Major Events: Pre-Amherst
Praise and thanks to the Creator. May Allah raise the status of the blessed Messenger Muhammad and protect his followers.
In the fall after graduation I go to UMASS, Amherst with “Homeboy.” He’s going there to visit a friend. Homeboy was one of the people who helped keep my head together after high school. He liked to hang out—or as we would back then, “bug out,” but he was a straight shooting guy. He wasn’t into the druggin’ or drinkin’ and saved me, perhaps, from doing some horrific things to myself. Both of us were also romantic idealist who were always seeking that “ideal girl.” He turned me on to life in the Valley (i.e., the Northampton-Amherst area) and a world beyond Springfield. It was that first trip however that got me interested in going away to college. I could be around thousands and thousands of people my own age, from different places, and many with diverse interests. I could go to UMASS and I could reinvent myself.
Things were about to change in Springfield. In the early fall, I remember coming home after “hangin’ with the fellas”–not like Homeboy–and the CBS special: 48 Hours on Crack Street was on the TV. It was showing the devastation that rock cocaine was causing in parts of New York City. Although I never ran buck-wild in the streets, I flirted along the edge of that precipice. But I had enough sense to see that if one wanted to live the street life, it always ended up with jail, the insane asylum, or with death. We had a big time Puerto Rican drug dealing (powder cocaine) family on our block in my earlier days of high school. I used to go over to the spot (I had a crush on one of the girls, of course) and I could go in the basement and dig into the giant crates of 12 inches and spin them on the two turn tables (not that I could DJ or anything like that).
The family was at least kind of discrete about their income source—although the oldest son seemed to have Scarface playing on loop in the bedroom—and I didn’t ask too many questions. I remember one time walking down the street with the other brown guy on our block, I guess he was Filipino, who was closer to “Pablo” than I was. In the conversation he said: “’Pablo might have money to buy nice things, but I don’t have to sleep with a pistol under my pillow.” Those words stuck with me. When all is said and done, I didn’t want to make life in the streets my career. If I were going to live that way, I would be totally ruthless, and if I were totally ruthless, I would not be able to live with myself.
Back to the crack thing. Just from the 48 Hours special, I could see that there was no flirting with crack cocaine. The addiction rate was phenomenal and the money and violence (and incarcerations) involved were far beyond what we had previously seen. Things were being taken to another level altogether. I wanted no part of the underground drug culture.
In less than a couple of months after my trip to UMASS and the 48 Hours special report, I came home from work to find the kitchen in disarray and some vomit on the floor. My grandmother wasn’t home. She had had a stroke. My uncle, who owned the two family house we lived in came up from downstairs to find her passed out on the floor. My grandmother had imparted many common sense old school values. They weren’t church based. As I said, I never went to church. (My mother had been in the group called the “Nation of Islam” at the time of my birth, and made it a point that I should not go to church.) I think it was from my grandmother I had grown up with a sense of chivalry—to be courteous to my elders, to be kind to the weak and stand up against falsehood and injustice. And then there were the general morals that, as I was to later find out, many people simply were never instilled with.
Nonetheless, at the time of her illness, I did not feel emotionally connected to anyone or anything. I was numb. I just was. I was simply existing. I was just self-absorbed and trying to move on with my life after high school without any sense of direction. Her illness, however, motivated me to change the trajectory of my life. I was going to make concrete moves try to go to college (a four year school), and I now i had an excuse to cut off those less than favorable influences around me. I would start by attending community college—Springfield Technical Community College, what we used to call the “High School on the Hill”—for the upcoming spring semester.
I saw STCC as a means to get out of Springfield. If I did well there, I hoped to get accepted either to Westfield State College or the University of Massachusetts. Within a year of attending STCC, my homeboy and I were traveling up to the Valley usually on a weekly basis to check out the used record stores, the used bookstores, and the Smith girls and the girls in the Amherst area. I could see that this was the kind of life that I wanted to live as a young guy. I was getting increasingly fed up with Springfield and the narrow limited mentality of many of the people who lived there.
