The Painful Destruction of the Pedestal

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Demolition of the Kingdome as a GIF, Seattle, Washington, March 26, 2000. (USA Today).

This week thirty years ago was the beginning of the end of my sexist dream of having women recognize me for being “a nice guy.” As I wrote in one of my very first blog posts a decade ago, it was a dream “that had to die.” Precisely because it was a fantasy, a phantasmic display of teenage delusion borne from five years of abuse and oppressive social immaturity. In ’80s parlance, my wack ass had to learn the hard way that I had no game. And, more importantly, that pedestals are meant for smashing with sledgehammers, as people can never live up to their marble or bronze busts.

It wasn’t really women I was trying to impress with my quiet and stoic demeanor. I was all about my second infatuation, Crush #2, my version of Phyllis in the summer of 1987. I’ve outlined in painstaking detail here and in Boy @ The Window my obsession with Phyllis and her smile, and my ridiculously stupid attempts to make conversations with her in the three weeks of my various impromptu encounters at the old Galleria in White Plains and on the 40/41 Bee-Line Bus back to Mount Vernon.

But “the end of the lesson,” or at least, the “end of the beginning” of it (to quote both Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987) — which I saw at The Galleria twice that summer — and Winston Churchill), began on my brother Yiscoc’s birthday on the fourth Thursday that July.

I walked around for over an hour after I got off the bus at North Columbus and East Lincoln. I must’ve called myself “pathetic” at least a dozen times on that hot and steamy walk. And I was. I didn’t get home to wish Yiscoc a Happy Birthday until after 8 pm, by which time I missed any semblance of a birthday celebration at 616.

Packing up and moving to Pittsburgh — and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh — seemed as far away that weekend as it did during my summer of abuse five years earlier. I was no longer sure that this transformational period of my life would actually bear fruit. I thought I was destined to spend the rest of my days alone, ridiculed, emasculated, and otherwise as a piece of trash.

Toppling and destruction of Vladimir Lenin’s statue via sledge-hammer, Berdichev, Ukraine, February 22, 2014. (unknown).

I was seventeen years and barely seven months old when I had those thoughts. I’ve been married for nearly that long, and have a son on the cusp of turning fourteen. There’s no way that Donald 1.0 could have envisioned either of these experiences, much less worked to make them happen. It wasn’t exactly a miracle that I became a boyfriend, fiancé, husband, and father. No, it was an evolution, with a couple of personal rebellions and revolutions mixed in.

The one good thing I did after Phyllis took a wrecking ball to my delusions of feminine perfection was to talk about it with someone who was willing to listen. This time around, a young woman put up with me griping about something I never had, someone whom was never for me to begin with. As many times as I would go on to listen to women of all stripes about their relationship issues, I needed to be on the rueing end of things this one time.

It would take a lot more talking, a bit more learning, and four more years befriending and dating, before I’d completely give up putting women on pedestals entirely. Women may be beautiful, and Black girls may be magic, but none are meant to be worshipped at altars. Like all other anthropomorphized idols, humans on pedestals will always fail us when we delude ourselves into thinking that we need them to be free. Especially when we need them the most, or at least, believe so.

 

When Enough Isn’t Close to Enough

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Yiscoc Washington, July 5, 2017. (http://facebook.com).

“I took care of my kids! I put food on the table, put a roof over y’all’s heads, put clothes on yo’ back! I did the best that I could, and none of y’all can tell me different…” That’s what my Mom yelled at us the day before Sarai’s funeral seven Julys ago. It was an excited utterance, after she had spent five days in a trance, unable to do as much as eat a piece of toast. We were in the living room of Mom’s flat at 616, me, Mom, Maurice, Yiscoc and Eri, being yelled at over a lifetime of disappointment and frustration. Ours and hers.

