How Did I Know I Was Heterosexual?

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Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” 45 single sleeve, circa 1986. (https://medium.com)

This is more than just whether I knew I liked teenage girls and women by the time I was my son’s current age of fifteen, though. Between humping older women’s legs when I was three or four years old (too much information, I suppose), me and Diana slobbering on each other in first grade, and my crush on Ms. Shannon in third grade, that would be enough for most kids to know their orientation. But because I wasn’t “hard” like the boys I lived around at 616 and 630 East Lincoln and the young Turks who lived in public housing on Pearsall Drive, I was often the neighborhood “pussy” or “faggot.” I was mugged four times between April 1979 and the end of 1983. I spent more than one weekend dodging a hail of pebbles and rocks that the neighborhood kids pelted me with. That, and the then buried sexual assault I endured when I was six left me questioning my own sexuality, and with that, my place in the world in terms of friendships and relationships.

The whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, and the additional layers of abuse, hypermasculinity, and misogyny that came with it didn’t help my evolution one bit. One would think that a months-long crush on — really, love for — Wendy in the spring of 1982 would once and for all settle this issue. It didn’t. It didn’t because even I recognized that my love for Wendy was for the version of her who took up space in my imagination. She had become ethereal, and was detached from the flesh-and-blood human being with whom I shared little more than the confines of the classroom in the years between 1981 and 1987. I found her attractive, but had already judged myself unworthy.

Puberty, rebellion, and my switch to Christianity in 1984, and the contradictions that came with this switch over the next year, would tell me more about who I was. This was the beginning of my years of relative asexuality, at least as I presented myself in public. Since I dedicated my life to Jesus, every potential carnal thought I had or action I could take was met with self-doubt and loathing. Mostly, though, I feared for my newborn soul. I feared that somehow, I would go back to being suicidal, Hebrew-Israelite-and-going-to-Hell Donald, the one that got clowned and stoned before reaching six-foot-one.

One of my many attempts at being chaste between September 1984 and May 1985 involved toting my Bible everywhere and breaking it out to read during every idle moment. At school, which got me in trouble with my 10th grade history teacher, Ms. Zini. At home, when I wasn’t distracted by music, my younger siblings, or our fucked up living arrangement with one Balkis Makeda. As sanctimonious as it was, I was really trying to learn, to receive revelation, to understand how this 66-book, 1300-page document could transform me and my mini-apocalyptic world.

I also rode the buses and subways around the city with my red-covered Bible in hand. On many Fridays and Saturdays, whether working for my dad or hunting him down for money, or just because I needed to get away, I’d take the 2 from East 241st in the Bronx to 72nd in Manhattan, or further down, to Times Square, or sometimes, all the way out to Flatbush in Brooklyn.

No matter where I or we (when my older brother Darren would tag along) went, the most interesting part of these outings usually were the people who would be in the cars with me/us. Drunkards who reminded me of Jimme. Older Jamaican women on their way to do domestic work. Middle-aged, haggard-looking White guys who dressed twenty years too young for their faces.

Screenshot from “I Wonder If I Take You Home” video, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (1984/85). (https://imgue.com).

Frequently, Nuyorican or Dominican girls and young women would board somewhere between 180th and East Tremont and 149th and Grand Concourse (though because of the ethnic tensions I didn’t understand at the time, certainly not at the same time). I would look up from reading II Chronicles or Esther or Ephesians, and before I could comprehend the people my eyes took in, my dick responded. At 15, I already knew that even a mildly warm breeze was enough for me to get a hard on. I didn’t know that four or six young Latinas on a train wearing bright, tight clothes, makeup, lipstick, and perfume, and heels that would accentuate their breasts, hips, and round butts would completely counter my asexual front. Luckily for me, the Bible-toting phase of my life was during wintertime, and I could cover up my woody with my jacket.

Of course, it felt sinful, and I felt ashamed, that a second and a half of staring up from my Bible would lead to carnal stirrings. But it also gave me a sense of who I was and wasn’t attracted to, really and truly. When White girls with their voluminous ’80s hair got on the train, I hardly noticed. They were trying too hard, and their flat butts did nothing for me. When single Black women in their twenties and thirties would board, I noticed, too. I didn’t have what I would learn later to be colorism issues.

