Wednesday, February 03, 2016

How I Became A Radical In Opposition To Authority-Part Three


This is part three. Click for Part One and Part Two
By Der Kosmonaut 
  At BU the racial and class tensions between me and my colleagues became quite acute. I came from an Upper Middle Class background and had for the most part been in racially integrated settings. I used to socialize with children of the wealthy. When I was teenager, I used to go on week long camping trips with the elite children of the Northeastern United States. The tensions were more mundane. I was from the city. The others were from the affluent suburbs of New York and Philadelphia. They hailed from all white insular suburbs and were preppies. Still, I got on with all of them quite well and had managed to develop good friendships. 

  At first the tensions with my university colleagues were regional. As I've explained, New York City was a separate country from the rest of the United States. Even then, New York is still the de-facto capital of the Northeast. The city straddles midway between Boston and Washington, DC. Geographically New York City is the northern border of the Mid-Atlantic states. Northeast of the city along the coast begins New England. The Northeast is oldest part of European settlement in the United States. Though the various colonies, which became states, were settled by different groups for various reasons, they more or less had the same pace and level of development. New England was mostly settled by the Puritans. New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were settled by the Dutch. Maryland was settled by the Irish. Maryland is exceptional in so far as that it was first Roman Catholic settlement in the United States while the New England and the Mid-Atlantic were settled by Protestants. The Northeast was the center of the Industrial Revolution in the USA. So despite the differences in the development and origins of the states and areas of the Northeast, they were not major. Taking an Amtrak railway tour between Boston and Washington, DC, one would notice many similar characteristics of the different cities. In my novel The King of the Woods, I described Baltimore has the Sixth Borough of New York. In the same novel, I described Philadelphia as being like New York in an alternate dimension. Others have noted very strong similarities between Philadelphia and Boston. New Jersey is just one giant suburb of New York City and Philadelphia. The southwestern portion of Connecticut is also suburban New York. Boston is the most unique of the Northeastern cities but even it was in many ways the original template for New York City. Boston was the first metropolis of the United States. It also has the oldest subway system in North America. Indeed, the Philadelphia subway originally was identical to the Boston T. 
 Then there is the dialect. From New Jersey up to Maine the Northeast speaks a dialect known linguistically as non-rhotic English accent. This means that the sound of the letter R is dropped. Within the Northeast there are various degrees of non-rhotic accent. Natives of New Jersey pronounce it New Joisey. New Yorkers pronounce the city and state as New Yawk. The most (in)famous is the New England non-rhotic popularly known as the Boston accent. There the letter R is pronounced as the short form of H. Harvard becomes Hahvahd. Car becomes cah. Park becomes Pahk. For example: Why did ya pahk the cah so fah from da bah? 
  One will also notice that Northeasterners have difficulty pronouncing the TH sound of English. In New York and to a lesser extent in Boston, TH is replaced by D. A resident of a Middle Class high rise apartment in Manhattan will say that they live on the Dirtieth floor. Likewise a resident of a similar working class high rise in the borough of  Queens will say that they live on the Doitieth floor. Of course, there is rapid fire pace of the spoken language. New Yorkers are renowned for their hectic pace of their speech.  For a good example of the Northeastern American accent, please listen to Danny Simmons, the late great announcer at New York's Penn Station rail terminal.
  The point that I'm trying to convey is that the Northeast is itself a country that is distinct from the rest of the United States. To this day I can easily relate with others from the Northeast. Whether they hail from Washington, DC or Boston, there is a shared history and culture, which in turn creates a shared sensibility. South of Washington, DC and west of the Appalachian mountains lies the United States of America. As far as I'm concerned not only are the regions outside of the Northeast foreign lands, they are hostile.
  As I was the only Black student and native New Yorker in my History and Education program, I stood out from the rest. At the time the television comedy program Saturday Night Live had a recurring skit "Coffee Talk with Paul Baldwin" played by the actor Mike Myers. It was a parody of the New York accent. For my colleagues I was the living embodiment of the skit. Indeed I used to have a deep New York accent which was the source of amusement and mirth for the other students. They used to come up to me and ask me to say certain words.
