Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Calvin: Part 1

My first trip outside of my white, upper middle-class suburban comfort zone was tutoring at a learning center in Boston’s South End as a college sophomore. Not all of the experiences ended up having to do with helping the young black and Puerto Rican children. 

A well-known educator and author (Howard for this post’s purpose) operated the center on West Newton Street, having gained national attention following his award-winning book on the failure of inner-city education. I usually came in two days a week – working with the youngsters was extremely gratifying – and there met one of the most charismatic and personable individuals I’ve met to date.

Calvin was one of the directors of the learning center. The kids loved him, for he grew up and lived in neighboring Roxbury and had four children of his own. He understood them, their everyday wants, needs and challenges, and helped make their lives better. I marveled at his way with people – all people – seeming to know how to relate to each one individually. He saw me pretty much as a clean slate, somebody he could teach the ways of his world and thus open my eyes.

Despite not having a college education, the next year Calvin got a teaching job at the Palfrey Street School, a private alternative school in Cambridge. He later told me that his job before the learning center was at a meatpacking plant. Carcasses weighing more than 300 pounds would come down a line on hooks. His task was to grab one off the hook, stagger a few feet with it and hang on a hook on a line going in a different direction. He was forced to quit the job after his wife stabbed him in the stomach after an argument on whether he was cheating on her turned violent. Because he couldn’t regain the strength needed to fulfill the job at the packinghouse, he turned to social work and was referred to the learning center.

I hadn’t picked up on the bad blood between Calvin and Howard following Calvin’s departure until he dropped into the center one day because he knew I would be there. Howard sat in a corner of the large room, not acknowledging Calvin’s presence as we chatted and obviously not pleased. Finally, Calvin said rather loudly, “I’m going out. I’ll be right back.” But after some time he didn’t come back, so I left and found him talking to friends on the street. We walked a few buildings down and entered an unmarked door into a small one-room office. Little did I suspect this was a satellite office of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).

The BRA had set up the South End office for Calvin’s friend, Della (not her real name), because she rocked too many boats downtown. Her desk filled up the room, with barely enough space to allow Della, a very large woman, to get through. She basically held court behind the desk, facing the door to ensure she knew all who entered. Chairs were arrayed on the other side of the desk for those seeking favors or just shooting the breeze. Visitors were an eclectic mix, to say the least: Benny, who she was helping get a job as a toll collector on the Mass Pike; Ron, a football player at Dartmouth whose teammates were some of my high-school classmates; Roy and Earl, who would later figure in my only bout with food poisoning; and Connie, a good-hearted neighborhood alcoholic who continually reminded us, “Self-preservation is the first law of nature.” The cast continually changed.

After settling down in the BRA office, Calvin filled me in on the feud. I can’t disclose his take on the reason because I never heard Howard’s side, but let’s just say it was personal, not professional. According to Calvin, Howard told him if he ever set foot inside the learning center, he would call the police, a strange pronouncement from a supposed anti-establishment character. Calvin never intended to come back, once again yanking Howard’s chain. Shortly thereafter, my college newspaper did a laudatory article on the center, which I thought spent too much time on Howard and too little on the rest of the staff. My letter praising the staff was published, and shortly thereafter I was informed that nobody except Howard was to speak about the center. From then on, I spent increasingly less time at the learning center and more time at the BRA office.

The small office was always thick with smoke, and often not entirely from cigarettes. Della kept everybody in stitches, except when she was laughing uncontrollably, like after Connie’s dirty joke about a fisherman using certain body parts for bait. I can still hear gasping and almost falling out of her chair. The craziest episode occurred when my brother accompanied me. After a few hours, Della opened the top drawer, grabbed a handful of pills and rolled them across the desk, asking, “Who wants some pills?” Benny grabbed a few, took a quick look and with a shit-eating grin popped them into his mouth. “Did you take those pills?  Did you take those pills?” Della asked incredulously, as the rest of us stared in amazement. Benny never answered before Della informed all of us that it was methadone. I don’t think he suffered any ill effects.

(To be continued.)

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