I actually talked about my final decision regarding college in my blog on March 20 of this year, a posting titled “March Madness.” But a number of you expressed interest in what happened after I sent off my college applications in November and December of ’86. So, back — at least in part — by popular demand is what occurred before I made the decision to go to the University of Pittsburgh in March and April ’87.
For many outside of the Illinois Blago-sphere, the past couple of days have been a bit of a shock. We would never think that a politician already under investigation for corruption would be arrogant enough to attempt to sell Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, and cuss out the President-Elect for only offering his “appreciation.” The sad fact is, corruption is everywhere in the public sphere, not just in Chicago or Springfield, Illinois. And though Gov. Blagojevich might be one of the more stupid people in elected authority to come down the pike in recent years, he is hardly alone. Happy Belated B-Day to the hopefully former governor, by the way! He turned fifty-two yesterday.
All politics are local, which means that most of the corruption in our politics and public policies starts at the local level. In Washington, DC, much of it over the years has involved the DC School Board and DC Public Schools (not the Mayor’s Office). In the case of the school board, it until recently served as the first or second step toward the DC City Council and the Mayor’s Office, as DC residents began voting for school board members in ’67, six years before home rule. The late Walter Washington and Marion Barry (among others) cut their political teeth in become the district’s first elected school board members in the late-60s.
But local politics and corruption can make it into the minutia of everyday public policies, particularly in public education. It can be something small, like who gets or doesn’t get new textbooks, or setting up teacher transfer policies in collusion with the local teacher’s union so that few of the best teachers ever teach in the poorest performing of the public schools. Or it could be something even more insidious, like setting up an ability grouping system so that it benefits one group of local residents over another.
To a great extent, the gifted-track program in which I was a student for most of the ’80s was first created to, among other things, stem the tide of White flight from the Mount Vernon school district. Here’s what I wasn’t fully aware of at the time. The Humanities Program began as a response to an NAACP lawsuit filed on behalf of Mount Vernon’s Black residents in ’76. Despite the district’s previous attempts at desegregation during the ’50s and ’60s (a new Mount Vernon High School, built in ’62, was a result of those early efforts), the system had remained segregated. A Mount Vernon Daily Argus article from early ’77 showed that elementary schools on Mount Vernon’s North Side varied from 17.7 percent to 46.7 percent Black (the one exception was Holmes, at 83.5 percent Black). South Side schools were between 93 and 99.5 percent Black (the one exception was Grimes at 51.9 percent Black). According to James Meyerson, the lead attorney for the NAACP case against the school district, the “figures reflect the basic, segregated nature of the school system.”
Superintendent William C. Prattella and the school board responded in the summer of ’76 with a four-point desegregation plan, of which Grimes was point number one. They also instituted an open-enrollment policy for parents to transfer their children to other schools across the district, authorized the demolition of the old Lincoln Elementary and the construction of a new and bigger one, and realigned school programs along an east-west axis versus the White North and Black South Side one.
The Grimes Center for Creative Education and the Humanities Program that followed was of particular importance, for me and for my classmates. Like so many others across the US, Humanities was also a magnet school experiment that represented the best efforts toward integration and educational opportunities for all—at least that’s what I remember educators and reporters saying at the time. For our school board, it was an experiment that they hoped would keep White parents invested in the school district, as they paid the majority of the property taxes, the lifeblood of the school coffers. White flight from the school district, if not Mount Vernon itself, was one underlying reason for the obvious neighborhood school segregation, with overcrowded South Side and undercrowded North Side schools. The school district had gone from forty-three percent to twenty-eight percent White between ’70 and ’76. At Holmes, my elementary school from third through sixth grade, nearly sixty-four percent of its students had been White in ’70. Six years later, only twelve percent of the students in the school were White, without a substantial increase in the overall numbers of students in attendance. No wonder the NAACP filed a lawsuit in July ’76.
