Category: NYC

Hope Gardens (Part III of IV)

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

Most days it was back and forth from the Quintana’s, biking through Brooklyn sweating from the hot breath of bus exhaust and the Autumn light that smoothed dented streets. I’d pass the Hasidic women all pushing strollers with a freshly baked baby. The little Hasidic girls made monkey bars out of sidewalk scaffolds. Clambering up those beams, they looked like miniature demure 19th century housewife ninjas. Most days, I was almost hit by a Honda Odyssey, or what some call the “Hasid-mobile.”

For those unfamiliar with Radical Orthodox Jewish culture, particularly in Brooklyn, read this. I have read about total fertility rates for Hasidic Jewish populations anywhere from 6.6 to 7.9 babies per woman. This gives you some idea of the demand put on a Hasidic woman’s hips. (For comparison, the CIA World Factbook ranked Niger as the country with the highest birth rate in 2012, at 7.16. For further comparison, at risk of being inflammatory, the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) ranked Niger second to last in the world in 2012. Make of that what you will.) Anyway, Honda Odysseys. Why are they the Hasidic vehicle of choice? Only a minivan can accommodate the heavy flow of children. Why Honda Odysseys rather than any other minivan? Beats me. But I’m sure it has nothing to do with hive-mind and the fact that their religious doctrine dictates that they all dress exactly the same and have the same haircut.

One day, while I was trying to explain transversals to Gordy, Pookie came home and sloughed off his Toy Story backpack and doll-sized jacket. It was his first day of preschool. I felt a misplaced proud feeling. Pookie smiled showing the deep dimples in his cheeks. His head looked huge and bulbous. He galloped down the hall. There was something bothering me that I should have addressed long ago.

“Is his name really Pookie?” I asked Gordy.

“No, it’s Jeremiah,” he said.

“…are you kidding?”

“No, it’s Jeremiah.”

“Does anyone ever call him that?” I asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He’s Pookie,” he said.

“How is he ever going to learn his name if everyone calls him Pookie?” I asked. Gordy paused.

“When he’s old enough, we’ll just tell him.”

Illiana, the matriarch, had picked Pookie up from school. She told us he wouldn’t respond to the teacher. He kept saying his name wasn’t Jeremiah, it was Pookie. I looked at Gordy.

Pookie hopped around, high on the excitement from his first day of school. He jumped onto the couch, landing on his back and flailing his legs in the air. He crawled through chair legs under our feet, letting out squeals and non-sense words. My session with Gordy was over. We hadn’t made much headway editing a practice essay I had him write on Othello, which he was reading in English class. His copy had the original Shakespeare on the left page and the 2012 vernacular translation on the right. I had him write it on Othello because when I asked him to tell me about the play, he was animated. That pale stare was gone.

“—and Iago’s like real sick. He’s awesome. He’s like an evil mastermind.” Gordy was talking with his hands.

I sat forward, too. Much of the time, tutoring sessions with Gordy digressed into how writing was arguably the greatest human invention, and reading it, the greatest gift. Instead of limiting your learning to the generation preceding you, you can plug into the river of human history and knowledge. But it never came out like that. I always degenerated into sounding like an adult who forgot what it was like to be a kid who thought adults only gave valid advice if you wanted to become like them, but you didn’t want to become like them.

Anyway, Gordy liked Othello. And there you have the inconceivable universality of Shakespeare’s plays. That guy tapped into some occult reservoir of shared human experience. Everyone can relate. Even people hundreds of years later living in circumstances as divorced from Elizabethan England as Elizabethan England was from the feudalist baronies hundreds of years before Elizabeth. Even Puerto Rican teenagers on the sixth floor of a housing project in Brooklyn can relate. Even gangsters.

Naturally, Iago, the shrewd insubordinate who makes marionettes of Othello, Cassio, and the other characters, was his essay topic. It was about Iago’s shortcomings as a villain. The premise was retrospective advice to prevent Iago’s wicked plan from collapsing. Gordy’s ideas, with coaxing, were borderline cogent. But getting them on paper was like translating it into a language he didn’t know.

Right then, Pookie emerged from under the table with a mouse glue trap stuck to his hand. His pupils were dilated with panic. His scleras were getting wet.

“We caughta Pookie!” Angel said as he scooped him up. Of course, Pookie cried hard.  Harder than usual. The household was attuned to the pecking order of Pookie cries and this order of cry made the whole household to show up one by one to investigate. Pookie sat in the kitchen sink and screamed while Angel ran his hand under warm water, gently peeling off the trap. The rest of the family shouted about who had left the glue trap under the table, presumably. No habla español.