Of course, I learned that I was heterosexual, which I knew would please my Mom to no end. Which actually pissed me off. So, if I had discovered I was gay, she wouldn’t accept me? Wow!, I thought one April Saturday on way back to East 241st. At that point, my evangelical zeal for setting myself apart from the rest of world with my Bible as a baseball bat had waned. I was nowhere near ready to be involved in any kind of relationship that would lead to sex. But, I was ready to drop the idea that my eternal life completely depended on me ignoring both women and my attraction to women. I would remain publicly asexual for a few more years and endure f-bombs from my dad. Truly, it took until I was twenty to understand that whatever my orientation, no one has the right to tell me that my sexuality was anathema to my Christianity.

As A Former Hebrew-Israelite…

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The Kufi, cute on some, a symbol of a curse for people like me, April 3, 2010.

I’m a month late with this post about the Covington Catholic High School White boys and their -isms-filled excursion across DC, including their well-filmed smirk and Native American-stereotyping confrontation with Nathan Phillips. The part of the confrontation that produced the most hype but little substance was the nearly two-hour period around the Lincoln Memorial, in which some of the privileged White-privileged-males made taunting runs the handful of people the media called “Black Hebrew-Israelites.” Clearly this was a misnomer, as if there were such a thing as White Hebrew-Israelites!

That these Black Israelites or Hebrew-Israelites could call these White boys “Edomites,” the descendants of Jacob’s suckered and inferior pink-skinned twin brother Esau, was apparently shocking for many Whites. But within a day or two, the “Black Hebrew Israelites” narrative went away, as the focus shifted to White boys shouldn’t have their lives ruined over a little bit of March for Life misogyny, racism, and intimidation.

The media dropped this line of inquiry, likely because it didn’t play to any of their typical tropes and other two-sided themes. As someone who spent three years of my life wearing kufis and yarmulke, eating kosherized meats, and understanding the meaning behind “unclean issues of blood,” I can tell you that the Hebrew-Israelites likely didn’t start the confrontation, but once taunted, were going to give as much as they got from the privileged White males from Kentucky. I can tell you that Black hyper-masculinity, misogyny, and a sort of anti-Whiteness was all part of my experience with the Shalom Aleichem crowd. White folks were either Edomites — the descendants of the less-favored Esau from Genesis, the first book of the Torah — or were “healed lepers.” Either way, Hebrew-Israelites saw Whites as a somewhere between a curse of God or God’s not-quite-as-chosen people.

To call Hebrew-Israelites a “hate group” — putting them on the same plane as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups — is astoundingly ridiculous and a waste of time. As a rule, Hebrew-Israelites may preach the fiery end times, but they’re not working particularly hard to make them happen. They especially want as little to do with White folk of any stripe as they can get away with. Now, at least for the sect of Hebrew-Israelites my family belonged to in the 1980s, there was support for Israel, and many certainly saw a certain degree of commonality with our Levite and Judahite brothers in Palestine, many also saw these European Jews as Edomites. To be both pro-Israel while also harboring some anti-European-Jews-as-Whites-in-disguise -isms, well, it all made sense to me sometime between October 1981 and March 1983 (no, not really).

What made more sense to me, though, was the connection between the ancient Israelites of the land of Canaan and the Ten Lost Tribes living in the US and reclaiming their birthright. Not just a homeland in Palestine, though. They claimed the practices of the ancient Israelites as well, including especially polygamy. Never mind that this practice could only work “in practice” if the man involved had the material means to provide for all of his women and for his progeny. That so many of the men didn’t possess the means but attempted this practice anyway speaks to the fact that being a Hebrew-Israelite for them merely meant easy access to women, sex, and reproduction via their sperm in a way that justified their misogynoiristic view of the world.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, circa 2008. (http://www.famousbirthdays.com).