Between ’76 and ’93, roughly 2,500 students attended Humanities’ accelerated college-prep classes. Humanities was built in phases, beginning with the Board of Education’s establishment of it at the Grimes Elementary School, renamed the Grimes Center for Creative Education. Humanities became part of A.B. Davis Middle School in ’77 and ’78 (for seventh and eighth grade), and part of Mount Vernon High School between ’79 and ’83. Humanities’ first class of graduates marched in June ’83.
In the process, the district moved around its teachers, administrators, and other resources to build Humanities, as they received two million dollars a year from New York State for the program. The Board of Education authorized the construction of a new wing at Davis specifically to house Humanities’ students, and Mount Vernon High School allocated three of its fifteen guidance counselors for about 400 of the school’s 3,500 students.
What brought Humanities to my attention occurred in ’80. That May, allegedly as an effort to save money, the school board voted five to one to move the Grimes program to Pennington Elementary, deep in Mount Vernon’s North Side between ritzy Fleetwood and Mount Vernon’s affluent and White northern border. The lone dissenter was James Jubilee, the only African American on the school board. In response to fellow board member Anthony Veteri, who said in exasperation, “What’s the difference where you make love?,” Jubilee responded, “In this community it makes a lot of difference. . . . it [the board’s decision] almost spells racism.”
Pennington was a high-achieving and mostly White school and it was underpopulated— 292 students were enrolled in a building that could hold up to 525. Grimes only housed 273 Humanities students, but it was in an old building that the school board couldn’t afford to renovate. Without Humanities, Pennington already possessed a reputation for its teaching and student achievement excellence. With Humanities and its Grimes students, Pennington would become the preeminent elementary school in the city. By the time I enrolled in Humanities, White students were roughly sixty percent of the program’s total student body. About seventy-five of my 120 seventh-grade classmates in Humanities were White, many of them post-Grimes Pennington converts.
Mount Vernon’s racial and ethnic politics influenced the selection of a fair number of Italians in Humanities, at least in my class. The Italian Civic Association (ICA), a six-decade old organization when Humanities got off the ground in the late ’70s, boasted school administrators and school board members as part of its membership. This included the district’s superintendent, William Prattella. Having taken the job in ’72, Prattella by the time I’d reached Humanities was the second-most politically powerful person in the city, after the late Mayor Thomas Sharpe. Only one member of the school board was African American, while more than half of the members were Italian. In the spring of ’81, two Blacks and one Italian ran for the school board slot that the lone Black, James Jubilee, had vacated. Jubilee’s decision to step down was apparently motivated in part by the decisions leading to the creation of the Humanities Program and Pennington-Grimes. According to the Mount Vernon Daily Argus, Jubilee’s resignation was his protest against “the ‘shams’” on the school board. He called the board “a monolithic block of white Italian men,” all of whom had ties to the ICA.
The racial politics didn’t stop at the polls or in the local newspaper. There was some indication that some Humanities students, particularly the Italian ones, were able to enroll in the gifted-track program because of their relatives on the school board or because of their parents’ ICA membership. One former classmate noted that Prattella was a “distant cousin of his mother’s,” and that one of our seventh grade teachers was also a close relative on his mother’s side. The teacher put a good word in for him with Mrs. Mann, the Humanities coordinator at Davis Middle School, trumping issues with his grades and conduct. And there was Dawn Prattella, the daughter of the superintendent. I wasn’t aware of the nuances of racial and educational politics in seventh grade. But I did notice, almost immediately, that my Italian classmates generally didn’t fit in with the affluent and more cultured Whites in our class.
It this a form of corruption? You bet it is! Is this unusual or shocking? No, unfortunately. People use their power and influence everyday to level an unlevel playing field for others, and more often, to tilt the field in favor of people they know, like, or can help them politically or economically. In the case of Mount Vernon’s local school politics, it made sense for those in power to put their thumbs on the scale of an academic program so that their relatives and others with economic or political connections would benefit. Of course, Black, Afro-Caribbean and Latino students benefited as well. But likely not as much as they could’ve under the circumstances.