I packed up my binders. It seemed inopportune to get the required parent signature confirming that I had, in fact, been there tutoring their child. But that signature was how I got paid.

I looked at Illiana, the matriarch, shouting and gyrating her head with abundant sass, then over to Angel holding a distraught child in a sink.

“Angel,” I said. “I know this is a bad time, but when you’re ready.” I held up the sign-in sheet and he knew what I meant. Pookie had bloodhound eyes from crying. “Or maybe you can just sign it next time…” I walked out of the kitchen and slipped on my backpack.

“Hey, Papi!” Angel called. “You hungry?”

“Oh. No, thanks.” It’s not that I necessarily didn’t like being there, but I usually wanted to leave as soon as possible. It was work, after all.

“Don’t want some food?” He shucked the last corner of glue trap off Pookie’s hand. I looked at the bickering family.

I was in a rush to go nowhere. I always am. I think that when you have somewhere to get so much of the time, you retain that agitated momentum even when you have nowhere to get. There is a resistance to deviate from that imaginary plan you sketched in your head. But the moments when you scrap that compulsive plan, when you ward off that rush to get nowhere, that agitated momentum that compels you to get where you thought you were going, those are the fond ruptures in your otherwise placid memory. They are the things you remember. These ruptures age into nostalgia and provide you with value when you ask yourself the question: what have I even done in all this time? This is why traveling is so fulfilling, I think. It is a concentrated dosage of these very moments, uncontaminated by routine and obligation. I took off my backpack.

“Sure,” I said.

I helped Angel make dinner. He showed me how to tell when rice is done. He stuck a wooden spoon into the pot. “When it stick straight up, ees ready,” he said. Then he leaned in and whispered. “Like a—“ he pointed at the floor and shrugged his eyebrows, “—bicho.”

We both laughed a hearty laugh. I had no idea what he said. I do now.

The family ate together. There was a shortage of dishes and silverware. I wasn’t allowed to finish completely eating or drinking. My fork was taken out of my hand. When I lingered on straggling grains of rice or the swill of my grape soda, the 250lbs Angel swooped in and fluttered off to the kitchen with my dish, glass, and fork. He washed it for the next in line. Dinner incorporated a staggered start system so that the last eaters ate on the same plates as the first.

Ish, the dark-haired 16 year old, was to my left with the glow of a Nintendo DS on his face and a plastic Country Crock container as a bowl. Pookie was at the opposite end of the table chanting “chi-ken, chi-ken” continuously until his sister, Angie, tore a strip of chicken off the bone and put it in his mouth. Jose, an old family friend who had just arrived, sat to my right. He had an amiable face and lenient smile. He told me, with great difficulty, that he had moved here in 2002 from the Dominican Republic. In a decade he managed to hardly acquire more than a handful of words. The Quintana’s all vied for my attention, mostly by harping on Jose’s poor command of English. Everyone shouted Spanish to and fro. I laughed when they laughed. I tried to decipher words but couldn’t understand anything. All I knew is that they were interrupting each other.

I thanked them and wheeled my bike out the apartment door. I spiraled down the staircase which seemed to get smaller and smaller. It was dark. Not fully dark, more like inside-of-a-Hollister dark. I carried my bike on my shoulder until the second floor where there was a blockage. Six guys clumped in the stairwell. I squeezed through and stepped over a blunt-in-progress, lying open-booked on the landing. I passed through the group and continued down. Just as I was out of sight I heard one of them call.

“Hey! Where you going, blanquito?”

“Yeah, why you running, blanquito?”

“Come back, Papi, where you think you going?”

The laughter faded as I continued down the stairwell. I got on my bike and rode homeward.

I was pedaling through Bedstuy when a black blur flashed against the dark street a few inches in front of my face. Then there was loud shrill pang from the parked car beside me. It was a rock. I looked back and scanned the sidewalk. It was full of people. There was no way to tell who had thrown it. And what would I have done if I could tell who had thrown it. I kept riding.

Weeks of tutoring at the Quintana’s passed. Clouds held color earlier each day. We rounded the half-way point of the thirty hours of tutoring, then the home stretch. There were days it seemed progress had been made. Then the next day would wash it all away. It occurred to me that my clichéd fantasy of playing out the movie Dangerous Minds would not be realized. There was an impotence now. How am I supposed to make up for four years of high school in thirty hours?

