LIFE STORY INTERVIEW
Part I: Background
I met Carl Toney as a result of canvassing a few of my more extraverted friends to try to find a person of a different cultural background than mine who would be likely to enjoy talking about his or her life. When my friend Kimberly approached Carl on my behalf, she asked if he knew anyone who might want to be interviewed, and he said he’d like to do it himself. I met with Carl in his office at the College of Health Professions at UNE, where he is a professor of clinical medicine (he is a physician’s assistant) and also manages or represents UNE in what seem to be literally scores of health care programs and forums, often with a systemic, multi-cultural focus. Two themes in Carl’s life story suggest his motivation for spending what turned out to be four hours talking rather intimately about his life with a person he’d never seen before. Connections with people have been of central importance – all kinds of connections, with all kinds of people. And he has long been committed to helping people open to different perspectives, especially those due to cultural difference.
Carl is an African-American man, 56 years old – my age. His appearance is both somewhat imposing and also very warm and gracious; I found him very comfortable to be with, despite the initial discomfort that I felt in asking this gentleman who didn’t know me to talk about his life. I already knew things about Carl from Kimberly that resonated with me. She said he lived for a long time with his wife, who is white, in the South, and they hated it there, at least partly because of the racism they encountered. I had lived in the South, where I also experienced prejudice; I hated it too. Carl is a Vietnam veteran; I have recently seen several very successful men in my career counseling practice who are veterans of intensely violent military experience. I have become interested in working with this (as well as other kinds of trauma) when I become a clinical counselor. Finally, I knew that Carl has been working to establish a full-service primary health care facility in Portland that will serve the immigrant and migrant communities, as well as others who are disadvantaged in access to health care. I have always been a change agent myself and have recently, I think as a result of personal healing through reflection in this course, become very much interested in multicultural and diversity work.
Part II: Carl’s Life Story
My parents are actually two of my favorite subjects. I feel very fortunate; I had two wonderful parents. I was an unanticipated pregnancy, and my parents were older, I was what they used to refer to as a change of life baby — my mother was 41when she had me, my father was 39. I was born in 1947. I was essentially raised as an only child; I had a half sister who was my mother’s daughter by a previous marriage and she was 21 years older than I. I also had a half brother who was my father’s son by a previous marriage, and he was about 15 or 16 years older than I. By the time I came along they had both left the home. So I truly was raised as an only child.
My parents were both high school graduates, but their intelligence and their sense of the world went far beyond that. They were voracious readers, they loved to engage the world, they loved politics, they had a sense of what was going on socially; and they were very encouraging of me in the same way. My father was by profession an electronics technician and engineer. He came up through the vestiges of both formal and informal segregation, so a lot of his professional opportunities were short-circuited because of that. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. My mother had a variety of jobs but basically worked as a domestic both in private homes and for commercial firms. They moved to New York from New Jersey about a year before I was born. My father took a position at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in their Housekeeping and Maintenance section and he ended up staying there for over 25 years. So that’s where he was when I was born. And then he maintained a business on the side doing electronic repairs, out of the home. I also was what they used to call a latchkey kid because both my parents worked. They used to work alternating schedules; my mother stayed home for five years until I started kindergarten and then she went back to work. She would work evenings and my father worked days, or she would work days and my father worked nights, they’d rotate around on the coverage. Then in those days, the neighbors really were an active ingredient of the neighborhood. I grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan, and the neighbors would be surrogate parents to look after you till mom or dad was home. It really worked out well — I had an extraordinary childhood.
I think I took on my mother’s confidence. She was a supremely confident person, and she was very much an informal leader within our neighborhood. She was a consultant that many of the people in the neighborhood came to for various issues or problems, a lot of social issues or domestic problems; even though she wasn’t old, she was kind of seen as a grandmother who had a lot of wisdom. She was very sharp, very bright, and she did not suffer fools gladly. And she would tell you so. So I got my confidence from her; she was just fearless. And I think I got my, intellectual curiosity and enjoyment of intellectual things from my father. In retrospect it seems hard to believe. He was truly a voracious reader, and he watched the news; he watched everything. From as early as I can remember, we were always talking about things, and he would always challenge me on things . He would say, “Anyone can say something stupid; it’s saying something of value and smart that’s hard.” I never knew when he was going to challenge something that I would say. It could be something as innocuous as, “That was a great play,” if we were watching a ball game. Then he would say, “Why was that a great play? It’s baseball, it’s what they get paid to do, ” and we’d be off and running. I loved to argue with him. He not only taught me the skill of it but he taught me the value of arguing – not arguing for arguing’s sake but being able to communicate well and also an appreciation for ideas. He loved ideas, there was no such thing as a bad idea, every idea had value.
And so I think those two things helped me get through a world where I’ve often been in a situation where I was the only minority or the only black, educational situations, jobs situations, socially. I’ve been comfortable, which is not to say it’s always been easy, but I’ve always been comfortable that whatever was going on I would prevail. And that was because that’s what they taught me – the confidence they gave me and the standards they insisted upon. They never expected me to be perfect, but they always expected me to try to be perfect. And then we’d deal with how short I fell.
On my mother’s side, her mother was part Native American — I think half. I actually lived with her for a couple of years while my folks were going through a very hard financial time. I was only two or three, but from what I remember she was really great. She lived in a small town and I got to play in the woods which was really special for a kid from New York. I was somewhat intimidated by her because she was kind of a mystic person — African American and Native American all rolled into one. I really loved her. Unfortunately, she died when I was still really young, about a year or so after I moved back with my folks. Probably her greatest legacy is she made me ambidextrous. I was born left-handed, and in her Native American culture left-handed children were children of the devil. She did any number of things to break me of using my left hand. Some of it stuck and some of it didn’t but at least in some ways I’m truly ambidextrous. I didn’t know my mother’s father – I met him once, but he and my mother and he and my grandmother were estranged for some reason I’ve never known. I met him once; he just kind of looked at me and said hello and that was that.
My m father’s other helped take care of me when I was first born, and the first few years. And she did not like me at all; she resented me. She was absolutely enamored and in love with my brother who had come along at a time in my father’s life when my father didn’t have very much. So all the things that I had, a stable family and material goods, my brother did not enjoy. And that was not my fault. I’m not sure it was my father’s fault either, it was just one of those things. But my paternal grandmother always held that against me. And she would physically abuse me – beatings and other things. My grandfather would inevitably come to my rescue. My grandmother was a very strong, very domineering humorless woman, and my grandfather lived his life by working around her. He adored me and at every opportunity he would literally snatch me up and get me out of her presence. So when I began to talk, it was his name that I said first; because I realized on a very fundamental level that he was key to my survival. She died when before I was in my teens. After that we shared the house with my grandfather. He gave me the security of protecting me from my grandmother. And the other thing he gave me was a fear — he had had some horrible times in the South, he hated the South, I think maybe he hated white people in general. He used to talk to me and tell me about the South and how awful it was. So I was always fearful of the South, and when I ended up going there many years later it was a real challenge to overcome all this fear he had put into me about how fragile your life was in the South if you were black. I’ve always been sorry that my grandparents didn’t live longer, even my grandmother. I kept thinking that maybe I could win her over.
I don’t know a whole lot about the lineage of either my mother or my father. My mother was a very private person, so there wasn’t a whole lot of family communication. We would see her younger brother most every Christmas. Her older brother lived down south, and he used to ask me to go down and visit him, but I never did because I had this fear of the south from my paternal grandfather. When I finally did meet him, truthfully, I didn’t care for him, he was kind of scary; he was just so intense. I never met another person from my father’s family. There was talk that there were some relatives in Virginia, so there may have been some out there but I never knew them. And neither of my parents ever talked about their past.
I learned more about them within the last few years of their respective lives than I did in my first 30 years. From my mother, a year or so before she died, I learned that she and my father never got married. It bothered her a whole lot more than it bothered me. It came up because she was having some significant health problems, and I was trying to help her deal with getting additional social security benefits and Medicare and you need all this paperwork. And one of the things that they needed was her marriage certificate. And she kept stalling me for months and months, saying it was on file in the Trenton courthouse and the courthouse burned down, and finally she just blurted our, “Your father and I were never married,” one of the few times I’d ever seen her embarrassed.
Other things – I found out she loved to drive; we didn’t have a car, we lived in New York. But in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s my mother did own a car and my father would navigate, he was always in charge. She loved to drive. Everybody who knew her from back then said she was a real cowboy behind the wheel. Her fun was playing tag with trucks on the highway. There was a really spirited side of her that you didn’t see when she became this grande dame, this old lady of the neighborhood.
On the other side, my father was an extraordinary person who had the capacity to make wherever he was his kingdom. He was a king who carried his throne with him wherever he went. Not in a belligerent way, but somehow wherever he was – in a car, in his home, in your home – it suddenly became his. It was simply amazing to watch him do that. And he would wheel and deal and get things done. He didn’t serve in the second world war, for moral reasons or whatever he just decided that was not a good idea. So he came up with this plan which was successful; he convinced the draft board that he was vital to the home front national interest because of the work he was doing repairing radios. He had a friend who worked on one of the local black newspapers come and do an article about him. They did this mock-up sign — remember those signs with Uncle Sam pointing at planes saying “Keep ‘em flying?” So my father had a friend fix up this sign with Uncle Sam pointing at a radio, saying “Keep ‘em playing for the war effort,” and he had this article written, and he convinced the draft board that he was more important in Newark, New Jersey than he would ever be in Italy or North Africa. So they gave him a deferment. He was that kind of person.
Just before he died, we had a conversation that totally destroyed a picture I’d been carrying around in my head of my early times with him, but reconstructed it on another level of love. One of my fondest childhood memories is going out and playing ball with my father, and he had a couple of friends who would always be there. Later I became very much into sports and athletics and it was very much based on the time that I had spent with him. So he and I were sitting at my stepmother’s home in North Carolina maybe six months before he died, and we were just talking. We were always close, and then we kind of got estranged for a little bit, and then we were reconciled and then we got really close. I found out then that he played violin as a child – I hadn’t known that. I knew he’d been an amateur jazz musician, but I never knew he’d studied the violin. Bits and pieces of him were beginning to peel away like an onion.
Then in some throwaway remark I made, I said to him how great it was when we used to play ball together and how much I had loved that. He just looked at me and went, “Uhhh! God I hated that!” When he said that, it was like a blow to my heart – “How can you say that, it was so important to me; this is what we were all about.” I said that to him. And he said, “Didn’t it ever strike you odd that in all the times we played ball, your Uncle Charlie, your Uncle Louie, and you Uncle Gomez were always there? And I said, “No it was great. I had everybody to play with. What was the problem?” He said, “The problem was, I don’t know how to play baseball. I never learned how to play baseball. My mother always was having me inside the house learning the damn violin. So I didn’t know how to throw a ball. And I didn’t know how to catch a ball. And the reason your uncles were all there was whenever we would plan these things, they would show up half an hour early to help me practice. And then they would stick around to throw the ball with you so you would never know how bad I was.” So I’m shocked, and I say, “Why would you do that? That’s insane.” And he says, “Because a father’s supposed to teach his son how to play baseball.” <tears> And I was so touched that he would do that, and then carry that around as he carried a lot of stuff around in his life.
There’s a story about when I was born — a story that nobody believe, but it’s true. The background again is that this was an unintended and therefore unanticipated pregnancy. So the prologue to the story is that my mother went to the doctor because she wasn’t feeling well and was told by the doctor she was pregnant. He wasn’t our regular family doctor, he was covering for our doctor. She didn’t believe him and she punched him and decked him. She thought he was an idiot. So that was my heralding. She was a very tiny woman, but a very powerful woman.
