Whiteness, Where “That’s So Raven” Meets “Real Time”

October 11, 2014

Black square, or Black is the new Black, June 2014. (http://kennyali.com/).

Black square, or Black is the new Black, June 2014. (http://kennyali.com/).

Why we ever give voice to the vapid and vain I still don’t fully understand. In the past week, we’ve allowed Raven-Symoné (of The Cosby Show and That’s So Raven fame) and Bill Maher (host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and a mediocre stand-up political comedian) to determine our discourse on race, racism, Islam, atheism and terrorism. Proving once again the power of Whiteness in our racially narcissistic nation.

Raven-Symoné certainly isn’t the first Black celebrity or entertainer to declare herself “not African-American” or Black, to Oprah or to the rest of the world. Morgan Freeman’s been making statements rejecting labels like “Black actor,” the term “African American,” and even Black History Month, going as far back as interviews in support of Glory (1989) and Shawshank Redemption (1994) (of course, he also was making the point that he’s an American first). Raven-Symoné isn’t even the first Black entertainer to say they’re “not Black” or “not African American” in 2014. Pharrell Williams holds this distinction, as he allegedly represents the “New Black,” whatever colorblind racist nonsense this is.

Raven-Symoné on Oprah's Where Are They Now, October 5, 2014. (http://www.billboard.com). Qualifies as fair use - picture directly related to subject matter, and of low resolution.

Raven-Symoné on Oprah’s Where Are They Now, October 5, 2014. (http://www.billboard.com). Qualifies as fair use – picture directly related to subject matter, and of low resolution.

It all points to a phenomenon I’ve been calling the “unspecial American” over the past twelve years. The idea that we can discard labels, histories and cultures in an effort to make ourselves unique or special individuals. All of this is born out of a racial narcissism, one which afflicts the most vulnerable to this psychosis — the famous and the wannabe famous. Maybe there’s a bit of internalized racism to this, too — that’s clearly speculation to be sure. But that obsession to be unique, to declare oneself above constructs and labels, but then to latch on to the term “American” as if the world might forget? It reflects on some level stereotype threat, not to mention the defensive posture of someone like Raven-Symoné attempting to preserve their income and elite social status.

Maher’s take on religion, especially Islam, isn’t unique. The idea that he can claim this his Islamophobia has nothing to do with race — his own Whiteness/Jewishness or that of his brown-skinned Semitic cousins — is what makes Maher’s xenophobic argument a specious one. Maher’s is a culture of violence argument, one that attempts to combine the foundational tenets of Islam with the actions of terroristic jihadists in a sweeping indictment of at least half a billion people. HBO and Maher’s friends and fans have let him get away with this ridiculous line of thinly veiled racism and Islamophobia for years. Yet if Maher made the same kind of argument about Blacks, poverty and crime — the culture of poverty hypothesis proposed by the likes of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s — he’d probably lose his show.

"Violence is not our culture," 2011. (Wendy Harcourt via http://http://www.ips.org/).

“Violence is not our culture,” 2011. (Wendy Harcourt via http://http://www.ips.org/).

That Maher has no sense of history or understanding of human nature isn’t surprising. He’s a stinking comedian, not a historian, political scientist, religious studies professor or philosopher. At this stage of his career, I’d make a better stand-up comic than Maher would a critic of any culture or religion. That Maher has found himself in arguments with Ben Affleck and Reza Aslan is telling. Maher in his late-fifties has become Ronald Reagan — an arrogant White male who firmly believes in the primacy of his brand of White culture above all others.

Both Maher and Raven-Symoné should take a long look at history and learn from it. Raven-Symoné should learn that Black celebrities who deny the existence of racial constructs tend to crash into a few barriers during their lifelong journeys. Maher should look at violent examples of atheism — the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism, among others — and ask if these were the product of narcissism and violent repression or the product of a culture of violence based too heavily on the reliance on the scientific method for ultimate truths. And we should continue to ask ourselves why we ever take people like Raven-Symoné and Maher seriously at all.


Lies We Tell Each Other When In College

January 4, 2014

Every lie is two lies quote, Robert Brauilt, January 4, 2014. (http://izquote.com).

