As February draws to a close, I’m reminded of the fact that, like now, the last days of February in ’89 and ’90 for me represented small yet telling changes in my life. Like buying my first CD player in February ’90. It changed my relationship to music forever, as I never fell behind any trend I wanted to keep up with again. It gave me more opportunities to experiment with and experience jazz, smooth jazz (formerly known as jazz fusion), rap, Latin music, and even grunge. That Aiwa player lasted me through all of grad school, and made it easy to forget that there was ever a time when I didn’t have access to music.
But enough with more pleasant experiences in late February. Overall, the two and a half years between my five days of homelessness at Pitt and a semester of financial woes and the start of grad school were fun times, but were stressful times, with a steep learning curve to boot. Obviously, they weren’t as stressful in most ways as now — but they reflect how my world view began to grow up in the months after recovering from being on the edge of dropping out from Pitt.
By the end of February ’89, I found myself in a bit over my head as a student and worker. It was manageable only because I had already begun the process of leaving all things 616 and Mount Vernon at 616 and in Mount Vernon when I wasn’t home or on one of my weekly phone call listening to my griping mother. Even though I could see that the day was coming when my stepfather would no longer be my stepfather, I had decided to leave that situation be — unless he was attempting to hurt my mother again, of course. It was a pattern that would continue beyond my mother’s second marriage until the summer of ’91, when I had made the switch to Pittsburgh as home. It’s funny to think about now. Having pushed all of my past, my feelings and thoughts about Mount Vernon to the back of my brain stem during those school years. Putting aside what was going on at Pitt during the summers I worked at home.
I did slip up sometimes. I paid a heavy price when I slipped up in Mount Vernon, especially around my mother. I had to explain away my anger, changes in language (it was harder for me to code switch back then), and education whenever I displayed the Pitt version of me. It scared her that I was “puttin’ on airs,” as if I could hide years of accelerated education. It was hard enough hiding my rage against all that had happened at home after ’81.
At Pitt, I acted as if I didn’t have a past before the summer of ’87, so my slip ups were pretty rare. But when I did slip up, it usually involved a woman at some level. The spring of ’89 was no different. I had already set myself up for a rough semester. Sixteen credits of courses in existential philosophy, macroeconomics, Shakespeare, the second half of Biology, and the writing seminar for history majors. The last was a course I’d been advised to wait to take until my senior year. On top of that, I was working for Pitt’s computer labs on a near full-time schedule. From the end of January through the second week in April, I averaged thirty-six hours a week. And all for $4.15 an hour. We were short-staffed, and after a semester of near starvation, I needed the money. That I had a 4 pm to midnight shift at the Cathedral of Learning labs on Mondays and an 8 am Tuesday macroecon lecture on Tuesdays didn’t help — I rarely made it to that class. Other than the occasional outing or movie, I had no social life for most of that jam-packed semester.
It was during my work days that I began working with P. She was a twenty-six-year-old peroxide-blond party girl who’d come back to school and ended up an Information Systems major. Sometimes I ended up paired with her on my Monday evening shifts. I liked talking to her during those shifts to pass the time when I couldn’t concentrate on evolutionary theory in second-semester Bio or didn’t feel like reading more existential philosophy. But I wasn’t interested in her. Despite the fact that she was the first White woman I’d met in Pittsburgh that had anything other than a flat butt and that she’d occasionally said something interesting, P. was out-of-sight and mind when my shift was over.
Three weeks into the semester, the reason we became so short-staffed had thrown a party at his apartment on North Craig in North Oakland. This co-worker had taken a job to work for AT&T somewhere in Virginia, a job that would start at the beginning of March. He wanted to celebrate, so he invited all of us over. I liked the man, so I went. I got there and it was as insane a scene as I’d seen in the dorms my freshman year or with my father at the bars in the city. The place was barely lit. It had this moody dark red glow in his living room, with every other room lit for making out. Booze and boozers were everywhere, and almost everyone was in some phase of inebriation.
I got in, and P. started talking to me all crazy, as if we’d been in conversation about our sexual preferences in the past. I pulled away from her, had conversations with my former computer lab boss and a few co-workers, had a customary drink—my first beer since just before Thanksgiving ’87—and left.
At least I was trying to. As I began putting on my coat and scarf, P. came out and put her arms around my neck and her left leg in between mine, pushing me up against the foyer wall in the process.
“You can’t leave now,” she said, her eyes glazed and bloodshot.
I didn’t say anything, I just tried to get her arms from around me.
“I know you’re attracted to me . . . that you like this White girl,” P. said as she tried to kiss me.
“You’re drunk!,” I said in response as I finally managed to unhook her from my neck and body.
“I might be drunk, but you can still get laid,” she said as I shook my head and left.
I assumed that P. had too much to drink and that what happened at the party was the end of it. It wasn’t, not by a long shot. All through February and early March she worked hard to bait me into conversations that were all about sexual innuendo. During one Saturday project when we were installing new PCs and new software, P. called me a “useless prick.” I responded, “Just because you think you have a nice butt doesn’t mean I’m supposed to be attracted to you!” I pretty much tried to avoid her after that.
That was hard to do, because I worked so many hours that semester, and because our new boss was a high school friend of P. Once I finally cut my hours so I could concentrate on being a student again, at the beginning of April, my boss, who knew what was going on, told me that I had a “bad attitude” and that I needed to settle up with P.
My response was to resign my position before I found myself fired or accused of sexual harassment by the very person who was harassing me. I sent a detailed email at the end of that semester to my boss’ bosses about the incidents with P., about the lack of persons of color on staff, about the state of computing labs at Pitt in general. It made me a bit of a muckraker, but I noticed that there were more students of color on staff when I came back to Pitt that fall.
It didn’t really help my view of White women either. Not that I had formed any real opinion about them. It did make me realize how difficult it would be to be in a mixed relationship, especially in the conservative world of Western Pennsylvania. The race issue and all of the innuendo and stereotypes would likely get in the way, unless both folks in the relationship were far more enlightened than a twenty-six-year-old party girl and a nineteen-year-old discovering himself for the first time. I wasn’t even ready for a relationship with my nerdy yet attractive Black female friends. Anything more complicated, even a one-night stand with a White woman, was the equivalent of achieving peace in the Middle East, that’s how alien it seemed to me at the time.
Still, I was kind of thankful to be done with computing labs and being seen only as a “computer guy.” I had changed my major to history, been journaling on my own for the first time since I was fifteen, began hanging out with a diverse group of friends and acquaintances, and discovered myself as attractive for the first time in years. I left Pitt more content than pissed about what happened that semester. I left that semester knowing that I had the capacity to handle any situation, even the adult ones, as an adult.