Thirty-one years ago this week was the beginning of an inadvertent coping strategy that would lead me away from 616, out of Mount Vernon, New York, into Pittsburgh, and college, and grad school. (And eventually, to a worn-out right knee, leg exercises and a running regiment that I’ve adhered to for nearly a decade.) It was a walk that was literally my only time away from home and my summer of abuse at the hands of my late idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington (or Judah ben Israel). It was a walk in which I began to plan my escape from the madness.
From Boy @ The Window:
“It was August ’82, and I didn’t know if I’d make it to the end of the year.
“If masturbation were the only thing that I discovered that month, I might’ve begun aspiring for some other kind of life. Instead, I decided on another boring August day to do something else novel. I didn’t want to go to Wilson Woods again. We didn’t have any money anyway. I decided to take my siblings on a walk on the wild side, to walk outside our immediate neighborhood. First Darren and I took baby Maurice and Yiscoc in his new stroller out of 616 and walked to Pelham…The four of us walked and strollered down East Lincoln Avenue, across the stone bridge over the Hutchinson River Parkway into Pelham, and turned left on Fifth Avenue to go north. This was uncharted territory for all of us, especially me. I hadn’t been down in the city all year, and my life for most of the summer was spent between Wilson Woods, Pearsall Drive, and 616. North Pelham might as well have been Helena, Montana to me.
‘We don’t know where we’re going,’ Darren said.
‘Yeah, and?,’ I said in response.
‘Okay, but it’s your fault if we get lost, Donald,’ Darren said.
“We didn’t get lost. We walked until we hit Chester Heights, the beginning of the village of Eastchester. It was amazing in that it was much more suburban than Mount Vernon or the part of Pelham that I’d known up until that moment. The homes were luxurious by my standards. Everyone seemed to own a BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, or Peugeot. There weren’t many sidewalks around, only well-manicured lawns. We had walked into a ritzy community without any warning. But instead of becoming depressed or angry, it made me introspective. ‘Look at these houses!,’ I said to Darren as we walked by one Tudor-style home after another three-story mansion, broken up only by a few cul-de-sacs.
We walked across another bridge, this one with an overhanging meshed metal fence, across the Cross-County Parkway, and ended up in Mount Vernon for a brief moment. We veered right as we walked up a hill and out of Mount Vernon again. After walking through what appeared to be an enchanted forest, we discovered we were in Bronxville. Even at twelve, I knew that Bronxville was just about the richest community in America. And it looked like it, too. I began to think that the world was a cruel place, having rich Whites living so close to us yet their lives were so far apart from ours. Darren, having been around rich Whites through Clear View for nearly eight years, didn’t think too much of it.
“That’s when it hit me. If I wanted to live a better life, to have a nice house and a car and a family, it seemed to me that I needed an education, a college education. I wasn’t going to get there just graduating from high school, especially in Humanities, where the expectations for college were so high that some kids already knew that they were going to law school. I just knew that I couldn’t go through another summer of abuse. So I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get through the next five years. I’ve got to go to college.’ I knew almost intuitively that my choices were to continue to experience abuse without reaching for something that I thought I could do based on my smarts. Yet it seemed like an impossible task.
“So as we walked through the villages of Bronxville and Tuckahoe, ending up on North Columbus Avenue/Route 22, I began to think about what I wanted to get out of eighth grade. It seemed to me that the most important class for my future was Algebra, since that led to higher forms of math. I knew English and Social Studies would be really easy, but with success in Algebra, I could go into high school with a little more confidence.
“That’s when we passed by a ranch-style home with a stone facade. I looked and saw someone out in front I hadn’t seen since the end of the school year. It was Phyllis, outside in the front yard with her sister, apparently back from bike riding. She called us over, and the four of us talked. Phyllis asked what we’d been up to over the summer. This was the first Black family I’d seen during our two-hour walk.
“Of course I didn’t go into any detail about what we’d been up to. After all, the one thing that the past year had taught me was not to open up my mouth and say everything that was on my mind! So I let her and her older sister Claudia do most of the talking. They’d gone somewhere, somewhere down South to visit family. It looked like they were having a good time, the time of their lives compared to us.
‘Do you live around here?,’ Phyllis asked.
‘Oh, we’re on a long walk and just happened to be in the neighborhood,’ I said.
‘Okay,’ she said in response.
“In the neighborhood. Sure, if Bronxville, Eastchester, Pelham and 616, all part of our eight-mile trek, was all part of one gigantic neighborhood. After about ten minutes, we continued home. Darren was more excited about seeing Phyllis and her sister than I was.
“Yet it wasn’t that I was unexcited… I finally had a plan, a long-term plan, for dealing with the situation at 616. I knew that there would be a lot of smaller steps that I’d have to take before even getting to college, much less getting a degree…Otherwise I really didn’t have anything else to look forward to, except what I thought would be a very painful life and an extremely early death.”
That walk — and the hundreds of walks (and runs) I went on all through eighth grade and high school –was the difference between becoming a professor and a writer and having died well before the turn of this century. If not literally, then certainly psychologically.