Every lie is two lies quote, Robert Brauit, January 4, 2014. (http://izquotes.com).

I thought about posting this at the beginning of this week, but decided against it, figuring that I should end ’13 on a more positive tip. But it must be said that one of the critical issues that we in higher education face in terms of college retention and success is the sheer lack of honesty surrounding student performance, especially in the first year or two of any student’s enrollment. No, I’m not talking about grade inflation — for students doing okay, especially at elite colleges, that’s another rampant issue. It’s about the lies students tell themselves, each other and their loved ones about their performance prior to either being caught in a web of them or, worse still, dropping out altogether.

As a college student and as a professor, I found and find it fascinating and disheartening when I’ve learned of the fantasy life of a student’s alleged good grades being shattered by reality. I fell into this trap myself during my first semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I only tell part of this story in Boy @ The Window. Yeah, I was nowhere near dropping out after a 2.63 GPA first semester (A in Astronomy, B- in Pascal, C in Honors Calc I, and a C in East Asian History), but I relied on an annual GPA of a 3.0 or higher to maintain my academic scholarship.

Yet from about the second week in December ’87 until I received my grades from Pitt on this date twenty-six years ago, I maintained the lie that my GPA was “around a 3.2.” The main difference — I gave myself a C+ in Honors Calc and a B in East Asian History. Mind you, I hardly showed up for either class most of the month of November! I was homesick, heartbroken, and unhealthily horny (and on two occasions hung over) most of the last six weeks of that semester.

The lies we tell ourselves (self-deception), Scientific America, February 4, 2012. (Richard Mia).

The lies we tell ourselves (self-deception), Scientific America, February 4, 2012. (Richard Mia).

So I told my former classmates like Laurell and Erika that my GPA was a 3.2. I told my dorm mates Samir and Chuck the same. It was a mild lie, I realized even at the time, and I knew that if I buckled down, that I could overcome my own lie, especially since I could lose my scholarship if I didn’t. And with a 3.33 second semester in Winter ’88, I did pull my GPA over the 3.0 mark, and in the process, decided not to tell any lies that big ever again.

But over the years, I’ve learned that I was hardly alone in the lying-about-my-college-experience category. The first time I figured this out was at the end of ’88, twenty-five years ago this week. It was a lunch outing with Laurell, her friend Maria and former classmates JD and Joshua at a pizza shop in the Fleetwood section of Mount Vernon. After the previous sixteen months of the Phyllis obsession, rage and grade-raising campaign, homelessness and financial struggles, I was finally fully on track for graduation and potentially, grad school. With this group of former classmates, though, almost all White, all but Laurell with upper middle class resources, I realized too that their struggles, or blues, weren’t exactly like mine.

As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

There was a lot of “everything’s goin’ well” type of discussion going. Yet I got the sense that things weren’t all that great. Then JD admitted that he was a semester away from academic probation at Berkeley. His engineering classes were kicking his butt. From the looks of things, he was doing much better athletically than anywhere else, having bulked up to 190 with twenty extra pounds of muscle. Josh then admitted that his academic and social life wasn’t exactly going as planned. “I don’t know which one is worse,” he told us. He’d grown four or five inches since MVHS, good enough to put him around five-five or five-six. Laurell, of course, had a killer GPA at Johns Hopkins…and just loved things there. What she didn’t mention, between home and school, was that she was on the verge of burnout, 3.6 average or not…As for me, I talked a bit about some of my new friends and a couple of my classes. Nothing, though, about the drama of the previous year.

Umm, New York style pizza, Vesuvius Pizza, Brooklyn, NY, January 4, 2014. (http://yelp.com).

Umm, New York style pizza, Vesuvius Pizza, Brooklyn, NY, January 4, 2014. (http://yelp.com).

Given how they had reacted to my previous revelations of tiny nuggets from my life while we were in high school, I knew that they would have nothing to say about overcoming homelessness and my Phyllis obsession, much less my now 3.2 GPA overall. At the same time, though, I thought it better to say nothing at all than to tell half-truths and bald-faced lies about my college performance and experiences.

