At Christmastime 2001, I’d been out of work for over a year. When I was first laid off, I got a number of interviews. I even turned down a job offer for a position that sounded painfully uninteresting, foolishly thinking it wouldn’t be my last opportunity for full time work. But it was, for a very, very long time. To this point, I didn’t conceive of the idea that times could get tough for me, because apparently I’d blocked out my entire childhood.
Belt tightening followed. I gave my car to my dad because the insurance was killing me, even though I loved that car and knew giving it my dad was tantamount to a vehicular death sentence. I was forced to pay utilities only; student loans and credit card bills would have to wait. Except that student loan and credit card people didn’t see it that way, and so began the relentless, harassing calls and a mailbox stuffed with envelopes that screamed FINAL NOTICE.
Unemployment insurance helped keep my head above water while I scrounged for what I could. I worked temp jobs here and there, mostly proofreading for ad agencies. I conducted airline surveys at JFK and LaGuardia. On the creative side, I was doing some commentaries for NPR2, an embryonic satellite radio version of NPR, fun and easy work that, of course, dried up before long. I channeled most of my energy into online writing, pitching anything and anyone I could think of, and working on a novel, in the hopes that any one of these things would rescue me from predicament. They didn’t.
I did three full interviews with a financial publishing company, then was given a two-week “tryout,” copy editing, writing headlines, and doing light layout work in Quark. I got paid for my time, with the promise that if they liked my work the position would become full time. After the “tryout,” I never heard from them again, and later suspected this was really just a roundabout way of wresting temporary work out of someone without having to deal with an agency. Their offices were a few short blocks from what would soon be known as Ground Zero.
The low point came later, when I was offered a “roving teacher” job at a junior high in the South Bronx where a friend of mine taught English. The job entailed visiting different classrooms and schooling the students on citywide standards of math and English that they would be tested on in eighth grade. It was, for all intents and purposes, test prep.
I had gone to college for English education and even owned a teaching certificate, but this was my first real teaching gig. Although calling it “real” oversells it. Without a classroom of my own, I roved the hallways with a little cart full of materials. I was accorded an amount of respect equivalent to that of a substitute teacher. The kids tuned me out when they didn’t mock me outright, and the rigid curriculum I was commanded to disseminate afforded me little opportunity to get creative. I knew taking this job was a mistake taking this job almost immediately, yet couldn’t afford to quit.
Then, one day, two students in one of my classes got into a dumb argument. This happened incessantly at this school, where kids were constantly in a huff with one another about being disrespected. I’d noticed that “respect” was of tantamount importance to these kids, even though this concept operated on a one-way street–I can say whatever I want about whoever I want, but once somebody disrespects me, the gloves are off.
The fight eventually escalated to the point where one kid threw a chair at the other one. The thrower missed his target, and the chair skidded on its side to the front of the classroom, where it clanked and rattled underneath the chalkboard. Then the two kids began to grapple like wrestlers, as the rest of the class gathered around to egg them on.
My first instinct was to rush in and separate them. But I was so mad at being put in this position, at not being paid attention to, of having to work in this shitty school because I could find no other job, that I had visions of banging the kids’ heads together like coconuts. And then I had a vision of a picture of myself on the front cover of the Daily News, being led into a precinct house in handcuffs, under the headline TERROR TEACHER!
I called in sick the next day. The day after that, I didn’t bother calling in, or leaving my bed. I told my roommate to just let the phone ring–it was either the school or a bill collector or someone else who wanted something I couldn’t give them. I never even got paid for the six weeks I worked there, and because I up and quit, I could no longer collect unemployment. But I was also terrified that if I set foot in that school again, I might do something terrible or have a complete nervous breakdown. Poverty seemed the preferable option.
I didn’t work again for the rest of the calendar year, until a friend of a friend told me about a gig doing test prep work in Chinatown on the weekends. It was super easy, for motivated students, and best of all, under the table. Much like my junior high disaster, it would involve teaching from a pretty rigid curriculum. You go to the office, collect the lesson and handouts for the day, and make sure the kids do them, the friend of a friend said. Teaching in any capacity now terrified me, but if I had little choice to do job I hated a month ago, I had even less of one now.
The classrooms were in a building that was literally next door to the Manhattan Bridge. That part of Manhattan is quite literally the oldest neighborhood in the city, in terms of having people live in it, what it looks like, and how long it has looked like that. Its tenements and streets were the first stopovers for every group of people that have ever come to these shores, from the Irish (the first Ancient Order of Hibernians office is still down there) to Italians to Jews to Puerto Ricans and now, largely, Asians.
Venturing there early on a weekend morning was both a time warp and a culture shock. It was hard to find a store window with writing I could decipher, which gave me a decided feeling of you are just a tourist here. And yet it was so ancient it seemed like a ghost town at times. I expected to see horse-drawn wagons or bricklayers in derbies with hods thrown over their shoulders. Everything looked vaguely gray and soot-covered, but not in a dingy way. It was almost defiant, showing that time was not enough to take it down. All of it was here long ago, it will be here long after we’re gone. (Unless Bloomberg decides to bulldoze it for luxury condos, which is always a possibility.)
I “taught” kids anywhere from second grade to high school. It was all literally by the book–they lent me a book, I gave out handouts, and we went over them together. There were a few smartasses sprinkled among the kids, but even they were mild compared to what I’d experienced up in the Bronx.
Every now and then, a frantic mom would show up and bark at a kid in Chinese, and he would have to leave in a hurry for reasons I couldn’t understand, and I was afraid I’d have to explain to some other parent why their kid wasn’t there at the end of the day. During sessions, I would often have to pause as the J/Z train rattled past the window. Otherwise, it was a breeze. I regained some of the performer’s instinct that my previous job had knocked out of me. During breaks between sessions, I would wander the streets, looking for a noodle shop whose menu I could decipher, and just looking period, marveling at the ancient, rigid beauty of this part of Manhattan that hadn’t quite been ruined yet by Giuliani’s aggressive mallification campaign.
I did not get paid until my last session before the holidays, a few days before Christmas. A cashier’s window with bulletproof glass and a carousel handed over my money, an envelope stuffed with 20s. I was over the moon. I could afford to get some Christmas presents for my family, and for the girl I’d been seeing for a little over a month. As far as my prospects were concerned, she bought low, and I wanted her to know how much that meant to me.
But first, my friends’ band was playing at ABC No Rio that afternoon, so I trekked up to Rivington Street on foot. I took many detours and roundabout routes through the oldest parts of the Lower East Side, marveling at how much of it looked the same as it probably had a hundred years ago. And I thought about all the threadbare holidays that must have been celebrated in those buildings by people who had little more than each other and the dream of making a new life for themselves far away from home, and about how many people were doing that in those same buildings right at that moment.
At ABC No Rio, I peeled off a 20 from a pile that looked enormous to me, and I watched one of my favorite bands play, and I thought about just how lucky I was. For all the scraping and hustling of the last year, I was still around, somehow. I’d made it from one December to the next without completely bottoming out. And at that moment, even though I couldn’t say for sure, I just had this feeling that the worst was over.