Chapter 9: Harry
Children in North Queens were walking around with curiously placid demeanors, as if they had found new direction in their everyday goings-on. At first, I assumed that with autumn, kids were more intent on studying. The summer vacation was behind them and now they were busy with classes, homework, reports and tests. For decades, I was accustomed to seeing sleepy-eyed kids drag themselves along the sidewalks to school early each morning. But there were few sleepy-eyed children on the streets, no matter mornings or afternoons. Most walked with a high-spirited gait each morning, some quick, some skipping, some plainly purposeful, no stragglers, no dawdlers. The absence of their usual noisiness, playfulness and rambunctiousness when they were dismissed from school in the afternoons was especially odd. It was as if a grey blanket of adult reasonability had suddenly engulfed them all, robbing them of that joyous and unselfconscious silliness of youth that prompts adults to look at kids, sigh, grin and wish we could turn back the clock and then sadden with the realization that the only thing we can see with any knowledge of certainty is the black hole coming up ahead. Could these little serious characters all be so similarly intent about getting home or to the public libraries or to afterschool centers to do homework? Thousands of children of all ages in lockstep mental grip?
Josh was unchanged. He was still the same wise guy: doing sloppy homework, incomplete homework, not preparing for exams, and more interested in whatever caught his fancy than in marching with the crowd.
I spoke to Jane about this. “Some parents of children in Josh’s school told me their kids are behaving very well now. They think the teachers are doing great jobs teaching their kids,” she mentioned. “I only wish Josh could get his act together and be that good.”
“But Jane, haven’t you noticed how almost all the kids on the street each day are calm? I mean, unnaturally calm? And every day. I don’t hear any loud voices, no running wildly to chase each other, no goofing around anymore. You don’t think that’s strange?”
Her response was typical. She was like the volcanic model Josh had to build, but her eruptions were purely vocal, and that was fire enough for me. “I’m so busy, Harry, I don’t have time like you to watch other people. I have to get Josh up in the morning, make sure he’s dressed and fed and then out the door early, then get myself together, do a quick laundry, then get here. My mother is absolutely no help, just lazy and complaining about her aches and pains and that she’s hungry and that I don’t care about her. Clients are calling me all the time!! Do you even know that??” she hissed. “Always asking me so many questions about their cases because they are afraid to talk directly to you, their big lawyer. Okay?! Do you even know how much is on my mind?! Every day?!”
Oy vey! Ask a simple question, try to engage the woman in conversation, and get chewed out for my trouble. Sometimes I wondered why I bothered. Jane was under huge pressure because she was a middle-aged single mother of a teenage boy who was on a mission to define life his own way and damn-the-torpedoes, and she was a daughter who had to handle all her mother’s matters since the thankless old lady spoke no more English than the Man-in-the-Moon. But that was just for starters, because she was also the paralegal-cum-Gal Friday on whom all the clients depended for preparing all manner of their legal papers and periodic updates in their cases, and who persisted in pestering her to explain what any odd official-looking letters in English meant, no matter from a court or the Department of Motor Vehicles or even junk mail that lacked pictures from which they might glean some idea, since most didn’t have much English. In addition, she was becoming more active in her local church activities with two weekday evening Bible classes and Sunday worship and more Bible study.
“You’re doing a great job all around, Jane. Don’t berate yourself,” I reassured her. She just looked up from her computer and shot me her own cold-eyed version of Josh’s “yeah, whatever” look, then returned her gaze to the computer screen and continued typing. I knew well enough to back off.
“Say, I’ve got nothing important going on for a couple of hours. I’ll pick up Josh. You can relax.” After I said it, I realized “relax” was not the appropriate way to put it. She said nothing, not even a guttural “umphh” in acknowledgment, and bobbed her head once sharply to indicate agreement.
I left the office, found my car parked a block away alongside the Queens Botanical Garden, cleared fallen oak and maple leaves from the windshield and wiped bird poop from the windows and driver’s-side door handle with paper towels and stale water I kept in the trunk for just such special and unfortunately frequent occurrences. Before finally sitting down, I took a pipe from my jacket pocket, filled it with tobacco and fired it up. The pipe was my trusty companion for the drive to Josh’s school. But before my first puff, I looked around as if suddenly reminded of something wonderful. I breathed in the early autumnal dryness I recalled from my youth, the smell of a
fleeting warmth before the leaves totally shriveled and dropped. The air in New York City was much cleaner than when I was a boy, due, I suppose, to the absence of light industry, the governmental mandate for cleaner gasoline, and the huge fines for polluting that dissuaded people from their baser proclivity to litter at will. Busses didn’t spew black plumes from their tailpipes anymore and buildings didn’t burn garbage that choked the skies. People tied up garbage in plastic bags and neatly arrayed the bags on designated days in designated places for pick-up. Breezes off the Atlantic Ocean to the south and Long Island Sound to the north swept Queens fresh. On days like this, the October air smelled nutty and sweet. With the rains due tonight, the fallen leaves would become a soggy, slippery mess the following morning and their smell of decay would add a musky-sweet fragrance to the city day.