My stepfather Maurice, er, “Judah ben Israel,” gleefully used the temple teachings of proper polygamy as permission to act like he was living in the time of Saul, David, and Solomon. Maurice’s was some of the worst misogyny I have ever witnessed this side of Henry the Eighth as Jonathan Rhys Meyers portrayed the portly king in Showtime’s The Tudors. He was with at least two other women in the months between January 1982 and June 1984, all while having knocked my Mom up with my two youngest siblings. All while also knocking my Mom around their master bedroom like she was a six-foot piñata. Keep in mind, for a three-year period between May 1979 and August 1982, my idiot stepfather didn’t work at all, and held down a part-time security job guarding an abandoned Vicks factory between August 1982 and October 1986.

I pretty much thought that the man was a piece of shit by the time I learned that my younger siblings has siblings of their own around the same age, sometime in 1984 or 1985. But that was the thing about a religion like this one. It attracted and still attracts a sector of Black men who otherwise feel emasculated, like strangers among strangers in a strange land, and hands them hyper-masculinity in return. It draws in Black women in search of a Yahweh, a stern and often unforgiving god who sees them as they see themselves, as unworthy of anything other than what can be drawn from family, from the men and the children and kindred sistahs in their lives.

So it’s not hard for me to believe the folks on my Twitter timeline who live in New York and in Philly feeling like they were on display at a butcher’s shop in the middle of Grand Central or Reading Terminal Market when encountering the kufi-wearing, Shalom-Aleichem set. But it’s also hard for me to believe that these privileged White boys fully comfortable with their White supremacy didn’t stoke and anger a group of Hebrew-Israelites as part of their -isms-laden tour of DC. There was enough White patriarchy and testosterone involved in these confrontations to make a lea full of sheep bald and barren.

Still, I thank God for every day I’ve had since surviving those Hebrew-Israelite years, those years of doubt, and all of that self-loathing and misogynoir. I can only hope that there are others who’ve made their way out of that malignancy.

What If You’ve Never Really Had a Crew?

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My copy of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s #ThickTheBook, January 12, 2019 (Donald Earl Collins)

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: And Other Essays, like so many of the books I’ve chosen to read over the past six years, will stay with me a while. She is brilliant, period. I feel blessed having been on the journey of reading about her experiences, her views of the world, and her Blackness and Black feminism. There are so many nuggets and witticisms in Cottom’s Thick that I should sit down and plan out a way to mine her book for actual gold and platinum. It’s rich and thick like hot chocolate with hits of cinnamon and nutmeg, something to imbibe while taking a bite of a New York-style blondie (which I specialize in cooking-wise) or slice of chocolate torte cake here and there.

But there was one sentence that stood out, before I even began reading the book in earnest. As I randomly flipped through the pages after first getting Thick, this sentence hit me hard, dazing me like the day my one-time stepfather punched me in the jaw for the first time. “Everybody needs a crew,” Cottom wrote to start her “The Price of Fabulousness” essay, adding that she has “many because I am extremely fortunate.” Yeah, no kidding!, I thought immediately after reading that sentence. For a moment, maybe even 0.68 seconds, I was envious. Not like, “Oh my God, the arrogance of this one here!” kind of jealous. Nor was I the “I wish I was her!” green-eyed monster, either. I realized that since the last weeks of sixth grade and the beginning of three and a half years as a Hebrew-Israelite, I hadn’t really had a crew as Cottom defined it at all. That was the spring of 1981, when I was eleven years old, nearly 38 years ago, by the way.

From the day I let my one-time best friend Starling beat me in a fight over my alleged decision to join the Hebrew-Israelite cult and walk into William H. Holmes ES with a white kufi on my head, I had no crew. There’s a reason I consistently refer to my middle school and high school Humanities classmates as either “classmates” or “acquaintances.” They weren’t my friends, some were genuine bullies and assholes to me and to each other, and lacked in most forms of what grown folk would call social graces. They were my academic and (sometimes) athletic competitors, they were friends with each other, but only to a point. But one thing they could never, ever be was my crew or posse or homies or anything close to what Cottom meant. That Wu-Tang Clan-level of professional collaboration and possibly personal friendship didn’t exist in the cauldron that was that magnet program within an even more hostile public school system in Mount Vernon, New York.

