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.

Working for My Father

July 8, 2010

Me and My Father, August 2007

The first job outside of 616 I ever had was working for my father Jimme. Off and on from September ’84 through the early part of July ’85, me and my older brother Darren schlepped our way between 616, Jimme’s place on South 10th Avenue, the 2 Subway and the Upper West and Upper East Side. We cleaned high-rise offices, high-rise condos, and high-rise co-ops in the process. The last of those jobs was twenty-five years ago this week. This was Jimme’s way of making us earn the money he’d been giving us (really me) since the end of ’82.

Whenever anyone asked me what Jimme did — which was really rare — I usually said, “Oh, my dad’s a carpet cleaner.” I didn’t see him as a simple janitor, although it was true that he cleaned stuff. But Jimme didn’t clean toilets or latrines or bathroom sinks and tubs. He cleaned the floors of office buildings — carpeted, wooden, or otherwise — thoroughly treating any surface he encountered with industrial cleaning machines. He cleaned high-rise co-ops and condos where the mortgage or rent payment per month was more than our rent at 616 for a year. It was an important job in his eyes, and I wasn’t going to diminish it because other folks couldn’t understand or wouldn’t have a clue as to the amount of labor involved in Jimme’s work.

155 West 68th - One of Many Cleaning Jobs in '84 and '85

I didn’t have much of an idea beyond seeing him mop a floor at Salesian High School until I started working for him on a Friday night or a Saturday or Sunday morning. This wasn’t an easy task. We saw Jimme almost everyday for the first three weeks of the summer of ’85, cleaning the carpets and floors of one high-rise after another on the Upper West Side, especially between 67th and 72nd near Broadway. We did mostly night work, in office buildings and in condos. We also had a couple of stints on the Upper East Side around 86th. We carted the industrial carpet cleaning and floor equipment for stripping, buffing, and waxing on the 2, 5, and 6 trains at three in the morning.

Jimme didn’t drink much during these weeks of withering toil and sweat. He was constantly irritated with us, though. “Got no reason to be tired, bo’,” he’d say. “Hurry up an’ dump out that water!,” Jimme would yell. And with a killer’s cold, strangled look, he’d say to us, “I dun told you how to do dis shit right, now I got to do it my gotdamn self!”

It was fascinating seeing Jimme work and work us as hard as he did. Darren didn’t complain much, but then again, he didn’t do much work either. It was up to me and Jimme, and with my dad in a perpetual state of irritation, I was getting pissed too.

“I feel sorry for the people who work for you during the day! I hope I never have to work for you again!,” I yelled over the roaring machines on several occasions.

“Shut up ya faggat!,” Jimme would yell back. Or he’d just mutter in anger, and look at me as if he were ready to stab me in the neck.

In some of the condos we’d clean, Jimme would help himself to whatever he thought wouldn’t be missed — sport coats, shoes and socks mostly. Sometimes we’d take breaks to go to this Jewish deli that used to be on 65th and Broadway/Columbus, across from the Lincoln Center. They made turkey, hot pastrami and corned beef sandwiches stuffed with meat and loaded with every ingredient you could think of — all for five dollars. That, a bag of Doritos, their blondie desserts and a sixteen-ounce carton of Hershey’s chocolate milk made the torture of working for my dad during his brief period of sobriety more bearable. Otherwise we’d tune the radio we had with us to the Mets game while we were working, broadcast by WHN, an AM country oldies station (as in ’40s and ’50s oldies) that was obviously on its last legs.

We’d work these high-rises at night, sleep during only part of the day, with siblings Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri at home, after all, and catch the Subway for another night of work. Until the week after the fourth of July. Jimme decided that it was now all right to have some of his Miller Beer “pep up” while we were working. Besides the usual “I make fitty million dollas a week” and “I buy an’ sell muddafuccas,” Jimme decided that a Subway car was a good place to relieve himself at two in the morning one night.

The lack of sleep, my dad’s crankiness, and now his verbal abuse and drinking while working had all caught up with me. After that week, I quit. I told Jimme, “I’m not doing this anymore. You’ll have to find someone else to drink with.” Those were good times, good times. At least when compared to living at 616.


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