Since there is no help
The sound of a muted but crescendoing chord slowly reaches my ears. It is a harmonica.
February 3, 2006
I walk down two levels to catch the #2 train to Manhattan at the Grand Concourse subway station. A group of hollering teenage boys storm up the stairs, taking three at a time. I flatten myself against the railing to get out of their way. On their trail a very young mother with carefully painted lips and a far-away look in her eyes slowly makes her way up the stairs. She pulls a child behind her by the forearm -- the little boy has to climb the stairs sideways not to fall backwards.
I teach English Composition to City University of New York freshmen, at Lehman College in the Bronx. Since I've started teaching I pay closer attention to young people -- I have to learn from them how to teach. But there is another reason why my attention lingers on young people. I look for something in their faces, their words, their movements, that would indicate to me that they are survivors -- that they will make it to college.
I read student essays regularly. I have had students who write about sleeping in subway cars at night, about living in neglected buildings where after school one day they may discover the ruin of their families' belongings by a collapsed ceiling or a broken water main. I have read students' worries about younger siblings who are being lured into drug dealing, about the hard decisions involved in virtually single-handedly raising younger siblings. The list really does go on. But obstacles must be overcome, the hiking CUNY tuition has been paid, and our students struggle to stay in school. They have become accustomed to an education that is begrudgingly offered them. But being a survivor has become terribly costly.
I am on my way home from a long day at school. At the Grand Concourse station there is not much to take one's mind off hardship. I look at the opaque, bluish pools of something liquid covered with oily spots standing here and there in the tracks. I follow the small gray mice flying from one small heap of something or other to another, leaping into hiding with the sound of an approaching train and darting into view again when it leaves. I think to myself that it must be good to feel so light.
The sound of a muted but crescendoing chord slowly reaches my ears. It is a harmonica. I can't see who is playing but the sound is coming from the opposite platform. The player is very experienced; he knows the acoustics of the place. If he played any louder the echoing would distort the sound. He holds each chord without vibrato. The tempo is very slow, but the melody singing on top is sustained carefully. Only at the end of a phrase does he introduce a little tremolo. It is the wavering of the breath when it must renew itself. The music rings in the air. The player knows the architecture of the station and calls to it to play. The underground tunnel responds. The harmonica falls silent when the tunnel is ready to play back its echo. Then there is a split second of total silence after both sound and echo have spent themselves, and before the next phrase begins. The sound is soft but it takes on the whole space. People pace the platforms quietly. We all listen.
When my train comes I'm sorry to leave, but also relieved as usual. I am particularly tired on this day. In between classes I have attended a forum sponsored by the Student Council to inform students on the changes in store for the City University system -- the "consolidation" plan, it is called. The proposal is to "consolidate" the resources of the various campuses of the City University of New York. A chancellor is hired who is best at carrying out certain definite policies of indefinite consequence. ("It is a dirty job but somebody has to do it.") What the new plan amounts to is the elimination of many departments and faculty members at individual colleges, so that in pursuit of their majors and interests students will have to commute to different campuses in different boroughs.
At the forum there is talk of the transportation costs of the average student commuting between campuses. There is talk of the evening student and the student with family responsibilities -- can they afford the extra time that commuting requires? There is talk of work schedules -- the majority of our students work almost full time. One of my best students works in a movie theater on 34th street in Manhattan and rides his bike home to the Bronx around midnight to save token money. On a salary of four-dollars-something an hour the price of a token is considerable. His first class in the morning is at 7:55, but the bike ride is short. Should he be prepared to ride to Queens next year?
There are more than commuting concerns, however. The plan is to change our campus to concentrate on nursing and physical education. We will no longer be a liberal arts college. "They are trying to stamp out all intellectual activity in the Bronx," a student comments. The assault on the value of the Humanities is not new, but it has different meaning in different contexts. Community, history, cultural survival -- the very subjects of Humanities -- acquire additional meaning for a population of mainly minority students. It is this relevance that has a life of its own independent of any CUNY chancellor and her plans.
As my train dashes and jolts along I think of the ride last night. An old black woman with her gray hair in loosened dirty corn rows walked through the subway car. She was dressed in a battered overcoat and old sneakers without laces. She had no socks, and underneath the coat her clothes were scanty. Outside, the wind blew so cold that it sapped your strength. She held a paper coffee cup, darting her absent glance around and muttering to herself. A button she was wearing on her coat read: Respect and Protect the Black Woman. When I put a dollar bill in her cup she directed her glance at me and muttered to me for a second.
"Respect...?" I thought, "What respect?" She left our car for the adjoining one and the door banged after her. I suddenly went mad: "Who is it you are asking to respect you...? The same people who snatched your children from you? Who put your men in shackles...? Protect you for what purpose? You're not even needed any more. Your labor is superfluous. You and your men and your children are extra now -- extra mouths to feed."
Tonight I think about the consolidation plan. I think about my own career at CUNY. I am a part-time "adjunct," which means that for the same teaching load I get paid one-third to one-fourth of the salary of my full time colleagues -- and I'm not even comparing myself to senior tenured faculty. Adjuncts teach 60% of the courses at CUNY. The saving adds up. As academic job opportunities have permanently dwindled, the adjunct faculty has swelled with over-qualified members. It is assumed that adjuncts are of two kinds: those who are in a sort of apprenticeship, and losers. If the former does not in good time land a full-time job somewhere -- anywhere -- it turns into the latter. It is not assumed that we like to teach at CUNY.