This is the everyday nature of politics locally and nationally. The only real way to limit corruption and the abuse of authority or power is with civic vigilance and political oversight. Which was why the Mayor’s Office in DC under Adrian Fenty took oversight authority over DC Public Schools two years ago, and likely why he decided to go with a non-traditional education reformer and outsider in Michelle Rhee as Chancellor last year. Too bad this didn’t happen in Mount Vernon a quarter-century ago. Face it, folks. Corruption will always be with us, but only to the extent that we allow our leaders to get away with their excesses.
One of the greatest decisions any of us can make these days is whether we move on from high school to college, which colleges to apply to for admission, and how to get through all of the paperwork, essays, exams, deadlines. Not to mention working with counselors, teachers, administrators, community folks and parents in order to get everything ready. My college decisions weren’t life and death in the fall of ’86, but with so many issues in my life, the choices I made by December ’86 were life-altering ones. No sixteen or seventeen-year-old, no matter how smart, insightful or clairvoyant, can fully understand the implications of these decisions. And I was pretty insightful about most of what to expect in getting ready for life after high school.
My college application process began with my annoying condescending guidance counselor Sylvia Fasulo. She was a chain-smoking, four-foot-nine Vassar Class of ’49 graduate who never seemed to think that I was good enough to be in the gifted-track Humanities Program from the day we met in September ’83. During my senior year, she chose to render some sarcastic judgement my way. “There goes Donald, always daring to be different,” Fasulo said to me as I shuffled down the second-floor hall from AP English class early on in the school year. It referenced my refusal to join our chapter of the National Honor Society and my insistence on carrying three AP courses and applying to schools like Columbia, Yale and the University of Pittsburgh. When it came to helping me work through my preparations for college, Fasulo was about as helpful as redneck would be in giving me directions to my White girlfriend on the White side of a Southern town—if I had one at the time, of course. It’d be an exaggeration to say that Fasulo had it in for me. Yet she wasn’t exactly helping me with good advice about the quality of the schools I wanted to apply to, whether they had good history or computer science departments, or whether the schools had more than a handful of Blacks attending. These were the questions I wanted her to help me answer. I ended up doing almost all of that research myself.
What Fasulo was good at was communicating her low expectations of me. She emphasized “safety schools” over and over again, as if I didn’t stand a chance in heaven of measuring up with the more selective schools. “You need to pick a safety school,” she’d say. Or “SUNY Buffalo’s a good safety school,” she said a fair number of times. On her constant advice on this, I wasted an application and applied there. But not without insisting that Columbia, Yale, and Pitt would stay on my application list. Pitt, of course, was the one school that didn’t fit and the one that Fasulo shook her head about the most. “They’re out of state,” she said to me in a bit of exasperation about my choices. I explained that the University of Pittsburgh’s out-of-state tuition was actually less than the in-state tuition of any of the New York State schools, and by a wide margin. Not able to resist, Fasulo responded, “There you go again, daring to be different,” adding a frustrated chuckle. Because of my research, I also ended up applying to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester and Hobart & William Smith Colleges. Five schools in Upstate New York, two Ivy Leagues, and Pitt. No wonder Fasulo was confused.
I hated having Fasulo as my counselor at this critical crossroads. She was condescending, demeaning and chain-smoked up my clothes for my troubles. Most of all, I hated having to reveal things about myself to her that I otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Like my family’s financial situation. Fasulo became only the second person I would tell that we were on welfare, that my father and mother had divorced and that he hadn’t made a child support payment since ’78. I had to talk to her about my role in my family as acting first-born child and my responsibilities. It was necessary and humiliating at the same time.
I didn’t get much help from my teachers other than my late AP American History teacher Harold Meltzer. Of all the former teachers I decided to ask for a letter of recommendation from, I went to my eleventh-grade math teacher Andy Butler. What he wrote was eighty-four words of qualified support of my pursuit of postsecondary education. I was “a good student” when I “worked hard,” but I could also become “distracted sometimes.” I knew I probably should’ve asked someone else—almost anyone else—for a letter. Even some of my senior-year teachers would’ve done better by me.
