Boy @ The Window Origins: Meltzer Conversations

March 14, 2015

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) scene, where Wolverine frees mutants kept as experiments by Colonel William Stryker , March 13, 2015. (

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) scene, where Wolverine frees mutants kept as experiments by Colonel William Stryker , March 13, 2015. (

Of all the tangents I took related to writing Boy @ The Window, the most direct path that got me to write a memoir about the most painful period in my life was through several conversations with my dear teacher, friend and mentor in the late Harold Meltzer. I’ve discussed bits and pieces of some of those conversations here and in longer form in Boy @ The Window. It’s still worth rehashing some of those conversations, at least in terms of what was and wasn’t good advice, as well as in explaining how some of the main themes of the memoir developed over time.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window, though my “first interview with him was in August ’02,” the first time “we discussed the possibility of me doing Boy @ The Window went back to February ’95.” Meltzer had been retired from teaching about a year and a half, while I was beginning the heavy lifting phase of my doctoral thesis, “living in DC for a couple of months while hitting the archives and libraries up for dusty information. In need of a writing break, I gave him a call on one cold and boring Saturday afternoon.”

It was in response to a letter he sent congratulating me. I’d recently published an op-ed in my hometown and county newspaper, “Solving African American Identity Crisis.” I was writing about issues like using the n-word, hypermasculinity, and internalized racism in the short and, for me at least, dummied down piece. Somehow our discussion of that piece led to a discussion of my classmate Sam. Did I really want to spend an hour and a half talking with Meltzer about Sam and some of my other Humanities classmates and their possible identity issues, considering some of my own serious growing pains — the Hebrew-Israelite years, my suicide attempt, my Black masculinity and manhood issues? Absolutely not!

But I learned quite a bit about how I might want to approach writing Boy @ The Window through that phone call. Not because Meltzer had given me any sage advice, which he didn’t, or because he revealed things to me that I shouldn’t have come to learn during our conversation, which he definitely did.

Benetton ad, 1980s, January 2013. (

Benetton ad, 1980s, January 2013. (

No, it was the idea that a lot of the things that I had pursued as a historian and researcher were things that came out of my experiences growing up. Multiculturalism as a historical phenomenon (at least if one linked it to cultural pluralism)? Can anyone say Humanities Program, or, what I used to call “Benetton Group” when we were at A.B. Davis Middle School? Writing about African American identity issues? Obviously related to living in Mount Vernon, the land where any hint of weakness translated into me being called a “faggot” or a “pussy.”

And what about any scholarly concerns with racial and socioeconomic inequality and Black migration? Anyone ever meet my Mom and my father Jimme, 1960s-era migrants from Arkansas and Georgia/Florida respectively? An examination of the Black Washingtonian elite and their looking down upon ordinary Blacks because of their own colorism or the latter’s lack of education? Come on down, Estelle Abel and any number of well-established Black Mount Vernon-ites who never gave me the time of day! As much as academia had been an escape for me, into a world of rationalism and logic, a place of dispassionate scholarship, it was all personal for me, without realizing it until that phone conversation with Meltzer.

Fast-forward to November ’02, the last interview I did with Meltzer before his death two months later. We spent the last couple of hours on that brisk fall Thursday discussing the book idea that would become Boy @ The Window. Meltzer thought that it should be a work of fiction, “based on the real flesh and blood folks in my life, but with different names of course to protect me from any potential lawsuits. He did make me rethink the project from a simple research study of my high school years into narrative nonfiction or a memoir.” 

Screen shot of fictional character Harper Stewart's bestselling novel nfinished Business, from The Best Man (1999), March 14, 2015. (hitchdied via

Screen shot of fictional character Harper Stewart’s bestselling novel Unfinished Business, from The Best Man (1999), March 14, 2015. (hitchdied via

Was Meltzer correct? Should I have done a Harper Stewart — played by actor Taye Diggs in The Best Man (1999)? Should I have fictionalized all of my experiences and those of my family, teachers, administrators and classmates? I’m not sure if it would’ve made a difference. Stories of fiction tend to have a tight symmetry to them. Or, the theme of “what goes around comes around” is usually a big one in any novel. You can’t leave too many loose threads or unresolved issues, even if the novel is part of a series. For my purposes, since my life remains a work in progress, a story of relative — not obvious or absolute — success, telling it as fiction would hardly ring true to me, much less to any group of readers.