I’ve seen so many students do what I and my former classmates did during our first semesters of college over the years. They lie to me about their issues with my courses, they lie to themselves about their performance and preparation. Mostly, they lie to their friends and family to protect themselves from embarrassment. They lie until the truth of their performance shows up, in their grades, in academic probation, in suspensions and expulsions, in dropping out, in other myriad and dangerous ways.

And we in higher education encourage these lies, as if the money and grade trail won’t expose the reality of struggle and failure for so many. This is where we as educators and administrators need to be much more proactive, to encourage students to seek help, to tell the truth and not bury themselves in a coffin of lies.


Monkey See, Baboon Do

May 22, 2013

Monkey See Monkey Do, May 22, 2013. (http://kidsunder7.com).

Monkey See Monkey Do, May 22, 2013. (http://kidsunder7.com).

There are plenty of stories and vignettes that ended up on the Boy @ The Window scrap heap. Most because they weren’t relevant, some because a particular person or character really wasn’t a significant player in the book. In my final set of story revisions (not dialogue revisions) in ’09 and ’10, I operated under the “two or more rule.” If a person or character showed up fewer than two times in the book, I took them out, as they really weren’t as significant as I originally thought.

But in the case of the Sonya story below, it was a tough cut. I wanted to craft a book in which people felt everything I went through while not feeling sorry for me. I think and hope that I did. Though this story contained many elements of what I wanted in the rest of the book, it didn’t quite fit. Still, it serves as a good reminder of how mean even someone as polite (but certainly not always nice) as I am today could be at thirteen.

—————————

“Sonya was major fodder for Alex in eighth grade. She had a short Afro, an ‘au naturale’ to be exact. She wasn’t nearly as polished in maintaining her looks as many of the other girls in 8U. Sonya wasn’t ugly by any stretch. But by her not attempting to beautify herself in any way, she stood out for some in our class. Why would’ve she needed to anyway? She was also well-spoken, intelligent and outgoing, at least at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately for Sonya, my Italian Club classmates Alex, et al. were around to call her all kinds of names, like ‘baboon,’ and ‘monkey.’ I felt sorry for her, but I was also angry with her too. It pissed me off to see her respond to these semi-racist barbs with a blank face or even a smile.

It pissed me off so much that I ended up calling Sonya one of those names by the end of the school year. One day in homeroom, par for the course, Alex and company picked with Sonya again, calling her a ‘baboon’ among other things. She just sat there with that silly ‘Oh well’ smile on her face, as if they were telling her that she should go into professional modeling. Under my breath, I called her ‘monkey,’ and not as a joke. I just couldn’t believe that she was going to sit there like some pre-Civil Rights era Black in the South and take their crap without any response.

Except that I had called Sonya a ‘monkey’ within earshot of her and Alex. She ran out of the room, apparently to the girls bathroom, where she cried for several minutes, I later learned from Allison. I immediately tried to apologize, which Sonya eventually accepted (after my eighth grade science teacher Ms. Mignone and Allison shamed me for what I said). What I said was unacceptable to me, and the rationale was too intellectual for my own good. For Sonya, it simply came down to her looks, not her disposition. I wished that it had never happened, given what I faced from some of my classmates on a semi-regular basis.”

———————————————————-

1990s R&B/hip-hop duo Zhané from their 1994 album cover Pronounced Jah-Nay, May 22, 2013. (http://centrictv.com).

1990s R&B/hip-hop duo Zhané, from 1994 album cover Pronounced Jah-Nay, May 22, 2013. (http://centrictv.com).

The Sonya story has many of those elements, exposing me good, bad and ugly in the process. It’s about race and teenage ignorance and intellect. It’s about stereotype threat on one obvious level and trying to fit in on an unconscious one. It’s about the person I needed to become in high school as well as how I got to be that quiet yet observant person. The story is significant, yet because I only dealt with Sonya for two paragraphs in a 345-page book (in print form), it didn’t make the final cut. Because there are other and more central characters and stories in which stereotype threat and the ugly side of my immaturity both come out, I didn’t include Sonya.

