This week thirteen years ago I was in serious turmoil. I had just turned in the second draft of my dissertation, one that I had spent the previous three weeks working on. In that time, the draft had expanded thirty pages, mostly because of Joe Trotter’s insistence on my use of his proletarian thesis in my thesis, even though the main concern for me was my argument on multiculturalism. If that was the only issue, there wouldn’t even be a need for me to write this. As it was, it was a battle over my very survival as an almost-done PhD candidate with a tenured professor who seemed to be on the verge of pushing me out of the program. All because he discovered that I was half his age the year before.
It’s been a full decade since we moved from Pittsburgh to Silver Spring, Maryland and the DC area, at least as of tomorrow. I guess that we should celebrate. Given how expensive it is to live here, it would be hard to celebrate without shelling out some serious cash. Still, it’s been a mostly good ten years for me and my wife (and my son, who’s only six) while living as Marylanders in the land of milk and honey. There are other places I’d strongly consider living, and not just in the US. But it’s a pretty short list — including Seattle, Chicago, Philly, North Carolina, the Bay Area, Canada (Toronto and Vancouver), the UK, and New Zealand. Overall, living in this area has reflected our change in socioeconomic status and income and life aspirations over the past decade.
This wasn’t the first time I’d spent a significant chunk of time living in the DC area. In ’95, as part of my doctoral thesis research on Black Washington, DC, I moved to DC. I lived in Shepherd Park, just two blocks from the DC/Maryland border, for nearly two months. I’d been to DC before, in ’92, ’93, and twice in ’94, but this was my first extended stay. Despite my shared house experience and constant research at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Charles Sumner School Museum (DC Public Schools’ archives), the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center (Howard University), and the Columbia Historical Society (among others), I had a wonderful time down here meeting new folks and enjoying the sights.
Still, even that and my other seven trips to DC after that two-month extended stay didn’t fully prepare me for living here as a permanent resident. Unlike my previous trips and stay, I was coming down to the DC area as an engaged man. Two days before we moved out of my future wife’s apartment off North Negley Avenue in East Liberty, we were officially engaged. I made a point of picking out a ring a week before the move. I went to a jewelry store in suburban Pittsburgh, picked out an engagement ring that I could afford, and brought it back to our place. Angelia was there, sweaty and tired from packing up the bedroom, wearing her stain-prone yellow tee-shirt. That’s the moment I chose to bend my right knee and propose.
So, the move to DC was wrapped around both taking a new job and beginning a new life with a woman I fell in love with. So much so that I was willing to give up the remnants of my single-ness to marry her. It was also about trying to find a culture and social middle ground between the po-dunk-ness of the ‘Burgh and the overwhelming and nasty pace of the New York City area. For both Angelia and me, the DC area seemed to be the right fit. A diverse city — one far more diverse that Pittsburgh — and a powerful one as well, one where almost anyone could find a job paying at least $30,000 a year. This was the place for us, for me, for the next phase of our lives to unfold.
Even with all of the advantages that four combined degrees and good job experience brought, the DC area has proved to be a heck of a hard place to work and to maintain an income necessary to both pay off debt and have substantial savings. Even now, the place we pay over $1,800 a month for would likely go for $750 or $800 in Pittsburgh. (Of course, it would probably go for $3,500 in Harlem). Noah’s childcare would’ve paid off my student loans in total (with about $10,000 left over), would’ve been a great downpayment for a house, or would’ve bought us a good-sized Mercedes. The area’s just an expensive place for a family to make it good.
But if that were the only issue that we faced, it wouldn’t be that big a challenge. DC, however, does offer other kinds of challenges. Like around the kinds of jobs one can get in the area. For all of the ambiance of the area, it’s not New York. There are more kinds of nonprofit jobs in this area than there are in NYC, but fewer management-level positions. There are tons of government positions here, but most of them cluster around entry or slightly above entry-level. Corporate jobs are fewest in middling positions, and it helps to have a law degree for many of the upper-level jobs.
For me, it has been both a wonderful and frustrating experience as a nonprofit manager and administrator for most of the ten years that I’ve been here. Wonderful because I’ve worked with some good people on important initiatives. Frustrating because the money does eventually run out, the teams are broken up and dispersed, and the work does end.
Plus, this area’s becoming more and more like New York City used to be with each passing year. Crazy drivers, rude pedestrians, bizarre crimes, overpriced and undercooked food at restaurants. There’s a long lines for everything, and too much jostling for everything from Sade tickets to free pizza at the Taste of Bethesda event. The hustle and bustle of the city, of the Metro system, of downtown Silver Spring, reminds me more and more of Midtown Manhattan in the ’80s. It leaves me tired just watching it most of the time.