Whatever else anyone wants to say about the late Harold Meltzer, the dude got me to think about difficult things until I was no longer comfortable in leaving my uncomfortable experiences and assumptions unchallenged. The very definition of a mentor, the very purpose of Boy @ The Window.

Brother, Can You Spare Me A Job?

July 26, 2014

Screenshot from "Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime" video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (

Screenshot from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (

In the past five months, there’s been much debate and derision over the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and Initiative. Most of it has centered around the exclusion of girls and young women of color from the initiative, as if the problems affecting Black and Latino males aren’t the same ones affecting Black and Latino females. Poverty, a resource-poor education, lack of entry-level jobs leading to careers, woeful access to higher education, lack of access to public services. These effects may lead to different responses from boys/young men of color and girls/young women of color, but the problems that effect vulnerable populations of color are no respecter of gender.

There’s other problems with the initiative, even if President Barack Obama and the White House were to ensure the inclusion of Black and Latino females in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative tomorrow. It’s an extremely racially paternalistic initiative. On the face of things, it’s not much different from the work Booker T. Washington did a century ago via the William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt administrations and with money from White philanthropists such as Henry Huttleston Rogers (Standard Oil), Julius Rosenwald (Sears), and George Eastman (Kodak).

Sure, in the case of Washington, The Rosenwald Fund built a few thousand schools, and the philanthropists contributed money to Washington that would build an endowment for Tuskegee. Still, that money came with strings attached. Most of the schools built weren’t high schools, were geared toward what we would call low-level vocational education today, and certainly weren’t part of any agenda to end Jim Crow. For all the good Washington was able to do through these robber-baron era philanthropists — especially in reducing Black illiteracy — it took Black migration out of the South to lead to lasting changes around notions of racial progress and the idea of segregation as the norm for a representative democracy.

As for My Brother’s Keeper, I am reminded of a passage from my Boy @ The Window about my very first full-time “office” job in the summer of ’87, in between my graduation from Mount Vernon High School and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s about my working for General Foods (now Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown, New York as part of their Operation Opportunity program.

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 11.10.49 AM

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (

Beyond the $1,022 the program saved on my behalf — which would go toward room, board and two textbooks for my second semester at Pitt — there really wasn’t much about this program that was opportunity-inducing. Operation Opportunity seemed like it was a checkmark that General Foods could put in its “doing good” column. It provided an opportunity to observe others and do menial tasks without actually promising anything that would help me even a year later, as I went through the summer of ’88 unemployed, and the first week of my sophomore year at Pitt homeless. Not to mention, I picked up a terrible cold in the heat of a 98-degree-July day while spending two hours in a meat-locker-of-a-trailer doing measurements on Jell-O pudding pops!

Now I have no idea what the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation or Magic Johnson Enterprises intends to do to be keepers of brothers, or brothas, for that matter. But all too frequently, these efforts turn into one-time experiments or corporate-responsibly checkmarks. As my friend and colleague Catherine Lugg has said more than once over the years (albeit, on education research, not specifically on this), social change and diversity efforts are far more than just “bringing a pet to class.” The idea that we need to learn how to work hard is yet another myth that this initiative will perpetuate, whether it’s a success or a failure.

It’s not hard to figure that poor children and young adults of color need more access to public health services, more resources in their formal education, more and better quality food to eat, and more nurturing. Whether any of these kids or young adults — male or female — can obtain these resources without racial paternalism, experimentation or other strings attached, I for one remain extremely skeptical.

The Fall of the House of D’Souza

January 25, 2014

It’s been a sad last 20 months for Dinesh D’Souza. Once one of the princes of the intellectual conservatism set, he’s shown himself to be a fascist hypocrite and fool. Between his 2016: Obama’s America — a half-baked documentary only the late Jerry Falwell would’ve been proud of — his extramarital issues, his forced resignation from King’s College, and now, campaign fraud in the Citizens United age? It’s all proof-positive that there really aren’t any intellectual conservatives in the US, at least by global standards of what it means to be a real intellectual.