And then I was born in what back then was a city hospital, a public hospital. My mother felt that delivery was imminent, so the nurse sent for the resident who was covering, and he checked her out and said she was not ready to deliver. This was a public hospital, a teaching hospital, so the care there was not the most sensitive. This doctor did what my mother described as a very cursory and rough pelvic exam and said that she was not ready to deliver. She said that she was; he sneered at her and said that she wasn’t. She said, “OK. It’s about 10:30 now; we get lunch about a quarter to 12. I’m going to wait till lunch comes, and if I don’t like what we have for lunch, I’m going to deliver the baby.” He said you do whatever and stalked away. Lunch came at 11:45; she didn’t like lunch; and I came at 11:55.
So that’s the first half of the story. The second half is that when my father got off work and came to the hospital to see me later that day, the baby they showed him was deformed – cleft palate, probable Down’s syndrome, a baby that likely would have been born to a woman my mother’s age. He came screaming downstairs and wanted to know what was wrong with the baby. My mother had never really seen me. She wasn’t terribly excited about this pregnancy, so when she they said, “Oh you have a boy, do you want to hold him?” she said, “No not really. I’ll look at him later.” So when my father came screaming into the room wanting to know what was wrong with the baby, they asked the nurse and the nurse said, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your baby.” When they discharged my mother – early, because there was a scarlet fever epidemic in the hospital — my father came to pick her up. He had never been back up to the nursery; he was really very shaken. He was a very private, not stern, but kind of a rigid man; flexibility was not his middle name. So he showed up, and my mother was ready to go, and they had me wrapped up; and the nurse kept trying to give my father the baby, and he wouldn’t accept the baby. He said, “I may have to take care of it, but I am NOT going to hold it.” So my mother said, “Bring the baby over here,” and she pulled back the blanket and looked at the baby, and she said, “There’s nothing wrong with this baby.” She made my father come over, and he looked down and said, “I don’t know who that is, but that’s not who I saw yesterday.” My mother, being ever the practical woman, said, “Well, this one works. So we’re keeping this one. Let’s go.” And so that’s how I ended up in that home, with my parents. There’s always been just the slightest doubt about whether I’m actually their child. I probably am. But that’s the story they tell.
Our family was different from others in our neighborhood. We lived in a multi-ethnic, mutli-racial neighborhood. The block we lived on was predominantly but not totally black. There were some whites and some Hispanics, and there were some Eastern Europeans, mostly Jewish, and a few Italians. The larger neighborhood, a seven to eight square block area was incredibly mixed, and pretty much blue collar. Within our epicenter, on the block where we lived, and certainly within our five-story walkup, classic, my parents were very different in their education. There was no one around who had the education that they had. The level to which they were aware of what was going on in the world – they were the only people that I knew who voted. They thought voting was very important. Other people in the building we lived in – the other blacks, not the whites, would say, “What’s the point? It doesn’t make a difference” And my mother and father would always say, “It would make a difference if you couldn’t do it. We’ve already been there.” Things like that made them different.
We weren’t rich, by any stretch of the imagination, but we never wanted. We were the first family in our building to have a TV. The first thing we showed on the TV, the whole building came up to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers. My father had all kinds of electronic toys – tape recorders, video cameras, anything that was cutting edge, that’s who he was and I followed right behind him. The only thing we didn’t have was a car, and that was because they didn’t want one. We definitely lived a standard that was different than pretty much all of our neighbors. They didn’t believe in credit. If they couldn’t walk out of the store with it free and clear, they didn’t take it — too bad I didn’t learn that lesson. I was the only kid I knew who had a charge account at the local grocery store. My mother worked out an arrangement where within a limit I could come in and charge for anything I wanted, and they would settle up at the end of the week. If you don’t think that doesn’t make a difference with your friends.
Religion was and wasn’t important. My parents said religion is an important thing to people. They had made their own decisions, so there was no active religion in our house. But it was important to them that I be exposed and given the opportunity to make my own decisions. So from a fairly early age, I accompanied various neighbors to different types of churches – everything from holy roller evangelical to reform temple and everything in between. As I got older I could choose for myself, they never questioned what I wanted to do. They just wanted me to have a reason for doing it or a reason for not doing it.
Yes, I had Jewish friends, some in the neighborhood before school, but certainly once I started school it was the classic New York meting pot. The first girl I had a crush on in first and second grade was a Jewish girl who had just emigrated from Germany. If you looked out my window there was a Baptist church, predominantly black, and then 4 buildings up there was the Jewish temple. I got to see my first black Jews and I got to go there. And the merchants in our neighborhood were Jewish and Italian as well as black. So I was exposed to everybody, from the time I was brought home from the hospital. Certainly where you actually lived there would be a predominance of blacks and a few whites and down toward the river it was reversed. But in terms of co-mingling, on the street, in the stores, in the schools, absolutely. And probably that, in addition to my parents, made the biggest difference in terms of being able to deal successfully with the world at large — “What’s the problem?”
Childhood was really good — it sounds boring in a sense. I had this little world I roamed around in. I wasn’t a bad kid, I was semi-mischievous, I had great friends. No matter where you were, you were always connected to home. If you were out in the street, you knew the neighbors looked after you. And you were held accountable, but there was also this wonderful security. Similarly, when you went to elementary school, the teachers became your surrogate parents. You were to behave with your teachers the same way you would behave at home. If you didn’t, you should expect the same results. So I expected that if I acted out at school I was going to get a beating, because that’s what the teachers did and that’s what the parents wanted them to do. Actually I was going to get two beatings, because if I got punished at school I was also going to get punished at home. And that was fine. Because it was this wonderful umbilical cord that no matter where you went, no matter what you did, the world was taking care of you.
The only kinds of things that would disrupt that were teenage gangs — these were still pretty prevalent in New York. Not directly in my neighborhood, but occasionally, not very often, gangs would come through. They would come from as far away as the Bronx, and harass people and kids and merchants. That used to scare the hell out of me, along with everybody else. I can remember running down the street along with grownups because this gang of white kids from the Bronx called the Fordham Baldies were coming. People had seen them, they were coming to our area, and that terrified me and everybody else. My brother was in a gang, and his presence there helped me deal with my overall fear; he provided some protection by extension.
And then occasionally the police would come. We didn’t have a lot of violence in the neighborhood, nothing bad. But the police were a problem, particularly in the summer. They’d come and roust people, these big detectives throwing people against the walls, That was pretty terrifying. For the most part they were white, but not all of them – particularly some of the detectives. It created a real mixed message, I’d always been told if you ever get in trouble go to the police. But then I’d see these cops coming and they’d be like Gestapo. I knew this wasn’t right. But for the most part my world was so ok that natural occurrences were more frightening. Hurricanes, for example, were far more frightening than my normal life.
Elementary school was great, it was totally integrated, and the teachers were wonderful. I had a wonderful time in school, I loved school. Probably the biggest problem I had with school was that my mother had taught me how to read before I started school, and this created big problems for the teachers because I knew how to read and the other 30 kids didn’t, and then I would get bored. So they would tell my mother they didn’t want her teaching me how to read and other stuff. And my mother would say, “Are you nuts? Are you going to take care of this child? If you’re telling me he’s not supposed to know how to read, he’s not supposed to know how to do math – I don’t think so.” So there was always a tension around that. But everything was idyllic until junior high school. The everything became not necessarily less idyllic but far more challenging.
I just loved to read – everything. I loved to go to the library, I spent a lot of time there. On vacations as often as not I’d be in the library reading. At one time I thought the greatest job would be to be the library doorman – letting all these people in so they could read. And a really big deal was when I got my adult library card, so I was able to sit on the adult floor and check out adult books. I read a lot, and I saw movies. My father introduced me to movies and I loved them. Most of my values about life and relationships actually came from the movies — especially relationships between men & women. High Noon – I never forgave Grace Kelley for leaving even though she came back in the end. Whenever I’ve had problems in relationships with women it’s been about that, about loyalty and commitment. That’s really why my first marriage didn’t work. She loved me, but she didn’t really believe in me. Other movies — a couple of Sidney Poitier ones; and The Greatest Show on Earth. Did you ever see that? There’s this doctor who’s with the circus because he got into trouble practicing medicine and he went into hiding in the circus, but then somebody had a problem and he had to decide whether to risk exposing himself in order to help that person. Mostly the movies that were important to me were like that – ethical issues.
My most important relationships at this time were mostly with my family – my parents, and my brother and sister. My sister was 21 years older than I was. She was a wild woman, all kinds of problems, but she was wonderful and crazy; she was like the wild part of my mother. She would come and stay with us every once in a while. I loved her, and she loved me. She and my mother couldn’t stand each other, they were just too much alike. There was a big blowup once. One time when she was staying with us, my sister used to take me to school, and most of my friends had mothers the same age as my sister. The kids thought my sister was really my mother, and that made sense to me. I figured out that my sister was my mother and my mother was my grandmother. This made my mother absolutely furious and she blamed my sister. They had a big fight and my sister took off. They didn’t speak to each other for years. My father figured out ways to get me to my sister so I could still see her sometimes. Eventually it worked out ok and when my mother was dying, my sister was the one who mostly took care of her.
My brother was also very special to me. We loved each other dearly and he somehow would show up exactly when I needed him, either emotionally or physically – physically, because I was about to get the shit beat out of me somewhere, or emotionally when I just needed to talk to him. Of course, he was a career criminal, and not a very good one, so he was in jail a lot. He was into drugs — heroin, and of course alcohol. Everything with him was sort of fucked up — like, when he died, he was the only person in New York to die of tuberculosis that year. My brother made me promise him I would never get into drugs or alcohol and that’s really the main reason I never did. He didn’t get along with my father at all. My father had a lot of disappointment about how he’d turned out and also a lot of guilt; he just couldn’t stand to be around him. And my brother hated my father, because nothing was ever good enough for him, and he hated my mother too. He’d come and visit us every now and then for a few days and before he left, he’d steal something – always something of my father’s. Sure, you could say it was because he needed the money for his habit but I’m sure it was also because of his anger that nothing he did would ever be good enough.
My father could be tough. When my brother died, my father just went for a walk by himself for a little while and when he came back he never said another word about my brother. He wouldn’t even go to the hospital to pick up his effects. That was hard. That was one of the times – one of the very few times — in my life when I was really alone, when everybody just left me hanging. Sure, my friends tried – “sorry your brother died” and all that — but they couldn’t really get it.
Being a teenager was an extraordinary adventure on any number of levels. In addition to the usual
shift from childhood to adolescence and struggling with the whole hormonal issue and discovering girls – the overlay to all that was that in the sixth grade in elementary school I was selected, along with a small band of other students, to integrate a junior high school. It was a time in New York when they were trying to address de facto segregation. The junior high school that kids in my neighborhood generally went to was a very tough school, not a place that I was particularly looking forward to. But because of these issues the school board was trying to deal with, around de facto segregation, what they did was take me and maybe 20 kids from my graduating class that had the best reading and math scores, and approached our parents about the opportunity for us to go to this other junior high school. It was located in the midst of a neighborhood that was composed culturally of a very large Jewish community, German community, Irish community, a little bit of Italian, and a smattering of Hispanic. But it was mostly Jewish, German, Irish. So my parents decided this was a good thing because they didn’t like the junior high school I would have gone to; and I thought it was a great thing. I didn’t know where I was going, but any place was better than this local junior high school which was filled with a bunch of tough guys I knew I didn’t want to be around. I had no idea what awaited me in terms of this whole issue about integration, because my whole life had been integrated. So I had no concept of what was going on; I just knew I was going to a better school.