College at the University of Pittsburgh was where I’d find friendships again, and maybe at times, the primordial beginnings of a crew. But these proto-crews never quite came together for more than a night on the town here or there. Quite frankly, the other thing my eclectic groups of friends and acquaintances had in common was knowing me. At least, the parts of me I was willing to show folks at the time. I knew most of them weren’t ready for the real me, because I wasn’t ready for the real me. Not at nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one.

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. (Donald Earl Collins)

Graduate school me, though, was more ready. My times at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon earning my doctorate were the closest I got to having a crew. At one point in 1994-95, I probably knew at least half of the Blacks, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Latinxs on Pitt’s campus, and all of the Black diaspora students at CMU (the latter because there were so few of us there). But despite the common interests around campus climate, student and faculty diversity, mistreatment on the basis of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, the fact remained that my crews were eclectic and transitory ones. Masters students would be gone in two or three years. My warp-drive, single-minded race toward the doctorate made certain that any bonds I forged during those years wouldn’t last. There would be no collaborations or calls for career help or advice with these disparate groups. Not even when I lived off the fumes of my last grad school stipend check the summer of 1997.

Working in the nonprofit world and as contingent faculty has often meant being on the inside, but still feeling like an outsider, anyway. Or really, a fraud, because I never fully embraced the norms of nonprofit capitalism or academia as intellectual capitalism and exploitation. I became friends with a fairly eclectic bunch in these spaces, too. But none of them shared my passion for creative nonfiction writing, or have wanted an alignment between career goals and social justice fights, or even, have had a taste for basketball as a spectator or player.

I guess one could say that my wife and son and two of my closest friends are my crew, but that’s not how a crew works. They are family, a very supportive family to be sure, but family is muck thicker than blood or a crew.

So, maybe Cottom is right. I really, really, really need a crew. I’ve made it pretty far in parts of my life without one. I’m not sure how much more Sisyphus I can do on my own, though.

Year 50 (So It Begins…)

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US Route 50 sign, August 26, 2017. (Fredddie, originally SPUI, via http://wikipedia.com). In public domain

As I’ve said in other settings and on my blog, I never dreamed of making it to 30 growing up. Fifty might as well have been 150 for me when I was in the middle of my Boy @ The Window years! But, with my forty-ninth birthday and the calendar change to 2019, I’m here anyway. A half-century (starting sometime in March) between conception and me being just old enough for my son and my students to see me as a fossil. To think that I was Egg #3 in one of my Mom’s ovaries this time 50 years ago? I’m sure I just creeped myself and a large number of you out with that strand of my imagination!

But this isn’t just my Year 50. There are some 500 people I know from my Mount Vernon public schools days, from my years at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, and from other settings who’ll turn 50 this year. Among the Mount Vernonites and New Yorkers I’ve known directly, between a handful who graduated with the Class of ’86, and with the exception of a couple who graduated with my class in ’87 a year early, almost all from my high school days will turn 50 between now and January 2, 2020 (One notable exception is a classmate whose forty-ninth birthday isn’t until April, but…).

What does all of this really mean, anyway? Have I used up more than half of my youth? Will I shrink immediately? Will my joints, which only ache on occasion, grind me into oblivion and infinite pain at the same time? Will my steel-trap mind become mush? Or, will I finally harness my lost dunking ability, in one last grand gesture of youth, getting my head above the rim one last time, before crashing down to earth and fracturing my metatarsals? Who knows!

What I do know is that I’ve been keenly aware of my mortality since my summer of abuse in ’82, and off and on since the summer of ’76. With a milestone such as this, and the average life expectancy of Black males at 64.5 years, I can’t help but think it. Will I make it through middle age? Heck, will I make it long enough to see my son graduate from high school and earn a higher education degree? Will my wife outlive me (probably), and if so, by how much?