If anything, what we have are a bunch of pretenders to the throne. Folks who are radical right-wingers and don’t understand anything outside of the affluent, heterosexual and semi-religious (if not spiritual) White male world. So-called scholars who are about as open to new ideas and diverse people as Archie Bunker in season one of All In The Family. Hypocrites who deny for others what they demand for themselves (thanks, U2, for that one).

Since Illiberal Education (1991) and The End of Racism (1995), D’Souza’s been trying to outdo himself. Except that takes more intellectual depth and stamina than he had even when putting together his two most celebrated books (at least, celebrated in his circles). Between his books on Reagan and Obama, it’s like reading the ramblings of, well, a fraudulent author teetering on insanity. I don’t feel sorry at all for D’Souza, who lost his youthful intellectual edge faster than the end of the ticking of an egg-timer. (from HuffPost)

Baseball HOF = Sanctimonious Hypocrisy

January 12, 2014

The front entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY, July 15, 2012. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

The front entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY, July 15, 2012. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 3.0.

Major League Baseball has made a couple of headlines in the past few days to remind us of the Whiteness that goes beyond its four-seamed ball. Between Alex Rodriguez’s deserved second-suspension and the constant weirdness of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall of Fame voting, the sport’s continuing sense of self-importance and piled-high-and-deep hypocrisy knows no bounds.

I stopped watching baseball nearly twenty years ago, and lost interest in the sport right around the time Barry Bonds won the second of his seven (7) MVP awards, that one with the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’92. But lack of interest never compelled me to completely ignore baseball news. And with the ongoing attempt of MLB and the BBWAA to forget about a sixteen-year period in which both ignored the prominence of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) has come a shunning of potential HOF players (Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire excepted) year after year.

Dung heap mixed with farmyard straw, near Granborough, England, UK, May 12, 2007. (David Hawgood via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 2.0.

Dung heap mixed with farmyard straw, near Granborough, England, UK, May 12, 2007. (David Hawgood via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons 2.0.

My rule would be simple for the simpleton set of baseball writers who worship at the altar of the holier-than-thou, folks whose mindset is best represented by mouthpieces like Mike Lupica and Bob Costas. If you turned a nearly blind eye to the falling of baseball records to the likes of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, et al. between ’88 and ’03, then you should vote most — if not all — of the folks with HOF numbers into Cooperstown. Otherwise, you’re hypocrites, and your stances now are ones that reek of bullshit.

Your group, your sport and your HOF continues to be the most hypocritical of all the major American sports. You excluded Black and duskier-Latino players from baseball throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Yet you worship the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, uber-racist Ty Cobb and Cy Young as the all-time platinum-gold standards of the sport, knowing that this can’t be really true. You excluded generations of players from your sport, only voting them into your HOF once they were gray, hobbled and/or in the grave. If this isn’t hypocrisy at its highest, then Richard Nixon should’ve never resigned from office in ’74!

I’ve got another rule for the sanctimonious HOF voters to think about. Until you reconsider the HOF and asterisk the sacrosanct records of the game prior to April 15, 1947, don’t talk to me and the public about PED users as the scourge of the sport. You didn’t seriously complain about it in your reports and columns before ’01, so stop sitting on your guilt-ridden hands now.

The Great “Original Sin” Debate

October 3, 2012

Obama-McCain Third Debate (post-debate picture), Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, October 15, 2008. (Jim Bourg/Reuters).

We’ve finally meandered our way into the presidential debate cycle portion of our Election ’12 cycle. I’m grateful to finally see what the media has built up to be a match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants! Not really, of course. But from standpoint of political reporters and pundits alike, tonight’s first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney might as well be a sports event.

In the end, though, this isn’t as much a presidential debate as it is a personality contest with questions and psychologists’ interpretations of nonverbal communication. It will be more hype than substance, more stiff than an overbaked souffle. One of the men — most likely President Obama — will win this first debate, though it won’t be clear how significant this “win” will be, given the trends for the past couple of months.

Professor Wendy Goldman, Carnegie Mellon University, circa 2012, October 3, 2012. (

I am reminded of another debate, one that occurred in my Comparative Working-Class Formation graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of ’93. It was taught by Professor Wendy Goldman, wife of Marcus Rediker, both decidedly Marxist, but in Goldman’s case, Marxist without any considerations of race at all. It was a course that turned into a debate because I’d already grown tired of professors at Pitt who believed race and gender to be identities subsumed under the long, hard human battle over class inequality (see my post “Dairy Queens, Dick Oestreicher and Race” from February ’11).