And so I got there and I was in honors classes and I was having a fine time. My hormones were raging and all of a sudden there were girls, and I was beginning to understand what girls were, and you fall in love with who you’re with. And so I came in contact with the whole issue of cultural/racial differences and problems and all that, the first time I went home with the Jewish girl I was in love with, and she introduced me to her parents after school as her boyfriend and they totally freaked out. I didn’t understand what was going on, they were hysterical, I went home, and I didn’t want to talk to my mother about it – I was embarrassed, because it was my life, not because … And I tried to talk to my father about it, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. He didn’t want to clamp me down but he didn’t want to say … so he just said, “You’re too young to be in love. Pay attention to the books.” I was left to my own devices. So I just kept falling in & out of love with girls every year. In eighth grade there was this Greek girl I was in love with, her name was Despontina Constantine. In one of assemblies she sang, from South Pacific, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My hair.” And I just knew she was singing to me. I had my friends follow her home so I could find out where she lived. It was awful. The usual stuff, but it was all wrapped up in stuff the adults were all dealing with.
I was never good in math. Never have been, never will be. I can barely balance my checkbook., and that’s it. So I was really struggling in this honors math class, all my classes were honors classes. And my teachers were saying, maybe I wasn’t smart enough, and my mother fought fiercely to protect me, any educational advantage I had. My math teacher was the only African American teacher I had, a woman. I remember her calling my mother in for a parent-teacher conference, and I remember her saying “They’re gonna try to put your son in some slower class. There’s nothing wrong with your son. He’s not good in math; I’ll do what I can to help him get better. He may never be good in math, but he’s incredibly bright. Don’t let them do anything to your son. This is what they’re gonna try to do.” And so I was aware for the first time of this struggle for my soul that was going on with all these adults about what I was, what I wasn’t, what I could be, what I couldn’t be, where I was headed. All that was very difficult in the midst of having a good time in junior high school, learning how to smoke and just getting into all the vices and all that kind of stuff. It definitely was a sharp left turn in my life; all of a sudden I recognized that there were “issues.”
I’d been into music all my life. I grew up in New York, so if you’re not in a singing group you always know people who are, and I knew some very famous people in early rock ‘n’ roll because they lived around the corner. That’s just what you did, you sang. So I fell in love with music. I used to sing, and a bunch of us from my junior high school started a group, a vocal group, the first of many in my ultimately aborted career in music. But that became the focus of my life — well, half the focus. In my transition from junior high to high school, all I cared about was music. I was writing songs, and singing, and rehearsing, and we’d go appear someplace. It was an integrated group – again, it was just categorically representative of my life. I was the black guy in the group, there were two Irish guys, a German guy, and some who-knows-what guy. It was great, it was so important to me, it was so much fun, I really thought I was gonna have a career in music. We sang together for about three years, certainly through my first two years in high school; we cut demo records, we auditioned at record companies, and it was one half of who I was.
The other half also was woven into this transition from junior high to high school. If I took a left hand turn in junior high, I took a sharp right into high school because I went from this very middle class junior high school to this high school in the South Bronx, an all boys’ vocational tech school, and it was the school that Evan Hunter used when he wrote his book Blackboard Jungle. The reason I went there was because I was following in my father’s footsteps. When I was born, my father made up business cards, and they had both our names on them. It was always his dream for us to go into business together, and I was going to try to honor that dream. Even though I knew it was his dream not my dream — I would never say that out loud, but I knew. There were only two schools in New York where you could major in electronics, Brooklyn Tech and Samuel Gompers. Well, my parents thought that Brooklyn represented the uncivilized portion of New York City — that anyone who lived in Brooklyn regardless of status or color were savages. It was out of the question. So that left Gompers.
So I went there, and my whole world went – kerphew! — this way. Because I went from this very middle class junior high to this all boys’ high school, and the social strata were totally reversed. All of a sudden it’s all now about power, violence, all of a sudden the blacks are on top – they are the most powerful group. Why? Because they can beat up everybody else, they’re fearless, and they can also sing. Or be musicians. Next – this is amazing, people don’t believe this, but honest to God, it was true – next came the Puerto Ricans. Why? They also fight, not quite as tough, too emotional; and they were into music, though they weren’t into rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm and blues the way the blacks were, they were into Latin. But Latin was very hot back then. Third in the pecking order were the Italians. We had a fair number of Italians. They thought they could fight, and they could, but there was more bravado than anything else. But they really could sing. They usually linked with blacks. Then came the Irish, who thought they could fight and thought they could sing but couldn’t do either. And they were just loud. And then the bottom of the rung were this little cadre of perennially terrified Jewish kids. Who were in this technical track on their way to college, to build A-bombs or silicon whatever. Obviously they couldn’t sing, they couldn’t fight, but they did everybody’s homework, and that’s how they survived.
You found out from day one when you arrived that you had to make a choice quickly. You either had to be a singer or you had to be a fighter, you had to align yourself with a group. Otherwise you were left alone and unprotected, and you were just fair game for any predator. I have never characterized myself as a fighter, so obviously I gravitated quickly towards the singers. You would walk around the school to find out who was singing in what bathroom. And then you’d hang out in there. As opposed to who was getting beat up in the other bathrooms.
Like much of my life, it turned out ok – it actually turned out better than ok. But I can remember the first day I showed up there, I was terrified. I looked at this building that looked like a prison, and went what have I done. You had to take shop class, and I remember there was this kid who had been working on this project all semester long, and he would never let the shop teacher see the project. The shop teacher kept saying, “If I don’t see it I can’t grade you,” and the end of the semester came and the shop teacher said, “You have GOT to show me the project.” And what the kid had been working on the whole semester long was this new modified state of the art zip gun. He showed it to the teacher, who freaked out when he realized what it was; and then the kid freaked out; and in the ensuing hysteria, the kid – not on purpose, out of panic – the kid shot the teacher. Fortunately the teacher wasn’t mortally wounded, and as he was falling to the ground he said, “You passed.” Honest to God, this is the truth. And that was my world. How could I have ended up here?
But in the midst of this insanity, two things. I came in contact with an extraordinary group of teachers, who still wanted to teach even in this battleground, and who would grab onto any kid who wanted to learn. I had history, English, social studies teachers who took me and re- molded me, took my love of reading and said, “Why don’t you connect your reading to your thinking? Here, read this – and think about it!” Who found out that I loved to go to the movies and they’d say, “Go see this movie and come back & tell me about it.” I ended up on the debating team, and in the poetry class; I got a chance to meet Langston Hughes who was judging a city-wide poetry contest that I had entered. I was on the school newspaper, and then got thrown off the paper on a first amendment issue because I wrote an editorial critical of the Kennedy family, at a time when you didn’t do that. The thing I was worst at was the electronics. I was terrible, absolutely terrible. I understood, and to this day I still understand the theory; I can still quote you a lot of the formulas, I can still draw out a schematic diagram, but my hands fail me. I can’t take what I know and fix and build things. I just don’t have the mechanical skills. My father had it all, but he only gave me half.
But everything else in high school turned out great. And because the high school had this interesting social structure – you had guys in this school up to 24 years old, guys who would come to school when they weren’t in prison, who were professional musicians and who would come to school when they were coming off the road, so you had 16 and 17 year olds like me talking to these 22 year olds at lunch. I was luck because I got to know some guys who were just extraordinary and who would probably have been considered bad people but who were not, and who were very bright. I met my first radicals in high school. I got my first real introduction to things like Islamic religion — Muslims, and the difference between an Orthodox Muslim and a Black Muslim, and what’s Malcolm X really about. My father hated Malcom X; my parents thought you were either in the Malcolm X camp or the Martin Luther King camp; and they were clearly into the Martin Luther King civil rights thing. I was kind of flirting around with the whole revolutionary radical thing and they were just beside themselves: “What are you talking about? This man is a criminal, he’s a communist,” and my father would say, “You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” and I didn’t. But I would talk to these guys at school who DID know, who’d been to prison and been converted, and they would talk to me about African nationalism. I was a kid trying to have a good time, and they’re talking to me about freeing the continent of Africa and why wasn’t that on my agenda. About jazz as a social proxy for racism in America – stuff that was like, whoa! It all turned out great. I finished my senior year by leading a demonstration at the World’s Fair carrying signs that said, “We don’t want a world’s fair, we want a fair world.” So that was my first step down the road of activism. I boycotted my own graduation as a bourgeois act of hypocrisy. I played handball outside the school through the graduation ceremony.
Dreams or aspirations? Pre-teen, I wanted to be a pilot in the air force, then once I hit music that was my dream. I used to go to the Apollo Theater, I used to spend six hours there at a time. I went to all the acts, watched them, studied them, stole from them, watched their moves and how they used words. I loved words, so I would watch and understand about how to tell a story through a song, the different nuances and hooks that people used — that was my life. I collected records, wrote songs, sang, stayed up to 3 or 4 AM. The other thing was, I had this capacity which I say is a good thing, some people say it’s not, but I have this chameleon capacity – I get into a group and just adapt. This really blossomed in high school. I would go from group to group –ethnic groups – and I would become them. It used to drive my mother crazy. For three months I’d do Irish-Jewish, I got into it, the food, whatever. I was always also black, that was the starting point. But then in high school I fell in with the Puerto Ricans, they taught me Spanish, I got introduced to all these exotic Latin women, not just girls – because if you were into the music you’d go to these clubs, and I’d be going out on these dates, I’d be 16 and on a data with a 22 year old fiery Latin woman. I started speaking Spanish at home, and I would only listen to Spanish stations on the radio. Eventually after I got out of school I fell in love with this woman who was from Barbados and I became Bajan. I started eating Caribbean food, drinking Mt. Gay rum, talking with an accent. It was very hard on my parents: “Can’t you just be who you are?”
I had different worlds of friends. There was a core group of guys that I grew up with, from junior high school on, who were neighborhood guys; there were twelve of us. We did everything together, we were at each others’ houses daily. They were the core group. And then there was the next ring, the group of white friends from junior high that evolved from my singing, and that was a separate entity – they did not intermingle with my other friends. And then there were the high school folks, all guys. I didn’t have a lot of contact with girls back then except when I went out to one of these clubs or the occasional inter-school dance. I had one black friend in school whose sister was a very, very famous rock ‘n’ roll singer and I adored her singing and had a crush on her, and I would go to his house just so I could sit there and look at her. So there were these rings. And things stayed in place pretty well until I graduated high school in ‘64 and worked a series of nothing jobs for a few years. I was A1 for the draft so nobody wanted to hire you for a meaningful job.
My friends stayed intact through all that period, and then the next defining time that kind of washed all that away was in 1966 when I did get drafted into the army. That was really the turning point. You go away to something like that, when you come back, you’re not the same person. I was one of the few in my primary core group of friends who ended up in the service, so even before I went to Vietnam, when I would come back, even in that first year, my world was so totally different from my friends who had never been in the service. Many of my friends had never been out of New York City, not that I’d been anyplace terribly exotic but I’d been to places where the military sent me. A few of us have remained in contact but unfortunately most of the core group has drifted away. We’re all blue collar, I was the wealthiest, and we were not wealthy; half of these guys were from single parent homes, on welfare, that kind of stuff, but good homes. Out of the twelve of us, one guy died, committing a crime, two guys ended up in prison, and the rest of us incredibly beat the odds in terms of what we went on to do. One’s a research chemist at Boeing, one’s a senior administrator in the FBI, another one’s this and that, and I’m here teaching. It’s amazing because none of us ever had those kinds of aspirations. We didn’t think we were going to get off the block much less out of New York City. It’s always fascinated me, how well we all did.
