Only Us

Central Falls

I see her here

now

smiling at the late day sun

brightly

as all the laughing caramel girls

bursting

out the bodega doorways

onto the sidewalk

laughing and oblivious

up out of cracked cement

dark flowers

blow kisses at the sky

~~~~

One day I spotted Evelin on the sidewalk.  I was in my car and she didn’t see me.  She was walking with her head down – the way I do most of the time – in jeans and a dark blue T shirt she’d probably worn to work that day.  It was mid-spring in the smallest city in the world, and the sun was shining like it was having a love affair with the sky.  But Evelin seemed tired, pensive, worn down by a day of mundane labor.  She was moving like one of the multitude of nameless cliches who offend the sensibilities of senseless bigots masquerading as patriots.  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…and we will kick them when they’re down.

It’s 2016 and the world has let go of everything, including the distinction between indignation and the toxic sludge of a defective spirit.

But walking down the street in the smallest city in the world, an immigrant from the land of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Evenlin’s cocoon of nameless peace envelops me too.  It was enough to make you believe that somewhere actual angels weep for the knowledge that everyone is exactly where they are.  But if I were ready to believe in angels, they wouldn’t be wearing pristine robes in the clouds.  They’d be wearing jeans and dark blue T shirts, walking down the sidewalk in the smallest city in the world.

It’s not really the smallest in the world.  It just feels that way, covering its paltry 1.3 square miles, and containing a claustrophobic tangle of twenty-three miles of rutted streets and fissured sidewalks.  The Vatican claims to be the smallest, but it’s daunting to think of the Vatican as being a tiny city vs a huge corporation.

Central Falls is a minuscule vortex of pure, urban grit.  It’s not where you go for a second chance.  It’s where you go for a last chance.

While the overall Latino population in the US stands at about seventeen percent, Central Falls’ Latin population is around sixty.  The city is the poorest in the area, and went bankrupt just a few years ago.  There’s no such thing as a high ticket tax payer here, and the most valuable property is abandoned and crumbling.  It has a reputation well beyond its topographical size for crime and violence, but it’s the kind of place where somebody knows somebody knows somebody who knows where’s there’s work for someone who doesn’t read or write much in any language.

For the past two and a half years, the school department has been working with Rhode Island College and The RI Family Literacy Initiative (my employer) on the Parent College program, providing free evening classes to parents of kids in the local schools.  The classes are held in the Calcutt Middle School.  I’ve been there since the first night, when thirty people showed up for the single ESOL class being offered. We’d planned to create a beginning class, but no one was turned away.

That first night, I sat down in front of three young sisters from Honduras who looked frightened when I said hello.  They didn’t last long, unfortunately.  Sometimes the newness and immensity of something like a foreign language can make you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of impossibility..

There were also a few who spoke so much and so well I encouraged them to sign up for classes at one of the area colleges, but they all said the same thing, something I hear pretty often: “No, please.  I need this.”

One of the people who said that to me that first night was a bright, beautiful, good-humored young woman from Puerto Rico.  After talking to Milagros for a few minutes, I told her she knew enough to teach the class.  She laughed and thought I was kidding.  Fortunately, she stuck around as long as she did and generously helped as a classroom assistant, helping teach others.  But within a couple of months, she was hired by the school department.  I missed working with her.  I missed the honeyed glaze of her accent and easy laughter.  But mostly, I missed being able to nod in her direction amid a roomful of people who could survive the brutalities of Latin-American poverty yet be frightened by something so harmless as words, as if to say, “There.  She is the light at the end of all your tunnels.”

One night, later that first winter, a woman in my class spoke out in the fifth grade room we were squatting in when she suddenly realized the desk she was sitting behind was her own daughter’s during the day.  I don’t remember if she tried to say it in English, but it doesn’t matter.  Sometimes the lessons we come to learn aren’t the lessons we came to learn.

Not long after this I started coming to eat the free meals provided to the families by the program – simple school meals that recall the Reagan concept of ketchup as a vegetable.  I wasn’t really hungry.  It was just a good excuse to spend a little relaxed time with my students and their kids.  Food is the great equalizer, however basic, and I began to blend into the cinder block and become less of a novelty.  Over such meals, I began hearing unguarded stories of desperation and desire, of dangerous journeys and the promise of uneasy dreams in the smallest city in the world.