All the while that I was living in Springfield and going to community college, I worked at Burger King. I used to get plenty of flack from my peers, but things changed when I became a “production leader.” I was able to get out of my polyester BK costume and don a “shirt and tie.” In my little Springfield universe, that meant a whole lot. I also had some seniority, so I had my hours conform to my class schedule. But one of the main reasons I stayed around was because of the people. We used to have the running joke that it was the “International House of Burger King.” I was always attracted to the international crowd, and this was one of the main things that appealed to me about Islam—its ethnic and cultural diversity. Besides the local African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and whites working there, the manager was from Iran and he had hired several female compatriots. There were also Africans, a Pakistani assistant manager, Jamaicans, an Indian family, and one summer I befriended a pair of Japanese exchange students. For Springfield that was a lot of diversity.
As for STCC, I went with the intention that I was going to pursue the things that I wanted to do. I started in, if I remember correctly, the transfer program with the intention like I said to attend a local state school after I got my associates degree. I was doing the standard Western canon liberal arts thing, but at the community college we were not reading the original works, but usually abridged versions in anthologies. That was enough to instill in me a real zeal for learning and for thinking. Unlike many of the students at STCC who were merely there to get some type of certification to help them get a better job, the classes I took turned me on to the life of the mind. In my philosophy class, I remember the professor frequently repeating the quote of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I wanted to live an examined life.
That same professor became my surrogate “Jewish grandmother.” She thought I was older than I actually was, and saw something in me that I didn’t see. She asked me about my plans after STCC, and I told her about the colleges I had in mind. She told me she was going to get me into one of the elite schools. Many of the top tier colleges have “non-traditional student” admissions programs. They do this to add not only racial/ethnic diversity to their campuses, but also to have students who are not the stereotyped top of the class, often top notched prep school members of the SAT 1600 club, who make up most of the student body of such institutions.
At this point, my life was changing, maa-shaa’ Allah, in profound ways. I could now possibly get my ticket out of Springfield, I could go to college, and live out my own black version of Amory Blaine. I wanted to go to law school—to study international law and work at the United Nations. If that didn’t work, then I would take a job down in the financial district of Manahattan. I also wanted to write, of course, but I wanted to make money first—and lots of it. For those who know me now, it might be hard to conceive that I once had hardcore yuppie aspirations. On every third Thursday of the month, I would go to the “Newstand” next door to Burger King to buy the latest copy of Esquire and GQ magazines, and usually the following week I would buy a copy of Ebony Man. Wall Street, Bright Light, Big City (more so the book than the movie), 9 1/2 Weeks, Sade’s “Is it a Crime” all inspired to want to go to “The City” and live large—the correct and legitimate way. I planned on getting the candy apple red BMW 325i convertible within a year of graduation… to go along with my black face Movado watch and the Italian suits. How Allah changes the hearts of the human beings.
It was also during this time that I got a car. It wasn’t much—a tan 1979 Ford Fiesta—but it meant that I now how the mobility to leave Springfield on my own terms. One of the things I was free to do was to do a lot of fishing. Fishing took me back to the days of being a kid. It took me back to being out in the woods alone in the Sixteen Acres area of Springfield. I was very happy back then. Also, my uncle was an avid fisherman, and he had taken me to many of the lakes and ponds of Western and Central Massachusetts in my childhood. With my car, I could replicate much of that. I loved the getting up early and the solitude of fishing the Westfield and the Quabog rivers.
I hit the ponds in Springfield, and I wetted a line many a time in the Three Rivers area, and perhaps my favorite place to fish was Red Bridge, because of the diversity of fish there.
I did a lot of ultra light stream fishing, especially for the acrobatic smallmouth bass, and in the year before I went away to college, I took up fly fishing. It was a special time, to the point that in the summer of 1988, I can write in the final entry of Journal #4: “I have never been so contented in my entire life.”
Life went on in Springfield the following school year. I was still taking classes at the “High School on the Hill,” buggin’ out with Homeboy, having a big crush on a well-to-do Irish girl from my Art History class, and then in April, I received a large envelop from the number one ranked liberal Arts college in America. I had been accepted to Amherst College. I had now never been so excited in my entire life.
***I will talk some more about this group later on, God-willing.