When I first started teaching here my very successful black Puerto Rican lawyer friend said that it was because I couldn't get a job anywhere else. The fact of the matter is that adjunct jobs are plentiful; you do have a choice. With or without this choice, however, we are perceived and treated as losers: a loser crew for a loser crowd. This same friend said to me: "You know that your students will never make it. They don't know how hard it is." Indeed, only a few of my students will "make it." I know and CUNY knows how hard it is -- only very young people don't know. So we are hired to oversee the classrooms while students are in the transitional stage between admission and dropping out. We get paid as we do because, like our students, we are not worth the investment. Our labor is superfluous.
Between affirmative action and this new rage of "multiculturalism" we already lose many of our best students. Black colleges lose, and we lose. Like freshly ground pepper on endive salad -- a kindred eighties' phenomenon -- our students tantalize the taste buds of politically correct college administrations. Our students' dark skin assuages the conscience of white professors. Americans in general have an insatiable need to feel good about themselves.
But underneath this spectacle of integration euphoria lie the ravaged communities from which these students come. The phenomenon is called brain drain, but these very young people don't know this either. And they don't know that the ravaging does not stop on the community level. They don't know that without a community your individual voice has no resonance, without a community you are flattened into cardboard. I should know; I'm from Iran. I've seen the before and after of the destruction of community. Now I am hired -- for a pittance -- to facilitate and pacify the destruction process of other communities. At best, I am to help propel a student or two into a more promising future. The rest of my function is willy nilly. Teaching is not even an issue.
My successful lawyer friend, who has paid dearly to climb to the heights of the American Dream, told me years ago that he despises the word "needy" -- that's how he, the brilliant young boy, was described. I think of my train ride last night. I think of my charity towards that homeless woman. I think of a dollar bill. "Whose money is this?" I ask myself. After rent and basic sustenance, if any money is left I don't even want it. One dollar buys that old woman exactly what it buys me, and it doesn't buy either of us very much. My good will towards my students buys their good will towards me, and neither of our good wills gets either of us anywhere. I don't teach at CUNY from charity. I teach there because I cannot be inspired to teach endive salads -- not for all the freshly ground pepper in the world. But the reality is that after rent and basic sustenance no money is left, and my own student loans must be paid back. This is how it is that if I want to stay in the profession I will eventually have to leave CUNY to teach endive salads.
I go home to spend a little quiet time before sleeping. I only have time to read a short story -- Chekhov it shall be. "On Official Business" is the story of a young Muskovite coroner trapped in some obscure province. In the dreams of a restless night the village constable, an old man, and an insurance agent dead by suicide, a young man, sing to him: "We're marching, marching, marching along. You are warm, you have bright lights, you are comfortable, but we are striding into the icy cold and the blizzard, through the deep snow. We know no peace or joy, we bear all life's burdens, both ours and yours..." The world is twice removed from those days: once to the triumph in the name of those who bear all life's burdens -- at least in Russia -- and twice to this day. Now it's not at all clear who bears the burdens of life. If labor is burden, then it is neither the old black woman nor myself -- neither the village constable nor the educated Muskovite of Chekhov's time. Our society does very well without the labors of both of us.
The next morning I also teach. I retrace my steps of last night to catch the #2 uptown. I pass a row of neglected but still sturdy brownstones. Some bird half flies half hops up the rusty fire escape, zigzagging on the side of the building. I catch one last breath of fresh air before descending into the underground again. Adjuncts do a lot of commuting.
When I step inside the #2 train, there are little flyers placed on the seats here and there. "Are you overcome with conditions that are not natural? Does bad luck seem to follow you?" The flyers are advertisements for astrology readings by Mrs. Yolanda: "$10.00 readings for $5.00." Located in a "Refine Area Upper West Side," Mrs. Yolanda offers her help: "I warn you gravely, suggest wisely, and explain fully." Things can indeed go very wrong in life. Mrs. Yolanda enumerates some: spells, bad luck, evil influence, separation, distress, change in a loved one, lost and stolen articles. What particularly strikes me, however, is that first trouble the flyer mentions: unnatural conditions. People in the west have been wailing about unnatural conditions for quite a few centuries now. This is not in my nature -- perhaps this is the ultimate cry of protest across culture, across history, across any kind of division.
At 125 St. I'm still looking at Mrs. Yolanda's ad, at the signs of the zodiac on it, at the xeroxed version of a painting of a ravishing woman with flowers and ribbons and beads in her long black hair. When the train takes off, the second it establishes its speed after the initial jolt, a chord is hit on a harmonica. It is held a fraction longer than a staccato. I look up. There is a relatively young black man standing in the back of the car, eyes closed, cupping a harmonica with both hands. He starts playing.
The tunnel the train passes through is uneven. It widens and it narrows: the reverberation of the sound of the traveling train is diffused, then concentrated. In stretches the tunnel is supported by pillars: racing along these the train produces an evenly divided clamor. The train meets an oncoming one: the clamor is crammed with conflicting percussive intervals. The trains disengage each other at their tails: the crammed rhythm comes to an abrupt stop. The harmonica player is not playing the cantabile phrases of last night. He weaves in and out of the train clamor with sforzando snatches -- splashing bucketfuls of sound against a backdrop of noise. The chords are accentuated evenly, and broken off with the player's tightening of his hands around the harmonica. Melody is only hinted at. The player takes deep but short breaths.
As he walks the length of the subway car he trails behind him, on a rope attached to his back, a crate containing his belongings wobbling on make-shift wheels. His paper coffee cup is perched on top of the crate. I dutifully put some money in there and get off at 149th St., the Grand Concourse.
Running up the stairs to transfer to the #4, I cannot take more than two stairs at a time. I'll do it while I can.
Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.