Hope Gardens (Part I of III)

The following is a three part non-fiction short story about moving to Brooklyn, NY

Hope Gardens. That’s what the placard in front of the projects reads. In Brooklyn, “Gardens” is synonymous with “projects”. And on a placard in front of the projects, “Hope” is synonymous with a city-sized middle finger. One hand feeds them, the other flips them the bird.  Hope Gardens. Cute. What a name for a poverty-trampled block with no gardens and, dare I say, no hope. Somewhere in the Great Plains there is a porch-sat man with a turkey neck and belly-grease yellowed beater whose street sign reads: Seaview Terrace.

I moved to Brooklyn a month ago. Not to Hope Gardens. To the top floor of an apartment in Bed-Stuy with food-poisoning-green vinyl siding and a staircase from Alice in Wonderland. A week after I moved in, the corner was sealed with caution tape and spinning lights. The only comment I received on the matter was from a woman knocking around the neighborhood deli like a pinball. “He got shot in the head. Shit is crazy right now. I gotta call my friend, shit is crazy.”

She had a point. Shit was crazy. And in many respects, still is, and will always be. Examples of crazy shit include murder, delis, and the dismal test scores generated by Brooklyn’s public schools. That’s why a few years ago, New York City’s Department of Education flung $21 million at a company named Champion Learning and said “fix it”. Champion Learning is what happens when bureaucrats named Abraham Sultan name things. Champion Learning farms out wholesale, unqualified tutors to kids who get free school lunches. Champion Learning also gets investigated by the DOE for shoveling too much of the $21 million into Abraham Sultan’s pockets and categorically not giving a shit about the kids who get free school lunches.

I applied to be one of these wholesale, unqualified tutors. Champion Learning’s hiring process had roughly the same rigor as a ride at Six Flags. You have to be this tall to ride the Double Dragon.

The morning of my interview was warm and lucid. Fall hiccupped one last day of Summer while trying to swallow it. I strapped my helmet to my chin and pedaled to the Brooklyn Bridge. During the protracted approach, Lower Manhattan erupts into view. The rooftop terrain is thick and digitized like crude early computer graphics of hills and valleys. Manhattan’s landscape is almost too oppressively iconic to take seriously. I descended down into the Financial District. Down into the gridded canyons of metal and glass. Down into the hive.

I locked my bike to a parking meter in the shadow of the building where the interview would be held. My t-shirt was soaked through from the ride. I ducked into an alley and pulled a Clark Kent. Shirt tucked, tie straight, i smoothed my hair in a dark window and went inside.

My interviewer was a six foot tie rack named Ben or Brad or Chad or whichever one his boss happened to pick that day. He shook my hand. “You can step into conference room A, please”. There was only one conference room. “Have a seat, please.” One hundred swivel chairs lined the long table.  “Anywhere is fine.”  Bradchad scribbled a note on his pad and conducted the interview the way everything is done at Champion Learning, which is to say, wholesale. “Let’s go around and say why we want to be tutors,” he said, panning across the superfluous table. His script did not accommodate a one-on-one situation. For an almost imperceptible moment, he paused. Perhaps he realized that his pre-programmed speeches were unseemly. Or perhaps he was just thinking about how on Sunday mornings, he likes to take his girlfriend to BestBuy.

Days later, I was assigned to three high school students in Bushwick. Two boys, one girl. Siblings. Three kids bound to be disenchanted when they discovered that their tutor was hired by two cardboard dragons holding a tape measure.

The afternoon of my first lesson, I rode through Bed-Stuy into Bushwick. The brownstones in Bed-Stuy are stacked tightly like layers of sedimentary rock. They only come in colors of mud: black pine forest mud, brown bald meadow mud, milk khaki desert mud, burnt russet African mud. Trees shook brittle leaves onto the sidewalk where the wind raked them into piles under rows of glittering cars. Eyes followed me from the tops of chipped steps. Groups of hunched men huddled by corners and storefronts. They itched their heads through itchy black beanies and inspected the sidewalk population.

I stopped in front of a cardboard box building with barred windows. Hope Gardens. That’s what the placard in front of the projects read. I wrenched open a dented metal door and went in. I was out of place according to every face I passed. Eyebrows in the elevator were curved like questions marks that asked: so whose kid are you here to take away? I followed the apartment numbers down dim hallways until I saw it. There written in sharpie: 6A. Muted yelling crept out from under the door. I placed three knocks on the yellow paint.

To be continued…

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