Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The First Lesson

On the very first day of my tenth grade at a new school, I was sitting in a large hall attending the ceremony of starting the new school year. Officials were giving one hollow speech after another, kids were crammed together and bored to death, while teachers were anxiously watching for any sign of disorder.

On stage was a tall man with receding hairline, face puffed with self-importance, manner dignified in a self-conscious sort of way. Presently he was announcing in a solemn, modulated voice that a political big shot was going to do us the honor of making a couple of drumbeats to start off the new school year.

This announcer was going to be my history teacher as I would soon discover. For now, I was horribly shocked by the expression on his face. It has abject obsequiousness for the big shot, and it has overblown pomposity for the rest of us. Never before had I caught sight of such ugliness.

And so, unbeknown to him, before I even sat in his class, that teacher had taught me a big lesson, which was never growing up to be like him.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


It is with a heavy heart that I am writing about Aline, wondering what has become of her. One afternoon a decade ago I parked in front of the old rowhouse on Emerald Street, rang the bell only to be informed that she had left for nobody knew where. I never quite understand the circumstances which caused her departure, except that she had had a serious row with her housemates, but then I only got to hear their side of the story. Whatever had happened, I felt as if I had lost a second mother.

The last time I saw her she kissed me on the cheeks, sending me off to a new life. She had wanted to come to the university to see me wearing cap and gown, but it was a five-hour bus ride away and I had been in no position to take care of an elderly lady. I had told her so as gently as possible, and she had graciously dropped the idea.

A few years further back I was frantically looking for a place to live after the original arrangement had been abruptly cancelled leaving me hung out to dry in an unfamiliar city, all alone with less than a hundred bucks to my name. Following an ad in a local newspaper, I ended up rooming at her place in an old shabby neighborhood with a few faded churches and rows of gnarled old trees.

She herself fit nicely into that neighborhood, a petite, white-haired, bespectacled old lady, smelling faintly of dogs since she kept three dachshunds for permanent company. Her living room was like a relic from a bygone era. A bulky television set probably dated from the RCA heyday, a lace-covered sofa, bric-a-brac all over, small photographs on the coffee table. Of the two big framed photographs on the wall, one portrayed a blond, laughing young man and the other a dark, solemn one -- Jerry and Peter, her two late sons.

Her sons, or rather their memories, were the bracer that kept her head high and her back straight. Peter had been a psychologist and Jerry a medical doctor, raised by their widowed mother on the earnings of a nurse doubling as a part-time hotdog vendor in the streets of Lower Manhattan, and of whom she made a firm point of having everyone know. Others might have found her pride a bit annoying, but I felt she had earned her right to it.

I quickly fell into an everyday routine, carpool to work at night, subway to school in the morning. She gradually grew fond of me and slided into the role of a surrogate mother. In my free time I would sit at her kitchen table and we would talk about Italian food, President Roosevelt who had signed Social Security into law, her church across the street, her doctor a few blocks away, and naturally Peter and Jerry. Sometimes if the weather was right I also helped with her plants, mostly tomatoes, in the backyard. That Christmas Eve she asked me to accompany her to church, and when we set out to the street, all dressed up, her hand on my arm, I got the impression that she had not been that happy since quite a long time.

One day I fell badly sick. She accompanied me to the hospital, then visited everyday for a whole week I was there, something totally unexpected, so used I was to being on my own and fending for my own. As I was lying there, exhausted, looking through the window at a gray sky, worrying about the obviously hefty medical bill, her arrival and cheery greeting stirred in me something nice but long forgotten, the feeling of being cared for.

I finally got admitted to a new school and had to move to another town for my study. I took a bus to visit her once in a while, for she was the closest thing to a family I had within a radius of one thousand miles. The last time I saw her was just before my graduation, when she kissed me on the cheeks and gave me twenty dollars which naturally I could not accept.

When I think of Aline I always feel weighed down by one of those unfathomable injustices in life. She had started out as an early orphan and reached her old age with her husband and children all gone, a lifetime of hard work being left with nothing but forlornness. All the more reason for my heart to sink seeing that whatever has happened to her, to this day I still have no idea.