Inmates

DP134037.jpgAcross the avenue from my doctor’s office is the building with the clock tower.  It was 4:05 PM.

Clock towers: “Back to the Future,” the Prairie Village pool complex, with the clock up there where we could look up from the water to see it was the time Mom said we had to leave, “Peter Pan.”

I had allowed an hour to get to the doctor, and it had taken half an hour to get there.  I had written to my boss that I would have to leave a little early.  Now it was cold and raining and I had half an hour.  I crossed my arms for warmth, and crossed the avenue, and followed a mom and a kid up the steps and in the doors.

Inside was as lovely as outside, vaulting ceilings, a grandiose spiral staircase going up and a Hobbity one going down.  I went down first, Hobbity, and looked over the space, a bitty art display in the hall, then a room of people staring at laptops and books, a few of them homeless and pee-scented.  The public library scene.  Upstairs, at the top of the spiral, there was a wheel of iron that kept the tower open, held it to its proper circumference, kept is lung open, and there were more rooms that were now library rooms, the people, the same, basically, quiet, and I walked around spectator only like I had no interest in books and no library card in my billfold.

These were courtrooms, these various rooms, where people, instead of being in quiet, were engaged in civilized fighting and frequently were chewing on all kinds of hostile feelings and worries.  The children’s reading room was once the police court, the adult reading room was a civil court.

In the entry, there was a glass case with a display about the history of the building.  It was a market and a tower to look for fires (like in the wilderness, now), then that was demolished.  Famous architects built a courthouse.  Completed, it was named one of the five loveliest buildings in the world.  It was a courthouse, then various city offices, then attacked by all the forces of irritability of the city trying to be modern, and saved, post-Penn Station.  The building is on a funny-shaped lot, where Greenwich Village starts and things get confusing, and have gotten confusing, in every way since they set up the grid uptown.  The back half of the lot is also a funny shape, and on it was built a women’s prison.

It was the 1930s, and prisoners in New York City were moving from what is now Roosevelt Island to Riker’s and to this facility, and they were becoming “inmates” instead of “prisoners.”

When it opened, people complained that the building was too lovely for such a shitty neighborhood, Greenwich Village, 1932.

People complained that the screams of the women in the women’s prison were bothersome.  “Hardly the conversation we want our children to hear.”  For forty years, people yelled up to their friends, relatives, and enemies housed inside.  It was a prison with windows that opened, and whosoever was in jail was yelling out and free people were yelling in and at it.

Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, and Ethel Rosenberg: in.

And what time is it?

After moving our prison from Roosevelt Island to Riker’s, the New York Times suggests, among other ideas, that Riker’s be “given back to the sea gulls.”  And the people we imprison or inmate will be moved again.

When the women’s prison was torn down, a process begun by Mayor Lindsay in a cute white hard hat, the courthouse that became a library was no longer overshadowed.  Its clock tower could be seen again from more angles.  And the piece of land behind it became a park: “10 Star and Saucer Magnolia trees, 7 Yoshino Cherry trees, 2 American Yellowwoods, 7 Thornless Honeylocusts, 10 Crabapple trees, 70 fairy hedge roses around the lawn, 60 pycarantha, and 56 holly bushes in clusters.”  I stood and read that with my lips moving because all the names were so melodic, the wind was cold, and I saw that there were roses growing in and on the fence because there were thorns.

It was 4:25 PM.

In the image above, the prison is the ominous thing on the left.  The elevated subway on 6th Avenue is long gone.  

Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My favorite source on the Women’s House of Detention

The Garden and what was planted there.

 

Wolves

DP817868.jpgI have wolves.  I went to the cathedral on this, Dr. King’s day, and the lesson was about caring for your flock, which was the last thing I wanted to hear, as I want to quit my job, I have wolves.

The first half of my career I was told I was a good teacher, so I think I was.  I felt I was getting better and then that I was maintaining a strong and useful program of work, I taught other teachers, I presented at national conferences.

Then I spent most of a year arguing about if I needed the books I ordered in my classroom, if I was losing students’ papers and if I was bullying them by asking them to be quiet so we could start class.

I have been a “bad” teacher because my lessons were not engaging and I could not control my students, these two things being frequently connected.  I never aspired to be entertaining or intimidating, though, I only try to be thoughtful and trustworthy.