On a Monday afternoon, I rode to Hope Gardens. The air was gray and viscous. I waited for a half-hour at the dining/everything table for Gordy as usual. Gordy came through the door and sat down. He folded his hands on the dining table. They were streaked with sutures from the screwdriver he was stabbed with several days before.

To be continued…

 

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Hope Gardens (Part II of IV)

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

 

Ma, I don’t need tutoring. I’m a gangsta.

That was the axiomatic spine of Gordy’s argument, which he punctuated by smacking his backpack against the apartment floor. Gordy Quintana was an 18-year-old Puerto Rican high school senior with an I-survived-puberty mustache. He was one of the three siblings I was assigned to tutor.

An hour earlier, I had been let in to the Quintana family’s apartment by Illiana, the hardboiled matriarch of seven. We had spoken over the phone, then again via crackling intercom downstairs. But she was still incredulous and screened me one last time. I told her I was a tutor sent from a tutoring company to tutor her son. She opened the door enough for me to fit through.

“Gordy? He ain’t here,” she said. That became her ritual greeting from then on. She said it as if she had been telling me how hard motherhood is for years and I had never believed her. Her hair was frayed and molting from frustration. Her feet were dried and white around the edges. We sat on the couch and got acquainted over a conversation about mobile phone providers.

“T-Mobile. I’ve had enough. I’m switching to it,” she said. “Whatchu got?”

“Verizon,” I said.

“There’s free texting on Verizon,” she said. “Hmm.”

“Only to other Verizon customers,” I said.

“I know that,” she snapped.

She left me to unpack my geometry books and binders. She disappeared to chain-dial Gordy’s phone until he arrived at the front door an hour later.

Now that Gordy was home, he and his mother haggled in Spanglish. They stood in the hallway, just out of view. I sat at the dining/everything table with a heavy clammy wooden tabletop that would rock for the next three months even after stuffing a folded wad of napkins from the corner deli under the leg when no one was looking.

Their apartment was rectangular. The kitchen and living room, where I sat, used about a third of the floor plan. The rest was a line of three bedrooms and a bathroom accessible all from the same side of the hallway like a passenger car. Floor tiles were jaundiced. Windows were barred. Sills were dressed with porcelain trinkets and nylon flowers. Taped above the toilet was a printout of five Clipart images with cutesy condescending captions such as “Please be neat, wipe the seat!”

To my left, out the window propped open with a Buzz Lightyear action figure, was the central courtyard of the Hope Gardens housing project. A cluster of flat-brim hats clung to the fence of a broken basketball court. A woman pushed a stroller. The jagged rhythm of disputes came in with rice and red beans from the floors below. A red sun softened over the brick of west Brooklyn.

The argument between Gordy and his mother played in the background while I reorganized papers and notebooks for the 30th time. The right amount of discomfort will concede any conforming man to obsessive compulsion. Gordy would lose the fight, I knew. His basic assumption was all wrong. Ma, I don’t need tutoring, I’m a gangsta. Everyone needs tutoring, Gordy, especially the gangsters. I shuffled worksheets and did what any teacher worth a goddamn would do. I tried to make up word problems that would translate abstract material into relatable terms relevant to my pupil’s arduous day to day struggles. These were the struggles that he didn’t think I could understand because we’re from different walks of life—but, I get it, Gordy. I get it. Because, you see, we’re not that different, you and I. Yes, I struggle, too. Yes, I get down sometimes. Yes, I shiver in the dark. What I’m trying say, Gordy, is that we’re both human. We bleed the same blood; we breathe the same breath.

Then, in light of this impossibly relatable word problem, Gordy, against all odds, turns out to be a gifted student. It’s just that no one ever gave him a reason to care. Then I contract a deep wheezing cough and am diagnosed with a terminal illness—really terminal. The doctor’s give me two months, so I give Gordy all of my unfinished manuscripts and pull him close while I lie emaciated on a sterile hospital bed and whisper “take these; you’ll finish what I never could.” Then, I call the first girl I ever kissed and tell her she’s a bitch. The din of an EKG flat-lining echoes into the cavernous maw of Gordy’s future.

Unfortunately, I don’t live in a daydream and the word problem I dreamt up was just offensively stereotyped and weird.

