The Road to My Memoir, Part 1: Welfare

May 7, 2013

Adrian LeBlanc's Random Family (2002) and Rhonda Y. Williams' The Politics of Public Housing (2005), May 7, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family (2002) and Rhonda Y. Williams’ The Politics of Public Housing (2005), May 7, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

This isn’t a straight-forward post or series of posts. I didn’t come to Boy @ The Window quickly or easily. I didn’t intend it to be a memoir, even though I’d left myself bread crumbs to turn it into a memoir years ago.

The first time I’d thought about writing a book related to my experiences was at the beginning of my junior year of college, in September and October ’89. Not even three months after my idiot stepfather had left 616 for good, and I was thinking about writing up something about the experience? A bit ambitious I was!

What I did do, though, was somehow find my old scraps of journals about what happened to me when I was twelve before I came back to Pittsburgh and Pitt for the school year. I wrote up additional experiences, about running away from 616 in August ’85, about my Mom’s experience at the feet and fists of my now ex-stepfather, about my time on a drafty Pitt stairwell the year before.

That was painful to write about, so soon after finally being rid of Maurice, too soon, really, for me to fully process it without re-living the experience. So I wrote or rewrote four of these experiences in all, and put them away in one of my Pitt notebooks.

But there was one other experience I wanted to write about, to move from a personal story to one of academic scholarship. It was the experience of my being on welfare from ’83 to ’87, covering on-the-ground perspectives from people like me and my Mom, as well as those of case workers. I thought that it would fill a void in both media coverage and in historical scholarship about the topic of welfare, particularly how it became a racial stereotype and slur.

I thought that by juxtaposing (and that’s the word I used for this back in ’89) the plight of welfare recipients and case workers, that I could show some sense of irony. That so many of the case workers and managers were only a paycheck or two away from being on welfare — and that some of them had been on welfare themselves, at least based on my limited experience — would make for an interesting story. What I hoped to show, ultimately, was the inhumanity of the welfare system itself, pitting people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds against each other because of the mix of welfare as racial and as a form of the undeserving getting their government handouts, of crumbs from America’s table being turned into a political football.

I didn’t say this exactly when I had a conversation about this topic with my former TA Paul Riggs in October ’89. The ideas and many of the sentiments, particularly about “juxtaposing,” “irony,” and “inhumanity,” though, were all part of the conversation. Riggs told me I needed to slow down, that even if I somehow were able to make this topic historical, that I’d need to much more reading on the topic, to divorce myself from my emotions around this topic.

In some ways, my late-twenties mentor was right. It’s hard to do scholarly work on a topic in which you are heavily emotionally invested. The topic wasn’t historical, given that I had just lived it and my Mom and younger siblings were still living it. And I was nineteen after all, and after seven years of seldom writing for any purpose outside of the classroom except letters to former high school classmates and college friends, a book would’ve been a daunting, almost immeasurable task.

That started me on the path to learn how to write like an academic historian, instead of writing out of emotion and irony. One that would delay my writing on anything like Boy @ The Window for the better part of a decade, even as the academic process enabled me to do the interviews and research necessary to put the memoir together.

Luckily, there are three authors whose work over the past decade has covered this topic of welfare, racial stereotypes, inhumanity, criminality and irony. Mostly in ways I would’ve covered it had I had the words and research skills to do this work twenty-four years ago. Adrian LeBlanc‘s Random Family (2002), though a sensational accounting of a Latino family in the Bronx between ’88 and ’01, does provide a glimpse (still MacArthur “genius” Award winner). Rhonda Y. WilliamsThe Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality (2005) is her excellent collection of research and personal vignettes about public housing, welfare, Black women and empowerment despite the odds covering the period between the 1940s and the early 1980s (with a bit on the early 1990s). All just before crack cocaine, TANF and the gentrification of previously off-limit poor neighborhoods in a city like Baltimore became bigger themes.

And now there’s Kaaryn Gustafson‘s Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty (2012). She covers in so many ways what I’d once hoped to capture in emotion and storytelling about the stain of welfare as illustrated in policies and politics. Kaaryn’s (I know her from my New Voices days) written a great book, one that I wished I could’ve read or written when I was nineteen.