Today is my brother Yiscoc’s thirty-sixth birthday. That he’s here at all is a bit of a miracle. Especially with the number of times he ran away from 616 between 1989 (when he was eight years old) and 1994, with his one-time video game addiction, and with muggers and pedophiles out there and all too willing to take advantage of a vulnerable preteen.

I started with Mom, though, for a reason. Her yelling at us was probably meant for me, but it was in response to Yiscoc, who shared a personal secret with her for the first time. Mom’s response was to defend her record as a parent, to tell us that we had no right to judge, critique, or assess her record. That she added, “That’s what you get for…” in response to Yiscoc’s tearful sharing session was shameful and disgusting.

“You’re So Vain” (1972), by Carly Simon, 45 cover, cropped, July 23, 2017. (http://avclub.com).

“But you don’t understand, your Mom was mourning the loss of her only daughter,” would be the response of Mom-defenders everywhere. To which I say, really? Your Mom’s response is to push four of your five living children away with a tirade? One where she says, “this fucked up, piece of shit life I helped set up for all of you was the best I could do, and if you don’t like it, that’s on you, and you can kiss my Black ass!” Would that really be acceptable under any circumstances, much less during a week of mourning?

Yiscoc ran away from home, hung out with several wrong crowds, and dropped out of Mount Vernon High School a year and a half before he could have completed his coursework. Seventeen years later, and Yiscoc still doesn’t have his GED (the last two times, he failed the social studies portion of the exam — ain’t that a kicker!). I’m not laying all of this at my Mom’s feet. But Yiscoc’s adult life wasn’t exactly set up for success by his growing up years. The normative permanence of systemic racism on the one hand, and domestic violence, welfare poverty, and the 616 fire of 1995 that left Yiscoc and my other younger siblings temporarily homeless on the other, would make any kid itching to run away.

A second younger brother has now reached the second half of his thirties. Yiscoc’s the same age I was eleven and a half years ago, when I began working on Boy @ The Window in earnest. One of the things I figured out in writing such a torturous book was that I blamed myself for so many of my parents’/legal guardian’s failures and sins. I had blamed myself for not putting an end to the domestic violence at 616 since I was twelve, for not doing enough to support Mom and my younger siblings since I went away to college at Pitt in 1987. I also came to understand how much Mom deflected, defended, and denied when it came to her parenting, especially when we called on her to do more than find temporary shelter, meager food options, and threadbare clothing. Mom was and remains one of the vainest and unaffectionate people I have ever known — vain, insecure, and likely clinically depressed.

“Flash Memory #2” (an unmasking), in stainless steel, by Liu Zhan, Kuang Jun, and Tan Tianwei, 2009. (http://elhurgador.blogspot.com/2012/05/unmask-group-escultura.html; H.T. Gallery, Beijing, China).

I also know that Mom has passed these traits down to each of us. I’ve been dealing directly with them for three decades. I’m not sure Yiscoc has ever peered behind his mask long enough to see Mom lurking in the shadows, warts and all. If he has or ever will, it has been or will be an ugly sight. But if we are truly attempting to rebuild and remake ourselves, it is a sight we must endure. A painful process of honesty, soul-searching, revelation, and admitting that on some level, we’ve fucked up, and been fucked up, by life, oppression, and parenting.

Happy Birthday, Yiscoc. Know that despite everything, I do love you. I hope that this next year brings you closer to the person you want and need to be.

The Yoke of Student Loans

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Time, money, debt, yoke = same difference, from screen short from movie In Time (2011), October 27, 2011. (http://collider.com/in-time-review/).

This week in July thirty years ago, I took out the first of what would be a series of student loans. Loans that would help cover eight of my ten years of undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. In three-and-a-half-months, I will be ending my twentieth year paying off those loans. If I had to do it all over again, I may have stayed in New York State to take advantage of the TAP award (need-based financial aid). That way, I wouldn’t have needed to borrow for my undergrad. But given my near desperation for wanting to escape grinding poverty, 616 and my family, Mount Vernon, New York, and the stigma that was my life living there among hostile and indifferent classmates, teachers, and neighbors, borrowing $2,625 on July 16 of ’87 didn’t seem so bad.

