Last Gasps, Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love,” and My ’86 Mets

October 26, 2014

The Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner connection, Game 6, 1986 World Series, Bottom 10th, Shea Stadium, Queens,  NY, October 25, 1986. (http://halloffamememorabilia.net).

The Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner connection, Game 6, 1986 World Series, Bottom 10th, Shea Stadium, Queens, NY, October 25, 1986. (http://halloffamememorabilia.net).

Sunday, October 26, 1986 was part of a great three days for me, perhaps the three best days during my Boy @ The Window years. My Mets had pulled off a miracle. They survived being within a strike of losing the ’86 World Series because Mookie Wilson put a ball between Boston Red Sox 1st baseman Bill Buckner’s rickety legs the night before. Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” was #1 or #2 on the R&B charts and was near the top of Billboard’s Top 40 on this day twenty-eight years ago. Within the next thirty-eight hours, my Mets would complete the comeback, and win their second (and last, to this point anyway) World Series after falling behind 3-0 through the first six innings. Meanwhile, my Giants would run through the Deadskins at home in East Rutherford, NJ, as Joe Morris rushed for 185 yards in a 27-21 victory, on their own march to a championship title.

GoGurt, Yoplait's squeeze -in-mouth, portable yogurt, October 26, 2014. (http://freehotsamples.com).

GoGurt, Yoplait’s squeeze -in-mouth, portable yogurt, October 26, 2014. (http://freehotsamples.com).

My coping mechanisms were at their peaks, though, and had nothing else to do but crash down into the Earth. It was also my senior year in high school, a time of too many AP courses, too many college-going pressures, too many haters and doubters among my classmates, and too much of the grinding poverty and chaos that was living at 616. Within two weeks of my Mets, my Giants and Anita Baker’s first big hits, I’d discover my idiot stepfather’s pornography collection, nearly got set up with a prostitute because of my father, and face humiliation at the hands of my AP Physics teacher David Wolf and his boss Estelle Abel for the first time.

It took me almost two years to recover from the happenings of the mid-fall of ’86. In the process, I faced betrayal, ostracism, humiliation, broken-heartedness, and homelessness, but somehow managed to not make every song and every Mets and Giants (and Knicks and Rangers) victory a vicarious signpost for my own life. It helped that I started to think of Pitt — if not Pittsburgh — as my home, with concerns beyond living and dying with my New York teams and with relatively unknown but talented music artists.

Giants' RB Joe Morris running through Deadskins again, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, December 7, 1986.  (http://sikids.com).

Giants’ RB Joe Morris running through Deadskins again, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, December 7, 1986. (http://sikids.com).

I learned other things along the way, too. That myMets and Giants weren’t the perfect teams I thought they were. Between the alcohol and drug issues of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, LenDykstra, Lawrence Taylor, Kevin Mitchell, not to mention their and other teammates’ domestic violence issues, it was obvious to me that talent and winning were more important than living by a consistent code. Listening to the new 24/7 sports radio station WFAN when it began its run in the summer of ’87 showed me the hearts and minds of most fans. They obviously weren’t using sports as a coping strategy for dealing with the emotional grind of poverty and threats of abuse and domestic violence at home. Mostly White and male, their constant barrage of vitriol and disparaging racial commentary about my favorite athletes at that time — Mike Tyson in particular — actually made me wary of White sports fans for years afterward.

I also learned that with artists like Anita Baker and Luther was really the last gasp of R&B as I’d known it to be in the US. R&B was already too much like ’80s pop and a bit too mixed up with rock at times, but with Cameo’s “Word Up” and Club Nouveau’s cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” R&B was already beginning its merge with hip-hop, and not in a good way, either. Yeah, there were some exceptions, like Levert, or Regina Belle, but the process of R&B devolving into some Yoplait GoGurt version of itself — with Autotunes, bad rap lyrics and worse rhyme spitters, and assembly-line hip-hop beats — had already begun.

Anita Baker, Rapture phase, circa 1986. (http://projects.latimes.com).

Anita Baker, Rapture phase, circa 1986. (http://projects.latimes.com).