So when I got out of school I had a series of meaningless and menial jobs – a stock clerk at a wholesale furrier, I worked in a drug store, a variety of things. The shift was when my mother intervened in early 1966, because I couldn’t find a good job. She was working as adomestic for a family where the wife was Assistant Dean at the Columbia University School of Nursing and the husband was senior faculty in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia Presbyterian. My mother was able through them to pull some strings and get me a job – as an orderly, but nonetheless, at the hospital, Columbia Presbyterian. THAT changed my life because all of a sudden health care was co-equal with my music. I fell in love with the patients and the whole milieu pretty close from day one and it became an overriding passion with me. I don’t know whether it defined who I am or it unlocked, allowed me to see who I am. But 30 years later, I’m still doing it. Then upon that came the army and the war.
That job was just a regular orderly position; I started in the Neurology Institute and then got reassigned to the main building, Presbyterian Hospital, in one of the general medical wards. I had an incredible time there in terms of what I saw and what I learned; the nurses that I worked with were incredible and the woman who was head nurse, very brilliant – she taught me a lot about health care, a lot about medicine, and a lot about leadership. How to get people to do things when they don’t really want to, how to get people to do things when they’re tired, when they’re under-resourced, and how to make it all important. It was great – I had found a home.
What grabbed me the most was the people, the patients – giving, helping. I just really enjoyed it. I still remember the fist patient who died when I was there – the person, the name, the circumstances, and how I felt. Even then understanding the inner knowledge and insight that people have about their own life, their own health, and their own death, because he told us he was about to die. Which none of us understood, except he died, exactly when he said he was going to. So it wasn’t so much the technology, it was the people. I guess there was a spiritual aspect – it was certainly the connection between me and another person, any other person; and that’s where my spirituality is grounded, in connection.
I was very happy there, started there in January 1966 and was having a great time and then Uncle Sam came along. I got drafted on Halloween 1966. Halloween has not been very good to me over the years. I was sent to Whitehall Street which is where the major induction center was. They had to provide you a way to get there, and so if you got a letter you knew what the outcome was going to be by how many subway tokens were in the letter. If there were two, it meant you were coming home; and if there was one, it meant you were not. You just went and they would take you. One token fell out. In the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie, there’s this great scene where Ann-Margret is a teenager and she’s extolling the virtues of how sophisticated and modern she is, and she gets a letter telling her that she’s been selected out of all the girls in the US to appear on the Ed Sullivan show to be kissed by Conrad Birdie who’s kind of this Elvis Presley type character. She just disintegrates from this very sophisticated, at least in her mind, from this woman of the world, to this absolute preteen where she’s jumping up and down because she’s so excited. And I did kind of a similar meltdown in the opposite direction when that one token fell out. I lost all my maturity and sophistication and was jumping up and down trying to make another token appear. But in any event off we went. I was boarded on a train with hundreds of other guys – ironically, my very first train ride – and went from there to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for my week of introduction and processing into the military and from there I was put on a plane and flown to Kansas where I did my basic training, and I was selected to be a medic instead of an infantryman. So I went off to study how to be a medic, and that’s what I ended up becoming. I spent almost a year in Kansas at Fort Reilly and we shipped out from there to Vietnam. I was a combat infantry medic in Vietnam for a year.
My experience in the military ran the gamut. The first 48 hours were the most terrifying in my entire life. I saw a level of hostility and brutality I had never ever seen before even growing up in the midst of New York City. These were people in power beating up on other people who weren’t in power. I remember standing in line after the second day for hours to call home, you could get one phone call – very much like being in prison – and then calling home and screaming into the phone to my mother to get me the hell out of there. And she was very quiet on the other end and said, “Are you cursing at me?” I said, “We haven’t got time to deal with this, get me out of here, they’re killing people here, they’re beating people up, they’re dying right here.” Yeah, they beat a kid senseless, we never saw that kid again – beat him senseless and carried him out. My mother, who intuitively always does the right thing, was very quiet and said, “I’m sure it’s not as bad as you’re saying it is. And even if it is you’re there, you have to deal with it, we’ve taught you how to deal with it. So deal with it. It was nice talking to you. Call back when you can.” And she hung up, and I was left to deal with it.
The intensity of the brutality was one thing; but then meeting so many different people at one time from around the country was exciting and very challenging… guys coming together with only one purpose in mind for the most part, and that was to survive the experience we were having. Listening to people in authority rant and rave about communism and realizing that even though I thought I knew about all that stuff I didn’t know anything. I certainly didn’t know anything about the way they were talking about it. Beginning to make the transition form having grown up in the ‘50ss and watching John Wayne movies on TV and playing soldiers and cowboys and Indians, and all this stuff, where it is a game, to taking that next step where they’re training you to really kill people, and that’s your job, killing people. Beginning to have a sense that this is not a game. You assure yourself that you’re never going to kill anybody but you’re going to go along with this because that’s what you have to do. You quickly adapt. I was amazed at how quickly, even though I’d done a lot of various things in my life (I thought), to make this radical change into this life, this new regimen, new way of life, this new persona, how quickly you figure out how this organism, this organization works and how do you survive and flourish in it. That was pretty fascinating. You watch other people and see how they do it and decide what’s a good way and what’s not, and there were some fascinating examples. It was very intense, very extreme on every level. But it still made sense while you were stateside – it was a job; it’s just that you had a new employer and you couldn’t go home. It was a job. All that changed when you went to war. Everything changes when you go to war, and you change. No one comes back the same, if they come back at all.
Going to war was the hardest thing I’d done up till that point. It certainly ranks as one of the worst experiences of my life, that’s only challenged by the death of my son when I was married before, just a god-awful experience. But you learn so much. I learned how fragile one’s sense of morality is. I learned what you will do in order to survive. I learned what countries will do in order to get their way – lie, cheat, sacrifice you if they need to. I learned that people’s greed and lust for power is boundless. I learned that I wasn’t very different: I/we weren’t very different from the people we were fighting, except they seemed to have a better insight into what was going on than we ever did.
I learned how awful it is to kill somebody. When it ceases to be a game, when you shoot someone and they don’t get up, I learned that. The old days in previous wars, certainly in the movies, when the medics never carried weapons – that was not the case in Vietnam. The only way you could not carry a weapon, even as a medic, was if you were formally listed as a conscientious objector. To become a conscientious objector was so hard it was easier not to formally be one and then work your way toward being one. So you learned how to shoot and you ran around with a weapon and you also tried to save people at the same time. I carried any number of kinds of weapons, and used them, at least through the first have of my tour of duty there. Often in war, at least in that kind of war, you didn’t see your enemy, you didn’t see where you were shooting. Or if you did, there was such chaos and confusion you weren’t sure whether your bullet hit something or not. But fortunately or unfortunately, there was an occasion where I knew I had killed the person I had shot. It was a him or me situation and I prevailed and he didn’t. I was barely 20 and he looked barely 17. And after that I never fired my weapon. I carried it because I had to, but I never fired after that.
So I learned why, at least why I think, war is so seductive to people, particularly to men. I’ll go to my grave remembering, because it was one of those fundamental changes in life, one of those moments when you’re face to face with yourself. Every day that I was in Vietnam, for ten months and two weeks, I started my day the same way. We’d get up and we had to walk this eight-mile road, to check it for mines and clear it, so traffic could go up and down. I can still close my eyes and see every inch of that eight-mile road. So you’d walk in and find mines and booby traps and you’d try to clear them, or if you couldn’t clear them you’d destroy them – all this with hopefully not destroying yourself in the process. When you got to the end of the road and it was declared open, they’d send truck for you and you’d ride back to the base camp and then you’d go about whatever the rest of your day was going to entail. And this is every day. And I remember one day, siting on the fender of the gun jeep, I was sitting there like the quintessential warrior, flak jacket, helmet, M16, a bandolier of magazines and cigarette hanging out of my mouth, like everybody else, riding back down this road. We were located down in the Mekong Delta, in the rice paddies. I was watching the peasant farmers out in the fields working, watching the water buffalo, and I remember thinking to myself about four miles down that road, “You know, this isn’t all that bad.” And you know how when you have a thought and it kind of goes out and then comes around again? I realized what I had just said to myself. I had just said that walking up and down a mine-filled road 22,000 miles from home, in the midst of killing people and having people trying to kill me, over a war that had no meaning – by that time even I had figured that out – I was saying that this isn’t a bad way to live.
And that really scared the hell out of me. How could I say that? I almost fell off the jeep when I realized what I had said to myself. And I thought about that and I thought about that and I realized, and I still believe it today, that the reason I said it was because what war does, particularly for men, is it reduces success to its lowest common denominator. At least in this culture, and in every culture, however it’s defined, you’re supposed to be successful at something. If you’re a man you’re supposed to be successful in certain ways. As the world and society and technology progresses it becomes ever harder for people to find value and worth, and for men who are bred from infancy to be successful, to be leaders, producers, to do that. You can win going up against a baseball game, but how do you win going up against IBM? And war is seductive because the definition of success is so simple. If you’re alive, you’re a success. So every day you wake up and you’re still alive, you’re a success, and you’re a success by defeating your opponent. That is so frighteningly simple it’s really scary. What it said to me was we’ll always have war, because there will always be people who will manipulate that equation, to make people — men and now unfortunately women — buy into that definition of success. We cover it with a bunch of platitudes, but that’s really what it’s all about.
I felt lied to, I felt betrayed by my country, I felt raped, I felt why was I going some place to kill people who had done nothing to me, why was I put in a situation where people hated me, when I didn’t want to do anything tot hem. I tried very hard in my role as a medic to even out the deck, if you will; I stayed in villages and took care of the enemy, when we were into “winning the hearts and minds.” I had a wonderful political education living in those villages and talking to people who had a sense of their own culture. They taught me about what it was like to live and fight and try to be free for 5000 years as opposed to 200 years. And I was wounded, won a bunch of medals, lost a lot of good friends, lost my best friend while I was there. I came back after a year – I was there for the Tet offensive, I saw all the good stuff. I saw a helicopter get shot down by a huge bamboo tree bow and arrow, which made me know instantly that I was on the wrong side. When you shoot down state of the art technology with a bamboo bow and arrow, you’re the guys who are gonna win, we’re the guys who are gonna lose – no doubt about it, we’re just playing this out.
A year later, with one final shred of hope and belief and innocence left, I still believed that if real Americans, Americans like I thought I was, if they knew what was going on, if they really knew, that if you just came back and told them they would listen because you had been there, you had seen it you had done it you had heard it, and they would make this stop. So I came back and tried to tell them. For a year I pretty much drank a lot and became a borderline alcoholic. The only thing that saved me was I had very good taste in whiskey, so I quickly ran out of money. Then after a year I gravitated into the formal anti-war movement, joined Vietnam Vets Against the War and spent the next four or five years working with them, getting beat up a lot, getting spit on, getting called a lot of awful names, getting jailed, and finding out that people didn’t want to know. They either didn’t believe you or even worse they didn’t even want to hear what you had to say. I had a job, I went back to working at the hospital, but political activism was what I was really doing. I went back to Presbyterian Hospital, was there for a while, had a run-in with my boss, left, did a bunch of things, sold insurance, fixed airplanes, but always fit everything around what I was doing with activism. It probably helped me more than I helped it. At least you could be with people who understood your pain.