Meltzer did help out in numerous ways, more than making up for Fasulo and Butler. He helped me get over some of my embarrassment as I wrote my college essays about my life as the adult teenager at 616. I needed to write this type of essay, since I had some explaining to do about my lack of extracurricular activities. Meltzer helped me interpret the multi-page green-and-white financial sheet that I picked up from the local welfare office outlining my mother’s income between ’83 and ’86. He set up an interview with a Columbia University alum living in the Wykagyl section of New Rochelle, a rich neighborhood full of small mansions and near a professional-level golf course and country club. The pompous alum seemed as interested in intimidating me with his soliloquy about Columbia’s great traditions as he was in helping me get in. He never asked why someone like me would want to attend. I guess he thought that of course this Black boy would want to go to an Ivy League school like Columbia. “Why do I have to go through this to get into college?,” I thought. I tried to not hold it against Meltzer that I had to witness opulence and arrogance in my college quest.
What Meltzer did that probably helped me most was to bolster my confidence in the college application process. His letter of recommendation was six pages of unrestrained praise. He used so many superlatives to describe my academic success and college potential that I thought that I was the great Dwight Gooden by the time I finished reading it. I was “a great kid,” a “diamond in the rough,” hard-working,” a “critical thinker,” the “best student [he] ever had,” an “intellectual,” smart “beyond belief,” and, well, you get the picture. It made me laugh and blush over and over again after I first read it. I said to Meltzer the next day in the Social Studies Department’s faculty lounge, that “you know more about me than I know about myself.” He just laughed and laughed about that.
In October, I took the old SATs for a second time. My 1050 from last fall wouldn’t cut it, not for Yale, and not for Columbia. Scholarship money was on the line as well, as the combination of my GPA, my AP score, and a higher SAT score would all but guarantee college acceptance and some academic scholarship money. So what little studying I did in September and early October was to go through Barron’s SAT prep book and its sample exams. By the time of the test, I thought I had a chance at a 1200, which is what I set as a goal. There wasn’t anything memorable about this day. I went through analogies and other useless sections of the Verbal section and struggled, as if I hadn’t studied at all. It felt easier than last year, but not by much. The Math section seemed about the same.
In AP Calculus and AP Physics class the following month, we were all talking about our scores. The top students of my class were neck and neck as best SAT test-takers. Their scores included a 1360, a 1350, a couple of 1280s, a 1220. Even one unstudious jerk scored in the 1200s, prompting him to say that “only an idiot would score under 1200” on the SAT. I assumed that the comment was directed at me, since the asshole looked directly at me when he said it. Given that I only scored an 1120, I kept my mouth shut. Little did I know at the time that most of my more entitled classmates had gone through an SAT test-prep course like Kaplan and Princeton Review.
It was all over by the middle of December. My Yale application was due on November 1, and several other applications had deadlines between November 15 and mid-December. A couple weren’t due until the new year, but given the amount of work I’d put into the Yale, Columbia, and Pitt applications, I just adapted all of my essays and materials for the other schools. By the week before Christmas, all of my college applications were in the mail.
It was an arduous and privacy destroying process, but it felt good, even at the time. After four and a half years of living with the realities of poverty and domestic violence, feeling a bit like an outcast in a room full of nerds and wannabe cool folks, and being run into the ground by my mother and younger siblings, I was looking forward to getting out of 616 and Mount Vernon. I also knew that most of the decisions I made were good ones, given my limited knowledge of the college world and the arrogance of my counselor and some of my teachers. It’s hard to imagine what I would’ve done differently given what little I did know back then, other than asking my AP English teacher Rosemary Martino for a letter of recommendation instead of Andy Butler.
The title’s not exactly accurate. I’ve never been to Mumbai, nor experienced terrorism outside of the US. But I very easily could’ve been there about five years ago.