Question: You have one ounce (1oz) of uncut rock. You can sell it as is for $75/g. Or you can cut 3/5 of it with baking soda and 2/5 with Drano, then simmer it in a basement until solid, making sure to flatten the bubbles with a knife. It is very important that you flatten the bubbles with a knife. After draining and 20 minutes in the freezer, you now have two ounces (2oz), which you can pop off at $50/g. How many grams in an ounce?

Answer: GET YOUR LIFE TOGETHER. (28.35g)

A squeal from the hallway introduced a pinto bean-sized toddler who galloped into the room in a t-shirt and nothing else. He tripped over Gordy’s backpack and smacked the tile floor. He looked at me and welled up. He was sobbing like an engine starting in winter.

I got that incriminating feeling you get when you’re alone with a child and they start to cry. Before every adult in earshot arrives, you have to position yourself at alibi-distance. This is the distance at which other adults immediately conclude that it wasn’t you that made them cry. The kid was wailing his lungs out. Peel him off the floor and console him, I thought. But then it would be ambiguous as to whether I was savior or perp. And what is the protocol on touching other people’s children, exactly? Open palm, otherwise they can bite your fingers off. Or is that horses. I knew I shouldn’t stay sitting because that would make me look callous. I stood up in order to appear mid-action.

The front door swung open and a hooded rhinoceros of a man came in. The scars carved into the side of his face ran up and disappeared beneath his hood. Ink on his knuckle implied the comprehensive layer of tattoos he wore beneath his garments.

With the puff-cheeked child was screaming prostrate on the floor, and his mother and brother screaming in the hall, the room was splitting at the seams.

“Pookie!” the hooded man shouted as he scooped the toddler off the floor. The kid’s howl was muffled in his father’s chest. The man walked over to me. “Angel,” he said over the screaming. His accent was heavy. He extended a bobbing hand to me as he bounced to calm Pookie. “Crasy kid.”

Soon Pookie’s lungs were just about empty. He was in the last throes of his tantrum, spluttering and wringing out concluding tears into his father’s neck.

“Coffee,” Pookie sobbed. “I want coffee.”

“Ok, Papi,” Angel said, patting his back. “I make you some coffee.” Angel rolled his eyes at me. “Crasy kid.”

Pookie had cooled off and was flying a Woody[1] action figure around the living room. Buzz was busy with the window. Two cups of coffee steamed on the kitchen counter. Woody’s flight path took him through the kitchen until Pookie spotted the mugs and promptly dropped Woody.

“Coffee!” he shrieked. Pookie reached a baby-fat arm up to the counter top, groping for a mug. Once his fingers found a handle, he decisively inverted the mug, flooding the counter, floor, and his t-shirt with hot coffee. Pookie cried by the stove in a brown puddle, dangling an empty mug from his hand. A lanky boy with dark curly hair appeared in the kitchen.

“That’s right Pookie. You did that,” the boy shouted. Pookie cried harder. Angel came. This lanky boy with dark hair and dark eyes was sixteen-year-old Ish Quintana: tutoree number two.

Ish was frictional, sure, but legitimate. Pookie should be patient. Concession to every impulse is enslavement of the will. Also, it contributes to accidents with scalding hot liquid. I would learn that this lanky boy with dark hair and dark eyes was the family conscience of sorts, an arbiter occurring to form lapses into lessons. He stuck paper towels to the floor and dabbed Pookie’s t-shirt.

“It’s your fault, Papi,” said Ish to his father. “You got him addicted to coffee.” Again, he was right. Now Pookie was a two year old with caffeine headaches.

Fifteen minutes later, Pookie and I were staring at each other across the table, sipping coffee. For a two year old, sipping hot coffee is right around the upper limit of difficulty for things you can do. Each sip required two-handed surgeon-like focus to tip the cup just enough for the coffee to meet his lips. After every sip he grinned broadly showing a mouthful of tiny white teeth and rocked side-to-side as part of a seated celebratory dance. What the caffeine was doing to a toddler’s circulatory system, I could only imagine. Probably akin to what crack cut with Drano does to a person if you don’t flatten the bubbles with a knife like I said to.

The front door opened again and two girls walked in—both young, both very pretty. They looked at me and looked away, bored, like I was a new lamp or something—or even an old lamp that had been moved. But their gaze dragged behind their heads as happens when your brain tells your eyes not to stare but your eyes are selfish. They disappeared down the hallway. One of the girls was Bibi, the 6th grade hard-ass. The other was Angie, a thin cinnamon-skinned freshman with quiet poise and rare-drawn sharp tongue. She was the third and final sibling I was assigned to tutor.