Anyway, it was awful, Vietnam was awful. The war was awful, the death was awful, what we did to the culture was awful, what we did to a generation of girls who turned into prostitutes was awful. You could always tell where the western culture stopped and the eastern culture began, because when you moved into an area where the west had not really penetrated, it was always so beautiful. And then when the West showed up, we were like locusts. It was just awful.
I got through it with a bizarre mixture of things. I was sure I was going to die, so I just didn’t care. I was so klutzy and clumsy, I always figured I would step on a mine, or a snake – there were snakes everywhere, and I am terrified of snakes. I was constantly running into snakes, from the first week I was there till the last. So a snake was gonna get me, or somebody was gonna shoot me, I was gonna step on a mine. I wasn’t gonna go home anyway, so it didn’t make any difference – that was part of how I got through it. Again you go back to adaptation. No matter what we’re sitting around thinking about, our body is going, “Are you out of your mind? We’ve got to take care of ourselves.” So I became very adept at living in the jungle. I smoked a lot of dope – one thing about dope, as soon as the first rifle shot comes, you’re instantly straight, you’re no longer high – I don’t care how much dope you smoke, when somebody drops a mortar round on you, you’re totally there. So it was that; and it was trying to do what I could as a medic to keep anybody and everybody alive. And I am in no way a hero. When I pull out the medals and stuff that I got and I read the stuff 20 years later that I supposedly did – you know, running across this field with people shooting at me to go get this person and ta-da, I can’t even begin to imagine that that was me. Why would I be so stupid as to do that? But that was my job, and you did your job.
All that and the anger – anger is a great motivator, it keeps you going. I wasn’t angry at the people I was there with. I wasn’t even angry at the enemy. Most of us who were there had great respect for the enemy. It’s very much like being a teenager and dealing with rival gangs. You know there’s conflict there, and if the other gang is really tough, you may hate them, but more than you hate them you respect them. So we didn’t respect the politicians running things, we didn’t respect the desk jockey military guys sitting in a bar in Saigon while we’re out there in a rice paddy, fighting off flies and snakes and leeches, but we respected the hell out of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. Mostly because they were kicking our butt most of the time. So it’s this bizarre mach thing, hate and respect and anger and fatalism.
That’s how I got through it — up until the end, when I realized I was close enough in time that I might actually make it home. Now that I was so close I could reach out and touch the end, I was afraid. That was the time a lot of guys got it – the last two weeks. If you didn’t get killed the first two weeks, when you were so dumb you didn’t know what was going on, you could get killed your last two weeks when just your luck ran out. So I stopped going out on patrols. I had enough seniority that I could just go on sick call, I would hide in a bunker, everyone knew where to find me if they needed me, and they all knew exactly what I was doing. It just hit me, if I don’t go out maybe I can make it after. It was the physical need to survive.
At the same time, I was so disgusted with myself, what I had done, who I had become, what I had been a part of whether I had personally done it or not, I was nonetheless still part of this – I hated myself more than anything else. When you reach the end of your tour, they always ask if you want to re-up, and I seriously thought about it because I didn’t think I deserved to come home. I thought what I had been a part of was so horrible, and I had been so horrible, how could I come back and have any kind of life. I was in hell, and I should stay there. And the only reason I didn’t do that was I knew it would kill my parents. They were hanging on for me to come home. And I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t add them to the list of people I killed – my own parents. You know, I would write them all these letters for a whole year, having a wonderful time wish you were here. There was only one time on one particular mission where I really thought we were all going to die, that I ever wrote an honest letter home. I wrote it to my father, thinking that if I write it to him my mother won’t see it. Obviously every other letter I’d written to both of them, so the fact that I wrote this one only to him was clearly a red flag. So to this day I don’t know if she actually saw it or not; I’m pretty sure she did. And that was the only letter where I told them what it was really like, because I didn’t think I was going to see them again, what I was really into, and that I didn’t think I was going to make it. But I did.
So on August 14, I along with a couple hundred guys and a whole bunch of coffins and body bags got on the plane and took a long ride home – 22 hours to McGuire Air Force base in New Jersey, Fort Dix. On Monday I was in Vietnam dodging bullets and on Wednesday I found myself standing on the New Jersey Turnpike. That was like being in the twilight zone. Not just an out of body experience, an out of life experience. I felt like I was already dead. Everybody else on the bus was talking and laughing and joking or snoring and my whole existence is spread out between Vietnam and the New Jersey Turnpike and I have no idea where I’m at, who I am, and yesterday I was killing people and today I’m trying to make change for the bus. And that was pretty awful. So.
The activism helped a lot. Eventually, many years later mostly due to marital problems, I ended up in therapy and everything was kind of woven into everything else … just a lot of work on my own, living with it, coming to maybe not terms with it but recognizing that it was a part of my life.
I came back from Vietnam and fell in love with this extraordinary Sicilian woman who at the time was the girlfriend of my best friend in the service. I met her when we were home on leave before we went to Vietnam, and she was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen. Not that she was the prettiest woman I’d ever seen, but she had a way about her, dressing and attitude and so forth, that was so incredibly sophisticated. At least I thought. I she was very flirtatious, and when I first met her she said, “When you come back from Vietnam we’ll have to go out on a date.” So I figured that A, I wasn’t going to make it back anyway and B, they were probably going to get married, and C, this was only said in the midst of having drink in a bar and she wouldn’t remember it anyway so I promptly said of course. And then when I got back from Vietnam, I’d been back in the country a couple weeks, she called me because her boyfriend, my best friend, had gotten back a week after I did and it was his birthday and she invited me over for a surprise birthday party. So I went, because I wanted to see him, and in the midst of this party she reminded me of the promise I had made. I felt stupid for having made it and very awkward – this was my best friend’s girlfriend and why would I go out on a date with her — even though I’d do anything to go out with her, I had a code. So she reminded him of the promise and he said, ok, go out on a date with her. I was fully expecting him to say no, of course not. So we went out on this date that was only supposed to be a one-time thing and we ended up falling in love and getting married. She was an absolute wild woman. She was what I describe as the eye of the hurricane. She had the ability to just make chaos around her, particularly when it came to men. Yet in her world, where she stood, it was always so calm. She could never really appreciate all the havoc she was creating.
Anyway, we fell in love, she got pregnant, we got married. The baby was premature, it was a boy and he died two days after birth… and that was awful. She never even saw the baby. I did. That was the single worst moment in my life. This is back in the late 60’s when the country wasn’t nearly as progressive as it claims to be now, so my being involved, even in New York, with a woman from a different race and a different culture was definitely the exception rather than the rule. We both got a lot of flak for it. I can remember standing in this anonymous hospital I had never been in before in my life, and this obstetric resident came down and told me the baby had died and I would have to come up and sign some papers, and did I want to name the baby. I’m standing there, as alone as I have ever felt in my life, as alone as I’ve ever felt, and my wife’s mother was also standing there. Her only comment was that she felt bad about it, but maybe in the long run it was a good thing, because she didn’t know whether she would ever really be able to be the grandmother of a black child. And I just looked at her and said well now you don’t have to worry about it. That was the worst moment of my entire life. I’d lost my son and then someone could say something so cruel. I never forgave her for that… never. I never told my wife, but I never forgave her.
Over the next year, with the loss of the baby, my marriage disintegrated; my wife was very angry about the loss of the baby, blamed me, for reasons neither one of us totally understood, but it had to be somebody’s fault – you know, I was in medicine, I should have done something, I should have known something was wrong , whatever. And so she proceeded to punish me by having an affair with my best friend, and after putting up with that for about a year, I left. We eventually got divorced a few years later, but we remained great friends. I think we would have done better just as friends from the beginning, but we were young, we were stupid. Maybe if she hadn’t got pregnant we wouldn’t have gotten married, but I really did love her and I thought, This is it, I have my perfect wife and my child. It was my whole life renewing itself. It was going to be for my child the way it had been for me. It didn’t work out that way.
But we had the greatest divorce. Our wedding was very bizarre and was exceeded in bizarreness only by our divorce. It was so Woody Allen. We loved and still love each other. In some ways neither of us wanted the divorce really, so for three or four years we could never take that final step. But finally when I got accepted at school at Duke, and it was my intent not to come back, I knew I couldn’t leave with this marriage hanging over my head. It was the first year that New York state had passed no fault divorce, so you didn’t have to go to court and make all kinds of terrible charges against each other. We had no kids, no property; I left her my beat-up knapsack, my guitar, a bunch of anti-war leaflets – all I owned. So anyway, I went to the legal clinic and they drew up papers and they said, you just have to get her to sign the papers, as long as she agrees you won’t have to go to court. Ninety-nine bucks and you’re divorced.
So then I invited her out to dinner and we went to this Caribbean restaurant in the Village I had never been to before, but I’m very much of an intuitive person. I make lots of decisions just by looking at something and going, “That’s it!” So I was walking around one day trying to figure out how I was going to do this divorce thing, and I saw this restaurant, and though “That’s it.” So I took her to the restaurant, I told her we had something to talk about; we hadn’t seen each other for a while so we talked for a while and had this wonderful dinner, and laughed a lot, old times and all that stuff, she was catching me up on her family – she had the worst soap opera family in the world. And finally the moment comes and I’ve got to tell her why we’re having this dinner, it’s between dinner and dessert and I pull out the papers and I tell her what’s going on, I’m leaving and I think this is really best, all you have to do is sign the papers. Well, she just goes berserk. She had — still has — this quintessential fiery Sicilian temper.
As I’m trying to do this the waiter comes over , this middle-aged West Indian guy, to see if we want dessert. She’s in the middle of her tirade – how could I do this, I tricked her to come down here, what a son of a bitch I am. And part of the way she deals with the world, if you’re anywhere in proximity you just get pulled in. So she brings the waiter into the discussion. She’s yelling at him and he’s standing there listening, and she finally has to take a breath. And the waiter – the waiter! — says, “I think it’s a good idea. Why don’t you sign the papers, I’ll give you the best dessert we have in the house, let’s celebrate!” This could only happen in New York. She looks at me and says, “You set this up, you’re behind this whole thing.” And the waiter says, “I’ve never seen him before in my life. We know you love him, he loves you, that’s not what this is about. Come on, we’ll have dessert.” And she finally just says, “Fine, I give up. But this dessert had better be very good.” He brings dessert and some Mt. Gay rum, and the three of us have dessert, have the rum, she signs the papers, we walk out of there four sheets to the wind laughing like crazy. I say, “Come on I’ll take you home.” She goes, “Nah, I’ll take the subway home. I need a subway ride. You know,” she says, “you know how much I love you.” I said, yeah. “You know what Aunt Grace told me.” Aunt Grace was the only sane one in the family. “When you left, Aunt Grace called me and told me to come up there to see her. She wanted to know what happened. I told her what happened, she told me you have done a lot of stupid things in your life but you have just let the best man who ever walked into your life walk out of it. And I never thought you could ever be that stupid.” And she goes, “You know what? I think she was right.”
We stayed best friends ever since. For years and years she would call me up and want to know how I was doing. “You and Anne happy? Yeah? All right, I’ll call back in six months.” It became a game. But she knows, even though it’s been thirty years, that all she has to do is call and say I need you , and I’m there. And I know that she would do the same for me. So… it was a great dinner. A wild marriage and a great dinner.