It would’ve been my first overseas trip and only my second international one of any consequence, if you don’t count spending the summer solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska in ’01. It was the end of July ’03, the day before my son Noah was born, when my immediate boss proposed that we have our ’04 winter retreat at the World Social Forum in Mumbai. I was the assistant director for the New Voices Fellowship Program. It was a program that supported small social justice not-for-profit organizations and rising stars in the social justice field with two-year employment-based fellowships that covered salaries while individuals made an impact on various domestic and international social justice issues.
Sounds pretty good, except that the Ford Foundation’s Human Rights unit had been hinting at a reduced budget for the program for the past year, we had no long-term vision for the program, and my impending fatherhood hadn’t exactly gone over well with a couple of my higher ups. But it seemed all good at the time. The day before Noah was born, me and my immediate supervisor had gone to lunch with a New Voices Fellow who seemed to think that she was bigger than our program (there was a lot of that in my three years there). When we suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to skip the winter retreat then scheduled in San Francisco, she responded that she wanted to go to the World Social Forum in India.
The World Social Forum is an annual or biennial (depending on the years) gathering of 100,000 or more social justice activists from around the world. It’s mostly a loose conglomeration of organizations and individuals staging protests, delivering speeches, doing sing-a-longs and otherwise responding rabidly to any and all forms of inequality and -isms that hold billions of the world’s powerless back. (I have no problems with social justice — just the World Social Forum and its disorganized methodology).
We had a ten-minute discussion of some of the pros and cons of doing our winter retreat in Mumbai before I left for the day. Within the next twenty-four hours, Noah was born, and I went on paternity leave (which was really my use of four weeks of vacation days) for almost all of August. Within twelve days of my leave, my immediate boss made the whimsical decision to have our meeting in Mumbai. We would have only about four months to prepare our staff and about 40 other folks for an international trip to one of the largest cities in the world during a major gathering.
It wasn’t the unilateralness of the decision that shocked me as much as the stupidity of it. Few of us knew anything about Mumbai, about getting passports and visa, the cost of such a trip, getting the proper shots, and so many other things that would go into the planning of this thing. Plus, there was the issue of the existing contract with the hotel in San Francisco for our winter retreat. Changing that would be a bear as well.
I came back from paternity leave at the end of August ’03 to this mess. I had sent an email just before I return outlining my concerns about logistics and what, in the end, would be the point of having a winter retreat if the New Voices Fellows were to spend all of their time at the World Social Forum events. No response from the higher ups. I began the task of putting this potentially nightmarish trip together. For nearly a month, I negotiated hotel contracts with folks nine and a half hours ahead and three hours behind before coming up with something that fit our budget. The winter retreat in San Francisco would now be our summer conference in August ’04.
It turned out that this was the easy part. It seemed like all I kept hearing from the State Department and in the news was bad news about Mumbai. There had been several terrorist attacks of the home-grown or Pakistani variety over the years, including ones in ’93 and ’02. The main railway station was apparently a favorite target. The State Department and the CDC recommended Hepatitis A-C shots prior to traveling to India. And for weak stomachs and colons like mine, there was little to look forward to in terms of maintaining a certain standard of gastrointestinal health while in Mumbai.
But as the calls from the New Voices Fellows began coming in throughout September and October ’03, there was another serious issue. One in six of the Fellows were foreign nationals, and in the post-9/11 era, that meant that there would be the possibility that they couldn’t get out of or get back in the US if their paperwork and travel wasn’t on the up-and-up. I brought my concerns to my immediate supervisor as the evidence mounted that — surprise! — four months isn’t much time to plan an international trip and gathering for 40 to 50 people. For all of my troubles, I was accused of disloyalty and that I was after his job. “I will never help promote you to senior program officer!,” he yelled.
I knew even before Noah’s birth that I needed work that was more of a mesh between my interests in education reform and social justice, as well as with my teaching and writing outside of my full-time work. The problems with putting together this Mumbai gathering-within-a-gathering aggravated latent tensions about my future and the future of the program. I gave my immediate boss my verbal notice in November ’03, and also made it known that I couldn’t on the trip to Mumbai, not with limited childcare options and my health issues at the time.