This is where I got to know Jordy and his big brother, Jonathan, both well-mannered kids with blocky builds like their Guatemalan father.

Jonathan is the reserved one.  He’s much tougher to get to know, with his seemingly painful inability to make eye contact.  He likely possesses some level of Asperger’s, along with a voracious IQ.

Jordy’s the talkative, curious one.

One evening in the cafeteria, I was eating with Jordy, Jonathan and their parents.  As always, the boys had been to school earlier that day in the same building.  Now they were back after a couple of hours at home to hang out with a few friends while their parents were there to further educations barely started back in Guatemala and El Salvador.

“What grade are my parents in?” Jordy asked out of the blue.

I wanted to laugh, and almost did, but Jordy looked dead serious.  The question was obviously important to him.  There were his mother and father going to class at the same school, cramming their adult bodies into the same sets of chairs and desks.  Of course they would have to be in a “grade”.

“They’re in college,” I told him.  This seemed to satisfy him, and he wheeled away to go play with the other kids whose parents were waiting for their classes to begin.

Nights I go to Central Falls, I sit in my car a while in a parking lot that’s half paved and half gravel.  There’s a notebook stashed under the driver’s seat, and sometimes I write scattered images in it.  But days on which my mind remains blank – and there are many of those – I read a few pages of Lao Tzu and watch the rats play under the dumpsters.

Back then, the hinge spring to the gas cap cover on my car wouldn’t stay closed.  It just flapped back and forth like a hand waving hello and goodbye at the same time.  And every time Jordy came walking into the building with his his family, his chunky little face would appear at my passenger window.

“Did you know the thing on your car is broke?”

Every time.  And every time he’d look as serious as he did that day he asked what grade his parents were in.

“Is it really?” I’d say.  Every time.

“Want me to fix it for you?”

“That’d be great, Jordy, thanks.”

The flap never closed all the way, but Jordy would walk to rear of the car and push it as far as it would go.

He was my wake-up call.  My reminder to quit daydreaming of rats and ancient Chinese philosophy.  It was time to go talk to somebody.

I wonder what it’s like for kids to watch their parents go to school.  I took my own parents’ educations for granted.  It was just a chunk of personal history that got stuck in its expected place long before I came into being.  I never learned to look at that aspect of their lives with the same curious admiration I see in kids like Jordy and Jonathan.

These are the people who say never say never even when they don’t know the words.  Something in their lives depends on all of this.  Maybe almost everything.  I give dog-paddling lessons in an ocean formerly know as the Land of the Brave.  They give me back lessons in the belief that human beings are made of better things than fear and anger.

Three times now I’ve seen Jordy and Jonathan’s parents put on graduation gowns to accept certificates acknowledging another year of learning, investment and trust.  They pose for selfies in their shiny, blue gowns, standing beside their kids or other parents.

The experience is gently profound and boldly incomplete.  When you’re dog paddling, you just gotta keep on swimming.

The graduations are…well…graduations, one of those events human beings share with other human beings, like weddings and funerals, or Monday holidays commemorating events no one remembers.

I finally got the gas cap cover on my car fixed.  Sometimes I wish I hadn’t.  It made the car easier to spot from a distance in large parking lots, but it got tiring to drive around with people continually honking their horns or yelling and pointing to let me know it was flapping around.  You can’t stop and explain to random strangers how having something minor wrong with your car gave this blocky-faced little kid an excuse to stop at my window and talk to me as if I were sitting there.

Jordy stopped pausing at my window, and his parents moved on to the next class.  The next level.  The next everything there is that comes next.

They keep swimming.  I keep waving from the shore.

That day last spring, Evelin came to class with her hair neatly brushed back and gathered into a tight ponytail, wearing a bright yellow blouse that reflected a sorely needed change of seasons.  She smiled and said hello before reaching her usual seat.  I didn’t talk about seeing her on the sidewalk a couple of hours earlier, or how she’d changed into something brighter and sweeter than the T shirt she wore to work.  I kept that meaningless secret and pretended to focus on the evening’s material.  More people come in.  America’s under-educated, who talk to me about Pablo Neruda and Garcia Marquez, and even know all the titles of their books.

All the sidewalk angels had come out to stretch their tired wings.  Who would ever remember our being there but us?

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