Tomorrow marks another troublesome day in the life that is my own, but it was a day that led all of us as a family into better times, even as things grew more difficult in the first few years after it happened.
It was the fire that gutted 616 East Lincoln Avenue, a 60-family apartment building on the North Side of Mount Vernon, New York, four short blocks away from the Pelham-Mount Vernon border to its east. It and 630 East Lincoln make up the bulk of low-income and working-class income families that reside in this section of Mount Vernon. Otherwise, the half-mile square area consists of everything from co-ops and converted public housing (now all fairly affordable condos for those of middle class means) to starter homes, cul-de-sacs and stately manor homes. As the years have gone by, 616 and 630 East Lincoln have stuck out like boils on the forehead of an otherwise healthy-looking person.
Until April 25 of ’95, 616 was a code for everything that had gone wrong in my life growing up in Mount Vernon. It bothered me more than Humanities or Mount Vernon High School ever could. 616 was about much more than teenage angst or indifferent teachers. 616 stood for our ugly fall into poverty, the lost years to being a Hebrew-Israelite, my ex-stepfather’s abuse of my mother and me, Darren’s fall into institutionalized retardation, and a sheer sense of a world turned upside down. Even after leaving for college, I still spent most of my next five summers there (not counting the summer of ’91), watching over my younger siblings and working full-time for Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, which gave me additional insight into the psychological nuances of our family.
By the time I had transferred from Pitt to Carnegie Mellon to finish my doctorate, it was so obvious to me the crippling nature of the poverty that my younger brothers and sister experienced every day. It had also worn down my mother. For years growing up, she talked about how we “shouldn’t take handouts” from the federal government or from other people, that we had to “work for a livin’ to make it” in this world. When we went on welfare in April ’83, I knew that it tore her up. I just didn’t know how much until my Carnegie Mellon years.
When I came home for Xmas in ’93, when the subject of welfare came up, my mother said that this system was the only way that “Black folks could get paid their back wages for slavery.” And she said it more than once. Even if I bought her logic, it would still mean that the descendants of slaves were getting a pittance for the work performed by our ancestors. My mother by this time spent most of her days praying, praising and singing to the Lord, watching the 700 Club and other religious programming, or otherwise keeping the sparse apartment clean and stocked with food. While I had no objections to this as a Christian, I also realized that my mother was waiting for God to change her and her life, waiting as if she had nothing to do with this process herself.
My last visit before the fire was the month before, at the end of March ’95. By this time, New York State had changed its regulations regarding welfare in anticipation of President Clinton’s “mend it don’t end it” legislation that would turn AFDC into TANF the following year. So my mother was taking remedial math and reading classes — as well as cooking classes — at Mount Vernon High School to keep the welfare checks coming in. My mother in August ’89 was about a year away from earning an associate’s degree in accounting from Westchester Business Institute, not to mention her fifteen years working as a dietary supervisor at Mount Vernon Hospital. It was like she had given up. My siblings acted the same way, as if tomorrow didn’t matter. But I was still happy to see them all, and they seemed happy to see me. Of course, they all did their usual song and dance for money from me.
I left for Pittsburgh, having spent the previous seven weeks in DC doing research for my doctoral thesis, hanging out with some new friends and hoping for a grant that would save me from heavy amounts of teaching in the ’95-’96 school year. On April 14, I got the call that put my doctoral thesis “on cruise control,” as a friend of mine put it. I found myself with a year-long dissertation fellowship from the Spencer Foundation that enabled me to live worry-free through the summer of ’96. Five days later, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing happened. It dominated the news cycle for the next week or so. I felt for the folks in Oklahoma City, but I was still in the middle of my Spencer fellowship high.
Tuesday, April 25 was a normal day of putting together rough drafts of my second and third chapters of my thesis, doing additional research, talking with colleagues and professors, and bumping into my former advisor at Pitt’s Hillman Library. I spent much more time on Pitt’s campus because Carnegie Mellon offered few faces that looked like mine, was a conservative haven and possessed few places where I could do work and then find a chair to take a nap on if I got tired. Around 4 or 4:30, I felt ill. It was as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I thought it was something I ate at first. After a few minutes, I packed up my stuff, left campus and caught the bus back home to my apartment in East Liberty.