The story should end here, but it gets more bizarre. A week into the new year, and only ten days before the Mumbai trip, my immediate supervisor had a bipolar-disorder induced nervous breakdown — in the middle of a staff meeting about the trip. He had apparently flipped out the day before in a meeting about the state of the program with the CEO of our organization. Within days of him leaving our meeting flushed and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he left a weird voicemail message for me at work apologizing for the previous four months of stress and telling me that he “loved me.” In tracing the number, I knew that he had called me from the psychiatric ward of a local hospital.
This was all occurring while I was interviewing for a number of jobs, and really close to getting offered two of them. My boss’s boss’s boss (the middle boss had retired in June) now needed to find someone to go to Mumbai to handle the gathering. Since she had stopped talking to me in November, she obviously decided to not ask me about going on the trip at the last minute. She sent someone from another project, one wholly unfamiliar with New Voices or the particulars of this meeting and the World Social Forum. Our two junior staff members also went on the trip, both saddened by recent events with our immediate boss, my impending departure, and angry with me because I couldn’t tell them everything that was going on at the time.
As it turned out, the trip wasn’t a complete disaster. But it was a partial one in many ways. The staff at the hotel in Mumbai, with obvious disdain for the women of New Voices, kept changing the nature of the services agreed to in the original contract while attempting to charge them more for those services. The New Voices Fellows, as expected, didn’t really gather as a group at any point during the ten-day period in Mumbai. They were on their own at the World Social Forum, with many of them overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people and activities and with no specific agenda related to their work in mind.
The worst thing of all was that at least two Fellows couldn’t get back into the US after the Mumbai trip. Both had decided to tack on additional international travel post-Mumbai, to countries on the State Department’s terrorist watch list. One made it in within a week, the other after Sens. Kennedy and Kerry wrote to the State Department about her case, a full four months later.
By then, I was happily at work on publishing Fear of a “Black” America and in my job duties working on college access and success issues. There was a part of me that wished things had worked out better, for me and for the rest of the New Voices staff. There was another part of me that realized that everything happens for a reason, even the most senseless of things. It just wasn’t the right time, place or planning for a trip to Mumbai. With more time to prepare and with more resources, it could’ve been a great trip with lots of good memories. I’m also sure, though, that even with the best planning and knowledge, incidents like the multiple terror attacks last week would’ve been unavoidable if they had occurred during the World Social Forum five years ago.
Twenty-five years ago this week was the last time I was mugged. The mugging did more physical damage to the four muggers than they did to me — my ex-stepfather’s karate training did pay off, I guess. This episode set off a larger and meandering spiritual journey for me that brought me to Christianity, albeit a complicated understanding of it. It came with the pain of thinking about whether I’d ever have a future, was worth saving, and whether anyone else thought that I was worth anything at all.
For whatever the reason, December of ’83 was spent without food in the house. My mother either hadn’t received her welfare check on time or there weren’t enough food stamps to put food in the house. This was after a weekend where I failed to find my father Jimme for the first time in nearly a year. We were in dire straits food-wise again. My mother went to Maurice for money to buy groceries. I’d rather had gone to Alex or Nes for grocery money than to my stepfather. He came to me and gave me twenty dollars to go to the store. Because it was Monday and after 7 pm, my only option was Waldbaum’s on East Prospect Avenue, around the corner from my first crush’s apartment building and near the Metro-North station, a mile and a half walk each way. “Donald, do not lose this money. I don’t want no excuses. I want all my change back. If you have to, catch the bus,” Maurice said to me. I had already missed the last 7 bus going into Mount Vernon, and I knew that by the time I’d finish shopping that I would miss the last 7 for the return. I could’ve also waited for the 40 bus to White Plains, get off at North Columbus and East Lincoln, and walk the eight blocks to 616, though.