Yep, my first subsidized/unsubsidized Stafford student loan was a modest one. It was a set maximum based on the old laws limiting student borrowing (especially for college freshmen) three decades ago. I remember thinking to myself, “How the heck am I gonna pay this back?,” as I went through an hour of phone calls between Pitt’s financial aid office and Marine Midland Bank (now part of HSBC). The latter was where I had my first bank account, where I had deposited $500 of scholarship money from Mount Vernon’s Afro-Caribbean Club. That’s how little I knew about the process – I went with a bank that didn’t exist outside of New York State to work with a school in Western Pennsylvania!

Pact with the Devil, July 18, 2017. (http://evil.wikia.com/wiki/Pact_with_the_Devil)

Because I wasn’t yet eighteen, I needed my Mom to co-sign my loan. Because my Mom didn’t have collateral, she needed to add two relatives who did have assets to my first loan. In the end, Mom chose my maternal grandmother Beulah and my great-great-aunt in Seattle Inez (who just happened to be Johnny Gill’s great or great-great grandmother — didn’t know it at the time) as relatives with collateral who could be on the hook if I or she ever defaulted on our future payments. Of course, Mom didn’t actually seek permission from my then sixty-year-old grandma in rural Arkansas or my better-off, octogenarian, great-great aunt for this sign-off. Apparently, Marine Midland didn’t care, either. And that’s how it was for the next four years, having relatives whom I had never met (and in the case of great-great aunt Inez, who died at 101 years old in the early ’00s, would never meet) as collateral for my loans.

I’d also take out the smaller Perkins Loan for my undergraduate time at Pitt, an additional $2,000 per year, for three of my four years there. In all, I’d borrow more than $16,000 in four years, with a high of $4,000 in Stafford Loans in my junior year, 1989-90.

It bothered me every time I had to re-up for student loans. Not just because of the false notion of American individualism, the idea that I shouldn’t need anyone’s help to go earn a degree. It bothered me because I feared, sometimes to the point of nightmares, that I’d never be able to pay this money back.

Graduate school at Carnegie Mellon and the loosening of the student loan rules and amounts under President Clinton in 1994 made things better and worse. I barely borrowed my first two and a half years of grad school at both Pitt and CMU, to the tune of $1,800 in all. CMU paid me so little as a grad student that I had little choice if I ever planned on eating more than one meal a day but to borrow. And that’s how most of my borrowing occurred between January 1994 and January 1997, to either have to supplement my meager stipend (before the year of my Spencer Dissertation fellowship). Or, to use the funds to help support my dissertation research, the travel to/from and living arrangements while in DC in 1994 and 1995. Unlike many of my graduate school colleagues (especially the ones working on professional master’s degrees or a law degree), I didn’t use my loans to go on extended weekends to Bermuda or to take summer vacations in the Grand Caymans.

Of course, I graduated in May ’97, and lo and behold, I couldn’t find full-time work. And with the exception of the months of July, August, and September 1998, I wouldn’t have full-time or full-time equivalent work until I left Pittsburgh for work in the DC area in the summer of 1999. But, my consolidated student loans through the dispensations of Sallie Mae never took that into account when my first payment became due Thanksgiving Week 1997. I was able to get a reduced payment of $20 per month for the first two years. I didn’t default, but it made paying off my student loans that much harder. It didn’t help that Sallie Mae had locked in my interest rate at eight percent, retroactive to July 1987, and unchangeable under any circumstances. Even with consumer interest rates the way they have been for the past decade.

Relationship between lenders and payees, July 27, 2015. (http://forbes.com).

