By: Miguel Gardel
When I first moved to Queens I had to go get myself matriculated at the local high school, which was Novoton, in Elmhurst. It was late April and the school year had only May and June to go. In the central office they told me to come tomorrow and go straight to homeroom, and they gave me a blue piece of paper. I went there when the teacher was taking attendance. I felt all the students’ eyes on me as I walked to the teacher’s desk (What happened to this guy? Why is he starting school now? Where did he come from?). She was standing and looking down at her roster. She was receptive and took the paper and said something like, Where are you coming from? And glanced over at me. She was pretty busy matching seats and names. I didn’t have to answer. I had feared she was going to accuse me of annoying her, and for doing so, she would send me back to the office, or worse, to the principle. I had a terrible dread of teachers and institutions like schools. It was that horrible teacher, Miss Price, in the fifth grade, in PS Zero, the one who smacked me hard in the face for a little bitty bit of mocking I did. In confrontations with teachers, I was always in the inferior position.
But this teacher was into her work and didn’t want to castigate me just yet. It gave me an opportunity to look around the room and see the girls. Girls were my way out, the antidote to the dread. The one that caught my attention was this tall one, taller than me, I found out later, who looked like the lead singer of the Utopias, a white girl group that had a hit song some time back called The Toughest Guy in the Gang. I used to fantasize I was that guy. She had long, very straight blonde hair parted on the left and fastened on the right with a pretty baby blue pin. I thought that if I could get that girl it would be like going out with the original Utopia chick who I had dreamed about for a long time back when I was ten. And it was like I had just won a prize when the teacher sent me to the empty seat next to her. And then the bell rang and everybody split up. The next day I confirmed how taller than me she was. Her name was Marissa and she had a raspy voice. We never spoke to each other again after that.
I was seventeen and my sister was eighteen at the time of her wedding. She got married and didn’t have to finish high school. She never liked school. She went to Heights High. She went there to hang out, to see and be seen. School was a good place to exhibit her new clothes and hairstyles, and hang out with her equally vain friends. Because she was older, my sister was the person my mother trusted with the mailbox key. When the letters from school querying about her whereabouts arrived, she knew just what to do. She couldn’t spell too good, but she could sign my mother’s name better than my mother.
One day I got a letter from school saying I wasn’t going to graduate and that I was going to need some summer courses in order to get back on track. My father had always been absent from my life. My mother had always given me good moral directions. But never proper practical guidance. And now I was very disoriented, so disoriented, I didn’t quite care, didn’t give a damn. I was never a good student and was quite alienated to begin with. In the spring, on some of the days I had attended classes, I had heard talk about a prom and graduation. There were no precedents in my family for that kind of activity. So I was not naturally inclined toward them. I was ambiguous at best. And, no doubt, I would have resisted the tuxedo. I was now about to be totally distanced from all conventions except labor.
In the numbness of the summer heat, I took the 7 and then the G train to school. Every student asked, Why don’t they have air conditioning in this place? Because you’ll fall asleep, said the teacher with a big sarcastic smile on his face. He was probably right, but I didn’t like him. I felt he was mocking us students, and wondered why. I was naive enough to want to know. He had his shirt untucked, had put away his tie, and fanned himself with a newspaper over there in the front of the room. Good grammar was what we were supposed to be learning. I had an affinity for reading and writing, but couldn’t quite get the rules of the game. With an apathetic teacher it was going to be difficult to be motivated. Mostly I had been playing it by ear, and it looked to me like I was going to have to continue doing so. And I saw nothing wrong with it.
I lasted three days. I looked around and saw one girl I liked. I gave her the eye a couple of times. On the third day, I waited out in the hallway and asked her out. I have a boyfriend, she said. She moved her face close to mine and planted a soft kiss on my cheek. I didn’t expect that. I guess she felt sorry for me, and guilty for having to reject me. I felt bad, but it gave this whole school affair some significance. She walked away, hugging her books against her chest, looked back, and waved goodbye.
I remember the teacher had a dark tan and brown hair. I didn’t think he had the right attitude, but maybe he did. It was a hot summer. He was there just to be there. His name was Mr. Glosax. The girl’s name was Rosie Blukos. I think she was Greek. The image of her walking away stayed with me for a long time.
So this is how it happens. Factory work brutalizes your mind. You work hard and the boss is never satisfied. You seem to be getting poorer every day. And then you realize you are equal to your mother: you both take the same trains to the garment district (she got off two stops before me); you are both now officially uneducated; and you both feel like inferior specks in the biggest, most arrogant city in the world.
I rolled plastic over women’s coats all day. The plastic protected the garment all through its travels and its pre-final destination, the store. The factory was owned by two brothers, Sam and Abe. They were Jewish and had been interned in a Nazi labor camp in Germany. I was told this by old man Pérez. I knew it was true after I saw the long row of numerals tattooed on Sam’s arm. Sam acted as the foreman. And Abe was usually in the office. Pérez was the factotum in the factory. He brought me racks full of newly pressed garments. He and the truck driver who came to take away the finished racks were the only ones I had regular contact with. I was stationed by the freight elevator. There were no women to look at, no one to give the eye to. Perez and I were always bitching about everything. One day Pérez said to me, Sam pushes too hard. He should go easy on us. Don’t you think, on account he went through so much himself?
And I thought that if Sam truly survived that hell, I surely could survive this one.