I got my divorce so I could go to Duke. I had finished up my pre-med stuff at City College in New York, and I was going to Duke to go through the PA program. I had been going out with Anne who became my second wife for a couple years. I left in ’77 to go to Duke, and then Anne joined me down there in ’78 and we got married in my second year at Duke. Then I finished up at Duke and we came here to Maine so I could do a residency in emergency medicine at MMC, this was in 1979. That was my introduction to Maine. I fell in love with it from the first day I came here for the interview. I traveled all around Maine, because the residency was based here in Portland but we went to Skowhegan and Augusta and Waterville so I got to see at least a fair amount of at least southern Maine. And usually I was the only black in the hospital, certainly the only black professional. And that was interesting. Certainly I was used to that by now, but it was pretty interesting. When I was up in Skowhegan, there hadn’t been a black in Skowhegan in a generation. There had been an old black woman who had died twenty-some years ago. So people would bring their kids in and there was nothing wrong with the kid, just so the kid could see somebody black. The kids would talk to me and rub my face, see if anything came off. I was very radical looking then, had a full beard. That was fine. I’d much rather they meet a black person that way than walk through life with some other conceptions of misconceptions, at least I gave them one perception of what blacks are like.
When I finished the residency, it was bizarre, because two weeks before I graduated from Duke my mother died – bizarre because by that time she and my father had separated and divorced and I didn’t even know where he was. That was really hard for me because as I said before I had been really close to him. And it turned out that all that time he was three hours away from me, because he had retired and had remarried and was living in eastern North Carolina. I didn’t know that, my sister knew it. She had been talking to him, telling him what and how I was doing. He was feeling very guilty because of the divorce and the remarriage and didn’t want to confront me about it. He literally stood me up, we were supposed to go to a jazz concert together in 1975 in Carnegie Hall, and he was supposed to meet me out in front and never showed up. I never saw him again for four years, until my mother died, when he called me to find out if I was ok. And that was when I found out where he was, which immediately made it not ok. So he ended up attending my graduation, ironically enough, despite the fact that my mother had done all the stuff to get me into school and get me through this, and even when her health was failing to insist that I go away to Duke, and finish school although I didn’t want to – well then she dies, and he gets to go to graduation. I was very glad to have him there but I was very angry at the way it all turned out. And it just so happened that I was valedictorian, so he really got to see me shine. It was this very bizarre thing with this new stepmother, very weird. But we quickly reconciled and then I came here to do my residency. I finished my residency a year later, and two weeks before I finished it my sister died. I had talked to her one week before and Anne and I were going to go down and see her; we had gone to a Chuck Mangione concert here at the Civic Center, got home and the phone was ringing, and it was my niece telling me my sister had died. That was a total shock – we were very, very close. It got to the point where I thought, I’m not going to go to school any more, because every time I finish school somebody dies.
We left here and my wife decided she wanted to go back to school and become a PA – she’d been a nurse for ten years – so she went Duke, and I taught there for a while. Then she went to Atlanta to get her career going, and I stayed at Duke for a year, then I joined her in Atlanta and taught at Emory for a year. I hated Emory, loved Duke. And then I had a full-time clinical practice for five years in internal medicine, a solo practice with a physician, and he was fascinating, we were yin and yang. He was an older, white, southern, conservative, sexist, racist Republican and I was a northern, liberal, socialist, Marxist, whatever, black radical. We got along perfectly, for two reasons. One is he and I had studied under the same people. He had gone to school at Emory but he’d done his residency at Duke many, many years earlier, but he’d studied under the same person I had, who was actually the father of the PA program. And then when he did his fellowship in New York he was at Columbia, so we had all these points of contact. When he hired me, he said if I was good enough to go to Duke and good enough to survive studying under Dr. Stead, as he had, then despite my troublesome liberal leanings I might be worthwhile. He also saw me as a great way to move his practice into the black community – because he really was a sexist racist, he was a patronizing southern doctor. He was also brilliant – in the sense that even though he was older, and a lot of older clinicians tend to get pretty set in their ways, he was as current on the state of the art in medicine as anyone. So he was really a very good clinician even though he was a total pain as a person.
Part of what I did was to serve as a surrogate social conscience for him., because we had a large practice. Ultimately it became so large that I began to have concerns about the quality of care we were providing. Nevertheless, he was in an uptown upscale part of the practice raping people on what he was charging – he was charging to the max; I was in another part of the practice literally in a different location, with all these lower income folks and working class people and illegal immigrants and prostitutes and whatever, and I was giving it away. He would complain, but he would never stop what I was doing. And I really think it allowed him to feel like maybe there was still a part of him that hadn’t totally sold out. Because when he was a young man, he’d been a pretty idealistic guy, he’d been in Vista and other stuff, but then he’d succumbed to the all-mighty dollar and he was really trying to take every dollar he made with him when he left. I was this guy who would challenge and remind him of things he used to care about. But it got to a point where I really was concerned about the quality. He and I used to fight all the time, but eventually I said I gotta go. I got a lot out of that relationship. I got a chance to help a lot of people, to practice some good medicine, I got a chance to do some extraordinary things, like I got a chance to convince a pimp that giving this prostitute some time off so she could get better was a sound business decision, and he did it. He didn’t beat her and he didn’t force her back on the street, and she got better. She went back to work and everything – that was their thing – but to be able to sit down and actually convince him that this was a good thing, that’s very powerful.
And the thing that made it all worthwhile for me was I discovered that after all these years I didn’t really like medicine. I loved my patients – when I was in a room with a patient it was great, it didn’t matter what their problem was. But when I was in between patients I was bored to death and I couldn’t stand it. I had to read all these journals and they’d put me to sleep. I came to appreciate that after all these years it had never been medicine. I thought it was, but it wasn’t.
It was health care. And how do you make it better, and why don’t we have it, and how come they have it and we don’t, and what about this person and that person. It helped me leave him, because I recognized if not where I needed to go, at least what I needed to be doing. So I’m eternally grateful – he’s dead now unfortunately – but I’m grateful for all the good stuff he gave me, he gave me a lot of support, sometimes he gave me too much support, but he was that bridge between what I had been doing and what I dedicated my life to for the next 15 years — going into health care, health policy and planning, which opened up a whole new vista for me and I got to do yet another whole set of things that whoever would have thought of.
I ended up working for the state Office of Rural Health in Georgia, primary care systems development work, working with communities all over the state. I got selected to do a health policy fellowship. I was one of 30 people in the country to be selected to go to Washington to do this, and it was a great opportunity. It was the best professional opportunity I’ve had in my entire life. It was extraordinary. Just doing it was extraordinary, but on top of that, the year that I did it was the year Clinton had just come into office and he was trying to get the health care reform legislation through. As a Fellow, I got assigned to the White House to work on this. So there I am in the Oval office with all these other people sitting there helping to design what hopefully would be the new health care system for America. THAT was trip! That was truly an out of body experience. There were times I would be sitting there talking to people, senior White House staffers, and they would be saying well we want to do this and that, we’ll put it together this way, and I would hear myself saying, you don’t want to do that. This will not work and it will not work for these reasons. At the same time, I would be floating around looking down watching this unfold and laughing hysterically that they’re saying this, I’m saying No and they’re dumb enough to listen to what I’m saying. It was incredible. We came so close to actually changing. We were so close. And then we screwed it all up. Well, we didn’t; he did.
I learned something important out of that. I’ve been to Washington a lot of times, usually demonstrating; I’d never been on the inside before. But the few days I was there walking through these buildings, where the power that resides there was so palpable, you could feel it. — it felt like you were inside a heart that was beating. Like you could reach out and touch the walls and they would be resonating with it. Every once in a while I’d go by the main corridor and look outside, and I’d see all these people, tourists on Pennsylvania Avenue walking up and down with their cameras. And I don’t say this in a denigrating way, but I would look at them and think, You have no idea. It was those three days or so in there, and then what it felt like when I was done, and they held out their hand and I had to give up my special pass that allowed me entree to the heart, or really the arteries, it was more peripheral – I didn’t want to let it go, I didn’t want to give it back. It was at that moment that I came to understand what power is and the seduction of power. I came to understand yet again how frail the moral veil is, and that I was as susceptible as anybody, and suddenly all these things I understood – Watergate, the Teapot Dome scandal, whatever — I get it and I need to get out of here. And I reluctantly gave them the pass and reluctantly walked through the door. I got outside on the corner and I was literally shaking, and at the time I was still smoking. And I didn’t want to leave the corner. I smoked two cigarettes one right after the other and then I had to go have a drink. Because I could feel the power being peeled off me, and I was back with everybody else.
The next day was fine, I’m back in the pool, I’ll be the gadfly I always was. I thought, this is really scary – I don’t need to come to Washington, I should never get a job with the government even if I thought I could put up with it without being fired. It’s just not where I need to be because this is a drug, like any other drug, and I don’t need to be here. It was thrilling, I learned a lot, I contributed a little, and it was life changing – the whole thing in a package – yet again. And then I came home to Maine. I finished my fellowship in July and stopped smoking — July 4th, my independence day. We moved back to Maine from Atlanta in September and we’ve been here ever since, That was 1993.
It really was coming home. When we left here we knew we were coming back, we thought we’d be back in two years. But we’d come back every year, usually a couple times a year. I can say without exaggeration that from 1980 to 1993 when we did return for good there was not a single important professional or personal or relationship decision made between myself and my wife that was not made in Maine, sitting on the rocks at Two Lights. No matter where we were and no matter what the issue was, if it was that important, this is where we came to sort it out. So this was definitely home for both of us.
What’s special about Maine is the people – it is the nicest place I’ve ever lived, the safest, in terms of how I feel about my own safety as black man in America. I mean, I’m not stupid – I know there are some people who don’t like blacks and I know there probably are some places here that wouldn’t be good to go. But I haven’t found them. In all the various jobs I’ve had, I’ve covered more Maine than the typical Mainer. I’ve had my car break down in the middle of winter. And every place I’ve gone, everybody’s been great, they’re bright, they care and I just love them, I love the weather, I’m a four-season kind of guy, and growing up in the city I learned to love trees. I love snow, I’m not an outdoors person at all buy I just go out and fall in it and that’s all I need to do. I love the water, I don’t swim, but I love the water, Smelling it and seeing and riding on it – a couple times a year we take the mail boat. It’s got everything I want, I like peace and quiet I like not having to lock my door, if I forget. And people have treated me very well. It’s very powerful for both of us. My wife is English-Irish, and on her mother’s side her family comes from Maine. And she’d never been here until I did my residency but she’d heard all about Maine from her grandmother and stuff. We’re loathe to leave. If we do go away when we come back it’s always good; if we’re driving across the Piscataquas River Bridge we look at each other and smile. Because we’re safe. It’s like crossing into the Emerald City. They can’t harm us here.
I’ve never been happier. Unless people run me out of Maine I have no intention of going anyplace else. I’ve had good jobs, and I just like it. I go to New York now and then, we see Anne’s family a lot because her mom is sick, we go try to go down and see a play once a year, and one tradition I try to hold onto is every year I try to go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. I’ve only missed it five times since I was in New York, and two of those times I was in the service. It’s very special to me, it’s one of the most peaceful days in New York. Everyone, at least people who are drawn to the parade, are like children. And people who every other day of the week don’t get along, get along. It’s about kids and it’s about being a kid. It’s a long standing memory for me of my father, my father and I would go to the parade and then we’d go down to Times Square to have lunch. There was this wonderful place called Grant’s, like something out of a Damon Runyon movie. It had all these different sections to it – one place had nothing but hot dogs, another had hamburgers, french fries, and these big deli sandwiches, and Italian stuff, and on either end they had a bar. The place was huge, it was like this eclectic cross-mix of all kinds of Americans in New York. Then after lunch we’d go to some of the shops and slowly meander home and by that time the football game would be on and we’d watch it and have dinner. And that was the tradition. I figure there’ll come a time when I’m too old and too infirm to be able to go, but until that day comes, I’m going.