Some of us must be “bad” to keep the show going, so we know who to hiss at.

When I was told I was good, I was better.  This is the story of your life as an agreeable white girl, I know, people tell you are good and so you are.

If a kid refusing to sit down, pushing me, throwing things, and using profanity results in leaving class for a good while, I am a good teacher.  I can control my students.

I hate that word, anyway, it should be that kids find it easier to decide to be productive because the environment they are living in makes that the easiest choice.  It should be hard to be bad.

I work hard at putting myself back together.  Still, I haven’t been sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and I have headaches.

On my way up to the cathedral, I heard the begging-on-the-subway speech five times.  Three times from the same guy, a big guy with a deep, lovely voice.  I changed cars because something was buzzing unbearably in my car, and the beggars change cars, too, so that’s why I heard that guy twice.  The third time, I guess, I took the train so far, probably 3/4 of its route, that was my fault, too: we overlapped again.

I thought, I know I don’t have change, I just did laundry.  And I didn’t want to give any money today.  I don’t want to give anything.  Not a thing.  Not to anyone.

Then I thought: this guy’s job is better than mine.  At least no one was jumping up and yelling at him or calling him names when he asked for what he wanted.  No one was throwing things at him.  Then I thought: goodness, that’s an offensive thought.

If I wasn’t a city teacher, someone people admire for toughness and virtue, who would I be?  Maybe no one would admire me, maybe I would not be likable at all, if, say, I was a person who left urban teaching, like everyone else I know.

Exaggeration: I know one person who has taught in urban schools a long time, and is still teaching in an urban school.  Most of us, almost all of us, get picked off by administrators, our own exhaustion, financial pressure.

How foolish it was for me to borrow thirty grand and then take the lowest-paying jobs in my field, over and over for ten years.  I really did that.  And all the money on my own office supplies and stuff for the kids— notecards, pens and pencils, treats (bribes).  I’m stingier than most teachers, honestly, but it still adds up.

For a long time, I felt I was making up for something, paying back my great public school education, paying back being white, for having a good family, for being loved.

People say, you’ve been on the front lines a long time, it’s okay to fall back.  Maybe nobody should do these hardest jobs, caretaking at our fringes, for a long time.  Maybe it just isn’t healthy, or can’t be healthy, right here, right now.

Friday I packed up all my stuff in front of the kids.  I was that gone. I was telling myself, I’ll protect you.  I won’t let anyone scream at you anymore.  I won’t let them disrespect you.

I must have scared them, by doing that, and by being gone the last two hours of the day.

I’ve spent the weekend thinking in flashes that of course I will go back, I’ll figure it out, as I have many times before, I’ll figure some way to limp forward, if not to march.

Things you would not, could not do, then you do.  Move to New York.  Kiss.

I became a city teacher because my parents divorced at the same time I learned about the civil rights movement in school.  That’s not fair, I thought, and it was all launched, tied up together.  It wasn’t a bad reason.  When I started teaching, though, I promised myself if I felt I was becoming lost, I would quit.  That doing good shouldn’t mean losing yourself.  That I wouldn’t teach somewhere kids threw things or where I felt unsafe.  But I do.  And I haven’t quit.

Along with “That’s not fair” and paying back my good fortune, there is also enjoying the weirdness of teenagers, their openness and fear together, their first shoots of adult life coming up, enjoying being a person they go to for help, and knowing the answers.

I think Dr. King would say, we are all sheep, but there are wolves in us.

I know they are sheep.  My meanest kid sneers, “She’s still here?” but there is a hint of relief mixed with his nastiness.  I hear it.

Image: Wolf, Anonymous, 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

16

DP234401The psychiatrist on the 16th floor has a small black fluffy dog.  She lives and works in this impossibly glamorous building which is, past its prewar lobby and doormen, quite shabby: tape holding down wires to a camera, the land line, the floor is worn, the furniture moved in about 1970, never moved again.  This time I didn’t see the dog, but I did see that in her narrow bathroom, the towels say, “Buckingham Palace.”