After shopping for Great Northern beans and rice and some beef neck bones and spinach, which cost $6.50 by the way, I walked out of Waldbaum’s with the intent of cutting down Park Avenue to East Lincoln and avoiding most of the potential for a mugging. But it seemed that Maurice’s God had other plans for me. I barely got to the corner of Prospect and Park before I was ambushed by four guys, all around my age and size. Part of it was my fault, as that corner was poorly lit and the Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips that held that corner had closed the year before, another casualty of the recent recession. I saw other people around, but none of them came to my aid.
So here it was that I was jumped by a bunch of dumb kids with dumb parents trying to beat me up and take thirteen dollars from me. My first thought was about how stupid these kids were. Didn’t they know that I hardly had any money, that it wasn’t worth the effort to take so little? Weren’t there easier prey, older folk with more money to steal from? That thought quickly passed as I began to defend myself. Apparently I must’ve learned something from my idiot stepfather, because I was able to kick, punch, and bite my way out of the mugging at first. I kicked one person in the balls, bit another’s arm, punched someone else in the jaw. I kept going until someone was able to hold me long enough to reach into my pocket and take the money. Then they took off, running across one of the bridges into the South Side.
Grocery bag torn to shreds, food on the ground, shirttail hanging out, I took off after them, now thinking only about what I’d face at home if I didn’t come in with Maurice’s money. They went east up First Street, turned right up South Fulton, and then left on East Third. With groceries in tow, I just couldn’t keep up. I had lost them by the time I got to East Third and South Columbus. I walked home, thinking of the punishment that awaited me. But then another thought came over me, not one of fear, but one of boldness. I realized that after what I’d gone through with Maurice in the past that he’d already done his worst to me. Short of killing me or putting me in the hospital, there wasn’t anything he could do to me that I hadn’t experienced already. At least I was coming home with food.
It was after 9 by the time I got back from Waldbaum’s and my mugging. Mom was worried, actually worried, while Maurice was just pissed.
“I told you not to lose my money. You’re gonna pay me back every cent you owe me,” he said.
I thought about saying something smart, something like “I owe you? How much do you think you owe me, my Mom, your kids, my family, you stupid asshole?” I wisely kept my mouth shut, saying that I’d get his money for him the next time I saw Jimme.
“You better, or it’s your ass!,” Maurice said.
My mother was more concerned about what happened during the actual fight. I told her about what happened.
“Why didn’t you catch the bus?,” my mother asked.
“Because I didn’t want to spend any more of his money that I had to!,” I said.
“You see someone you know?”
“I think one of them’s named Corey,” I said.
Corey and his older brother lived in the equally impoverished building next door, 630East Lincoln. It was home to drunks, loose women, and semi-suburban drug dealers. Corey’s older brother was in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade with me at Holmes. I hadn’t seen either of them much since elementary school, but I recognized him immediately as the one who said, “Give me the money, muthafucka!” Those were some ugly kids, inside and out.
In an unbelievable turn, my mother took me the next morning to the Mount Vernon Police Station, its juvenile division, to have me press charges, look at mug shots and ID my attackers. Maybe we should’ve gone downstairs and talked to some cops about Maurice as well. It didn’t take me long to ID Corey and his henchmen, all of whom had juvenile records. Before I left, they had hauled Corey into the station for booking. I was glad to see that my fists had done some damage to his face.
I went to school that day with my mother and ended up signing in around sixth period. The first person who came up to me to ask what happened was Craig. He saw me as I was leaving Vice Principal Carapella’s office, on my way to gym. We talked for several minutes about what had happened. He gave me a high-five for how I handled the situation. It was maybe the second or third time in three years that anyone cared to ask me about what was going on with me outside of school. I told some of my other classmates what happened in Geometry class, as Craig had told a few others about our conversation. From my past and future crush to the Italian Club, all of my classmates seemed to care that I was all right. That whole twenty-four-hour period was overwhelming. Fighting off four muggers and chasing them for over a mile, my mother’s response to take me to the police and their tracking down of Corey, to my classmates’ general concern left me emotionally exhausted. I spent most of that evening at 616 asleep.