The work I’m currently doing here at the University, I continue to teach some courses in clinical medicine and I also teach some interdisciplinary one in health policy and health systems courses, primarily in the College of Health Professions but also over at the medical school as well. And then the other thing I’ve been involved with as one of my administrative duties working on the dean’s staff is projects that help the University become more engaged with the community around health care issues. I help arrange events for special public health events and I also represent the University in a number of entities in the state that address health care. For example, I am one of the two U representatives on the Advisory Committee of the Maine Health Access Foundation. They’re looking at trying to effect statewide change around health care. I also have been on the Governor’s Task Force on Health Care reform, again representing the University, and I was one of the members of a subcommittee that was involved with cross-cutting issues of special populations, to look at how those kinds of issues may impact on the Governor’s strategic plan for health care reform in Maine. I’m a University representative to the Maine Bureau of Health Task Force on Eliminating Health Disparities and I work on that with Dr. Mills and some others. And then I am also the University representative to a local coalition called the Race Class and Health Community Partnership. So I’m involved in all those, and they all kind of flow into and around the Center for Transcultural Health that we’re trying to get going here.
That’s a center we’re looking to fully develop here. It’s kind of partially developed in an embryonic way; it basically has two main focuses. One is to help develop new curricula to be utilized in the various health profession programs here, to help the students become more culturally sensitive, more culturally aware in terms of how they interact with clients who come from different health belief backgrounds and different world views than their own. The second part, which we’re already involved in, is providing technical assistance to local community and state government and others around cultural issues particularly as they related to the point of interface between communities and community members and the health care/social service system – how to make that better. And the third piece, which is kind of our long-term goal, is the University itself. It has its own internal primary care health system, which started in Biddeford on our main campus, and has been slowly over the past five or six years advancing westward and northward. It started in Biddeford and went to Saco and then South Portland and now it’s in Portland. It’s a full-service primary care network, and they’re going to be building a new primary care facility in Portland either here on campus or adjacent to the campus. Part of our initiative with the center is to make it part of primary care’s mission to do active outreach to the immigrant and migrant communities in the area, to help bring additional health resources to these communities. Because right now Maine Medical Center is carrying the brunt of that load and they’re somewhat overwhelmed by it. They get some help from the Portland Public Health System, but there’s not nearly enough. We’d like to be able to complement what’s already here. It will be full service – primary care, general medicine in a family practice model, if you will, it will also have both mental health and oral health components as well. So it’s a busy time between my teaching schedule, which is pretty vigorous, along with these various projects.
What do I like most about this? Well, today – not much <laughs>. But what I like really is the time I spend with the students – teaching them. I see my job in teaching as really to subvert them, subvert them or seduce them, trying to help them move toward a much more humanistic model of care, regardless of their discipline, and not to hide behind the technology or the white coat or whatever the shield is they have in place, and to really become advocates on behalf of their patients or their clients. I enjoy the opportunity to do that. I get to rant and rave and challenge some of the beliefs people have which usually they’ve adopted unconsciously and to see whether they’re true or not. I like that. The other part of my job I really like is the community outreach part. The Dean has been extraordinarily supportive in giving me carte blanche to move in whatever circles and whatever direction that I think would be helpful to both the community and the University. And he just asks me every once in a while to tell him why he’s still giving me a paycheck. It’s really comforting to know that I can go out there and as long as I act within reason, and most of the time I do, to know that I have the Dean’s support. I get to do the things I like to do, I get to play and get paid for it, and work with the communities and work with systems and try to help them change. I really enjoy that.
What I like less – even though I know how to work through it and within it, I get tired of the politics of the external world and the internal politics of any organizations. And as nice and as good as this university is, it is an organization so it is political. I get tired of the waiting time, the lag time, dues to internal or external bureaucracies; once you come upon a decision that everybody agrees is a good decision, fine, let’s move on it. Let’s not have another meeting to discuss why it would be good to move on it. So those kinds of things frustrate me. But it’s certainly far less so here that other places I’ve been, both in terms of the University and as well as Maine; not nearly as contentious here in Maine for example as it was in Georgia, which was horrific. But it’s here and as I get older I get more intolerant, I feel like I have less time to be patient.
I’m not sure what the next thing is yet. I’m not a maintenance type person. I like to work on problems or projects or issues, bring them to some sort of completion or solution, and then move on to something else. I don’t have a terribly long attention span for the routine. So the projects that I’m working on, as they develop and reach maturation — I’m not sure what’s next. I would like to stay at the University and continue, hopefully, with the help of the Dean and others, to find other things I can take on. That may or may not be. A few years ago after I had a heart attack I started over at the Bangor Seminary – they have a special program in Ethics for people who are interested in ethics but not interested in ministry. I’d like to continue to pursue that; I’ve kind of been doing that catch as catch can. I want to continue that and see where that might lead me. I can see myself getting more engaged here at the University; I can see myself winning the lottery and just traveling. There are times when I really just want to buy a store and sell old rock ’ ‘n’ roll records like my friend over at Enterprise records on Congress Street – I think he has a wonderful life. So I don’t know.
I think I’ve always been a change agent. It was something my parents instilled in me; they wanted a different world for me than what they had. They had very high expectations of me, and always, even as a child and amongst my peers, I always gravitated toward a leadership position and I was always challenging things – not necessarily for the sake of challenge but to say, this could be bigger better bolder. So it’s always been like that.
Relationship – in some ways I’ve not changed fundamentally, and I’m very pleased with that. And in other ways I have changed, and I’m probably even more pleased about that. I always – at least form late childhood, early adolescence, thought of myself as this child of the Universe. I was a part of the world and the world was apart of me, and so engaging people in friendships romances affairs mentoring, just the engagement process, has always been important to me. I felt fortunate to come along and kind of bop along through the age of Aquarius because that really met my needs. I thought that was a lot of who I was and probably still am. I was a much more private person when I was younger than I am now, in that control – again this is a lot of my father – control was very important to me. So I was much better at giving than I was at asking and taking. And the world has changed me about that and probably my current wife – we’ve been married, it will be our 25th anniversary in December, we’ve been together 31 years if you count the time before we actually got married. She’s had a lot to do with helping me learn how to take, how to ask, how to receive. That was a big change for me. In my twenties, I actually was convinced that I knew all the answers. Literally all, and I really believed it. I would tell you very readily, if we met back then, that the only problem you had is that you wouldn’t listen to me. That was how I looked at the world. Painfully , over the years, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have very many of the answers at all. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of the questions. Which actually has been nice because now I don’t have to make even the remotest attempt at trying to be perfect, and that’s a real relief. So I can revel in my ignorance, I can revel in my incompetence, I can revel in my humanity, which is fun. There’s poet I ran across in the early 70’s guy by the name of James Cavanaugh, he’s an ex-Jesuit priest. And a lot of his writing, particularly his early writings when he was struggling with his own identity shortly after he left the priesthood really resonated with me and taught me about how wonderful it was to be wrong, incompetent – because then it gave you someplace to go.
So I’ve changed a lot in some ways. One of the ways I haven’t changed, which I’ve always been very happy about, is I’ve always been very tolerant. Even if I disagreed with what someone was saying doing whatever, that was ok. In the sixties of course everyone was saying do your own thing, but I really believed that. You know, I’m not very religious and I have very strong feelings about some of the specific organized religions in the world, and at the same time I absolutely respect everyone’s right to be religious. If it works for you that’s fine; it doesn’t work for me and that’s also fine. When I was a kid I used to do something that I think probably kept me sane. I don’t do it as much now as I used to but it’s still there. When I was pre-teen and early teens I would engage the world about both important things and unimportant things by holding these debates with myself. Part of me would take the pro position, part would take the con position, and this little piece of me in between would facilitate. I would do this all the time. It gave me the ability to recognize and within limits reach out and touch at least two sides of an issue and try to understand where people were coming from and most importantly to try to understand where I was coming from. And that’s a part of me that hasn’t changed, and I’m eternally grateful for it because it helps me maneuver through what otherwise – well, what do I mean otherwise? — what IS a difficult world. I’m able to keep an even keel because I’m pretty in touch with myself – the parts that I think are good, the parts that are not as good and I’d like to change, and the parts that are not as good but yet are still fundamental to who I am and therefore must remain. So I’ve been through some change and also some steadfastness.
Now, I’m trying to get back to the creative side of me. I mentioned I was in music for a while, sang and wrote – I probably wrote a couple hundred songs – 197 of them were terrible but there were three or four that were actually good. And I have an intuitive ability in music even though I don’t play an instrument – one of the few times my father backed away was when he wanted me to play piano and he caught me at that time when I was interested in baseball, so he backed away. So I don’t play piano, and I really want to. I consider piano intuitively and I can pick out chords and keys and stuff, so I want a piano. I want to be able to play before I — can’t. So that, I think, is going to be my way back into becoming creatively engaged in my music again. I still do a lot of singing but not really creating, it’s more singing in the car. When I was sixteen I set out to write the great American novel; fortunately I moved on from that – and I used to write poetry. So singing and writing, parts of me that got lost in technology and medicine and politics and the administrative trappings of a career. But about three years ago – I study t’ai chi now, it’s one of the things that came out of my heart attack when I was trying to make some fundamental changes, and I love it – it’s the cheapest and best therapy in town. For me, anyway. About three years ago I was in t’ai chi class and we were doing some things and the instructor told us to take a break and do some free form things whether it had anything to do with t’ai chi or not. And for whatever reason I began to walk backwards, and I was dumbfounded. How freeing that was, and the fact that I hadn’t walked backward since I was a kid, and how great it was. And that opened up all kinds of things for me about the freedom of childhood and the ever-decreasing freedom of adulthood. So I’ve carried around in my head this story, essay, book, something that I want to write that’s titled The Day I Stopped Walking Backward, or something to that effect. So that’s one of the things I want to do. There are still things that I want to say. And even though I don’t have a son to say them to, they’ll be of value to somebody. And they’ll be mine.
I can’t imagine ever feeling done. Because I firmly believe – superstition or whatever – that if you feel like you’re done, then there’s no reason to be living and that means you die. I’m assuming that I will find some new adventures. I am totally into adventures, and that’s how I have seen my life. Some of it’s been really scary, some of it’s been anxiety-provoking, much of it’s been fun, but it really has been adventures. I mean, when I look back now, at where I started and where I am today – who would script a story like this? And who would believe it? So I just know that there’s more adventures and when I’m 75 I’ll be having them. And I have no idea what they are. I want to be able to talk, see, hear, hopefully move. At 75 or 80 I want to be able to enjoy sunrises, sunsets, and beautiful women. I want to feel as alive then as I do now and I know that that’s possible.
I’ve been extraordinarily blessed with the life I’ve had. I’ve met extraordinary people – family, friends, teachers, who have reached out at critical times along the way, to pull me out, pull me up, pull me over, prop me up, and I really, really appreciate that. I have no idea and in one sense I don’t care whether I represent some typical contemporary black man in America. I do think I represent a typical human being. And to me that’s far more important.
