Technology, Science, and The Arts Converge Upon an Outcast Boy

This is what I want for Christmas. A 2-xl Robot from 1978 and the T.I. Personal computer from 1983…It was the first learning toy I got when I was 8 years old.

And my first computer at the age of 12 or 13. My parents where like: “Come on…we went to Kmart” and they where like “Use this!” My parents didn’t know a computer from a hole in the wall…and at $300 it was no chump change for us. Granted only $1,000 in today’s money, but back in the early 80’s…that was an investment for my parents. At that time, my Jr. High, Van Syckle had a room full of Apple I’s and were expressly told “Those are computers for the smart kids.” Well, I never saw those PCs being used, so I just assumed they were for the white students or…more likely, we…just like we had few smart teachers, didn’t have very many smart students.” So when my birthday came around and my parents loaded up on computers, Intellivision and accessories. I felt like the Prince of Egypt.

My Uncle Gene got me into reading Omni Magazines and he was like: “Joey, one day computers are gonna run the world.” Nobody was talking about personal computer then…but my uncle knew. This was about 1981 when he told me that. It’s weird that fifteen years or so after that, I would return home from working at Harvard to try to get the community to rally around CityScope (a concept I developed for the internet in 1996. Now mind you, I’m an artist, actor and art curator around this time…doing concerts and exhibits…I didn’t even think of myself as a technologist, only an artist who uses technology. At most, to pay the bills. I definitely wasn’t smart enough to be a programmer.

Database design and html coding (by hand thank you) was my upper limit intellectually. That, and the fact that I could see problems and solutions clearly, is what the companies paid me well to do, but I always wanted to empower people with technology. I had few takers.

They would make me wait outside their offices only to tell me, “Sorry, we’re so very busy.” They would say, Attorney M. a noted civil rights activist and lawyer would ask me:”What is this internet thing, is it like AOL?”, or “Who needs a f*cking website?!” even my father was like: “This is useless.” Ultimately they laughed me out of town. Community leaders wouldn’t even donate time or resources for me to get Enterprise Zone Funding from the government. Why? I wasn’t black enough…you heard right. They just couldn’t find it in themselves to support a “half-breed”, for I was a little to white presenting, and a little too queer to truly get behind. There were some community leaders who truly tried supporting me, I don’t mind naming them. Hellen Coulton (our city’s HHS Commissioner and Norma Baker, a powerhouse of a woman and leader in Community Services. They gave me design work at least. But for the most part, I was treated rather poorly by my own people, family included.

But I kept it moving. When my Aunt Lorraine called me to come live in D.C., it was a blessing. She had been Jessie Jackson’s right hand for over 30 years, at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. That’s how I ended up in D.C. There, during the Clinton/Monica Lewinsky, and Losing Princess Diana years. I did work in tech and at the top design agencies, and I made good money. I worked for the best of the best, from The Discovery Channel, Ketchum PR, Top Investment Banks to Arthur Anderson. They even wanted to give me clearance to send me to the Pentagon. I said…oh, hell naw. I felt uneasy about what was happening in the Middle East, and honestly…I just had bad vibes about that place. I joked recently with a friend of mine, who had plans to visit the Pentagon that day…that we could have both been there. But I left D.C. and really it wasn’t because I thought it was bad, it was a beautiful place, I was being offered top-dollar. But I couldn’t see just leaving my father all alone, and TBH…money isn’t everything. I had a few rich friends there who were among the most wretched, unhappy and unkind people I ever came across.

I returned a couple years later and they said, “Oh, that internet thing took off, white boys up in Noho made milllions AND KEPT THEIR JOBS.” (sigh) I gave them (community “leaders”) resting bitch face that honestly has never gone completely away. I pitched “Social Calling Cards” a social network based on relational databases….to my Uncle Gene in 1998, he looked at me like I was nuts. Lesson. You got a dream, you go out there and do it…period. (Will Smith, Pursuit of Happyness)

But life in my early childhood had it’ golden thread…though my circumstances weren’t always great, my parents did everything in their power to educate me and turn me on to learning and art. They had never gone to college, they were shopkeepers, but they knew education…no, learning and understanding were the way. Ages 7 – 12, bad things happened then, but also there were beautiful things. Alone, and under my parent’s protection, I had not a care in the world and every Saturday meant Kung-Fu double-feature matinees, by myself…but I didn’t care…I LOVED it. On occasion I went to the science museum with Pop or on road trips with Ma. I didn’t need other kids to be happy, I was doing my own thing. I want to remember that now…at this stage of my life. I want that magic again.

Well, I programmed the shit out of that TEXAS INSTRUMENTS TI 99 4 A Home Computer. I gave up eventually because it was so much damn work…I had to save the programs by holding a microphone up to the baud tone speaker. Yup! Damn…forgot all about that. Well, I’m trying to get these items for my collection to pass on to my kids. TEXAS INSTRUMENTS TI 99 4 A Home Computer and the Mego Corp 2-XL Robot. Of course I might play with them first. But I need the tapes, programs, menus. I really do wish I stayed with computing like that, but I went for acting and art instead. Well, I made it to working for MIT and the World Bank being self-taught, so perhaps my parents and uncle knew a thing or two. My parents were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, they had their flaws. But as parents go they really did their very best. Only now…later in life do I see that they possessed many first-class traits that I often fall short of. They accepted everyone, irregardless of size, shape, color or queerness. They always looked out for the little person, and I admit, they were better than me, character-wise on many levels. But that was missed by me and others, until the years past and it was too late to acknowledge. I never got to speak to my mother as an adult. She passed only days after my 16th birthday. I would love to say, right now…and I know you are watching. That I saw past your flaws to see your perfection. I hope I told Pop enough. You were first-class parents, because you did the best you knew how, and that is all we can ever hope for from our parents.