I was always amazed at how so many kids could quickly filter out of a couple of narrow school doors, sunshine blinding them as they tried to focus their eyes from indoors to outdoors, faced with a mass of adults entangled in each other, all waving arms and screaming names to get the attention of their children. Structured pandemonium on the adults’ part and countered by the wide-scanning searches by the children, silent as snipers scoping for targets. I stood way back, where the oxygen
was richer and I was in less danger of losing my hearing or getting slapped by the indiscriminate arc of hand gestures.
“Hi ya Harry, where’s Mom?” Josh asked, more out of a vague curiosity than concern.
“Well, she was awfully busy, and since I had the extra time, I thought I’d fetch you back.”
“Jacky coming today?”
“I think she said it’s his off day. He’ll be back for you to torture tomorrow,” I teased. Josh was nothing if not thickskinned about such things. He smiled and skateboarded alongside me, sometimes around me, sometimes down off the curb into the street and then popping back up the curb again.
“Yeah, I like to give him a hard time,” he said, looking around at all the other kids pairing up with their adults, “‘cause maybe then he’ll tell Mom some excuse to stop tutoring me. I know he can’t just straight out say I’m a pain and he’s sick of teaching me.” The words flowed from his lips with all the sincerity of someone who either feels totally at ease confiding in the listener or simply doesn’t care how the listener might react. In either case, not out of character for Josh, who said whatever he wanted, be it the truth or not, for he lied straight-faced with aplomb when it suited his purpose. Part of his puerile charm, I suppose. I glanced down at him after he spoke, pondering his candor and not quite sure whether any response from me was even necessary. There was no doubting the veracity of his dislike of all the tutors he’d burned through. Yet his mother was undaunted and hired one after the other in the belief that so long as she did her best for the boy, someday her efforts might bear fruit. All I saw was a lot of wasted money, but I also knew to “let Josh be Josh” and do nothing about him but hope for the best was a recipe for disaster.
“She’ll only hire you a new one. You can’t escape,” I said with a hopeless shrug.
“Maybe you’re right,” he conceded. But then, “So I’ll just have to make the next one miserable too,” Josh retorted in his cheery, matter-of-fact tone.
After a few seconds, I remembered what else was on my mind. “Say, Josh, I’ve been wondering about something,” I said as I walked to my car parked a couple of blocks away on a lovely Oakland Garden street. Like so many of the tree-lined neighborhoods in Northern Queens, the private houses here were increasingly owned by Chinese and Korean and South Asian families who paid top dollar to live in the districts that had high-performing “Blue Ribbon” schools. Once enrolled in the schools, many of the kids studied with a fierce desire to do well and make their parents’ faces shine with pride. Families sacrificed for their children and, given the local and city-wide statistics, their sacrifices were paying off. Their children were successful in competing for places in the city’s best high schools, both public and private, and then entered the country’s best colleges. As the old joke went, a kid asked his parents whether he could be a musician in a rock band when he grew up, and the reply was “Sure you can, honey, as long as you’re a doctor.” It hadn’t been long before this time when other New York families throughout this neighborhood and countless other sections of the city, families of myriad ethnic backgrounds, had felt this communal urge to succeed in their new homeland. I knew it was a wave surge that would never relent so long as people felt the desire to improve their circumstances, enjoy what opportunities America had to offer, and had the nerve and self-discipline to accept each challenge by working hard, and from youth onward, assert themselves and contribute to their communities and new nation.
“You haven’t mentioned anything more about any blue gas since you talked to me about it the first time,” I prodded.
He gave a slight shrug as he glided nearby. “Still happens every day at two o’clock sharp. They all go into their hokey-pokey trances. Gives me some peace and quiet for about five minutes, so I can mess around with whatever I keep in the bottom of my backpack and can’t take out during class,” Josh said nonchalantly.
“You don’t bug out like they do?” I narrowed my eyes as I looked over at him.
“Nah, doesn’t bother me. I like the smell, though. It’s clean, ya know, like soap.”
I stopped walking as a curious notion tugged at me. “Look, I have an idea,” I called out to him, and he turned 180° on the skateboard, waiting to hear more. I felt a mischievous series of thoughts forming in my mind.
“I want to go back to your school. Right now. There’s something we need to do.”
“Sure, I guess,” he replied, never one to hurry back to the office. “I only have homework to do and that can wait. You
can help me with it, right?” he fished. Everything was a negotiation with this fellow. Nothing without a quid pro quo. Smart guy.
“Of course! You need to ask?” I assured him with a pat on the shoulder. “You’re my main man, Josh. Let’s go.” He was about to become involved in something that would make his aversion to doing homework seem awfully trivial.
G88, published by Bilbo Books Publishing