Mel Watkins: One on Self 

by Walt Shepperd '62 
 
 

 
Mel Watkins '62 
 
Schooled in otherness, Mel Watkins '62 came early to cynicism. His memoir Dancing with Strangers, to be published in February by Simon and Schuster, recounts his first lesson to view celebration as a portent of reversed fortune. At age four, left alone in the family car, Mel undid the brake and found himself rolling toward the edge of a cliff. His father rushed out to save him, but collective admiration of the elder Watkins' heroics and relief at Mel's safety were soon dulled by the inevitable strap across the buttocks.
It was an attitude, however, that enabled Watkins, a Negro growing up amidst the steel mills of post-war Youngstown, Ohio, to maneuver successfully through the Colgate of the late Fifties and early Sixties. 

To describe Mel's introduction to the Colgate of that era as culture shock would push understatement to its extreme. "I watched with amazement," his memoir recalls, "when meals at the Student Union turned into food fights: rolls tossed like grenades, chocolate pudding flung to the ceiling, where it stuck and dripped onto the heads of the unsuspecting, and Jell-O or creamed chicken poured into laps or over the heads of the least assertive or most vulnerable. It was startling to me; I'd never witnessed a food fight in my life. Frequent scarcity in my home dictated that we eat food or save it for someone else - not blithely hurl it about as if we were playing with mud-cakes." 

Carrying a very different brand of alienation, I met Mel our second day on campus, waiting on the Student Union lunch line, where the current Hall of Presidents used to house the first-year students' dining room. His memoir recounts his suspicion at my approach, asking if he was Mel Watkins the basketball player. "Yeah," he remembers his reply, "wasn't too hard to find me, was it?" At the time, I didn't sense the distance implied when my greeting of "What's happening?" would be countered with, "You tell me, my man. It's your world, you know that." It didn't take long, however, through shared enthusiasms for the games of basketball, pool and cards as well as a taste for unreconstructed rhythm 'n' blues, to form an alliance acknowledging that no matter whose world it might be, both of us lived in it uncomfortably. 

At Colgate we might have been roommates if not for the sense we both had for encaving our own space. But that first year, sharing the demands and fatigue of practice sessions, we both came to grips with the realization that, for very different reasons, neither of us would achieve the fantasies we brought with us of playing professional basketball. While we gloried in being able to keep pace with the pre-season conditioning plan provided for us by former Colgate and Boston Celtics player 'Black Jack' Nichols, the first day of official practice showed me how far down the bench I'd be sitting. 

It took a little longer for Mel, who had been recruited by Ohio State, NCAA champions our junior and senior years, and carried aspirations of playing major league baseball almost to graduation. During a game against Syracuse that first year, he recalls a prophetic moment. 
 

Walt Shepperd '62
"A long pass was thrown to me on what should have been an easy breakaway layup," he writes in his chapter "Stranger in a Strange Land." "The prior year, in high school or on a Youngstown playground, I would have caught it in stride, might even have showboated, passed it behind my back before going up for a two-handed dunk. Not that evening, however; instead, the ball sailed toward me in slow motion - fluttering like a whiffle ball. Hypnotized by its erratic course, I hesitated; then, feeling a hitch in my stride, lunged forward. Too late. Stunned, I watched the ball slide off the end of my fingers and settle into the outstretched palms of an acne-faced junior in the stands." Although completing a 65-game varsity career and achieving a place among Colgate's all-time rebounders, the sport quickly took on a different shade for Mel. "Basketball had become as grueling as my freshman science course," he confides, "as weighty and burdensome as Professor Rein-wald's psychology class." 
Knowing neither of us had the metabolism to become president of General Motors, there seemed little else for us to do than become famous writers, and we bet a bottle of scotch on who would get a book published first. We both wrote novels as independent study projects in the late Atlee Sproul's creative writing program and moved to Greenwich Village after graduation to be where the action was. After hawking books on the street for the Negro Book Club, Mel began a career at the New York Times, where he would access the literary scene as an editor of the Sunday Book Review. After a decade of exhaustive research, he would publish On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and Signifying - the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. The success of that book has made Mel the person to go to when the Arts and Entertainment Network or the Public Broadcasting System do documentaries on the subject. 

While On the Real Side received widespread critical acclaim, often critics missed the point that the book was as much about race and culture as it was about humor. "Maybe I'm too subtle," he muses now, but his sense of understated irony serves him well in trying to convey the more absurd elements of a Colgate ambiance fostered by an all-male, almost totally European-American world view. 

Had he not been schooled early in otherness, by his grandmother Miss Aggie in the last year of her life, Mel might not have achieved his own practiced indifference to the racial mentality of the time. The same fellow student who would scream the n-word at Mel from the window of a fraternity house could later be seen cheering for him from the bleachers in Huntington Gymnasium. Sitting in a bus terminal on a quest for weekend dates, Mel would be cleaned and pressed, as we called it, with an Ivy League look, while those of us with him were slovenly, unshaven and Caucasian. The patrolling police officer would invariably ask only Mel for ID, "But I was cool," Mel would echo then from an Oscar Brown song he played to condition himself for such incidents. Whatever the pressure of the moment, afterward he was invariably amused by the ignorance displayed.Miss Aggie had mentored him in perspective, speaking in riddles within riddles. "She filled my head with sages, legends, flashes of the spirit," he writes. "They soared into my child's mind and settled uneasily. Many, unused, faded and sank beyond recall; others I tried to cast out, only to discover later that they had merely retreated to the unconscious. Some, like "Dancer," were put aside, for a time ignored - but not forgotten. Later, they resurfaced unexpectedly, just showed up like those remote, vagrant relatives who sometimes appear at our doorsteps and insistently reacquaint themselves, reaffirm their kinship, and despite our hesitant reception, force us to revisit the past." It took Mel 20 years to begin to see Miss Aggie as a sage. 

Most crucial to the legacy she left him was the story of Dancer, born with rubber bones and wings on his feet. The white folks who watched him strut his stuff at Sunday meetin's were amazed to find that he could do the minuet and other society dances as well as the cake walk and the jig, and moved him and his mother out of the fields and up to the big house, where they showed him off whenever they had a great ball. He got food and clothes and privileges no other slave even thought of, and even danced on occasion with visiting Northern ladies, and before he reached manhood he disappeared, some say taking one of the master's finest horses. "Then there's them say never was no Dancer," Miss Aggie told Mel. "But don't let that fool you, son. Them's the same folks always mistakin' fact for truth." 

In Dancing with Strangers, Mel Watkins does not allow us to mistake fact for truth. Conditioned by the fantasy of action narratives authored during the solitary hoop shooting game of one on self, he stands outside himself to give us a story of pain and triumph from America's heartland. At once subtle and poignant, insightful and just plain funny, his memoir is the test of a player taking his game to the next level. As usual, he comes up a winner. Label this one Johnnie Walker Blue. 

Walt Shepperd is senior editor of the Syracuse New Times and was New York State Press Association writer of the year in 1990 and 1994.