It would turn out to be the last time that I’d experience a mugging or a fight of any kind other than with my stepfather. Four muggings and robberies in all, at nine and twelve, and two at thirteen. It took about three weeks, but I tracked Jimme down, and, after collecting some money for the holiday season, gave Maurice his thirteen dollars. Within a couple of months, Corey and his gang had all gone to juvenile detention for what they had done to me.
It would also be the last straw for me as far as my identifying myself as a Hebrew-Israelite. I learned more about the human condition between the fifth and sixth of December than I had at any time before the summer before I started college. My classmates had shown a serious sign of maturity upon learning about my mugging. My mother took more initiative on my behalf in taking me to the police than I’d seen her take in years. The police actually cared about my case and didn’t play around in tracking down my assailants. I found that I was able to defend myself, something that I rarely thought possible.
I guess I also learned a small lesson in redemption. The fact that I had even a modicum of support was very different from the way my classmates might’ve treated me if Corey and company had gone after me two years before. Of course, I wouldn’t have been at Waldbaum’s by myself shopping that late in the evening two years before either. I must’ve done something right in middle school and in ninth grade, enough to where I redeemed myself as a decent human being in the eyes of my classmates. Despite this, I didn’t trust it, not completely. I realized that things would get back to normal in a week or two, and I’d go back to my loner role. And while I was happy that my mother came to my aid, I knew that this was a rare event. Expecting my mother to be there to support me was really too much to ask.
Most of all, I was pissed with Maurice and Maurice’s God. Maurice had sold us a bill of goods, and by the end of ’83 I wasn’t buying it anymore. Chanukah was just before my mugging. Yet we didn’t even have candles for the menorah, much less gifts celebrating the holiday. You could’ve argued that since we were among the Lost Tribes that Chanukah didn’t necessarily apply to us. The Lost Tribes didn’t make it back to Judea in time for the days of ancient Greece and Rome. That didn’t matter to me. If we really were Hebrew-Israelites, then we should’ve honored all of the major holidays. That Maurice was begrudging to his own children in putting food on the table, forget about giving them gifts, was enough for me to see that this was a religion for fools. Eating only kosher foods, living the Hebrew-Israelite lifestyle was quite expensive. Even with consistent income from welfare, we still had days without enough food in the house because of the kosher food issue.
Maurice worked, but no one benefited from the fruits of his labor. My stepfather spent more and more time away from 616. I’d see him sometimes at one of the local Chinese restaurants, eating everything they served, most of it as kosher as fried eel. I discovered that he’d knocked up a young Hebrew-Israelite woman within months of my mother becoming pregnant with Sarai. Nosy me also found out in ’82 that he’d been forging my mother’s signature to cash checks in her name. Chemical Bank (now JP Morgan Chase) had to call to verify my mother’s signature, and Maurice was on the verge of being arrested for fraud or forgery. Too bad he wasn’t.
This man was a lying bastard beyond belief. And knowing that made me think that the God that Maurice had brought into our lives was a bastard as well. “How could Yahweh leave us out here with this man, this fool, this evil person?,” I thought over and over again during the holiday season. I wanted God to answer my questions, to explain to me why our lives were so horrible when we worshiped him. Why did we fall into welfare, why did my mother marry Maurice, why was I such a mess? Despite my recent episode of bravery and receipt of support, all I felt in my heart of hearts was conflict, turmoil over my eternal life. I was no longer a Hebrew-Israelite all right. I had no identity, no belief system, no spiritual foundation from which to move forward with my life. I was a stranger in a stranger’s land, even a stranger to myself.
In a post from last December, I talked about Chanukah, Christmas and my fourteenth birthday spent contemplating and planning my own death. Sounds a bit melodramatic — in a parallel universe, I’m probably an actor. But I was serious. It was this little incident, this mugging and how everyone in my life responded to it that pushed me to consider my own worth, to others and to myself. Not my abuse, not my first crush, not even a sham of a religion that my family practiced. A mugging. Go figure.