Flush or not, full-time or underemployed or somewhere in between, the student loan payments, deferments, and forebearances have been non-stop for two decades. Even credit card companies will leave folks alone if they make regular minimum payments. Not so with student loans or with Sallie Mae (now Navient, which must mean assholes in financial aid-speak). Despite everything I’ve been through financially over the years, I finally paid off the original principal of my consolidated student loans about two years ago. Great. It still means that I have left another decade of payments on accumulated interest before I can be forever free of this nearly endless cycle.

Here’s the real thing that I think I’d do over again, that should be done about this corrupt and serfdom-like process. Sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen years old is way too young to be making financial decisions that I or anyone else will have to live with for four decades or more. Even deciding to serve in the military isn’t a decades’ long commitment (unless one chooses to re-up or goes to officer’s school). At the very least, no one under twenty-one should have to commit themselves to debt peonage, including student loans. As for me, working thirty hours a week on or off campus between 1987 and 1997 to cover costs and necessities would’ve been preferable to this iron collar.

The real problem, of course, is that adult learners are taking out many of these loans these days. Even though they may be old enough to know better, they aren’t experienced enough. Lumina Foundation and other organizations have concentrated on “financial literacy” as the way out. This is wrong-headed, as it does nothing to change this financially enslaving system. Really, it would take free and significantly-reduced undergraduate tuition to do the trick. But where’s the fun, profit, and human misery in that?

Covfefe Plaza

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Cole Spring Plaza (w/atrium in permanent renovation) with Photoshopped spray paint, July 9, 2017. (Donald Earl Collins).

Well, actually, this post is about Cole Spring Plaza, the luxury apartment high-rise that me and my pregnant wife moved into in 2003, and recently moved out of with our nearly 14-year-old son at the end of June 2017. In all, we lived in the building in downtown Silver Spring for fourteen years and a month, or 5,144 days. For half of those days, it was a pretty good to solid place to live. Although there were a decreasing number of luxuries in our two-bedroom, two-bathroom flat on the eleventh floor, the apartment was a roomy one and our neighbors were friendly. And I could get a good night’s sleep many nights (when I wasn’t sleep-deprived from the first 1,859 days of Noah’s life, 2003-2008). Or, short of that, I could count on getting an afternoon nap, a short after-work nap, or weekend naps to recover.

By the winter of 2011-12, I couldn’t count on that anymore. Not with United Therapeutics and their endless construction projects, underway off and on since 2005. They had torn down their old headquarters adjacent to the Montgomery County Public Parking garage on 1200 Spring Street to build a state-of-the-art solar and geothermal powered monstrosity, including an underground garage. For seven weeks between December 2011 and February 2012, the construction workers pounded away with jackhammers on granite boulders as I attempted to work and teach online at home. I nearly lost my sanity.

Cole Spring Plaza, circa spring 2012 (before new double-paned windows; with trees & bushes in atrium), Silver Spring, MD. (http://www.australiansquashtour.org/).

This, of course, was not Ross Management’s fault, the property managers for Cole Spring Plaza. Nor was the onsite property manager to blame, seeing that they had nothing to do with the jackhammers. What was their fault was that no one in the building had double-paned windows, ones that could seal the noise of downtown Silver Spring and of major construction sites out of our flats. Ross finally replaced our windows in July 2012, but only after it became obvious that more tenants than usual had started moving out.

The granite boulders ordeal was but a symbol of the accumulation of the problems with our living arrangement at Cole Spring Plaza. None of these problems would’ve been a deal breaker for us when we first moved in back in May 2003. After four years in our previous luxury apartment, a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom place, the 1,350-square-footer that was our flat in Cole Spring Plaza seemed spacious. Sure, we knew that it didn’t have a washer and dryer in the unit, or valet parking, or a dry cleaning service on the premises, or a community gym or business office. But it did have the space we needed.