Luckily, I also have a blog, where even scrap-heap stories can find the light of a new day. So, for this week, the thirtieth anniversary of my calling Sonya a “monkey,” I apologize again. I was a baboon for saying it in the first place. And Sonya, I hope you are well!


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.


Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…


Why Ferengi Are Jewish & The Maquis Are Latino

January 17, 2011

 

Ferengi Characters, Star Trek: DS9, "Little Green Men" Episode Screen Shot, January 16, 2011. Image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because of its low quality and limited use nature.

Maquis Characters, Star Trek: Voyager, "Caretaker, Part I" Episode Screen Shot, January 16, 2011. Image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because of its low quality and limited use nature.

In honor of Martin Luther King Day ’11, it’s my privilege to discuss Star Trek and stereotypes. For whatever reason, I’ve spent the better part of the past six months watching episodes of different Star Trek series in my spare entertainment time. Whether the theatrically great DS9 (Deep Space 9), the ever-goofy TNG (Next Generation), or the uneven and mediocre Voyager, the Star Trek franchise that made runs of four different series between ’87 and ’05 had at least one theme consistent with our much less harmonious twentieth and twenty-first century times. Playing to stereotypes seemed to be a common undercurrent, though with great makeup artists — and at least with DS9, good writing and acting — those stereotypes were light and subtle.

 

In watching, it amazed me that nearly all actors who played the alien Ferengi were Jewish. Yes, the actors who played the Ferengi characters were supposed to be short, but I didn’t know that Jews had cornered the acting market for people under five and a half feet tall. Armin Shimerman, Aron Eisenberg, Wallace Shawn, and Max Grodenchik all played the main Ferengi characters on DS9. Not so ironically, the Ferengi culture centered itself on making profit by virtually any means necessary, a pretty vile stereotype for an entertainment franchise based on a future and better human race.

Reggie Miller, Potential Ferengi

 

Even while watching DS9 in the late-90s, when all of the episodes were new ones, I commented to my friends that NBA Hall-of-Famer Reggie Miller could easily play a Ferengi, even at six-foot-seven, because the makeup artists would have very little work to do. Of course, that wasn’t to be.

 

Tony Plana as Maquis Character, Star Trek: DS9, "The Maquis" Episode Screen Shot, January 16, 2011. Image qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law because of its low quality.

It wasn’t just the Jews-as-Ferengi that I picked up on the first or second time around. On both Voyager and DS9, the Maquis, a guerilla group fighting for disputed territories, had a disproportionate number of Latino actors playing those lead characters. Robert Beltran, Roxann Dawson and Tony Plana (mostly known these days as the father on the recently ended TV series Ugly Betty) were among the Latino actors playing these characters. I guess that the passionate or hot-blooded Latino stereotype played a role in the selection of these quality actors to play passionate or hot-blooded rebels in the relatively placid paradise of the Star Trek galaxy.

 

Of course, Black men on these shows found themselves emasculated for the most part. From LeVar Burton

Anthony Montgomery as Travis Mayweather, Star Trek: Enterprise, January 16, 2011. This screen shot qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because it is of low resolution screen shot and is a minimal use.

as the blind engineer to Michael Dorn as the semi-defanged Klingon, and from Tim Russ as the more-emotionally-repressed-than-normal Vulcan to the milquetoast twenty-second century human played by Anthony Montgomery, these characters seldom were provided the opportunity of a higher level of complexity beyond stereotypes or in playing an anti-stereotype. The one notable exception was Avery Brooks’ character Capt. Benjamin Sisko, who became one of the Bajoran Prophets at the end of the DS9 series, destined not to enjoy the fruits of his god-like work in the here-and-now.

 

I’m not bringing all of this up to denigrate the Star Trek franchise. I actually love DS9, still like TNG, and can tolerate an occasional Voyager episode. Rather, this is about the battle over racial stereotypes, living them down, defying them, and being surprised when others don’t exhibit them. The fact that a franchise as optimistic and progressive as Star Trek couldn’t avoid major stereotypes says a lot about how deeply ingrained they are in our advanced culture.