All semester-long, there had been a three-way tug-of-war between me (and occasionally, my former Pitt grad school colleague who decided to hop across the bridge to Carnegie Mellon to take this course), ten brown-nosing students who’d agree with her despite the evidence (led by Mike and Mark, the “M&M Boys,” as I labeled them for my friends and colleagues) and Goldman. I didn’t expect my now fellow Carnegie Mellon grad students to take my side. But I did expect them to read E.P. Thompson and Sean Wilentz and other folks with a critical eye and not just to get an A out of our professor. There may have been one or two other classes I dreaded more in three years of grad school. Yet I’d never been around a professor more unaware of their own biases than Goldman (see my “Crying Over E.P. Thompson” post from September ’09).

It all came to a head when it was time to discuss David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991) and, indirectly, Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic (1984) on the last Thursday in October ’93, which happened to be my mother’s forty-sixth birthday. Both authors looked at the formation of the White American (and male) working-class in the first half of the nineteenth century. Goldman, as usual, took the stance that the only ideology of significance was one that proclaimed class inequalities the predominant issue explaining the radicalization of the American working-class.

Michelangelo’s sin of Adam and Eve painting, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Vatican City (1508-1512), May 20, 2005. (The Yorck Project via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Finding this a bit laughable (a mistake on my part), I pressed my argument that at least in the case of US history, race and class distinctions have been and remain intertwined. So much so that a typical neo-Marxist analysis of the American working-class couldn’t apply. The next two hours were me and my Pitt colleague against the M&M Boys, the other brown-nosers and Professor Goldman. Luckily in my case, I could not only quote Roediger and Wilentz, but Herbert Gutmann, W.E.B. Du Bois, and a host of other scholars to press home my counterargument. At the end, our professor said to me, in utter exasperation, “I guess we should just go back to original sin.” It meant that I was being a racial determinist, which I guess was supposed to be an insult as well as her version of “No mas, no mas!”

Aside from the fact that America’s “original sin” really was the taking of Native American lands and the systemic destruction of Native American peoples and culture, I really didn’t have much of a response to Goldman’s excited utterance. I finished my argument with a final volley that included Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) and Roediger, and class adjourned sooner thereafter.

My brown-nosing classmates looked pretty beat from the class session, while me and my colleague from Pitt were both energized from the three-hour class. Still, we couldn’t help but discuss Goldman’s Moment of Surrender at the end of the class. Of course we knew what her “original sin” comment meant when it came to race and slavery. The comment, though, seemed small and petty coming from a professor, one that was too personal, and not professional.

Still, the worst thing I learned is that it took Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness to confirm ideas that Du Bois had begun writing about in 1903 and 1935. That, for me, made me apprehensive about wanting to work with scholars who may well see me and my work as well-intentioned, but inferior to theirs. At the same time, I learned that, for better and for worse, that not going along to get along can be a good thing, especially after years of ridicule from people of all stripes for doing so.

My “original sin” of not going along with whatever Goldman said forced a debate, one of the more exciting times I had in grad school, certainly at Carnegie Mellon. How could that be bad?

Touré’s Post-Blackness ≈ I’ma Be Me?

October 1, 2012

Illustration of red wolf with dinner after a hunt, by Sandra Koch, September 29, 2012. ( In public domain.

I know, I know. Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness (2011) has been out for over a year, and I’ve finally, finally managed to read it in the past couple of weeks. I did not want to like this book. I found — and still find — the title to be pretentious and over the top, a perfect fit for Touré’s Twitter and TV persona. Touré values his ideas like they all are new finds of platinum or a form of safe and sustained nuclear fusion. Sometimes Touré can be cutting-edge, but many times, he goes over the edge (as was the case in August on MSNBC with his “niggerization” of Obama comment).

But in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, Touré puts forward a variety of ideas and insights that I’ll be contemplating in my blogo-neighborhood off and on over the next few months. Touré’s is a very good book. It’s one that is both intellectual and yet revealing about the challenges Blacks face inter- and intraracially in the early twenty-first century.