Kaaryn Gustafson's Cheating Welfare (2012), May 7, 2013. (

Kaaryn Gustafson’s Cheating Welfare (2012), May 7, 2013. (

That wasn’t my path, though I had interests that would include welfare. No, my path was about race, diversity, education and self-discovery, not just about my Mom and family.

Mistake No. 3 and Book #2

November 19, 2010

Culture Club, "Mistake No. 3" Single, November 19, 2010. Source:

I’ve made many more than three mistakes in my walk as a writer. Mistake number three probably came around the same time Culture Club released “Mistake No. 3″ off of their Waking Up with the House on Fire album in ’84. So many of them have come because I’ve either been impatient in making a decision or too tentative to make one at all.

Just with Boy @ The Window alone, I’ve probably made at least thirty-three mistakes. I should’ve started working on the book right after my conversation with my late teacher Harold Meltzer about my experiences, in February ’95. Even without Google, Facebook, MySpace, and so many other places to look, it would’ve been much easier to track down my ex-classmates and teachers. Instead, I single-mindedly pursued my doctorate and my doctoral thesis as if it were gold-pressed platinum. All the while asking myself if I was a historian first and a writer second, or a writer that just happened to be an academic historian?

When I finally did begin working on the manuscript, in the summer of ’02, I think that I was writing about four different books. It had an academic side to it, a look at magnet school programs and their inherent arrogance around diversity and race, not to mention intelligence, especially in the 80s. I was also writing narrative nonfiction, ala Eric Schlosser and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, as well as fitting in bits and piece of memoir. And Meltzer, during my second and what would turn out to be final interview with him, suggested that I might want to turn the project into a novel. Why fiction? Because, in so many words, I wouldn’t piss anyone among the living with a Mount Vernon connection off.

Boy, I had no idea how right he was! Not about making Boy @ The Window a work of fiction. But about how many people I’d turn off or have attack me just during the research phase of the project. More people turned me down for interviews than granted them in the first years. If I sold it to them as a research project, I could hear their eyes glaze over while discussing it on the phone or in their keyboard strokes in an email. I pissed off many more as I started to write, as I did more interviews, as I started my blog in June ’07. I found out that I was defiling sacrosanct ground when writing about “Money Earnin’ Mount Vernon.”

I mistakenly began to shop the manuscript around in looking for an agent almost before I’d finished my first full draft of it. I had an agent for Fear of a “Black” America, but I’d found her in ’99, and the industry had changed so much in the eight years before I started looking for one again. I found myself having to have a well-thought out marketing strategy without having defined Boy @ The Window as a full-fledged

Neil Diamond, "Love On The Rocks" at concert, November 19, 2010. Source:

memoir at this point. It wasn’t a disaster, as I managed to get about thirty percent of the agents I contacted interested enough to look at my unpolished manuscript. Before their standard rejections would come back.

Licking my wounds and being more patient, to continue to revise and re-polish and repeat for most of ’09 and this year was hardly a bad thing. Realizing that my wife never liked the idea of me working on Boy @ The Window was harder, much, much harder than any agent’s multiple-xeroxed form rejection letter. I’d been in denial about it for about three years. It was when I sat down at the end of ’09 to do a long-overdue overhaul of the memoir that she finally made it obvious to me that I’d violated some unwritten rule in our marriage about delving too deeply in my past. It was about a year ago that I realized that — at least on the subject of Boy @ The Window — I’d lost my significant other of fifteen years, who simply wanted and wants me to move on.

There’s no doubt, though, that the biggest mistake I’ve ever made as a writer was to choose to not see myself as a writer for the better part of two decades. That’s probably the reason why it’s taken me years to work on Boy @ The Window, why I’m still a forty-one-year-old late bloomer in this calling of mine. That I’ve made as many mistakes as I have and still remain hopeful about publishing this memoir is, well, both crazy and just the thing I need to get through, I suppose. My former AP English teacher Rosemary Martino was right about one thing. Writing really does take sacrifice.


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