I’ve been missing my train by mere seconds recently. The problem is, being five seconds late for the train makes me fifteen minutes late for work because I have to wait for the next train, and then I miss my connection, and I have to wait again.
On days like this, when I’m 15 minutes late, I’ve managed to convince myself that I’m really only a few seconds late, and that some uncontrollable force – to which I am not accountable – is responsible for the other fifteen minutes. But since my bosses and coworkers don’t share this perspective, I knew that I had to do whatever it took to catch that first train today. And I did. No I didn’t wake up earlier, or take a shorter shower. I just knocked over a couple extra children on the sidewalk and sprinted down the platform like my life was at stake and I was just able to get my pinkie between the closing doors and force them back open. I made it.
But I soon realized that the uncontrollable force wasn’t going to release me that easily. The express train that takes me most of the way to work ran local today for no apparent reason. So I was still fifteen minutes late. I was tempted to explain to everyone in the office how out-of-my-control this was, but I feared that I was beginning to look like the boy who cried wolf. No one noticed me walk in anyway though, because the office was packed with cops again this morning.
“What’s happening?” I asked Vicki.
She looked uncomfortable as she took me aside, “See that girl ovah there? Huh fawtha beats the hell out of huh and huh mothah. She left the apahtment last night in the middle of the night, and went to huh grandmuthuh’s across town to escape. Mr. Greene just took the photos of the mahks on huh body.”
“Another pleasant morning,” I thought. But my disgust was soon replaced with hunger. I obviously hadn’t had time to eat breakfast before leaving my apartment, so I pulled out the lunch I had packed the night before, microwaved it, and started to peck.
“Whatcha eatin’?” asked Vicki.
“Rice, vegetables and chicken.”
“Ya cook it yahself?”
“Yep! It’s part of my budget. One slice of pizza is two bucks, you know. And I can buy two chicken breasts for 4.50 and then put them in pasta or rice all week long.” As I spoke, I felt a little guilty for chit-chatting about food while standing ten feet away from a battered and sobbing child. But hey, we have to try to act normal to keep from going crazy.
“Yeah, I buy the roasted chicken for my husband,” said Vicki. “It’s pretty good. Or sometimes I’ll roast one myself. When I was little, though, my motha used to take me to tha chicken mahket, and the chickens were evrywayah. They’d be peckin’ awl around atcha feet as you walked in.” Her face crinkled up at the recollection, “and the smell!”
Just then, one of the cops approached me, his hands resting on his utility belt. He asked if he could use my chair to talk to the girl. I stood up as Vicki continued talking, “To this day I don’t like birds. We had to pick one, and then they’d grab it and then ssqqkk with the neck. Then they’d throw it into boiling water right there. And then the feathas. Ugh!”
After a while, the girl’s mother arrived and Mr. Greene and the police spoke with her in the other room. When Mr. Greene came back in, I was scraping the last bits of meat off the bottom of my bowl.
“Unbelievable!” He bellowed. “The mom’s ovah theah, and she’s blamin’ tha kid! She’s sayin’ ‘Oh, I got phone calls that she was cuttin’ class.’ Ya know what? I don’t cayah! She’s got bruises all ovah huh back! I’ll show ya tha pictures! All up and down huh arms, and she’s got a knot on her head. I mean, that’s a beatin’. That’s not just – you know. Come on!”
“There’s also some other problems in the home,” added another dean, trying to contribute. “Like the father lost his job and there’s nine people sharing a little apartment…”
“That’s no excuse!” Yelled Mr. Greene.
The police left to arrest the father, and Vicki called a cab to take the girl to her grandmother’s house.
“Sweetheart, about how far away is your grandmotha’s?”
“I’m not sure. I’m sorry,” she said meekly.
“No!” Mr. Blochman barked. “You don’ have to be sorry about anything! Ya undastand?”
The office door swung open, and a couple safety agents hauled in two boys who alleged stole a box of band-aids from the nurse.
“I didn’t steal nothin’! I was just holdin’ ’em!”
They sat down next to the girl and they quickly got to chatting. “Yeah,” I heard one of the boys say to her, “that’s what they’re gonna do. How old are you? Sixteen? You got any brothers or sisters? A sister? Yeah they’ll take her and -”
“What’s up Pistol?” Said one of the agents, giving me a pound. “How you doin’?”
“It’s Friday, man. I’m good. It’s good for me at least. Not for everyone around here.”
“Hey it’s good for me!” the agent shouted. “Friday’s always good!”