It only became obvious after a few years why the “luxury” part of the sell to us regarding Cole Spring Plaza was a lie. The developers had built the high-rise in 1967, apparently with the idea that it would be a hotel at first. But with Silver Spring not exactly a business or tourist attraction a half-century ago, they settled on the luxury high-rise idea. In the thirty-six years before we moved in, little to no work had been done to replace old plumbing, to repair the central ventilation system, to make washers and dryers available in each flat, or to give each apartment its own central air and heating. This Oscar Madison-Felix Unger setup may have been the definition of a luxury high-rise back in 1973. But in 2017, was a higher end version of my time at 616 (a bit of an exaggeration — the rent was/is way too damn high!). The result of what we did know, combined with the numerous little things we didn’t know, meant a gradual decrease in the quality of living in our place over fourteen years.

The plumbing issues meant for hard water stains that messed up our clothes when we washed them in the building, so by 2011, we were washing them off site. The lack of central ventilation exacerbated my sleep apnea and asthma symptoms, meaning less sleep over time. By 2012, there were two full months out of the year that we didn’t use our HVAC, one month because it was too warm for heat, the other because it was too cool outdoors for air conditioning. It was clear to me by the time our son had finished elementary school that it was time to move.

Spring Colesville public parking (the garage we used off-on for 12 years), Silver Spring, MD, January 23, 2016. (Donald Earl Collins).

But, move where, exactly? Did we want to stay in the area, or, especially with most of my job interviews taking me to Boston, California, Philly, and Baltimore, did we want to move out-of-town? Would we end up moving, but would I be stuck in long-distance marriage and fatherhood? That was always the main issue for me.

Aside from that, so much had changed since the spring of 2003. A large reason for the choice that we made in Cole Spring Plaza was because we didn’t own a car in 2003. We had looked at the Nissan Xterra and Volvo XC90, but because we lived so close to a Metro stop, we hadn’t seriously considered buying one. That is, until our son came along. We hadn’t looked at other options because for us, there didn’t seem to be that many.

United Therapeutics project after removal of last of garage, Silver Spring, MD, October 27, 2016. (Donald Earl Collins).

Finally, after Cole Spring Plaza decided that the best way to attract new tenants was to tear down fifty-year-old trees and decades’ old bushes and build a new atrium in June 2015 (which still isn’t complete), me and my wife both knew it was time. That, and United Therapeutics getting another sweet deal from Montgomery County Council Executive Ike Leggett and the Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce. After six years of negotiation, the county sold them the parking garage conveniently located across the street from Cole Spring Plaza for $10.2 million. In the twelve months since, Whiting-Turner tore down this garage and has mostly laid the foundation for a six-story, 120,000-square-foot building. That, and the electrical and water and sewage work around the building, left us — and especially mostly working-from-home me — feeling under siege.

United Therapeutics project, Silver Spring, MD, June 19., 2017. (Donald Earl Collins).

So we looked, at places in Baltimore, but mostly, between Rockville, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and even in Bethesda (whose lily-Whiteness I can’t stand), and settled for a town home a couple of miles from our old place. Here, the loudest thing I’ve heard so far is a garbage truck and birds fighting over food.

I wouldn’t recommend Cole Spring Plaza to anyone except to college students, especially if five of them want to room in a two-bed, two-bath flat (I met at least two groups of students doing exactly that). The building, like the rest of downtown Silver Spring, has changed, and not for the better. The building is in disrepair, and will likely get bought out by United Therapeutics in the coming decade.

This isn’t a story of gentrification, for Silver Spring has been a mix of upwardly mobile ethnicities for decades, especially in downtown. No, this is another story of cash-strapped municipalities, the lobbying of Chambers of Commerce, sweet deals for politicians lining their pockets, and corporations encroaching on residential areas. And the story of a family who should’ve moved into a town home three years sooner.

Americans, Frequently Polite, But Almost Never Nice

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Shaking Hands clipart, July 4, 2017. (http://hiveminer.com).

