I experienced a series of firsts the weekend and Monday before Thanksgiving ’87. I got blitzed, I took my first airplane trip, and I felt completely disillusioned about my life as a college student and a Black man. It was the worst of times, or so I thought at the time. Homelessness at the beginning of my sophomore year kind of trumped the travails of my freshman year at Pitt.
But November ’87 was still painful and shameful. The downward spiral of my first semester started with a burglary. While I took a bathroom break at my computer lab job in the Cathedral of Learning, someone stole my Calculus textbook. I felt violated, especially since it happened at work. It made me more distrustful of the people I worked with and of Pitt students in general.
Crush #2’s response to my letter to her about her emasculating comments about me back in the summer made matters worse. Her letter, dated November 2, was in purple ink, with heart-shapes and circles for dots over “i”s. Reading her letter was like reading the liner notes off of a Prince album in those days. Like the song “I Would Die 4 U,” Crush # 2 had decided to limit her English skills to the ’80s equivalent of text messaging, a real revolution on both their parts. I remember she started, “Thank U 4 your card 2day,” an insult to my intelligence. She wrote indirectly that she did like me at one point in time, but added “but we’re in college now . . . around lots of nu people” She admitted that I was her and her sister’s topic of conversation back in July, but “I needed 2 get over that.” She hinted that I shouldn’t write her again, and that was it. No apologies, no attempt to understand how I felt.
After Crush #2’s wonderful, text-message-like response, I all but stopped going to class. I missed most of my classes the month of November, only showing up for exams or if my mood had let up long enough to allow me to function like my more typical self. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I allowed my dorm mates to cheer me up by getting a couple of cases of Busch Beer. These were the Pounder type, sixteen-ounce cans. After getting Mike to get us the cases, we went back to Aaron’s room and started drinking. I downed four cans in fifteen minutes, and was drunk within a half hour. I started throwing around the word “bitch.” Anytime anyone mentioned Crush #2’s name, or any woman’s name for that matter, and one of us said the B-word, we drank some beer. I was drunk, but not so drunk I didn’t know what was going on around me. That night, my geeky acquaintances started calling me “Don” and “Don Ho,” since I was the life of that illegal party.
I barely recovered from my bender in time to go home for Thanksgiving that Monday, November 23. I was in a fog. I still managed a few firsts. That trip back home was my first on an airplane. I took a Continental flight from the old and decrepit blue hangar that was Pittsburgh Airport into Newark, with the late Craig “Ironhead” Hayward on the flight sitting in first-class. He was a senior and the starting running back for the Pitt Panthers. Besides being a great player, he was a bit of a party animal and had gotten into fights with Pitt Police. I remember the student newspaper having him in their police blotter, allegedly body-slamming a patron at the O while being arrested for a being a disorderly drunk. Yet in his sober, not-with-his-peeps state, he was a normal guy who knew how to be polite, even on this flight.
I also missed my first flight, and ended up waiting six hours at Newark for another seat. That was my first time in first-class, and it was wonderful. I also went to my first college basketball game at the old Fitzgerald Fieldhouse. With Charles Smith, Jerome Lane and Demetrius Gore, they were a really good team with a really unimaginative coach. I still blame Smith for causing my Knicks to lose to the Chicago Bulls in the ’93 Eastern Conference Finals with his hiccups at the end of Game 5.
It was the first series of events in which I couldn’t use music, sports or my imagination to escape. I hadn’t realized that I was attempting to escape myself, not just my immediate past or Mount Vernon. I spent the last three weeks of that semester depressed, as if draped in a fog, unable to face the world. Still, I fully understood that I couldn’t drink my way out of my problems. I was obsessed with a woman that felt sorry for me, had friends at Pitt who weren’t really my friends, and was homesick for a place that really wasn’t mine to call home.
Most of all, after five years of hiding my emotions and opinions, I no longer knew how to be me. As a result, I didn’t know how to be the man I should’ve been, even at the ripe old age of eighteen. I finished up the year wondering how to find myself, how to not spend the rest of my time at Pitt sullen and sober, as if I lived in a war-torn state. Luckily, thinking about Crush #2 as a “triflin’ ass” was, for better and worse, a good start toward recovery for me. That allowed me to find a place for all of my rage and sadness, to get back to being a good student again. That temporary turn to the dark side was another first for me.