Believe it or not, I’m a naturally shy person. I realize that this sounds like a contradiction, especially since so much of my life is out there for the world to read and see. But shyness doesn’t necessarily mean introverted and scared of people and the world. That came later, my preteen and teenage years. The crush of cliques and ostracism that forced me into becoming a loner helped shape the way I saw people.
On the one hand, I’ve always found our tremendous capacity for love and hate, compassion and coldness, creation and destruction fascinating. On the other, I have a well-developed sense of disdain for the great human capacity for willful ignorance, bigotry and shallow thinking. It means that there are times that I love being around family, friends and people in general, and there are times I could put a good portion of humanity in a sack and drop them over Niagara Falls.
For both sides of my love-disdain relationship with my fellow humans, I developed a coping strategy more than thirty years ago that I’ve come to recognize as my “observation mode.” It was especially helpful to be an observer during my Boy @ The Window years at Davis Middle School and Mount Vernon High School. I saw so many things occur that aren’t in my memoir, but informed my thinking about people and life and myself. Things like young women yanking out hair and earrings and nails over some idiot guy. Or a Class of ’87 student giving birth near the Cosmetology Department. Or teachers driving out of the parking lot at warp factor nine within fifteen seconds of that end-of-the-school-day, 2:50 pm bell.
Most of all, I observed that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how smart I showed myself to be, that I would never be one of them, at home or at school. At 616, I was a brother, the usurper eldest brother who was also a bit of a father, uncle, worker, husband, and resistance leader, but not part of a functioning family. In Humanities — at Davis and MVHS — I was an underachieving smart guy who never said anything and too uncool to be around, even though I said plenty — and attempted to do plenty — while I was there.
I understood back then that my observations and my actions in response to my observations didn’t and couldn’t match up. I had very little control over my life prior to the University of Pittsburgh. I had precious little access to money, time and the physical and mental space necessary to act upon my observations. So much so that I could easily stay in observation mode in my own life for months at a time, turning one of my key coping strategies into a ball and chain, allowing opportunities to change how I saw myself and others go by in the process.
There were a few areas in which I acted beyond observation. My efforts to get into college, my constant resistance to my then idiot stepfather Maurice, taking care of my younger siblings, trying out for football and baseball, and tracking down my father Jimme for money. And though this was hardly enough for a growing young man to live on, it was enough for me to survive Mount Vernon before moving to Pittsburgh.
But it would take my five days as a homeless student before I decided to be the actor I needed to be in my own life, and not just an observer. I found my way because the only other alternative I had was to go back to Mount Vernon and 616 and wait around for something to happen, and I’d long grown tired of waiting, even on God. It was beyond time for me to help myself, to come out of the bleachers and get on the playing field as the quarterback in my own life. That bout with homelessness was the supernova I needed and used to shoot myself forward to three degrees, a career as a historian, educator, nonprofit manager and writer, to dating and marriage and fatherhood.
I still have an observation mode, though. At conferences, particularly academic conferences, and especially ones in which I am not a presenter. At literary festivals and other gatherings in which I feel the brown-nosing bullshit quotient is just too high. But with Boy @ The Window now out in paperback after more than seven years of interviewing, writing and rewriting, with my son more than halfway toward adulthood, and with me within two years of the middle ages, I need to be done with observation for now.