On this July 4th, I want to give the idea that Americans consider themselves a good-natured, warm-hearted, giving people. Or a wonderfully nice people, in other words. This, like so many other accepted clichés about American society, is nearly complete bullshit. Sure, many Americans are polite, or at least try to be. My former dissertation advisor Joe Trotter was very polite. Many of his colleagues and students said as much. But, as my couple dozen blog posts about Trotter can attest, he was hardly a nice person, or warm-hearted, or giving, or caring. Heck, at times, especially in my final year as a student and PhD candidate, Trotter wasn’t even professional or polite.

Polite is when a person doesn’t comment on one’s sudden fall into poverty or homelessness. Polite is holding open a door for someone loaded down with bags of groceries. Polite is an important person availing themselves to meeting with another important person for networking purposes. None of these things are nice, indicative of a good nature, a warm heart, or a giving person. Because, being polite is an obligation, and in American customs and laws, even obligatory. Four cars stopping at all four all-way stop signs at an intersection and going in the order of which one stopped the soonest is both polite and a traffic law. One may smile at another driver as one passes through the intersection, but this is a polite nicety, and not really a sign of a nice American at all.

Here’s where the difference between American politeness and truly being nice hits a brick wall. Our culture, our politics, our religious beliefs, our proclaiming of every holiday as a celebration of military personnel allegedly “fighting for our freedom.” They reflect this obligatory American politeness. As a nation, Americans claim to want to do something about poverty, and want to wish away racism, sexism, and homophobia. Yet in how Americans vote and in the music Americans listen to, there is almost nothing nice about Americans in action.

Nice, France is a city on the French Riviera (and not an American practice), September 21, 2011. (Tobi 87 via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

This is not just about 45 and the GOP majorities in Congress. In locale after locale, actions like acquitting police officers for murdering Black men and women, reducing the number of abortion clinics, and cutting taxes so the poor and homeless don’t have enough food, shows how un-nice the American people are. American un-niceness exists in the policies drawn up or enacted by those for whom millions voted, from repealing Obamacare to the Muslim Ban. These policies may reflect an American politeness, but they also reflect a cruelty that has all too often been a part of American culture.

As someone who once considered himself “a nice guy,” I recognize that the correct term was always polite. For being “a nice guy” merely meant not revealing my true thoughts toward and about women, all while being polite enough to hold a door open or to try to help a damsel-in-distress. What I was being was a sexist asshole, having not yet challenged my assumptions about women and about myself and my views about women and the rampant sexism and misogyny in American culture.

There are far too many Americans who think that their Christian politeness is so much more than obligatory and vapid gestures that mean little-to-nothing in reality. For this July 4th, the idea of honoring the military with absolutist statements about freedom as so automatic that it sickens me. Especially considering the number of active duty service people and veterans suffering from PTSD, addiction, or whom commit domestic violence. Americans don’t act nice around these ugly issues. Americans don’t volunteer, don’t call 911, and don’t pressure city councils, county commissioners, and state legislatures enough to deal with these issues holistically. It would be nice if more Americans did.

Americans ought to ban being polite. Polite perpetuates racism and economic inequalities. But being nice means doing something about it, protesting, volunteering, speaking truth to power, using America’s alleged freedoms to confront folks in one’s life about their comfortability with various forms of oppression. How nice would that be!

High School, When 30 Makes You Old(ish)

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Réunion Island’s (French department, off Madagascar) Piton de la Fournaise, lava flow, February 26, 2005. (Samuel A. Hoarau via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Today I am thirty years removed from my Mount Vernon High School graduation. Yay me (and 500+ others, I suppose)! But at forty-seven and a half years old, this also means I’m in my late forties, older than the age of many of my teachers on the day I wore my cap and gown on Memorial Field.