Mostly, though, I’ve had dreams about the plausibility that I haven’t done enough in my life, and what little I have achieved could be turned to ash in an instant. Especially by an indifferent-to-openly-hostile and virulently racist nation-state. I’ve had dreams about losing my jobs because I was forty-five minutes late to lecture for one of my classes. I’ve worried about whether I could ever publishing another article again, even though my track record the past four years has been at least pretty good. I’ve worried about never publishing a book in the mainstream, about leaving my son and wife with nothing, about the possibility that not everything will work out, for me and for us. I also worry about not doing enough to support my family, my friends, even strangers, knowing that I can barely save myself in the here and now, much less anyone else.

But perhaps God has more in store for me beyond Year 50. Dare I hope to be healthy and relatively youthful and around long enough to live past 70, 80, even 90? My grandfathers lived until they were 90 and 97, my aunts on my father’s side are both in their late eighties, and my father (despite a 40-year battle with the bottle) is nearly 80 himself. We’ll see.

I just hope that my youth battery is on the plus side of fifty percent, and not on the minus side. Part of me feels like I’ve only just started living, not out of mission, faithful desperation, or obligation, but out of a sense of it all being worth it, of me actually being worth it. I’ve traveled all over the US, to Alaska during the summer solstice, to Canada, to the US-Mexican border. But it was all for work, to present at conferences, to visit family, to give my son a sense of the world. Except for my honeymoon and other marital excursions, I’ve only traveled a couple of times just to experience the world. Despite my disdain for humanity, I still want that, for me and for my family. I can’t get there, though, on my current double-adjunct, full-time equivalent salaries. This must change.

If it all continues to work out, let it be this year, my God, let it be, let it be. For “there will be an answer, let it be” — eeeeee! (It’s not so interesting to quote a song from The Beatles final studio album, the title song released when I was just a bit more than two months old.) To misquote Princeton professor Tera Hunter’s 1996 book, let it be that I “‘joy my freedom,” that I give myself permission to do so, that my life gives me more opportunities to do so. Let Year 50 be about more than just Nixon and Vietnam, the Moon landing and the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party, about Woodstock and the Jets and Mets winning titles. Let it be that I have as keen an understanding of my future as I do of the past.

The Sweet Consolation of Suicide

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Sweet-and-sour-chicken, 2011. Source: http://www.foodnetwork.com

Well, not exactly sweet to be thinking about what you have thought about and attempted to act out in the past. In the next few hours, I turn 49, which is to say that I begin year fifty on Planet Earth. “Yay me!,” right?

Not so much this time 35 years ago. My suicidal ideations had gone on in December 1983 for nearly three weeks before my fourteenth birthday, in the aftermath of my fourth mugging in four years. That Tuesday, December 27, at 2:30 pm, coming home from C-Town in Pelham, standing on the parapet of that stone bridge overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway, I had every intention of jumping. I played it out in my head all the different possibilities. At first, it was going to be like the second between taking a deep breath plunging myself underwater and holding my breath while feeling the pressure build up all around my head, eyes, and ears. Except that I imagined a screech, a pop of a hit, and the world turning into stars before I escaped into eternal darkness.

But then, I thought about the plausibility of surviving the 13-foot jump, only to get hit by a car or truck flying down the parkway at 60 or more. Paralyzed, brain-damaged, trapped for days, months, years, decades even, in a body that defied me once again. At this point, my knees were already bent, pretty much ready to push off the stones I stood upon anyway. The possibility of survival and suffering, though, stopped me short of taking that leap. That, and wanting sweet revenge on the stepfather and others who had driven me to this moment.

It’s all in Boy @ The Window. What isn’t in the book is that I couldn’t imagine living past my thirtieth birthday, much less to 49. What isn’t in the book is that I have had other episodes where I either attempted to take my own life via car accident or had suicidal ideations (anywhere between 1982 and 1988, as well as in the late-1990s). This isn’t the same as contemplating my own mortality or considering how much more I may be worth dead than alive (at least I think it isn’t the same, anyway). If someone had put a gun to my head, and asked me why I should keep living, I probably would’ve told them to pull the trigger. I really didn’t have any answers when I got low enough to consider best suicidal practices.