Some of you may say, R&B’s still alive in the US, specifically in our churches, but that’s not true, thanks in large measure to Kirk Franklin. His work in the ’90s made it so that it’s taken longer for jazz to catch on in bands and choirs than rap and hip-hop. No, if you want to find R&B with actual singers these days, try the United Kingdom of Great Britain, try France, try Senegal, try Nigeria. But don’t try the US. Nicki Minaj is no Aretha, no matter how imaginative her videos and her clothes. For that matter, Iggy Azalea’s no Teena Marie, as the former doesn’t understand the difference between cultural appropriation and authenticity. Hip-hop sprang in part from the roots and branches of R&B, but like a parasitic vine, it has cannibalized those roots.

Still, it’s good to remember days like the ones I lived through twenty-eight years ago, with Anita Baker in my ear, my Mets in victory formation, my Giants lined up right beside them. Those days are gone, like the coping strategies I used to get through every one of those days. Not to mention the R&B that was more a part of my life than the hip-hop that my contemporaries were supposedly raised on.


Super Bowl XXI and Vicarious Living

January 28, 2012

New York Giants as underdogs, January 26, 2012. (BlasBlasB via http://Flickr.com). In public domain.In little more than a week, my New York (football) Giants will play against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, and hopefully win their fourth NFL championship. It’s good for me to watch this process unfold — again. Only without the significant emotional and psychological attachment I had to my Giants back in the days of Bill Parcells, Phil Simms, Mark Bavaro, Phil McConkey, Joe Morris, Lawrence Taylor, Leonard Marshall, Carl Banks, Elvis Patterson, and Harry Carson, among so many others.

It’s been twenty-five years and three days since my Giants won their first Super Bowl, against John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. Or, as Dick Enberg put it over and over again, “the man with the golden arm,” who looked like Tim Tebow most of the game against the Giants pass rush. At times after that win on January 25, ’87, it seemed as if that was the only thing that went right for me that year.

Of course, that wasn’t true. After all, this was also my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, about to graduate and move on to the University of Pittsburgh that fall. But at seventeen years old, in the middle of my obsession with Crush #2, and feeling the pressures of life at 616, the ridicule of some classmates at MVHS, and the need to grasp my future, I needed many forms of escape.

The Giants had served as one major form of escape for me since the ’83 season. Yeah, their 3-12-1 season. I was neither a Giants nor a Jets fan, but after watching what had happened with both teams that year, I felt sorriest for the Giants. With a first-year coach like Bill Parcells not knowing yet how to coach his team, I just felt they had nowhere else to go but up. They hadn’t won a championship since ’56, and didn’t look like they were going to win one anytime soon.

Just like me. As an underdog in life, I already was rooting for teams that no one else would care to talk

Mark Bavaro after touchdown catch in Super Bowl XXI, January 25, 1987 (note the kneel down that people now attribute to Tebow). (Walter Iooss, Jr. via http://nypost.com).

about. The Jets just looked like a team that squandered talent, they had Richard Todd, and they never played as hard as the Giants. So by the end of the year I didn’t care to watch them anymore.

I watched or listened to my Giants play football virtually every Sunday from that point on, but that didn’t interfere with my studies. It often helped me remember obscure information, especially as my ability to study at 616 complete deteriorated. Through a visual cue, like Phil Simms throwing a touchdown pass on a crossing route or post pattern to Mark Bavaro, I could remember how to solve a specific function or recall a series of “if-then” statements for a Pascal program.

Then, after disappointment in the playoffs in ’84 and ’85 at the hands of the 49ers and the Bears, the Giants won Super Bowl XXI, blowing out and brutalizing each team they faced along the way. My underdog team had become a juggernaut in three seasons, meaning that there was hope for me yet.

But it would take me a bit longer to see myself as a winner, a champion, someone deserving of a victorious life. When I did, a couple of years before the Giants’ second Super Bowl victory in January ’91, I realized that I didn’t need to live and die with any team I was a fan of in order to validate the meaning of my own life. Rooting for the Giants, win or lose, has given me a small degree of joy over the years, like a kid just enjoying the excellence of his team. How it translates for my own life is immaterial. It’s up to me to decide how much victory in my life I’m willing to fight for, and how much success I can stand.