What I am still young and old enough to remember is the distance between me and my classmates, acquaintances (since I really didn’t have any friends back then), and family. Putting up a good front, a mostly blank front with an occasional laugh or smile, was what I did in public back then, enough to make it appear I wasn’t an outcast. Except that I was. But it wasn’t just the silent-treatment folks who reminded me that I was nothing and meant nothing to them within days of the MVHS graduation. I felt it, knew it, and wanted to escape it, every single day back in ’87.

There have been at least two high school reunions since Thursday, June 18, 1987. One was in September 1997, way too early to do a get-together from where I sit. Not to mention, I was coming off of three months of post-PhD unemployment, and wouldn’t have wanted to spend money I didn’t have to impress people with whom I could’ve never shared good times a decade earlier. The other was five years ago, a more appropriate frame for a reunion, but it was part of a group of reunions between 1985 and 1989 (or more even). I barely knew half my classmates in the Class of ’87, a couple dozen from ’86, and a few from ’85 and ’88. All together, it would’ve felt like a room full of strangers to me.

But at thirty or more years, would I want to go to a reunion now or in the future? I really don’t know. Part of the problem with reunions is the same problem I had in Humanities and in MVHS. I would have to fit someone’s predetermined mold or role. If I went in as Donald Earl Collins, would anyone actually remember me or acknowledge me as my true self? Could I be Donald Earl Collins the writer or historian or educator? Could I be the disillusioned Christian, the anti-racist American, or the middle-aged athlete who does yoga and can still hit threes despite my IT-band issues? Or, will I just fall into my role as the super-smart but enigmatic loser, the wack-ass weird mofo that scores saw me as three decades ago?

I know one thing my ex-mates wouldn’t see me as — a father (after all, today is Father’s Day). I guarantee you, some of the folks in my class took bets as to whether I was straight, gay, asexual, or if I’d have sex with another human before the Rapture! Yet I’ve been married for more than seventeen years, and a father for almost fourteen. Much longer than I was ever in high school, Humanities, or Mount Vernon’s public schools. This is what makes me old and keeps me young. Family, love, parenting, and making pancakes, bacon, and eggs for Sunday brunch.

Memorial Field in complete disrepair, locked up (and like me in 1987, locked out), April 2, 2017. (Mark Lungariello/The Journal News).

The day of graduation in 1987 was a trip in itself, between an 87-year-old graduating with our class, the sudden hugs and immediate ostracisms that occurred, the triple-H evening in polyester in the middle of Memorial Field, and my father’s drunken attendance. It was a clash of White Italian Mount Vernon, Black elite Mount Vernon, and stereotypically ghetto Mount Vernon, with a splash of affluence, Afro-Caribbean, and other Mount Vernons. That’s what made it a strange ceremony, a last look at my hometown’s population as a teenager, good and bad.

There’s someone on Facebook who runs the page “I grew up in Mount Vernon.” My former classmate frequently blocks or admonishes participants for negative posts or negative portrayals of Mount Vernon. His defense: he wants the page to be “a place of positivity.” It’s his page, and he should be able to do what he wants with it (within reason). However, “positivity” is not the same thing as “positive posts only.” You should be able to generally like Mount Vernon and occasionally discuss issues affecting people in town that aren’t positive ones. Like poverty. Like the need for more social justice activism and more political participation. Like the need for a donut shop on par with the former Clover Donuts.

Bill Cosby in midst of his “Pound Cake” speech (with Rev. Jesse Jackson in background), NAACP 50th Anniversary of Brown decision gala, Washington, DC, May 17, 2004. (http://blackpast.com).

Really, I find this “I grew up in Mount Vernon” Facebook page yet another example of how a privileged group of folk get to frame a conversation for people who can’t or won’t speak for themselves. Middle-class, one-way-thinking, Black respectability politics folk whose Christian ethics blind them to history, racism, poverty, misogyny, homophobia/heterosexism, and other -isms and -obias that affect their neighbors. The page is smug, elitist, and exclusionary. I rarely look at the page, and I’ve posted to it maybe three times in seven or eight years. “I grew up in Mount Vernon” is a reminder that I share little in common with these Mount Vernonites, even as my socioeconomic and educational status has changed over the years.

