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Me (at 185 lbs) & Mark James (Cropped), Pan-African Graduate & Professional Student Association, University of Pittsburgh, February 27, 1993. Lois Nembhard.

My last semester at the University of Pittsburgh as an undergrad (Spring ’91), I took a one-credit Weight Training course. I wanted to learn how to use free weights and weight machines so that I could build muscle tone. I wanted a course that would be easy for me to pass, one in which I could burn up my anxieties while awaiting word about my graduate school future.

Over the course of the semester, I did build muscle. I weighed 175 pounds in January. By my last class on the twenty-third of April, I weighed 183 pounds. I was proud of the fact that the eight-pound gain was all muscle.

But with the end of the school year and undergrad at Pitt came a crisis. Even though I’d start work on the twenty-ninth with the PAARC project at Western Psychiatric as a full-time employee, I wouldn’t receive a paycheck that Friday, the third of May. Instead, I’d have to work for three weeks before receiving pay. After a year of underemployment as a student (I only worked ten or twelve hours a week because I couldn’t pay the other half of my tuition via student loans and keep my work-study allotment at the same time), I thought I was finally over the hump.

It was bad enough that despite my degree, which qualified me for $8.50 an hour, Andrea Hegedus and the other PAARC  bosses only saw fit to pay me at $5.20 per hour. Now I knew that I’d have to figure out how to live on $30 for the next three weeks.

The first week went well enough. I brought lunch from home, consisting of a dried-up hamburger on wheat bread one day, leftover spaghetti the next, and a couple of days in which I didn’t eat lunch at all. That was because I saved my baked chicken and spaghetti leftovers for dinner. I also conserved money by walking the two and a half miles between my apartment on the East Liberty/Shadyside neighborhood border and the Oakland neighborhood in which Pitt and Western Psychiatric are located. Each way.

My Route To/From Work, 6007 Penn Cir S, Pittsburgh, PA 15206 to Atwood St & Forbes Ave – Google Maps, May 12, 2011.

By the end of the second week, I was down to my last $5. It was the tenth of May, and I had another week before payday. It was bad enough I walked five miles to and from work every day and skipped lunch all that second week. The PAARC folks used me to do everything from going to Giant Eagle to buy half-and-half for their coffee to running across Pitt’s campus hunting for books and making 3,000 copies of X and 2,200 copies of Y. Mind you, they hired me to design databases and input data. Surprise, surprise, I had a headache at the end of every work day.

That Friday, I got a call from my old job at Westchester County Department of Federal Programs. It was my boss from the previous summer and holiday season, Joe Carbone, wanting to know if I’d come work for him another summer. Working for him had been a wonderful experience. But the reason I stayed in Pittsburgh was because I wanted to explore the option of grad school as far as possible, even if it meant getting doors slammed in my face. I couldn’t do that while working in White Plains and living at 616 all summer. So, reluctantly, I said, “No, I can’t do it this year,” knowing that I’d get an earful from Mom once I told her my decision.

The one and only time in my life I dined on these, May 12-16, 1991. Source: http://www.stevegarufi.com/ramen1.jpg

It seemed a ridiculous decision two days later. I was down to my final $2.10. I went to Giant Eagle that Sunday, bought a six-pack of ramen noodles for a dollar, and two packs of Kool-Aid for forty cents more. I had enough to by a can of soda, maybe some candy, and that was it until the seventeenth of May.

What compounded my confounding decision was that I remained sixth on the teaching assistant fellowship waiting list in Pitt’s History Department. What made that worse was the fact that no fewer than four students had passed me on the list since I’d first seen it four weeks earlier, all White and male.

Somehow, though, I had faith beyond my circumstances that things were going to work out just fine. I guess all those years of malnutrition at 616 helped me. By the week after my first paycheck for the summer, grad school at Pitt was a done deal, and I had food to eat again.

I weighed myself about five days after my starvation diet at the student athletic center. I weighed 167 pounds, which meant that my weight had dropped to nearly 160 pounds by May 17, and had only begun to recover. I could see nearly all of my ribs, front and back, not to mention my collarbone.

By the Wednesday after three weeks of little and no food, none of that ordeal mattered. For the miracle that I’d hoped in happened just days after my infamous “No” to Joe Carbone. (to be continued).