A One-Year Sooner “What If?”

June 18, 2011

Through The Wormhole, Star Trek DS9 Style, June 18, 2011. Donald Earl Collins

Today’s twenty-four years since I graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Mount Vernon, New York as part of the Class of ’87. I’ve talked about the events immediately before and after that milestone. I’ve spent a bit of time on the day of the ceremony itself, and will again when I hit the quarter-century anniversary mark next year. Today, though, I want to hypothesize about what would’ve happened if I had decided to graduate one year earlier. I can’t help it. I’m a historian and intellectual, and not just a scholar who cares about research, so I often speculate in order to find answers that are a little outside of the box.

Because of Humanities and AP, many of the best of the best and brightest had or nearly had enough credits to graduate by the end of our junior year, in June ’86. A dozen or more members of the projected Class of ’87 actually took the option of graduating without a senior year. I could’ve myself. I was a quarter-credit short of graduation, and could’ve gone to summer school to take PE or health class to graduate no later than August ’86.

Back To The Future Photo Clip, May 7, 2009. Source: http://gilka.co.uk

What would’ve happened or not happened isn’t all that easy to figure out with any degree of certainty. But I can make a few educated guesses based on the kind of person I was twenty-five years ago. I hadn’t made any definitive decisions about what college to go to because my plans by April ’86 were for the fall of ’87, and not sooner. I had taken the AP US History exam that May, and all but knew that I’d earned a “5” and six college credits because of my score. The thought of graduating early had crossed my mind in the weeks after the exam.

The reality of life at 616, meanwhile, would’ve been harder to manage. With me out of school in ’86 instead of ’87, I suddenly would’ve found myself with more time on my hands for resentment and anger than I had before. Especially once my Technisort job came to an end at the beginning of August of that year. Sure, I would’ve filled my afternoons with watching or listening to Mets games from August to the World Series win on October 27th, and my fall/winter Sundays with Giants games as they marched to their first Super Bowl. But in between, I would’ve been looking for work, or would’ve found part-time work.

I know for sure that I would’ve spent even more time watching over my younger siblings, washing clothes, running to the grocery store, cooking meals, and so many other things that I ended up doing during my summers at home from my studies at the University of Pittsburgh. That would’ve made me resentful, given the lack of emotional support I had from my Mom.

I would’ve had to endure more weekend searches for my alcoholic father Jimme in order to have enough money to get away from 616 while waiting to start college in ’87. I probably would’ve seen a bit more of my idiot (ex) stepfather between September and November ’86 and March through May ’87, not an easy task considering I sometimes imagined myself stabbing him in the neck.

Or would I? If I know anything about space, time and history, if you change one decision, no matter how small, you change almost everything that comes afterward, even if some events on the surface look the same. I would’ve thought about taking some college courses at Westchester Community College, Pace University, perhaps even Fordham or one of the CUNY schools, like Hunter College. I still would’ve explored applying for schools outside of the NYC area, including the University of Pittsburgh. A couple of extra months at home would’ve made me more weary of being at 616 and in Mount Vernon than I actually was at the beginning of my senior year at MVHS.

Still, there was so much I would’ve missed learning my senior year. About the pitfalls of liking a girl whose only goal in life besides pleasing her parents was in pulling away from them by being cool (read Crush #2 and cruel, actually). All of the friendships and relationships that failed to endure the year. The difference between a great teacher like the late Harold Meltzer and someone in need of a career change like an Estelle Abel or a David Wolf. And that taking three AP courses in one year with teachers of varying abilities and with senioritis in full bloom was a terrible idea.

Those lessons wouldn’t have been learned for at least a year, and made my transition to college harder. Without those bitter lessons, I probably wouldn’t be a historian and a writer. For all I know, I probably would’ve ended up a bartender making the best daiquiris in Westchester County.


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