After the third or fourth time Pookie had messed himself due to the coffee (inferring by smell), Gordy walked into the room and took the chair next to me.

“Gordy,” he said. He held out his hand. His nails and cuticles were well-chewed. Most of that work likely done leaning his chair against the back wall in class. His fingers had the rubbery look of a knuckle-popper. His eyes were all pupil. They had a sheen of dishonesty, but no deviousness.

“I apologize about all that,” Gordy said. “I already had tutoring last year. A guy—Josh or something—came, so I don’t think I need it again. But you’re a guest in my home, so I am going to be a good host.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I said. “So, the tutoring helped?”

“No,” he said. “That guy was an idiot.”

Way to go Champion Learning. Way to go Josh.

The thirty free hours of tutoring that Champion Learning offers to kids who get free school lunches is bookended by tests. Start with the pretest, end with the post. That way Champion Learning can fit the 7% “improvement” between the pretest and posttest into an Excel cell and show it to the Department of Education for another $21 million check. The tests are not standardized or calibrated for disparities of difficulty. They are uncorrelated in skill-level and subject matter. So long as you subtract the pretest score from the posttest score and you get a positive number, that’s all they want. In fact, you are encouraged to give an easier posttest and a more difficult pretest in order to exaggerate the improvement. But none of the percentages or personalized student education plans or student progress logs really matter anyway. It’s all a big bureaucratic dog show.

So, with reluctance, I administered pretests to each of the siblings, Gordy, Ish, and Angie:  geometry, then writing. In addition to the futility of the pretest, it’s a hell of an introduction.

Hello, I’m a stranger. This one-on-one learning is going to be much different from your dragnet public school learning. Here is a test. Show your work.

Later, home at my desk, I read their short essays about “dream careers.” Boxer, music producer, and baker, were Gordy, Ish, and Angie’s responses, respectively. I showed Gordy’s essay to my roommate and asked them to guess the author’s age. They guessed fourth grade. I sat for a while in the cone of light from my desk lamp. I wondered how I was supposed to make up for a dozen years of schooling in a few dozen hours.

We began having tutoring sessions with some regularity. If I wasn’t there for Gordy, I was there for Ish. If not Ish, then Angie. Often I was there five days a week. I was becoming a permanent fixture—like an old moved lamp.

Gordy was hopeless. He had long since made bullshitting his default setting. He had two techniques to feign understanding and attentiveness with the least amount of thought possible. He would parrot my words exactly, either sticking a question mark at the end or remixing my phrases to clutter the order.

“—then you just add the surface area of the two bases to the lateral surface area and that’s it: the surface area of a cylinder,” I said. Should I explain it one more time?”

“No, no, that’s so easy.” Gordy slouched like he was dripping off his chair.

“Alright then. Go ahead and finish up the problem. Remember: two bases plus lateral.”

“Easy,” he said. He muttered to himself and dragged his pencil tip arbitrarily across the page trying to create the illusion of thought. He was violently bored. His neurons were turning to honey. He was in a viscous trance due how little thinking he was doing. His pulse dropped. His eyes kept looking at the back of his skull like fish trying not to go belly up. “Ok. Two bases…plus lateral…surface area of a cylinder…lateral surface area…go ahead…finish up the problem…“

“Gordy, those are all of the words I just said in a different order. Please focus. And stop breathing through your mouth.”

It was really shitty bullshitting. And he had been doing it for so long that now he was a senior with six months until graduation and the inability to write coherently or do basic linear algebra.

Ish the Conscience was the brilliant one. He was intimidating to me. At times, I didn’t know why I was tutoring him.

“Some of the most common Pythagorean triples are (3,4,5), (6,8,10), which is just twice that, and (5,11,13).” I said.

“Five, twelve, thirteen,” he said.

Ish, no one likes a showoff.

Angie was bright but distracted. Each session, she wore slightly more makeup than the last. First nothing. Then foundation. Then blush. Then eyeliner. The cut of her shirt crept lower and lower announcing more of what ballerina-like front a fourteen-year-old can have. She touched my forearm to ask questions. These were intensely uncomfortable sessions. However, she lacked the skeptical folded arms of her older brothers and was the most engaged of all three. Initially, at least.

I would excuse myself from tutoring when Angel’s coffee was done Tasmanian-deviling its way through my digestive tract. Down the hallway to the bathroom, there was always a pair of dark legs suspended across the frame of view of a parted bedroom door. It was Illiana, the mother, lying on her back on the bed like a patient, texting. She scarcely left the room but for altercation.

