Friday, December 30, 1988. One of the more pleasant, interesting and thought-provoking moments occurred on this day. After three semesters at Pitt and my bouts with homesickness and a broken heart, summer joblessness, sophomore homelessness and general pennilessness, I came back to Mount Vernon and 616 with a sense of hope that I hadn’t had in years. New friends, real friends, a somewhat steady income and my tuition fully paid, back-to-back Dean’s List semesters, and understanding trust for the first time in my life after going through all that will change one’s outlook on life.
The valedictorian of our class, one of only four folks from high school I dared called a friend, came up from Johns Hopkins to visit her father in Mount Vernon over the holidays. She got together with a friend of hers from MVHS who graduated earlier in ’88, the year after us. She wrote a letter to me before the holidays announcing her visit and wanting to get together, but I didn’t believe her. I didn’t say so, mind you, I just didn’t respond. So my friend got bold herself. She came over the next-to-last day of ’88 and rang the downstairs security bell to get in 616. That was amazing to me. It was the first time anyone I knew from my Humanities days — and someone White, no less — would march into ghetto territory and do something like that.
I was washing dishes from a breakfast of grits and eggs, the house a pitiful mess as usual. The Price is Right on CBS was on the TV in the living room, so it was about 11:30 am. Before I could get to it, one of my younger siblings had buzzed them in. I was in no way ready to go out, and the house was too disgusting for any visitor, especially anyone I knew. I was wearing a blue-and-white checkered ex-dress shirt, my green-blue Bugle Boy jeans, and a pair of new Nike’s I’d bought post-Thanksgiving. My mother was in a panic. “Donald, get downstairs before they get up here. They can’t see the house like this!” she said nervously.
As soon as I got out the door, the two out-of-place women were coming onto the third floor from the stairwell next to our apartment door. I said my “Hi” and gently coaxed them back downstairs to my friend’s old Chevy Chevette. She gave me that “What gives?” look. I used code to say that the apartment was a mess — saying that the place wasn’t “ready for visitors” — but I knew that she didn’t buy that for an explanation.
It didn’t seem to matter. We talked all the way over to the great JD’s house about school, school and more school, stopping off and picking up our former eighth-grade math teacher in the process. The valedictorian and the teacher, a first-year teacher and a graduate of Adelphi University in ’82, only four months before we had her for Algebra that fall, had become close friends between eighth grade and my friend’s second year at Johns Hopkins. I found that odd and fascinating. It was a cold yet clear day, with snow all over the place from recent storms. We went to JD’s house, where one of my high school nemesis was already waiting.
The house was in Fleetwood, and it wasn’t a house to me. It was a palatial mansion compared to most of the houses I’d seen and the handful I’d been in up to that point. The hardwood floor looked like they’d been put in yesterday, lacquered the night before and sterilized that morning. The place was laid out, the type of house you’d see in Better Homes & Gardens or on a slightly less affluent Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous with Robin Leach. I tried as best I could to hide my awestruck feeling at that moment.
I wasn’t jealous. It just finally hit me why there was so much social distance between me and most of my classmates. That’s not to say that I thought their lives were perfect. Still, the distance between sleeping on beat-up pillows in the living room or my old bedroom with six kids and my mother on welfare and a family with more net worth than my mother had made in a lifetime was the distance between the Sun and Alpha Centauri (about four light-years away). I met JD’s aunt for the one and only time.
Once JD made his grand entrance in the living room, we all left to go to the nearest pizza joint on West Grand in Fleetwood. The pizza was good, but the conversation was better. There was a lot of “everything’s goin’ well” type of discussion going. Yet I got the sense that things weren’t all that great. Then JD admitted that he was a semester away from academic probation at Berkeley. His engineering classes were kicking his butt. From the looks of things, he was doing much better athletically than anywhere else, having bulked up to 190 with twenty extra pounds of muscle. My nemesis then admitted that his academic and social life at Georgia Tech wasn’t exactly going as planned. He didn’t seem to know which one was worse. He’d grown four or five inches since MVHS, good enough to put him around five-five or five-six.
My valedictorian friend, of course, had a killer GPA at Johns Hopkins, had an Asian boyfriend, and just loved things there. What she didn’t mention, between home and school, was that she was on the verge of burnout, 3.6 average or not. I don’t remember much about the college freshman who came with us or her comments about her first semester of school, probably because she was just a freshman.
We hung out for about an hour and a half, gave each other our well wishes, and went our separate ways. Despite all of the posturing and initial attempts at one-upmanship, I enjoyed the outing and was glad my friend had pulled me away from 616 to see some of our mutual ex-classmates. I learned an important lesson about why I searched for the kinds of friends I now had at Pitt and would have over the next twenty years. I also learned that my internal bullshit detector worked just fine, even picking up my own bs in the process. It had, in fact, worked all the years I was in Humanities and MVHS. Maybe that was why I refused to participate in most of the school’s activities over the years. I wasn’t scared. I was skeptical, which in turn made my scared of dealing with most of these folks.
My friend dropped me off and gave me a big hug, all the while still curious about why I intercepted her before she reached the front door to the apartment. I supposed that “Because the apartment’s a mess” wasn’t a good enough excuse as many times as I’d been to her place on Rich Avenue while we were in Humanities. But it was the only explanation I had. What else could I have said? That my younger siblings looked unkempt, that my obese stepfather walked around in dingy gray-from-sweat-and-dead-skin underwear, that my mother was embarrassed, even more so than I would’ve been? I guess.
It hit me for the first time why I liked the folks I’d met at Pitt so much more than my former classmates. I didn’t have to pretend that my life was going great in front of them, that I knew everything or had my career all figured out. I didn’t even have to feel embarrassed about how little furniture there was in the house or feel interrogated like I felt with my friend at that moment.
But she did do something that my Pitt folks would’ve done. She stopped herself from escalating the conversation about 616. She just gave me a dear friend hug. “Have a Happy New Year,” she said. “Happy Birthday,” I said, as her b-day was also on January 1. “Maybe there’s hope for some of my classmates, at least,” I thought. Those last few months had proven that there was plenty of reason to hold out hope for myself as well.