"Hey K say water!"
"Wawder" would be my reply. This was followed by guffaws from the students
"Say quarter!"
"Qwauder" would be my reply. Giggles galore would follow.
  Of my few regrets in life, I'm sorry that I lost my New York accent. I still have remnants of it which comes out from time to time, especially when I say "New Yawk", but for the most part it's gone. I decided to clean up my English, but in the process I affected a strange accent which sounded almost Northern English. I was a huge Morrissey fan at the time and most likely I had unconsciously tried to sound like him.  As I traveled abroad, my accent changed for various reasons. The main reason was that I wanted to be properly understood. Later on, I incorporated the many accents and dialects from my travels. Today I have a curious mixture of New York, Boston, Montreal, Vienna and Newfoundland in my vocal intonations. Sadly, the New York, like many accents worldwide, is nearly dead. Today one would be hard pressed to hear a genuine New York accent on the streets of Manhattan.
  I didn't make many friends at BU. I simply didn't like most of the other students. They were politically conservative and socially reactionary. Their values didn't align with mine. At the time I was a textbook Upper West Side Manhattan Liberal. In other words, I was a Liberal Democrat in the line of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mario Cuomo. I hadn't become a political revolutionary but that was to come soon enough.
  My biggest disappointment with BU was the lack of a healthy intellectual climate. One of the reasons why I couldn't wait to finish High School was that I believed that I would be in a serious and sober learning environment. I was fed up with foolishness and stupidity. Apart from reading, writing, arithmetic and history, I didn't learn anything in Grade School. For the most part, school was a waste of time. I had assumed that since I was going to Boston University, I would be in an academically elite setting. I was looking forward to debates and discussions about history, philosophy, politics. Alas, what I found instead was High School part two minus the rules and regulations. My first year there was only one other student who had any intellectual curiosity. Unsurprisingly she hailed from New Paltz which is located approximately 123 KM north of New York City. 
  Disappointment aside, what really astonished me was the abject ignorance and stupidity among the other students. I quickly learnt that Boston University was the dumping ground for rich kids that couldn't get into any decent universities. They were so uneducated that, even though their parents attended Ivy League schools, their Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores were so abysmal that their "legacy" status wasn't enough to get them into Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc. The reason being that the Ivy League schools prestige rely on the average (SAT) scores. Allowing these children in would risk the schools' ratings. Boston University had a special remedial college known at the time as the College of Basic Studies (CBS). It turned out that Boston University was the only university to take in the rich kids who couldn't even make it into the public State and City universities and colleges. At best, they might have qualified for Community College, but that was questionable. Since these students had rich parents, it was simply a matter of social standing that their children attended a proper university. While the other parents could boast of sending their kids to Ivy League schools, BU offered a social lifeline to these families. Hence parents could boast that their children attended Boston University, even though in reality, they were in the remedial courses.
  The College of Basic Studies (CBS) was, in the final analysis, the school for rich dumb kids. It was the butt of all jokes. The initials CBS had many uses. "Coloring Book School", "Cute But Stupid", "College of Bart Simpson" "Couldn't Bribe Silber" (in reference to then Boston University president John Silber, who I will get to later.) When I lived in the West Campus dorms next to CBS I was surrounded by rich morons. Rich kids are obnoxious enough but combined with ignorance and stupidity, they became unbearable. To put it in a contemporary context, it was like being surrounded by thousands of young Donald Trumps. There is a widespread notion in the United States that rich people are smart. Many mistakenly believe that the rich made their fortunes solely from their brilliance. The writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. touched upon this in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. Describing Americans glorification of ignorance and wealth, Vonnegut describes the typical American thinking using the quote: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?"
  As horrible as the College of Bart Simpson students were, it wasn't anything compared to the School of Management (SMG) students. SMG students were the majority of all undergraduates at BU. For the duration of the time that I lived in the campus dorms, I had always been assigned SMG roommates. These students came from all over the country, and in some cases from abroad, were petite-bourgeois through and through. They had a single minded focus which was to become filthy rich and to retire by the age of Thirty-Five. These were the contemporary 1% in training. Actually there were probably the top 10% for they attended BU rather than Harvard Business School. They had no interest in expanding their minds. They were bereft of intellectual curiosity and devoid of any creative or cultural pursuits nor were they in the least interested in anything which broadened their horizons. Unlike many of my fellow Manhattanites, they weren't even superficially cultured. Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers from the ghettos of The Bronx and Brooklyn had more culture and intellect than these rich whites from the suburbs of Middle America.