I was forty minutes early for my appointment with her and I went around the block to eat a slice of pizza and drink a bottle of water, shitty cheap mealish activity.  All real pizza places are equally shitty, with the worst pictures in the world, and dirty like at night they turn the place over and stomp on the walls and the ceiling to complete the look.  I pulled off my boots and stuck my feet in the backup shoes.

The psychiatrist said, “That sounds very challenging.  I’m sure when the kids are done testing you, things will get easier, and you’ll really be able to help them.”

I said, “Oh, I think so.”  I always reassure other people I am all right, even my psychiatrist.

I actually was all right.

In the elevator going down, the man who runs the elevator and makes sure I don’t run rampant around that building said hello to the French couple who got in on 11, and then the lady with the dogs who got in on 8.  Instead of assiduously pretending we were alone, as he does with every-three-months me, he was all friendly and the French lady said, “These are wonderful dogs!”  Then we were on the first floor.

I spent my break fantasizing about never working this hard again, and I came back to school and saw the kids again, and, oh, these are my kids.

 

Last night I dreamed I was wandering all over trying to get this one class finished to get my master’s degree finished, because I was on my way to the party, and I had had too much to drink, although there was no wine at the party either I was on the way or I’d already been, and I had my cat with me, very inconvenient, I lived past the war monument in a desolate neighborhood.

Today I took the train a long way, and I was walking up, I didn’t recognize the stop, and I thought, what if when I go up, everything is different?  What if now the Union R station is on another planet, or everyone is Japanese or it’s all pink or there are mountains?

It was just that I am used to the Coney Island bound side of the tracks at Union, not the Manhattan bound side, both have the same tile pattern, sort of India Indian.

Today I left school to get a cup of coffee, and I saw my millionth young man with a beard, and I thought, the day is coming, all the men will shave off all their beards, and we’ll see their faces again.  What they all look like.  It’s coming closer and closer.

Image: “New York City” by John Marin, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Letters

photo-8This time when I saw the Empire State Building and I had no feeling at all.  I was taking a $100 cab ride across Manhattan.  I had taken a lot of zombie drugs to fly, a little more than usual because my flying lasted 12 hours instead of seven, dosage gets tricky.

I really didn’t know how I felt going into the city to the typewriter shop today, I was looking at the city, as you always do, it always engages, its veins and arteries, its tunnel, its jugular, the fonts of its signs, their faces, its hot greys and greasy whites and lickable filth and I didn’t feel like I have, like, I must get on the subway, and smell it, ride, I must be in New York, it was more like I had been to war and I came home to my wife, and I remembered her through a haze, I didn’t know if I still loved her.  I didn’t even know what she liked.

I went in a small elevator, around an unmarked corner, into the typewriter chapel and I looked at all the letters on circle stamps, white on black, those are my favorite, and the ones all on one bookshelf, ’60s or ’70s colored ones that must be the fashionable ones right now, all of this was how people would write, and I sat and listened to the men talk about springs, carriages, repair, tension, how much will it be? in the most civilized way.

So then this was a different love, of the typewriter repairman and his accent on the flip ends of words, casually, and outside again with the Empire State Building there again, she was a totally different place.

You don’t fall in love with things once, of course.

I have generally viewed my time here more like military service.  It’s true.  Military service does send one to beautiful exotic lands, sometimes, it is not only, not just about killing.  Is it.

I went to evening church and a couple who have been married fifty years had their wedding rings blessed and reapplied, as it were.  I cried, they did not.

The groom (of forever ago and today) had the same glasses of my grandpa, same glasses of which my grandpa took to the east coast and thus I was brought to visit him, thus I was introduced to New York.

I feel very differently.  After I broke up with my ex, I felt so awful for so long, and then I stopped feeling awful and felt great for a while.  Like all the work of grieving paid off, unexpected as a slot machine.  I really felt enlightened for a couple of months.

Sometimes people are happy, just happy, not coping with anything, not wondering if they will have a panic attack or if they will be able to sleep or if they will have jobs or have children or, the rest.

I was happy I kept my typewriter, back in Kansas City, I kept it, despite its heaviness, it is in the corner of my dear friend’s basement, where my other dear friend set it, having taken one of the heavier boxes himself, and that it is there, that I am here, that I may get it back, but it may live there holding its letters and be still and wait.