Sure, in the process of working through my own trauma while in progress, I found God, I found Jesus, I read my Bible, I embraced the Holy Spirit. But as the U2 song goes, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” at least not during my Boy @ The Window years, or in the years after my doctorate, or even after a decade in the nonprofit world. Heck, I’m still a work in progress, and not quite sure what’s around the corner for me (although I’m cautiously hopeful, with fingers and toes crossed, and knocking on wood in my mind’s eye as I type this). But a focus on escape isn’t enough. Striving for perfection — including perfect chastity — wasn’t enough. Even writing my fifty-to-100-pages-too-long memoir wasn’t enough.

Two things in the past decade have been enough. One was to admit, and not for the first time, that I controlled nothing, not even my own body, and certainly not all of my thoughts. For a person who’s policed himself as much as I have over the years, this was a hard truth to finally and fully accept, and that was a little more than four years ago. Two was that I needed to let out my thoughts and feelings, no matter how fucked up or how revealing or embarrassing they could be for me. Some of that has worked through this blog and Boy @ The Window. The rest has been as a result of social media, freelance writing, and otherwise remembering that though I may be truly weird, I am also truly human.

Maybe that’s why in the past couple of years I’ve mostly read Black women writers on their trauma and intersectional experiences, between Brittney Cooper, Morgan Jerkins, Roxane Gay, Crystal Fleming, Patricia J. Williams, and a host of others. Maybe that’s why I found more solace in Kiese Laymon’s Heavy than I ever did with any of my history monographs. Maybe this is why I’m convinced that to be a better writer, I had to become an even better reader, and read across genres and disciplines like I never had before. Maybe, too, this is why I as an educator have committed to use a wider variety of materials to reach my students, even if one or two want to only read mainstream history texts and don’t want to engage in “literary analysis.”

I finished Darnell Moore’s No Ashes in the Fire two days ago. Despite his stepping out of narrative to preach “Black radical love” at least three too many times, Moore’s book reminded me of what all the other wonderful books I’ve read in the past three years have told me. Share your truth, so that others may see, hear, or react to it. Tell your story, ‘cuz ain’t no one else gonna tell it for ya. Talk about it, if only to yourself, so that you know you’re not crazy. There’s bravery in putting in words your pain, your joy, your sense of the world and sense of self, your need for a higher power (or lack thereof). There’s courage in pointing to your unique sameness relative to humanity, and your need to crystallize the dominance of systemic racism, heteronormative patriarchy, and narcissistic worshipping of dollars and billionaire elitism that is this warped-assed world.

None of this may convince someone from taking their own life. I don’t pretend that I have any specific answers, because I don’t. But many times, living begins with one question, then another, then another. Living for me is about finding the best questions to answer, to turn the embers of what was once a wall of bullshit into a forest fire of questions, for me and others. This world will never give us the right to question it, which is why we who might want to live another day must wrest that right for ourselves, every single day.

Chanukah, Christmas, My Birthdays, and No Gifting Traditions

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A contemporary Candelabrum in the style of a traditional Menorah. United Kingdom, Chanukah service, December 2014. (Gil Dekel; http://www.poeticmind.co.uk; via 39james via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-4.0.

The truth is, the only holiday traditions I have come either from my wife or her family or were born out of my circumstances. Like making super-sweet, two-packs of Fruit Punch Kool-Aid and mixing it with either ginger ale or Sierra Mist for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or getting our son’s Christmas presents ready for him without him knowing the night before. Or me making some holiday/birthday cake for me and us (since my birthday is two days after Christmas). And often going to a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or other venue to give away clothes, toys, money, my time in knowing that no matter how I might feel about my life, plenty others have it much worse.

The truth is also more complicated than simple poverty. Up until my eighth birthday in ’77, my Mom and me and Darren (with either my father or my idiot stepfather) celebrated Darren’s birthday, Christmas and my birthday as separate or nearly separate events. Some of my best times growing up were those days. Then, when the hyperinflation of the late-1970s kicked in — along with a second marriage and two more mouths to feed — Christmases ’78 and ’79 consisted of a fake two-foot table tree, a new shirt or sweater and a new pair of slacks. There were no birthday celebrations for me.