The premise — once I got past the ridiculous term post-Blackness — is that African Americans and America has advanced just far enough in terms of race for all of our old conceptions of Blackness to have now become meaningless. That Blackness is fully infused in American — maybe even world — culture. That there was never one way to be Black in the first place. Touré himself says, “[t]here is no dogmatically narrow, authentic Blackness because the possibilities for Black identity are infinite. To say something or someone is not Black — or is inauthentically Black — is to sell Blackness short. To limit the potential of Blackness. To be a child of a lesser blackness.” (p. 5).

Litmus paper used in litmus tests, September 29, 2012. (

Ironically, though, much of Touré’s book picks apart the notion that the US has become post-racial in the past couple of decades, as best exemplified by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Of course, Touré uses notions of Blackness and where it has expanded beyond the authenticity litmus test to show that race/racial bias/racism is still alive and well in America. At the same time, Touré shows how post-Blackness has also provided opportunities for millions of Americans White, Black and Brown to reach beyond their own misconceptions of race and themselves, to enrich our lives in politics, scholarship, the arts, not to mention through hip-hop.

One of my main criticisms of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness is that Touré uses a term like post-Blackness (mind you, I hate terms like post-structuralism, post-modernism, and post-racialism too) and doesn’t try in any way to provide a definition that distinguishes it from post-racial. For the purposes of this post, though, the main issue I have revolves around Touré virtually ignoring poor and struggling African Americans in his post-Blackness tour-de-force.

I get it when Touré says that he “never lived a typical Black experience.” (p. 53). At least, I think I do. That despite Touré middle class upbringing, middle-class neighborhood, private school experience, that his is but one representation of Blackness. And that Touré’s experience is as representative of Blackness as my experience of being a Hebrew-Israelite preteen in a working poor family while enrolled in Humanities in Mount Vernon, New York would’ve been thirty years ago (see my post “A Question of My Blackness, Sexuality and Masculinity” from September ’11). Or, for that matter, Wanda Sykes’ comedy special I’ma Be Me (2009) was for her.

That’s great for us, for anyone with enough intellectual power, outsider status, unusual amounts of wisdom, or just plain middle class standing to get the details of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness. But when Touré does bring up the twenty-five percent of Blacks who aren’t part of this post-Blackness elite, he talks at them, and not to them. Yes, I completely agree that Blackness isn’t to be defined in terms of poverty, prison, and projects. No, Blackness shouldn’t be defined by how “down” one is with an impoverished community or how “hard” someone is for beating the shit out of another person (see my “Raised on Hip-Hop?” post from April ’10).

Hakeem Olajuwon posting up Patrick Ewing, 1994 NBA Finals, June 1994. (

Still, while I stand with almost one hundred percent of what Touré says in Who Afraid of Post-Blackness in ’12, I don’t think that this book would’ve reached me thirty years ago. The way I would’ve seen it in ’82 or even ’87, a middle class Black guy telling me about how my poverty is insignificant to who I was would’ve been excommunicated from my life for eternity. It wouldn’t have helped me at all deal with the pressures I faced socially, academically and in my family (see my “The Silent Treatment” post from June ’10).

Touré wouldn’t have been able to provide for me a roadmap for how to be me and to ignore the crowd of those in my life — White and Black — who regularly told me that I wasn’t authentically Black or that I was “talkin’ White.” If mild-mannered me at twelve wouldn’t have been reached by Touré’s chapter on Black artists taking Blackness and standing it on its head, I imagine that young African Americans growing up in poverty or struggling with identity issues would find Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness about as easy to embrace as Bill Cosby’s criticism of poor Blacks in ’04.

For me as a writer, the question of how to reach beyond the already converted is always an issue. Touré, as good as he is in his book, merely affirms the path I’ve traveled over the past thirty-one years. He doesn’t really reach those whose path of Blackness has barely begun.

The Third Armpit of Hell

July 27, 2012

Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Map of Lower Hell, 16th century. (Giovanni Stradano via Wikipedia). In public domain.

During most of my Pittsburgh years, whenever someone I knew asked me what it was like to live in the New York City area, I often said two things. One, that “New York was a great place to live if you have money.” But, “if you don’t have money, New York could be like the third armpit of hell.”