“Get outta heah!” Mr. Green yelled at the band-aid thieves, and he sat down next to the girl. “Listen, when they interview you, you’re gonna have to tell them everything, okay?”
“But I don’t wanna not be able to see my sister. That’s why I never said anything before. But I also don’t want her to grow up with the same thing.”
“Exactly. That’s why -”
“I mean, he asks for respect,” she said, starting to cry, “but how you gonna ask for respect when you’re going around hitting me like that?”
“Listen, your health is more important. God forbid he injured you worse. Look, we’re gonna do everything you need. You know how you heard that Mr. Green is a bad guy? Well, I’m here for you. And we’re gonna get you everything you need.”
“I used to be a good kid,” the girl said. “You can ask my mom. It was only after he started hitting me that I started acting up, disrespecting him. I never even knew I had that energy, that anger. And it’s not even a slap. If I say something, he’ll punch me in the mouth and say, ‘Shut up! I didn’t say you could talk!'”
“Do you know if his fahtha used to abuse him?” asked Vicki.
“His father was an alcoholic, so yeah, he used to get hit.”
“Sure,” said Vicki. “His fahtha abused him, and in his mind, that’s nohmal. But of cowarse it’s not. You know, when I was a kid, there was no such thing as reporting abuse. If there had been – well, what’s impohtant is that – you know – that whatever happened, when someone hits you like that, it’s not youah fault.”
Mr. Green turned to me. “Mr. Pistol, can you do me a favah? Mr. C is out again today, so can you just go down to the cafeteria for me?”
As I entered the caf, Mr. Flint was walking out with a wild eyed kid next to him. I knew that look. I knew he had just been in a fight.
“How’s it goin’ Flint?” I asked.
“Oh fine! Just a fight! No big deal!” Flint yelled. He wore his usual berserker expression, as if he was about to burn down a village or something.
I posted up by the lunch line and Dean Jake walked past on his way to the bathroom.
“Shitty day,” I remarked.
“Yeah, there’s a weird feeling in the building,” he replied. When you ‘re responsible for responding to dangerous situations, you become attuned to the “feeling” of a place and its inhabitants. Sometimes the feeling hits you bluntly over the head, like when a bruised girl walks into your office. Other times, the feeling wafts around corners and under doors, like a gas leak, and just tingles your nose. But if you are too paranoid about an explosion, your mind can start to play tricks on you.
There’s a burned-out, old music teacher in the cafeteria that period who asks me for assistance with difficult students every once in a while. He’s taken it upon himself to ‘tutor’ an Arab student who’s always working on his homework while he eats.
“I just give him the answers,” he said dryly. “Today, this kid comes up to him and says, ‘Why are you getting help from the Janitor?’ I said, ‘I ain’t no Janitor! I got two degrees!’ But the Arab kid knows how to take care of hisself. He told him, ‘Get outta here ‘fore I kill ya.’ He don’t mess around.”
I looked him up and down. He could be a janitor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Shit, they make more money than I do. And when I talk to them, they just lean on their mop and with sympathy in their eyes and say,”I don’t know how you do it. I could never teach these kids.”
“You’re down here every day?” I asked the music teacher.
“Yeah.” He had that air of an old, beaten down dog that I’ve only ever seen replicated in human teachers.
“I hate it down here, man,” I confessed.
“Better than most schools,” he replied without hesitation.
“Oh yeah. I used to work at Beach Shore. That place was scary. I had lunch duty there, and they had TVs playing in there to try and the kids calm. One time it was the Riki Lake show and there was a strip-tease and this guy was on there and he was down to his g-string. The kids were goin’ crazy and we were all saying someone should turn it off, but everyone kept sayin’, ‘You turn it off. I’m not turnin’ it off. You turn it off.’ No one dared touch those TVs, man.
They also had a baby clinic in there. They have a lot of babies over there. They were gettin’ knocked up about forty or fifty a year. Here too, though. And all that money they put into that place too, and now they’re finally closin’ it down.”
I looked around at the school-aides who are assigned to the lunch room for five periods in a row, every single day and I shuddered. They looked like prisoners in a Siberian gulag. When the period ended and I had ushered all the kids out, I passed an old Sicilian woman who was sweeping up the refuse left on the floor.
“You in charge here?” She asked in a thick accent.
“Am I in charge? Uhh..”
“Look at-a this! They-a dirty! Mouth-a dirty! Every-ting!”
“Tell the principal,” I shrugged.
“You think-a she don’t see?” She gestured at the milk cartons and french fries that littered the room.
“Look,” I said. “I know. I’m sorry.”