That doesn’t mean that I’m ready to move, at least not this second. Noah’s school district — Montgomery County Public Schools — is one of the best school districts in the country. The amount that comes out of our paychecks in taxes kind of shows how this could be so, and we don’t pay property tax. Angelia is more socially connected to the DC area that I am. And I want a situation that makes sense for all of us, not just me. So here we stay, at least for now. What the future holds, I’m not entirely sure. What I am sure of, though, is that if there’s another move, it’ll be to a place with the dynamism of the DC area without all of its expenses and toxicity.
Betrayal can be like an atomic blast. Even when expected. Even when you’ve steeled yourself for the impact, the light, the heat, the electromagnetic pulse of betrayal. It leaves you disoriented, disillusioned and in need of someone else’s help for perspective. There are a couple of examples of betrayal that left me wondering about the goodness of humans, that explain my not-so-insignificant amount of timidity around some people sometimes.
Like when I found out about my ex-stepfather’s idiotic and deceitful plan to make me a man by having a neighborhood thug rob me of $10. It was June 25 of ’82, the last day of seventh grade and the first day of my summer of abuse. My mother, my brothers Maurice and Yiscoc, and Darren’s Clearview School counselor Mrs. Karen Holtslag were at Wilson Woods Pool. My mother and Mrs. Holtslag were there to discuss Darren’s “progress” and his psychological needs. Me and my two younger brothers were there to have fun. My mother gave me a $10 bill to buy some snacks at the concession stand for everyone. As I walked over dreaming of hot dogs and mini-pizzas, careless me had the bill only half in my right hand. An older kid magically materialized, ran by and snatched the money from my hand.
When my stepfather found out about my tragic error, he demanded that I tell him exactly who stole the money. “I’m not sure. I think it’s some guy named ‘Pookie’,” I said. Maurice walked over to me, poked me in the chest, and told me to get the money back from Pookie in two weeks. I said that “I can get the money from Jimme,” but he didn’t want to hear that. I pointed out that Pookie was much bigger than me, and that I didn’t know where he lived. Maurice told me to “find out where he lives!” Otherwise I would get a “whuppin’.” After eleven days, I received my whuppin’, plus kicks to my ribs, welts on my right leg and butt, at least a half-dozen punched to my face, a busted lip, and a knot on my head. I think I might’ve also had a concussion. There were at least five other incidents of varying intensity between July 6 and August 1 that summer.
About a year later, I saw Maurice and Pookie in the middle of a conversation near the Vernon Woods projects. I was on my way home from grocery shopping in nearby Pelham. I saw them from a distance, and figured that they didn’t see me. So I hid behind a tree across the street from the Getty gas station and a closed grocery store, where Maurice and Pookie talked. They were laughing and joking around, having what appeared to be a friendly conversation. I thought that I was mistaken, but how could I forget who my mugger was? My stepfather, who knew where we were that day in June ’82, had paid Pookie with my mother’s money to mug me at the pool. My carelessness had only made it easier for Pookie to do his job. It was my stepfather’s warped way of making me a man. What he did was steal my childhood.
Another example involved the way some of my former classmates acted toward me from the moment we threw our caps into the air when we graduated in ’87. Right after the ceremony at Memorial Field, it started. I’d walk down the street to the store, see, say Gordon or Kiam, say “Hi,” and get no response at all. The few times I bumped into Tomika, Ms. Red Bone would stare straight at me, then straight through me, all as I said “Hi.” She just kept on walking, as if I were less than a ghost.
By the beginning of August I honestly thought that these people, my classmates for so long, were showing their true colors. They just didn’t like me, not me because I’d been a Hebrew-Israelite or me because I was poor or me because I listened to Mr. Mister more than I did to Luther. It was all about me, something within me that they detested. Every time it happened, it made me feel low and left me in doubt about myself.
“You can’t pay any attention to that. They’re all just jealous,” E said when I told her about the ghost treatment over lunch one day. She and I worked for General Foods (now part of Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown that summer.
“Of what? Of me?,” I asked in disbelief.
“It’s because you’re not trying to be anybody except yourself,” she said.
“That’s a good theory,” I thought, but I didn’t really believe it. E was fully in my corner, and much more obvious about it than anyone else.