  As for myself, I had attended the School of Education (SED) in the Social Studies Secondary School Education program. After it was impossible for me to attend flight school due to my poor mathematical abilities, (I am the first one to admit my imbecility when it comes to mathematics and natural sciences.) I settled on a career path to become a High School History teacher. For my SMG roommates, my choice was as foolish as it was incomprehensible. What was the matter with me? Didn't I want to make money and get rich? Keep in mind that this was during the peak of the Reagan-Bush era. During the first half of Sophomore year I walked along campus with my two SMG roommates. When we passed by SED, the two of them made a joke:
"Do you know what that is?" The first asked the second.
"Yes it's the School of Education. That's where Kosmonaut goes."
"No," replied the first. "It's a bad investment."
  Hence I was surrounded in a sea capitalist degeneration. Think about it. I wanted to teach future generations about history. Furthermore, I wanted to be an educator. I wanted to impart knowledge to others. For these capitalistic degenerates, that was nothing more than a "bad investment". Wretched! The backgrounds of my SMG roommates is worth describing. The one with whom I had shared the same bedroom was the son of a US Air Force Major and hailed from Fairfax, Virginia. The other whom had his own bedroom in the apartment was the son of a Philadelphia corporate attorney and hailed from Cherry Hill, NJ. That was already too much for me to handle but it got worse, much worse. Our neighbor in the next dorm to us was the son of the then president of Costa Rica and was also a SMG student. He was not only a rich swine but he was an arrogant scion of the wretched Latin American Comprador class. In his room hung a picture of he, his father, mother and siblings posing with Barbara Bush, the former First Lady and mother of George W. Bush. As soon as I saw that photo, I knew that I was breathing the same air as my enemy. I hated George H.W. Bush, especially after his viciously racist campaign he used to win the presidency in 1988. It was known throughout Black America that Bush was the number one political enemy of the race. Whenever girls would visit the Costa Rican, he would show that photograph and tell them that Barbara Bush was his grandmother. (I was hardly surprised years later when I was informed that Costa Rica has a rigid racial segregation system in place.)
  The Costa Rican president's son loved to show off his wealth. Even though he was just Seventeen, he has obtained a dozen counterfeit identification cards which he was given through the Costa Rican consulate in Boston. One night we went to the liquor store to buy booze. When the clerk asked for identification, the Costa Rican through six counterfeit cards on the table: "You want to see my ID? Here! You want to see more? Just ask!"
On another occasion he decided that he wanted a car. He went to Costa Rican consulate and picked up a briefcase of $20,000 cash. He then went to a car dealer and bought a brand new white BMW. My class resentment against he and the others churned and slowly burned.
  As I had written earlier, I was used to being around affluent whites. However, there's a big difference between the affluent whites on Manhattan's Upper East Side from those elsewhere. While there was plenty of racist whites in New York City, they were different from these Middle America whites that I was surrounded by. I must go into some detail for the reader to understand.
  Given the geographically dense nature of New York City (more so then than now) all social classes had to rub elbows with one another. Even though most of the city was racially and economically segregated, everyone was forced to interact with each other one way or another. Everyone takes public transit to get from one end of the city to the other. Only a tiny elite are driven around by limousine. Even those that do, their children don't. All kids rich or poor, whether they're Black, Latino or white must use the subway and buses to get to and from school. Even the rich white kids that go to the elite prep schools must take public transportation like everyone else. I can say with a certainty that even Donald Trump as a youth had to schlep to school on the subway like everyone else. That was the uniqueness about New York City at the time. Your skin color and bank balance counted for very little in the daily routine. Even the top executives on Wall Street had to ride the same elevators as the lowly receptionists. Whether you made a six figure salary or made minimum wage, you had to stand in overcrowded subway trains as everyone else. Your wardrobe didn't entitle you to reserved seating on the subway or buses. Seats were first come and first served. If an empty seat appeared, it was those with the fastest feet that sat down. There was an old saying that came from the subway: Move your feet, lose your seat.
