Don’t you have ways to verify my purchases?”

“We don’t believe you!”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. I’m under eighteen. You can’t hold me or turn me over to police without calling my parents. I’m not even from here, I’m from Westchester County, and my receipts are back home there.”

“If we were outside instead of in here, I’d slap you around, wise-ass!”

“Then I guess I’m the lucky one. Why don’t we check the receipts from your cash registers up front for my purchases from last Friday? I know they’ll show that I’m right and you’re wrong!”

The hotheaded White man who did all of the talking got up and made a threatening slap gesture with the back of his left hand before the other ones grabbed him and told him to calm down. They let me go. On my way out, I said, “I hope you learned that not every Black person coming in your store is a thief!” It would be ten years before I went into Tower Records again (of course, Tower Records went out of business in ’06).

That next time was May 12, ’97, and I had just finished a day-long interview for an assistant professor

Barnes & Noble, 1972 Broadway (NE corner of 66th and Broadway), New York City, December 30, 2010, three days before it closed. (Jim In Times Square via Flickr.com). In public domain.

position at Teacher College (Columbia University’s school of education). I had no problems as I browsed Tower Records for about twenty minutes. It was my first time there since the ’87 incident. Then I went across the street to the Barnes & Noble mega-store. From the moment I walked in the door until I left a half-hour later, a Latino security guard tailed me as I perused books in the African American nonfiction, Cultural Studies and Music sections of the store, across three floors. As I walked out, I walked up to the guard and said

“While you were stalking me, you probably let half a dozen White folks slip out of here with books and CDs. Did you learn anything while you were watching me?”

“I was just doing my job,” the dumb-ass security guard said in response.

“Well, if following a Black guy around for thirty minutes is part of your job, you deserve to lose your job,” I said as I walked out, not to return until Christmas ’02.

Over the years, I have been stopped by police in Mount Vernon, Pittsburgh, DC and L.A., followed by police in Maryland, Pittsburgh and L.A., patted down by police at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and followed by more security guards — including ones guarding those precious gated communities — than I’d ever care to count. My only crime was being a Black male in America’s public sphere.

Trayvon Martin in hoodie, March 19, 2012. (http://media.metronews.topscms.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because photo is an illustration of one of the subjects of this post.

Like so many others, I could’ve easily been Trayvon Martin twenty-five, fifteen and even five years ago. This constant tightrope dance that we must do to make old White ladies and scared White guys and ig’nit Black folks feel comfortable. So that I’m not arrested, or maimed, or killed. So that I can go about the business of being me and making myself and the people in my life better. As Nathan McCall would say, it “makes me wanna holler.”

Short of moving to a nation not built on the imperialism and fear of Black males in particular, all I can do, for better and for worse, is to prepare my son for this very racial America in which we still live. And yes, that makes me angry.

Me at 16 (with torn gray hoodie), Mount Vernon High School ID, Mount Vernon, NY, November 1985, March 21, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).


Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie”

March 1, 2011

Mr. Mister, "Kyrie" Single Cover, August 8, 2010. Vanjagenije. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of the image's low resolution and because image illustrates subject of this blog post.

Twenty-five years ago this week, Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” made it to the top of the Billboard pop charts, making me goofy and giddy beyond belief. March ’86 was the beginning of a great month of music for me. I bought my first Walkman — a Walkman-knockoff really — from Crazy Eddie’s on 47th and Fifth in Manhattan, as well as the first of what would be about 200 cassettes of my favorite music. Not to mention a ton of musical experimentation — most of it bad, goofy and un-listen-able for even the musically impaired.

For many of you, Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” would likely fall into that last category. It was semi-religious rock at a time when the closest thing to that was Amy Grant. It was Creed a whole decade before Creed, but with better musicians. It was a group of studio musicians putting out a breakout album that actually stood apart from the super-serious or super-sugary music of the mid-80s. It was a perfect storm for a sixteen-year-old in search of inspiration beyond the chaos of 616 and the lonely march toward college via Humanities and Mount Vernon High School.

“Kyrie” was one of two songs that kept me in overdrive in and out of the classroom through most of my junior year at Mount Vernon High School. Simple Minds’ “Alive and Kicking” was the other song. It almost became my mantra in the months that straddled ’85 and ’86. Every time I heard that song, especially the album version, was like going on a game-winning touchdown drive at the end of the fourth quarter. Studying was time to throw screen passes or seven-yard slants, to run the ball on a power sweep or on a draw play. It was methodical, the drums and synthesizers, and put me in a determined, methodical mood as I prepared for a test.

But Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” was magical. Short for “Kyrie Eleison” Latin/Greek for “Lord have mercy,” it became my go-to song for every big academic play I needed to make for the rest of the year, even for the rest of high school. “Kyrie” combined all of the elements that my vivid imagination relied on. My faith in The One, my hope for a better future, lyrics that made me think, music that evoked a big play, like throwing it deep and completing it for a game-changing score. It was as methodical as “Alive and Kicking,” but the bigger bass guitar and heavier synthesizers as the background gave me the feeling that God’s grace was with me wherever I went and whatever I did. It was a true underdog’s song.

It was like I was singing a high-falsetto, four-and-a half-minute prayer whenever I played “Kyrie.” Some of my classmates, as usual, didn’t appreciate whatever deeper meaning I saw in the song or in its lyrics. See, my being Black and high-pitched singing to it was another obvious sign of my weirdness. Yet somehow, when it came to music, I didn’t really care what any of them thought.

As I went off to college and became more sophisticated in my understanding of music, I realized that there were some songs I couldn’t completely part with, no matter how goofy or out-of-date the music video was. “Kyrie” was one of those songs for me. I didn’t play it regularly by the time I’d reached my mid-twenties, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t sing to it in high-falsetto while shopping at Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh when the song would come on over the PA system.

Once iPod and iTunes technology became part of my household in ’06, I uploaded the old song and listened to it regularly again. I’ve wondered from time to time what would the sixteen-year-old version of me would think about me at forty-one. I’ve achieved more, and been hurt and lost more, than I could’ve possibly imagined a quarter-century ago.

It’s taken me more than twenty years to fully understand Richard Page’s lyrics about “would I have followed down my chosen road, or only wish what I could be?” The answer is both. Life is a funny and winding journey, even when on the path of the straight and narrow. Christian or atheist or of some other faith, it’s always good to hope that someone is there to watch over us, to protect us, even our younger selves from our older and allegedly wiser versions of ourselves. And that’s what I here now when I listen to — and sing high-falsetto still to — “Kyrie.”


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