Neither Illiana nor Angel Quintana were employed. Once Angel offered me a hard-candy that tasted like hoof.

“You like it?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“It’s not good. I work there for five years, the factory,” Angel said. “Five dollar an hour.”

Illiana made cake lollypops for her children to bring to school to sell for a dollar apiece. One day Bibi, the sixth grade hard-ass, left for school in the morning with five cake-pops and returned in the afternoon with four dollars. The exchange had a worrisome pimp-ho quality. When she is angry, Illiana Quintana parts her lips wide enough to see she is missing two bottom front teeth. That afternoon, you could see her molars.

To Be Continued…

[1] Cowboy protagonist from Toy Story(s) 1, 2, and 3, not the wildly popular material known from cabins, oars, and bats that are made out of wood.

 


Groceries

 

 

skinned alive

I walked out onto the front steps of my apartment.  Rain made the air syrupy.  I turned when I heard a glass bottle clinking on the sidewalk across the street.  A man followed it.  He took it in his hand and cracked it sloppily over the curb.  With the jagged stem, he made an incision down the side of an abandoned mattress slouching against a fence.  All of his movements were grossly inaccurate and required immense effort.  For fifteen minutes i watched him skin the mattress brutally while people passed without second glances.  With one final stumbling tug, he tore the padding from the frame of springs and dropped it into a dark heap on the wet street.  He hoisted the pile onto his head, tottered, adjusted it, and walked away leaving the bald metal skeleton supine like a carcass beneath the rain.  Hunter/gatherer 2012?

 

 

 

 

Apres Moi Le Deluge

Journal Entry 11.23.2011. 4:30am.

I stepped out into a morning leeched of color by the wet clouds perched on rooftops.  At the corner, Hasidic toddlers were being ushered off a yellow bus and into the preschool.  They stumbled on tiny legs, uncalibrated like miniature stilts they were getting used to.  All of the ushers were women; all of the stumblers were girls.  All were stockinged and bonnetted.  There is a piece of paper stuck to the glass door of the Hasidic preschool: Woman Entrance.  Hasidim do not shake hands with the opposite sex.

The post-rain fog is heavy.  It drags tobacco smoke down, filtering it through the rusted steps of the fire escape.  Low clouds on the East River filter themselves through bolts, beams, and ribs of bridges.

Tattered plastic bags are tangled on tree limbs and flutter in the breeze as if some biblical flood had once covered this entire city.  I guess there was a flood, just a human one.

 

 

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…


Goin’ joggin’

I ran deep into Bedstuy. Eight miles in the grayness and cold rain. With each block east, with each block south, you follow the degradation and abandonment. Elevated subway lines are veins that breathe life onto the sidewalks in their shadow. Away from the veins, things rot and rust. Fried chicken stands and cell phone accessory shops are supplanted by vacant lots with tall grass tangled in chain-link fence. Grocery stores are supplanted by food charities with lines out the door, down the steps, and to the corner. The throng wedge their metal carts through the door. Frantic and fragile, they snatch and pile cans in their baskets.  I ran down Fulton past two teenage girls who looked like they had been poured into their jeans. “Woooo!  Slow down suga!”

Fulton is a main drag. The side streets are all residential.  The hunched brownstones alternate the colors of dark and milk chocolate.  I leapt over a curb puddle sparkling from drizzle. Three terse explosions popped forty feet to my right. Up the side street between apartment steps and parked cars, six young black guys dispersed and ran. When I saw them sprint, it forced the uncertainty of the explosive pops (firecrackers? engine backfire?) to congeal immediately into the shriek of some demonic machine.  One is well-acquainted with the crack of gunfire from the modern lore of television, but there is a murderous difference between war and a painting of it.  Body.

Me, I might as well have been fired down the block by that very gun.  My legs pumped until a deep negligible nausea appeared in my thighs.  One of the six rounded the corner and sprinted with me in stride. Both of us gasped and clawed desperately at the air ahead of us, trying to propel ourselves forward.  We dodged the sidewalk gauntlet of terrified faces, all examining us as heralds freeing them from the limbo between what they heard and what they fear they heard.  After two blocks, the kid fell behind and stopped running.  I turned back and we exchanged a look. In that fraction of an instant, I asked him if what i think happened, happened, and he told me with watery eyes and a countenance still reverberating with the last image he saw before he ran: yes.

 

Under My Umber-ella