Between Christmas ’80 and Christmas ’88, we didn’t even have the fake dwarf tree. Of course, four of those years we were Hebrew-Israelites. But see, there is this holiday known as Chanukah that also occurs in December, in which Torah believers celebrate the Festival of Lights with eight days of gifts and giving. But these were also the worst of our poverty-stricken years, and we could barely afford one candle for the menorah, much less eight or nine. The best gift I got those years was my idiot stepfather being out the apartment at 616 and on the prowl for other victims for his fast-talking nonsense about making money and living a godly way-of-life. I also attempted suicide on my fourteen birthday, not exactly a tradition worth repeating.

My running away in response to my Mom’s marriage to my stepfather Maurice on Saturday, December 2, 1978 was the start of eight consecutive years without an acknowledgement of my born day (that was part of my punishment for taking $16 in my and my older brother Darren’s savings with me). Even when the drought ended on Friday, December 27, 1985 (my 16th birthday), I had to get my own cake, with my idiot stepfather’s money, a Carvel ice cream cake on a cloudy 15-degree day. That and my father attempting to hook me up with a sex worker in ’86 was how my family reintroduced me to gifts during my last two Decembers before my 18th birthday. This was when and how I decided to celebrate my birthdays by making my own cakes. If I screwed up the cake, at least it was my screwup, and I’d still be able to eat my own screwup! 

But, in December ’89, we had our first Christmas at 616 with my Mom having divorced my now idiot ex-stepfather. She bought a fake full-sized tree. I bought my four younger siblings gifts big and small for the holiday. My mom even made me a Duncan Hines chocolate cake with vanilla icing for my twentieth birthday that year. We didn’t have much, but what we did that year meant so much as we moved into the 1990s.

In all of my adult Christmases, I’ve actually only done two in Pittsburgh. One was Christmas ’98. That week, perhaps the only important tradition I’ve ever been a part of began. I moved in with my then girlfriend Angelia, mostly as a cost-cutting measure, partly out of love and concern for our respective futures. We’ve been living together and celebrating the holidays ever since!

The other one was Christmas ’15, one of the worst Xmases and birthdays I’ve ever had. It included four days of my wife and son not being able to endure my now persistent snoring, even with a divided room. It included a Xmas in one of the most culturally boring-ass White towns in the US (not counting places like Indy, Cincinnati, and Buffalo, which are even more culturally White than the ‘Burgh). It included my 46th birthday-Sunday, one that began with a summer-like rain at 68ºF. The unusually warm and wet weather helped a spark plug in our Honda Element explode out of its cylinder as I started the car so that I could pick up my mother-in-law on the way to her church. The weather then immediately turned cold, as the rainstorm turned into an ice storm and temps dropped to 33 degrees by 4 pm that day. We were stuck in Pittsburgh an additional night, as we got by on Five Guys and The O that evening.

No cake, no celebration, no gifts on my first day of year 47, my first year of middle age. Just like my Hebrew-Israelite years. Someone light a candle for me!

Viewing World AIDS Day From the Cheap Seats

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World AIDS Day 2018 logo, November 30, 2018. (http://hiv.gov).

Today and this weekend mark 30 years since the first World AIDS Day. Unlike three decades ago, I seldom give HIV/AIDS any thought at all. Where did it go? Has anyone actually died from AIDS recently? Do people still have to worry about HIV/AIDS? I know the answers are, nowhere, yes, most definitely, and hell yes, dumb ass.

But 30 years ago, I worried about HIV/AIDS the same way I worried about the Soviet nuclear threat, my Mom still living with my idiot stepfather, and dying if I wasn’t part of some evangelical Christian rapture. I pretty much worried about everything back then. In the context of my heterosexuality and mostly burying it for fear of intimacy, pregnancy, and bodily fluids, though, I worried that with my luck, any sex at all would lead to the STD to beat all STDs.