Even after getting home and taking some medicine, I still felt ill. Then I felt the need to call home. No answer. I tried again around 8 pm. Still no answer. I tried three more times between 8 and 11 pm. I got really worried. I called the Mount Vernon PD. They told me about the fire and gave me the local number for the American Red Cross to call. When I called them, they couldn’t locate my family.
After a few more calls early the next morning, I found my mother at a shelter at the First Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, seven blocks from 616 and down the street from where all of us (except Darren) went to elementary school. I was relieved to find them, to find out that they were all right, that no one was home at the time of the fire.
It was a electrical fire, sparked by loose wiring on the second floor that tenants had reported to the landlord at least a year earlier, and certainly in the weeks prior to the incident. The fire itself was small, but Mount Vernon’s finest apparently flooded my mother’s side of the building with water, making most of 616 uninhabitable. Most of the clothing, the beds, the few pictures and pieces of furniture we had, my high school diploma and yearbook, all gone. But the TV that I had bought my family for Xmas in ’94 survived the flooding. It’s ironic that a friend of mine from high school’s father was also a prominent member of the church in which my family took shelter, while another friend’s father was indirectly connected to the landlord’s real estate company in charge of managing 616. As far as I know, none of my classmates from high school served or had father who served with the Mount Vernon Fire Department.
This was the beginning of a long and difficult journey, for me and for my family. They spent a couple of weeks at a motel in Elmsford while I immediately wired them a few hundred dollars. Then they came back to Mount Vernon for a few months, spending the summer of ’95 in a halfway house normally meant for women seeking shelter from abuse or women who were transitioning from drugs and/or prison with their kids to a more typical living arrangement. By November, my family had moved into low-income housing off Broadway in Yonkers, three blocks from the Bronx and a short walk from Van Courtland Park, one of the biggest in New York City. All the while, I sent home money to help my mother with bills, food, clothing for my siblings, whatever she needed.
I finally visited after another round of research and interviews for my dissertation in DC. This was Thanksgiving ’95, and my family had just moved into the place in Yonkers. It was clean but smelled of cheap paint and looked more sparse than 616. But the biggest change was on the faces of my family. My brothers and sister looked agitated, hungry, defeated, and betrayed. My youngest brother Eri and my brother Yiscoc were in the middle of the first year of academic struggles that would lead both of them to drop out of school. My mother was completely out of sorts, more tired and more depressed than usual. She was “forced to go back to school,” as she put it, to finish up her associate’s degree in exchange for the continuing flow of welfare checks and rent payments on the new temporary apartment.
She refused to transfer my siblings to Yonkers Public Schools. It would be “too much to transfer them back,” she said when I pressed her about it. They were waking up as early as 5:30 am to catch a bus (school bus or transit) to get to school, and weren’t in bed most of the time before 11 pm. I caught on right away that my mother had lost control of and authority over the family. She might’ve been in charge, but my siblings had begun to figure out how to ignore her and shut her out.
A little more than two years later, in March ’98, my mother and family moved back to 616, into a refurbished sanitarium, as my wife has called it over the years. By then my mother had finished her associate’s degree but couldn’t find steady employment. My brother Eri had spent two years in seventh grade, and would have to go to summer school to finish eighth grade. Yiscoc spent his high school days cutting classes and hangin’ out with his homies. Maurice had graduated high school on the honor roll and was in his first year at Westchester Community College, but rudderless while going there. They were all moving ahead with their lives, but in a fog of depression it seemed. The fire and its aftermath had torn up their lives. It explained — though it didn’t excuse — my mother’s behavior toward me as her uppity son.
I too had lost something. As horrible as it was, 616 gave me a sense of home, a physical and psychological address in which I could compare my adult life to my growing-up years. The money that I given my mother all through ’95, ’96 and ’97 was money that I could’ve used in the year after finishing my doctorate. For nearly four years, until I visited in April ’99, I didn’t visit my first hometown.
But the fire did open up the opportunity for my siblings and for me to question my mother’s moral authority and decision-making. It enabled all of us to realize that in the midst of poverty, a parent can only do but so much to protect their kids from the worst that the world offers. It was a wake-up call that forced me to realize that I couldn’t go home again, to the home that never a real home growing up anyway. It was the fire that eventually led to my family intervention nearly seven years later. And that did lead to my siblings growing up and moving on with their lives. It has even helped my mother live her life in a better way in recent years.