I didn’t even bother to discuss Mount Vernon until I was well into graduate school. Too unknown, too complicated to explain its proximity to the Bronx and to midtown Manhattan. And from the average Pittsburgher’s perspective, it was a distinction without a difference. As far as some were concerned, Mount Vernon could’ve just as easily been outside of Buffalo as it could’ve been in the heart of Harlem.

But I definitely knew better, that my relationship with Mount Vernon and “The City” was a love-hate one, born from my growing-up experiences during the Reagan years. The lens with which I viewed the New York City area, a trifocal one of race, poverty and “outsider” status, made me ambivalent about my times growing up in Mount Vernon and all of my times in New York.

2 NYC subway train with graffiti (cropped), 1980s, December 20, 2009. (Cope2 via Qualifies as fair use – low resolution picture.

I have my father Jimme to thank, though. Without him, I would still be afraid of New York, not just ambivalent about it. Drunk or not, working or on his way to a hole-in-the-wall bar. Jimme would take me and my older brother Darren out and down to the city often enough, to ride the Subway, to hang out with him in Harlem, Spanish Harlem, and especially Midtown. Whether it was to help him with his janitorial work on weekends, or just to hang out, we frequented Manhattan and other parts of the five boroughs off and on between ’80 and ’85, ’82 — the year of abuse — excepted.

Because of that year, the longest time I spent outside of the city growing up was between April ’81 and July ’83. After not making it down to Manhattan in all of ’82, we went to Midtown in July, where we learned about two of my father’s watering holes between 43rd and 47th. They were both near Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on 47th. He also had an Irish pub he’d like to go to around East 59th and Third, a drinking bar near his job on 64th and Columbus, and a couple of places near Macy’s on 34th Street. Because of our height and the times, when it was still legal for eighteen-year-olds to drink in public watering holes, me and Darren were allowed into these fine establishments. I learned a lot about vermouth, vodka, Cosmos and Long Island Iced Tea that summer.

Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

I also learned a lot about the not-so-nice side of New York in those years. I recognized this as I’d board the Uptown 2 Subway from West 42nd Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan at the tail end of rush hour. As I’d board the train, I’d notice the crunch of humanity in all of its oblivion, self-absorption, and diversity. As the doors close, I’d watch as the express train passed 50th, 59th, and 66th Street before it would grind to a halt at 72nd Street. I’d notice that a fair number of the White passengers alighted here. Between 96th and 125th Street, the load of the train would gradually lighten as about half of the passengers who’d crushed me between a tall, stale-breathed smoker and a woman who wasn’t my girlfriend were now at street level.

About three-quarters of the passengers for the rest of my trip would be Latino and Afro-Caribbean. After another hour of endless stops in the Bronx, the 2 would pull me out of my slumber as it would slowly roll into the rickety East 241st stop.

By the time I was a rising senior at Pitt, I certainly didn’t need my father to accompany on my trips into Manhattan. I also avoided the long trek from 616 across Mount Vernon to 241st to take the 2 whenever I could afford to. Metro-North was a luxurious godsend compared to the puddles of piss and infinite amounts of graffiti on the Subway I’d seen throughout the ’80s.

Toph’s “Hairy Pits” from Avatar: The Last Airbender (screenshot), July 26, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins). Qualifies as fair use — low resolution picture.

But it introduced me to other odious issues. Like Grand Central Station, which by the summer of ’90 was in desperate need of renovation. Especially the restrooms, festooned with enough garbage, feces and bodily odors and fluids to make a coroner vomit.

Off a return trip from Pittsburgh that summer, I made the mistake of having no choice but to use the almost  unusable facilities there, which in the end I couldn’t use. Meanwhile, I observed homeless males hanging out in the restroom with carts, along with an individual who looked to have Kaposi’s sarcoma, an obvious sign of full-blown AIDS.

That’s when I coined New York to be “the third armpit of hell,” the place where poverty had meant your dreams were dead on arrival. For once, it made me content that I was from a place where many smug New Yorkers disdainly considered “upstate.” Though the New York City area has changed — and mostly for the better — since ’90, it’s still a place where economic inequality can easily grind the life out of people.


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