So when my dad went out of his way to get me a prostitute (we didn’t use the term “sex worker” then, I think) for my seventeenth birthday in December 1986, a young woman I knew to have been a fellow Mount Vernon High School student the year before, I didn’t hesitate to say no. I preferred Jimme calling me “faggat” to doing the equivalent of Spike Lee’s character in School Daze, a form of meat-market sex approaching (but not quite) rape.

I knew, down to my bones, despite the ACT UP crowd of relatively well-off gay White male activists on MTV and elsewhere, despite the dome of Black hypermasculine homophobia found in Mount Vernon and in the city, that HIV/AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease.” Basic biology would dictate that viruses don’t make left turns based on sexual orientation, class, gender, or race. So, hell yes, I was scared, for quite some time, from the prospect of living with a disease that has killed more than 35 million people worldwide since 1979.

The dangers of sex work, of casual unprotected sex, and of HIV/AIDS were made clear to me on my trip to Pittsburgh in August 1990 to secure what would be my studio apartment living for the next eight and a half years. It started at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 41st on Friday night, August 3. It was going to be my second trip ever on Greyhound, catching the 11 pm red-eye, nonstop bus from Manhattan to downtown Pittsburgh. As the 40 of us stood in line to catch the bus, I saw a woman around my age wandering between the men’s room and the waiting areas, talking to different guys, with one or two jumping out of line for a few minutes.

Port Authority Bus Terminal entrance, New York, NY, October 22, 2015. (Ilana Gold/CBS2; https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/10/22/port-authority-bus-terminal-plan/).

As she drew closer to my line, I recognized her. She was someone I knew to be the cousin of one of my neighbors on the third floor of 616. By then, I also saw a Black guy in his mid or late-twenties, standing near the men’s room, keeping a close eye on her. It was like the cogs of my mind moved in slow motion as it became clear that this person I knew was a sex worker and the guy was her pimp.

A few minutes later, the pimp bellowed, “Five-O! Five-O!.” The all-too-familiar woman took off. She booked out the terminal doors and toward the streets around Times Square. The Port Authority police and two NYPD cops had grabbed the pimp, put him on the ground, handcuffed him, and took him away.

I was so surprised and sad after that, at least as we boarded the bus and weaved our way through New Jersey. I hadn’t seen this woman since 1986 or 1987, when I was a senior in high school. Over the years, she had come over to her cousin’s place to visit, and maybe to stay (at least temporarily). She had mostly teased me about my “White music,” except for Tears for Fears in the summer of 1985 (their “Shout” had been turned into some hip-hop urban mix on WBLS).

She had asked me on more than one occasion, “Do you like girls?” I mostly ignored her, saw her as just another person at 616 and in Mount Vernon who saw me as something to kick around. I didn’t consider her attractive because of how she talked to me, but looking back, she was. At five-seven or five-nine, she was a yellowish-brown skinned woman, with some freckles, a nice smile, shortish hair, and a nice proportionate shape. She could be witty, in a New Yorker’s sarcastic sort of way. But between Wendy, Phyllis, and my march to college, nothing and no one in Mount Vernon could compete for my attention in that way back then.

A week later, I came back from my Pittsburgh trip, on another Greyhound non-stopper, only to realize at 8:30 on Saturday, August 11 that I needed to take a dump. As I’ve said elsewhere, I tried and failed to take one at Grand Central, as the basement restrooms were full of broken toilets, boarded up stalls, and at least one person with obvious signs of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a sign of full-blown AIDS. I don’t know how I managed to hold my shit until I made it back to 616.

I learned from my Mom twelve or thirteen years ago that my former neighbor and teaser had died from AIDS-related complications, leaving two children behind. Even though I didn’t know her very well — didn’t want to know her, really — I was still heartbroken for her and her kids. All I could think was, what an awful life, what an awful way to die! Who’s going to raise her kids?

But really, I couldn’t help but go back to that Friday night in August 1990. I observed from up close, what the limited choices in a world of capitalism, patriarchy, misogynoir, and racism left people like this young woman. I observed, from afar, how this world can make something as destructive as HIV/AIDS a movement for gay White males, and a silent way of killing Black women at the same time.