Here’s a stereotype-breaking thought. Let’s make most of our images of alien humanoids out there somewhere in the Milky Way into folks who have various shades of brown skin. I know that this wouldn’t play well on any future Star Trek series. But this has about as much of a chance being true as the pink-skinned humanoids that characters in the Star Trek franchise constantly encounter. This first-contact stereotype, of course, is the hardest one of all for the Hollywood set to break.

It still amazes me that people are amazed that someone like me, a six-foot-three Black guy, has a doctorate, teaches, writes and still likes to play basketball. It also amazes me that many are still waiting for President Obama to slip into a stereotype, even though he’s bent over backwards to be neither a stereotype nor an anti-stereotype. Or, for that matter, the amazement of Blacks or others of color in watching a fast White guy play football or a tall one dunk a basketball. Stereotypes, like perceptions, are real, but not as real as the human capacity to defy them. Anyone who doesn’t believe that doesn’t believe in anything that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for.


Shopping at C-Town

September 9, 2010

C-Town Sign, Plainfield, NJ. Source: Plainfield Today, http://ptoday.blogspot.com/2010/07/c-town-supermarket-touches-nerve.html

I’ve spent very little time walking down memory lane regarding Crush #1 this year. Partly because I’m sure some of my readers are sick of hearing about my love for her, and partly because I’m sure she’s sick of hearing about herself. But this short story is more about me than her.

Twenty-seven years ago this week, I experienced my first — and nearly my last — embarrassment around food stamps at the one-time C-Town grocery store near the corner of Park Avenue and East Prospect Avenue in Mount Vernon. I was shopping after 7 pm for groceries after a quick stop at Mount Vernon Public Library early on in my freshman year at Mount Vernon High School. It was right around the last Rosh Hashanah I’d recognize as a Hebrew-Israelite, a Wednesday or Thursday night. I was buying some pinto beans, Carolina Long Grain Rice, beef neck bones and other healthy yet cheap things to eat for the next few days.

It’d always been a struggle to shop for my family during the Hebrew-Israelite years, to find kosher food, to buy strange things like matzohs or kosher salt. But it had become stranger for me earlier that year, when we ended up on welfare and using food stamps after April ’83. By that fateful evening, I’d maybe used my

Vintage Food Stamps. Source: http://slashfood.com

mother’s food stamps a half-dozen times. Other times, I’d used my father Jimme’s money to pay for the groceries, the indignity of using food stamps was so great. And when I shopped in Mount Vernon, I was acutely aware of the possibility that I could bump into one of my better-off classmates while paying for groceries with my stereotypical food stamps. As far as I was concerned, they already had too many things they could make fun of me about as it was.

So as I finished combing the slender and short aisles of C-Town for kosher bargains, I began my trek to the cash registers at the front, relieved that I hadn’t bumped into any folks I knew. Only to run into Crush #1, having beaten me to the cashier that was open at the time.” Damn,” I thought, one of the few times before the age of twenty-one that the word damn ever invaded my thoughts. She was polite enough to say “Hey, Donald,” to engage me in a short conversation about the start of high school.

Although I was usually grateful to be in my first love’s presence, all I wanted to do at that moment was run away, get out of the store as fast as I could. Instead, I went through the motions, answering her questions and asking a couple of ones about the teachers we had in common that year, like Cuglietto and Murphy. Luckily for me, she didn’t linger after she paid the cashier, and said her laters while I was still being rung up. I quickly handed the cashier my $20 in food stamps, told them to keep the Monopoly money change, and walked around the corner and down Prospect to 616 at Warp Factor 3.

The funny thing about getting older — not old, but older — is that it would take a lot more than food stamps to embarrass me these days. Especially now that you can get welfare checks and food stamps through direct deposit and EBT cards. I’m sure that Crush #1 thought nothing of our short conversation that evening, and neither did I, other than feeling awkward about the reminder that I was completely out of my league, not only from a relationship standpoint, but in terms of my lot in life overall. Boy, I’m glad that things have changed — that I’ve grown — so much in past twenty-seven years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a blog to remind me of my ridiculous past.


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