  Given this reality of social dynamics white wealthy New Yorkers had to develop a natural tolerance for those different than they. This, I may add, included the suburbanites from Long Island, Westchester County, Connecticut and New Jersey. Sure they were part of the white flight that fled the city centres following the Second World War in order not to live next to Blacks. Still, they too had take their commuter trains to Grand Central and Penn Station and from there take the subway along with everyone else. Even though many were racist and classist, it was checked by reality each and every working day.
  This wasn't the case with the rich whites that I had encountered at Boston University. All their lives, they had inhabited completely lily white worlds. Their parents drove directly to work from the suburbs. They had never had any sort of interaction with Blacks or those from the lower classes. If they did, it was most likely that their maid or cleaner was a person of color. Given their class and racial insularity, many of them hadn't a clue about everyday reality. They were, in short, out to lunch. They had a mentality and outlook which was alien and the antithesis to what I was used to. In essence, I had encountered White America for the first time. Not only did I dislike them but thanks to them I would come to hate everything they represented, namely capitalism.
  It was at Boston University where I got to meet the children of the American ruling class. I slept with them (yes I do mean sex as well as sleeping in close quarters). I ate with them. I studied with them. I socialized with them. I got to see know them upfront and personal. American capitalists were real to me. They weren't some abstract caricatures like the Monopoly game board character. Nor were they one dimensional personas on TV like Bill Gates or Donald Trump. Unlike many of those that protested with Occupy Wall Street, I actually know the children of the ruling class intimately. My hatred for the capitalist class is personal. I not only disapprove of what they do and represent but I despise them personally.
  It didn't take long for my resentment to erupt. Not only against my roommates and the Costa Rican president's son but against nearly every student at BU. I became bitter and surly. I lashed out. I cursed out my roommates. I insulted the vast majority of the residents in the building. After more than a decade of daring authorities to take drastic measures, they finally did it. I was ejected and banned from that dorm.
Even that didn't stop me. I still regularly visited the building even after I had been officially banned.
  Because I was still a registered student, I still had my university ID card. The way it worked at the time was that at the bottom of the card was a space where housing stickers were placed. Each dorm building or dorm area had an alphabetical code. In order to enter into the buildings one had to show their card to a security guard. They would check the letter to verify if the student had the proper credentials to come in or not. It was quite an elaborate system which is beyond the scope of the essay. When I was ejected from the dorm, the building code was removed. Of course I found a way around it. I had a personal connection within the university housing office. I asked that person if they could get me another residence sticker. They asked me if there was any in particular. I didn't want to get the same one for the building as that would be obvious and I didn't want that person to lose their job or worse. I told them to give me another sticker which would allow me access to all dorms between the hours of 6AM and 1AM. (The dining halls were open during those hours and the ID cards doubled as meal cards. All the dining halls were located within various dorm buildings.) At one point I ran into the director of the building in the dining hall. He was the one who had me banned. He was quite surprised to see me within a week of my banishment. I smiled and waved at him, knowing that I once again I pulled one over another authority figure.
  This had worked for a couple of months until the Resident Assistant (RA) from the floor which I had lived on caught on to me. When he wasn't doing RA duties, he had a work study job doing security for the largest dorm complex on campus. When I went into that particular dorm to visit a friend of mine, he stopped and questioned me. I invented a piece of fiction saying that I was able to move into another student residence. He seemed to believe me at first but of course he had to check my story. The next time he saw me I was on my way out and he called out:
"Hey K! Wait a minute. I investigated you! You don't live anywhere on campus. I'm going to have to take your card."
After I attempted to add a weak epilogue to my fiction, he wasn't buying it.
"I know that's not true. I need to have your card now!"
Knowing that the jig was up, I bolted. He yelled after me to come back. He wasn't allowed to leave the booth since he needed to inspect the steady endless steam of students coming in. It was another battle with authority and once again I bested it.
To be continued....
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