When I had my heart attack, it was a very frightening experience in term s of dealing with my own mortality and then deal with how the system deals with you. So I don’t know how much time I have left, even though I’m healthy and I don’t have any major problems since the heart attack. But it’s happened once and like anything else it could happen again. I don’t think I need to race through life but I do think I recognize I don’t have forever, and being very frightened of the fact that I am the last of my family. When I go that’s it, lock the door, end of story. There are not only things I want to see and do — there are things that I want to say, so that somehow the words will be left behind for someone else to pick up. That really makes me the saddest. I don’t find dying attractive, but it’s not the idea of my individual death that bothers me as much as that after I die we’re all gone, and in a short while no one will even remember we were here. And that’s sad because that’s how you live on, because you’re remembered. So I guess my adventure is living. Being here.
Part III: My Personal Responses to Carl’s Story
Given my sense of resonance with even the little I knew of Carl even before I met him, it is perhaps not surprising that I have felt some strong similarities between us as individual human beings. One central image of Carl’s life story is that of the wounded healer, and I would say the same about myself. Carl has transmuted what could have been destructive forces in his own life and given back to the world the service of helping others heal similar issues. For Carl, I see the healing as primarily about human connection across barriers, on many levels of system – friendships, family, teaching and mentoring, community, cultures, health care that is accessible to all. He never talks about it in these terms, but this healing of connection seems to have been his de facto mission from the beginning. However inauspicious his birth, Carl gave his parents the opportunity to create family where before there had historically been loose or no connections. And as a child, it was Carl who became close to both his estranged half-siblings, each of whom had tumultuously difficult lives. How easy it would have been for them, like his paternal grandmother, to dislike or mistreat him, this privileged kid who was getting what they had not had. But they didn’t – they loved him, and he loved them. Part of his enjoyment of the interview, he said, was being able to talk about his family: “Now that they’re all gone, it’s the only way I can visit them.”
In school and in life, he seems to have been driven by an urge as well as some stunning opportunities for connectivity with different kinds of people. The opportunities were often of the kind that can be very destructive if one loses one’s center and is overwhelmed. Carl had enough inner resources and external support to come out enriched: “like everything in my life, “ he says of one strange and threatening experience, “it turned out ok – better than ok.” It would have been so easy to be seriously hurt by being one of twenty black kids in a white middle-class junior high where his performance was under intense scrutiny; instead, he created a multicultural vocal group and fell in love with a series of white immigrant girls. This latter was his introduction to racism and must have been more painful than he described in the interview (more about that later), but the astonishing thing to me is that he kept doing it, kept reaching out.
In high school, he had an opportunity to learn to work a power-based, violent social system where the power was distributed on racial/cultural lines. True, the blacks were on top; but it is clear from Carl’s story that missteps would have been both easy and costly. Instead, he created a safe enough social space to be able to learn from many different people – the teachers, his Puerto Rican friends, and the African nationalists and Black Muslims who were his “first radicals;” and he began to experiment with “being” different cultures. There is a strong sense in the high school stories of healthy connection with a political system – not a benign one — as well as with individuals. Later, much of how Carl survived and made sense of his devastating experience in Vietnam was connection with the people there – both empathically and in actuality when he worked as a medic in the villages. Healing the trauma of Vietnam was also done, in large part, in community — Vietnam Veterans Against the War gave Carl companions in pain and also impetus as a social activist, which he is to this day. Many people isolate in the wake of devastating trauma; Carl did not.
And very few people maintain a friendly connection with an ex-spouse; in Carl’s case, she is Sicilian and neither of their families approved of the marriage; there was tremendous pain and anger in the final year of the marriage; but they are still friends after 30 years. I must admit that in this case part of me, personally, had a cynical reaction (“Hmmm. What does it really mean to still be best friends with an ex-wife?”). But the fact is that whatever its nature, and I am sure it’s complex, there has been lasting connection where most people would not persevere. And then there was the “white racist sexist” Southern doctor in Atlanta who gouged his upscale white patients and gave Carl free rein to expand the practice in lower-income neighborhoods where the white doctor would not go (“I was his surrogate conscience”). I was quick to see the exploitative aspect of this relationship, but Carl seems to have taken that as a given and moved on. He values the experience, and the relationship, not only because of all he learned but also because it pushed him to a place of discovering that his real career passion was not medicine but health care systems, and equal access in particular: “how come they have it and we don’t, and what about this person and that person.”
Carl feels gratitude for all his experiences — with the exception of his son’s death and the Vietnam War — and for having had enough support, “from some extraordinary people,” not only to get through the challenges but to be enriched by them. I hear in the voice of these interviews is a blend of intense love and enjoyment of people, and an equally intense mentality that weighs and sifts a reflects and theorizes.
My own story as a “wounded healer” is in many ways different from Carl’s; but the theme of having just enough resources and support to, ultimately, be enriched by challenged, and the theme of gratitude even for some horrible experiences, these are similar. The biggest difference, and I write this with a pang, is that I have not developed so much the gift of connecting. One of my reactions to hearing Carl’s life story was how much I miss being with people of different cultures, and in particular how much I miss two old friends — my Puerto Rican friend Millie from my first graduate program – where is she now? And even more, I miss Reg, my first mentor in business, my friend, my co-conspirator in a horrible and exploitative system, and the only other black man about whom I knew as much, personally, as I know about Carl (actually I knew more about Reg). This man was such a great friend to me – in a purely human, never in a romantic sense – that years after I left Cleveland, where we worked together, when I heard him paged in the Chicago airport where I was between flights, I ran with a suitcase for what seemed to be miles and risked missing my connection in the hope that I might see him.
Another theme that is both different and similar is that both Carl and I have had a fierce lifelong drive for achievement and even, dare I say, as he did, “perfection.” My attitude toward this part of me has been somewhat ambivalent — as a white woman who for much of her life did not receive and did not create the support necessary to realize achievement ideals fully, I have actually blamed some of my difficulties on my achievement drive. It was refreshing to hear Carl’s acceptance of his own relentless urge to achieve and to learn. From remarks he made off the tape, I think he regrets the impact of his control orientation on some of his personal relationships, especially earlier in his life; but there is no doubt that achievement, learning, and the pursuit of perfection are sources of joy in his life.
Other things stand out for me about Carl’s interview. He talked about relationships, far more than most men I have known, and he volunteered information about intimate relationships with women with unusual readiness. I felt at times that my interview with him would have almost been like talking to another woman , if I had been able to chime in myself. Obviously this is an important part of his life, something he thinks about, and again, unlike most men I’ve known, something that he talks about openly and easily. He has a sense of himself as a caretaker and nurturer, too, that I find unusual in men – not that he does the nurturing, many men I have known do that, but that he seems to define himself in that way and, again, that he talks about it readily. Carl says of his first wife that even now she can call him and ask for help. When we first met, he gave me his home phone number, saying, “Anyone I work with has my home number. You can call me for any reason at any time. Later, we might have a discussion about whether it was necessary, but I want you to feel you can call.” He wept over his father’s nurturance of him – in particular, the story of his father pretending to be able to play baseball for him. And when the tape recorder was turned off, he shared that the core of who he is, his strength and his struggle, are illustrated by two fictitious characters; and one of those unfailingly accepts and cares for those he loves even when he thinks they have done something terrible.
Carl talked more openly about power, power dynamics, and the world as a place of conflict and political forces than most people I have known — of course, most of these have been white. He frequently made explicit mention of himself as one who “prevails,” and again, I have not known whites to speak about that so openly. This in particular, as well as the sense of self as nurturer, and the wholehearted focus on achievement, reminded me strongly of Reg; and I began to wonder whether I was encountering some aspects of “African-American male culture” – based, of course, on a sample of only two. Perhaps some of these are things I miss about being with self-realized people of oppressed cultures in general — the ability to speak straightforwardly about inequities, power dynamics, to recognize the messes that we as humans get into and still have, at least much of the time, understanding and compassion. I remember not only Millie and Reg but also my Chinese friend Wilming, my wonderful Jewish mentors Joyce Bader and Joseph Melnick, and my teacher Bob Chin, who was the first person I ever heard use the term “marginal person” (he was talking about himself and how his marginality had helped him become a consultant and change agent).
In fact, one of the more striking observations I made as I read through Carl’s life story interview was that I actually do not know the extent to which, or in what ways, he sees himself shaped by African-American culture, as apart from the dynamic of cultural oppression experienced as a black man in the US. I don’t know because I never asked, in so many words. I did tell him, several times at the beginning of our conversations, that I had wanted to interview a person of a culture different from my own, at least partly in order to experience a little of how a person might develop, influenced by a different culture. He was probably referring to that when, at the very end of the interview, he remarked that he sees himself as a typical human being, not so much a typical African-American man; and that this humanness is what is more important to him. And that, I think, was the truth of the interviews: although he was very straightforward about experience that was shaped by being black, he focused on the humanity of his story.
I realize, though, that there was something else going on for me, and that was this: I would have been unlikely to question a member of a culturally oppressed minority about the impact of his culture on his life, because the oppression looms large in my mind, indistinguishable from the other flavors we think of as being due to “culture.” I did not have the awareness, when I interviewed Carl, to be able to separate the two. I assume that it is insensitive to ask about the influence of oppression – certainly, to ask someone I have just met. Perhaps this is common sense. But perhaps being unable to talk about culture at all in that instance is one more facet of that problem that is the undiscussability of race and racial oppression. Certainly I lost information and potential connection by not being able to ask about African-American culture. I expect I will feel my way around this only in relationship with other human beings who are also members of oppressed minority cultures.
My learnings in this process were not so much nuggets to take away, like a squirrel with a nut, but doors opening – doors for inquiry and connection. In that vein, I found one other avenue of inquiry, which is about my response to the pain of another. There was, for me, at least, a more intense pain behind many of Carl’s stories than he actually identified in so many words. Surely, for instance, any early teen, no matter how confident in himself or how securely raised in family and community, would be on some level devastated by a junior high school experience in which he repeatedly fell in love with girls of different races, only to have their parents become hysterical upon meeting him. Carl did not deny the pain; neither did he quite acknowledge it. I’m sure this is at least in part about telling as much truth as possible, but not too much, to someone you don’t really know, a white person who is a tourist in your life.
I sat with this discomfort, of feeling like a day tripper; and I did not know what to do. I still don’t. If we were friends or colleagues, I would see if we might talk about it. I don’t know if that is possible here, without a container of relationship. I hope that my naivete in failing to anticipate this and then not knowing what to do did not leave a bad taste for Carl. And even though it’s a different situation, I am wondering now, too about the time when as a clinical counselor I will have clients from different cultures, who don’t have reason to trust me yet, who might have different norms of talking about pain and who might disclose some level of pain without fully, as we whites say, “owning it.” What will go on for me, at a feeling level; how will I manage it? That is something I will learn. Somewhat in the same vein, I noticed both when I was hearing about Vietnam and also when I was transcribing that part of the tape, that I dissociated and did not feel the horrendous pain of this experience at all. I have listened to horrible traumas of clients, friends, and colleagues in workshops without, I think, disappearing in this way. Did I dissociate because this trauma is so huge and unimaginable? Because Carl had also, to some extent, dissociated (he would have to, in order to talk about it with a stranger)? Because, again, there wasn’t a container of whatever relationship for this disclosure? All of the above? My experience before this is that I can be where the other person is and also be in some centered place in myself; that didn’t happen here. Again, an open door and an awareness to be developed as I learn.