This went on for two summers and a holiday season, between June ’87 and December ’88. By the middle of my sophomore year, though, it didn’t matter, because I started to realize that the many of the people I went through Humanities and to MVHS with didn’t matter either. It got to the point where the silent treatment I was getting was downright laughable. I mean, it wasn’t as if these folks had been dear friends and then turned on me. The way I saw it, they were assholes, not much different from my stepfather.
My life in no way compares to literally surviving Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Chernobyl, for that matter. But there are emotional atomic blasts whose long-term effects on us body, mind and spirit can last for a lifetime or even for more than a generation. We can truck in all the non-irradiated earth, grass and tree we want. We have to dig up the radioactive in our lives before we can plant fresh dirt and seeds. Thankfully, I managed to do that years before Noah was born.
Most early Augusts in my life have been uneventful. Hot, hazy, humid and sticky, but otherwise boring with nothing dramatic happening. Except for my years of suffering at 616 and in Mount Vernon, New York. The month of August in the years between ’82 and ’89 were full of drama, bizarre and oh so typical at the same time.
No month of August demonstrated that better than in ’83. It was the summer that followed our first months on welfare. Man, it was a period of great disillusionment. I didn’t want to be seen with what my wife calls FS. Of course, now, the government gives folks an EBT card to reduce the stigma. But back then, I’d pick and choose when to use them, just so that classmates like Crush #1 wouldn’t see me with Food Stamps in hand.
It was also a month in which I began to help with taking care of my sister Sarai. She was a sickly newborn thanks mostly to my mother and stepfather not doing their jobs as parents. Apparently they both had the sickle cell trait and had given Sarai sickle cell anemia. By the middle of the summer, Sarai was obviously in trouble. She hardly gained any weight, all of her food had to be fortified with iron, and she only had “three strands of hair,”as my mother put it. It was more like a few dozen in three spots on Sarai’s scalp. She always needed help. My mother would say to me, “See, that why you shouldn’t wish for an abortion,” as if I was supposed to feel guilty because Sarai was sick. As if I had anything to do with her being here. If anything, she should’ve felt guilty about bringing a child with Sarai’s condition into our idiotic family. I just gave my mother a weak smile whenever she’d say something stupid like that.
My mother decided at the beginning of August that it would be a good idea to celebrate Maurice’s thirty-third birthday (August 3) and Sarai making it to six months old. It was a great feast of grilled chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, macaroni and potato salad, fruit salad and lemon and chocolate cake, potato chips and Kool-Aid and lemonade. I would’ve been in a good mood to eat too, except for the fact that we were celebrating the fat slob’s thirty-third birthday. It pissed me off to no end that me and Darren had to shop and help with the task of grilling food for the asshole to eat a rare feast.
What should have been a fun gathering was one of more surreal experiences I would ever have. My mother had invited my Uncle Sam to the picnic at Wilson’s Woods, along with Dennis, one of Maurice’s friends, the best man at the wedding five years before. Neither of them wanted to be there, but my uncle was beside himself with anger. He hardly ate, which should’ve been a red flag to my mother. She didn’t seem to understand why her brother would be upset that she was spending a week’s worth of food stamps to throw a party for her abusive husband and a daughter with sickle cell anemia. To his credit, he stayed to help us clean up. He didn’t come around for another family event until I graduated from high school four years later.
It was strange to know that after all that had happened, my mother still threw a birthday party for a person that she despised. I hated the man as well, so much so that I’d developed a minor stomach ulcer soon after the picnic celebration. But I thought more about what motivated my mother to do something so bizarre as to throw a picnic party for a man who had abused her, had cheated on her, and had committed forgery and fraud by signing her blank checks to cover his adultery expenses. Was it fear or some sort of Stockholm Syndrome? Was it love, unconditional, accepting-and-enduring-everything-love? Or was it a form of subterfuge? Did my mother throw a party because she wanted to be outside and have a picnic, for herself and for Sarai, and used Maurice’s birthday as an excuse?
Today, my stupid ex-stepfather turns fifty-nine. His fate continues to reflect badly on him as he approaches his sixties. One of his legs was amputated earlier this year, a side-effect of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, a horrible diet, lack of exercise, and kidney failure. I don’t think I ever had enough hate to wish the kind of decline that Maurice has experienced over the past sixteen years. But then again, none of this is really about him. I’ve worked hard to forgive the man. Still, that doesn’t mean Maurice isn’t an idiot. And watching how he’s lived his life over the years is a lesson in how foolishness, when mixed with poverty and domestic violence, can tear people apart, including the perpetrators of such. That’s why it’s important to forgive.