As a father, though, I am reminded about the need to protect and to nurture, balanced with the need to give my son room to grow and learn. I may not be able to stop a cop from exercising his/her lethal racism with a badge, but I can prepare my son as best I can to be in public anyway. When it comes to Mount Vernon, MVHS, or any future reunion I may decide to attend, maybe, just maybe, my ex-classmates should be as ready to see all sides of me. At least as much as I have granted that their version of Mount Vernon is one that is real for them, if not for me and many others.

On the Levi Brothers and Trump-esque People

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Darth Sidious, Star Wars VI (The Return of the Jedi) screen shot, 1983/1997. (LusoEditor via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use due to lower resolution and subject matter.

There are a plethora of people to pick from in making comparisons between President 45 and examples of narcissistic evil operating in positions of leadership. Andrew Jackson, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, 45’s hero Vladimir Putin, Jacob Zuma, and Recep Erdoğan all have served as examples in op-eds and other articles over the past couple of years. And these are all potentially good picks. Mercurial, vengeful, and even erratic actions, combined with dehumanizing speeches and screeds, all characterize this cabal of soft despots and fascist dictators, and match 45 well.

But the level of ostentatious stupidity that 45 has exhibited as President and a presidential candidate has made think of people closer to home. After all, 45 has always been a New Yorker, a crass rich White guy who has spent his entire adult life attempting to make himself look even more wealthy and powerful than his relative position in elite circles would’ve otherwise justified. He’s also always seen himself as the most important person in the room, maybe in the world. So much so that he has also seen himself as the smartest person in any context, even as everything 45 has touched has been tarnished or turned to shit by his callous, narcissistic stupidity.

In totality, this could describe any upper-crust New Yorker I encountered growing up looking to own more, buy more, be more than they already were. But in light of all things 45, I am thinking of two folks from my teenage years, the Levi brothers. They owned cleaners in Midtown Manhattan and ran a building-cleaning company, and my father worked for them all through the 1980s. The Levi brothers were two of a kind, some of the most flashy people with wealth that I would ever meet.

As I described them in Boy @ The Window

I can confirm with absolute certainty that the Levi brothers wore not-so-thin gold chains. I can also remember how uneasy my encounters with them made me feel. It wasn’t just the fact that they often questioned my intelligence. For nearly all of the years my father worked for the Levi brothers, they paid him under the table. They enabled his alcoholism, in exchange for $500 a week, for eighteen years. No retirement plan, no raises, no sick or annual leave, no unemployment insurance, in exchange for no child support payments and no tax payments. A Faustian deal if there ever was one.

King of New York (1990) with Christopher Walken screen shot. (http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/).

That my father knew who Paul Milstein was — the late real estate mogul for whom a program within the Columbia Business School is named — is amazing to consider in hindsight. It meant that he was privy to many conversations between the Levi brothers about their master plan for generational wealth. It meant that the Levi brothers believed themselves to be kings, or at least princes, of New York. But only because they cut corners in their shops and business, and looked for ways to literally get rid of their competition. Things that would later lead to alleged criminal activities and the loss of their businesses.

If I could interview them in their mid-1980s milieu now, I would’ve ask them, “Who were you trying to emulate, John Gotti?” But given those Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous times, I suspect the person the Levi brothers were most trying to ape was Donald Trump. Only, 45 came from more money, and wanted to do more than corner the market on cleaners and cleaning contracts for Manhattan high-rises. Beyond the differences in a couple of zeros, the braggadocio, the seeing of people not like them as “others” or “not human,” the need to show the world their wealth, their stunning stupidity in their attempts to monopolize their market. It’s as typical a New York story as I ever got the chance to see. And with 45, I get to see it again, this time on a massive scale, a crash-and-burn that the universe of intelligent beings won’t be able to ignore.