Alan Gerstle divides his time between writing, teaching, and working with at-risk students. He has published short stories, poetry, and essays.
Escuela Para Todos
I was driving Reid back to New Jersey after we attended a Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden. When we glided into the Lincoln Tunnel, I rolled up my window to filter out the fumes. Reid did the same on his side, so the only sound was of us talking. He smoothed his blonde ponytail with his palm, which was always a signal he was about to say something he considered important.
“I’m done with the community college shit,” he said. I side glanced him and noticed a devious smile on his face. “Come September, I’ll be going to your alma mater.”
“City College?” I said.
“On top of that, I’m going scot free. “
“Nothing’s free, dude,” I said.
“No tuition, man.”
“But you don’t live in the city. Fuck. You don’t live in the state.”
“My ass, I don’t.” Then Reid reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a thin book of receipts, and tossed it onto the dashboard. “Check it out.”
We exited onto the Jersey side of the tunnel. I took the first turn that led into Jersey City, and merged onto the local traffic. When we reached a red light, I grabbed the pad, and tried to open it, but couldn’t. I tossed it over to Reid. “What is that?”
“Book of rent receipts.” He raised the booklet to his nose and inhaled as though savoring its aroma. “Half a book, actually. I filled out 12 receipts with a Manhattan address, one month apart. Spread them out on the registration counter like a royal flush.”
“They bought into it?”
“Lady at the office was suspicious. But she’d just learned her nephew was killed in Iraq. She said she was too frazzled to deal with the whole verification thing.”
Before I could respond, I heard tires squealing. I turned towards sound. A pair of headlights blinded me. A florist truck had run a red light, and was heading straight at us. It t-boned into the passenger side. Reid lost his life.
I was supposed to start my first teaching job that fall, but I soon realized I was too frazzled to start any career. So on the advice of a therapist I joined a boxing gym. The psychologist suggested working out might help me channel my anger and my guilt. The trainer, a short guy with a cigar butt perpetually between his lips, taught me basic footwork, how to bob and weave, work the speed bag, and use my reach to advantage.
That’s where I met Joseph and Diego. Joseph was planning to become a lawyer, and Diego was studying philosophy. The three of us got friendly, which was fortunate for me because I’d been isolating myself in my parents’ house since the accident. When May came around, Diego told us about a summer job program operated by the city. They needed boxing instructors to travel around the five boroughs and offer boxing workshops for the neighborhood kids. The three of us were hired, but I wasn’t sure if I really qualified. We were supposed to take turns driving, and I didn’t mention that I got panic attacks behind the wheel. I’d have to come up with an excuse once we’d start working, but that didn’t end a problem. It turned out that only Joseph drove the old Dodge Ram that the city provided. Joseph didn’t trust Diego behind the wheel because he got easily irate, smashing his fists into the horn if a car ahead of us took too long to get moving once a light turned green. I told the guys I had been working for Uber and needed a break. Joseph said no problem. He liked to drive.
We were driving back to Queens where the city garage was located. Joseph was maneuvering through the southbound expressway traffic. He was his usual unflappable self, his Izod shirt dry and pressed even though it was a hot New York night, and we had been conducting a workshop in a church basement that evening. I sat beside Joseph in the passenger seat. Diego was stretched out on the rear bench, his face pressed flat against the vinyl, using a philosophy book as a pillow. Diego was taking a graduate course, and his final exam was the next morning. Joseph was entering Georgetown Law School in the fall, which surprised people when they asked him about his career plans. Diego and I thought the reactions were because Joseph was black, which made us incensed. But Joseph would just wink at us and smile. I heard a deep nasal sound coming from behind me. It was Diego, snoring.
“Diego,” I said. “Smell the coffee.”
“What coffee?” Diego’s eyes snapped open. He rolled over and faced forward. Then he swung his legs around until he was sitting upright. With the book a few inches from his face, he started reading.
“It’s the heat,” he said flatly, eyes stationed on the worn paperback. “The city couldn’t install some goddamn air conditioning?”
“I warned you about working and taking summer classes,” I said.
“Effing instructor schedules the final for eight a.m.,” Diego said, addressing the book more than me. Diego didn’t appear to be in a conversational mood, so I tried to talk up Joseph.
“Didn’t I warn him, Joseph?”
“About the slings and arrows of summer school?” Joseph said. He had taken it upon himself to teach me to speak properly. Joseph was a resolute type, a perfect model for the kids. When he taught, he exuded a quiet authority, while the little rascals barely responded to Diego’s uninspired instruction. When their attention waned, Diego would select someone from the group, and give him a smart little jab on the nose.
“I believe you did warn him,” Joseph said. “It’s common knowledge that the length of class periods is extended in the summer, and the number of periods per week is increased owing to the truncated semester.”
I appreciated what Joseph was trying to do, but the problem was I felt like a vulnerable child. So when I spotted the green sign up ahead, announcing Flushing Meadows ½ Mile, I began to relax. In five minutes, we’d be off the highway.
“Hear that?” Diego said, snapping his book shut.
“Hear what?” I said. Diego had the look of someone focusing on a radio dial in an attempt to get a clear signal.
“That.” Diego leaned forward and looked out his side window. “Like an electronic bug killer zapping a mosquito.”
Then I heard it: a harsh, snapping sound. Joseph slowed down, and with a subtle head nod, indicated we should look up ahead. “There’s the problem,” Joseph said.
Through the windshield, we saw that a fuel tanker had jackknifed. It looked like the truck driver, noticing that the top of his tractor wouldn’t clear the overpass, had jammed on his brakes too late.
“That’s one dumbass driver,” Diego said. We scanned the insides of the truck’s cab, but it had been abandoned.
“Quiet,” Joseph said. He slowed further. We could see pulsating flashers on each of the trailer’s four corners. The reflectors that lined the truck eerily glittered, catching glints of light from our headlamps. Drivers on either side of us weren’t being as cautious. They threaded their way through the one open lane. Once past the disabled truck, they accelerated. Not seeing oil dripping from the tanker, some slid into the retaining walls of the underpass. That’s what accounted for those menacing thuds.
“Check out that fuel leak,” Diego said, as we watched a puddle form and glisten on the road.
“Another one,” Joseph said, pointing ahead as we watched a Lincoln Town Car smack into the wall.
“There goes my final exam,” Diego said. He shook his head in disgust and tossed the textbook over his shoulder. It landed somewhere in back where the gloves, helmets, and duffel bags filled with shorts and shirts were stored.
Joseph eased towards the far left, aiming for the only unobstructed lane. When he pulled parallel to the tractor-trailer, he stopped, turned on the warning flashers, and then yanked up the emergency brake. The highway was blocked now. Joseph pushed open the side door, and sprang out of his seat. Before Diego or I could say something, Joseph had already rushed into the underpass. Diego and I watched Joseph stick his head inside the first car, apparently to check on the driver. He stepped back a few feet, and turned towards us.
“The orange cones,” Joseph shouted, adjusting his forearms to mimic their pyramid shape.
Diego and I hustled to the rear of the van, where our traffic cones were stacked. We had lots because we used them to mark off an imaginary boxing ring during our classes. Diego grabbed a stack in each arm. I could barely manage one stack with both arms, not surprising because while I was only an inch shorter, Diego had 50 pounds more bulk. He raised his leg, stomped his foot down on the inner latch, and slammed his shoulder against the door like a defensive end in football crashing into a running back. The door flew open, and we jumped out. Facing us was a bevy of stalled cars, headlights blazing in our direction. The scene reminded me of a horde of stranded vehicles trying to flee an apocalypse.
“The fuck’s going on?” a guy wearing a Yankee cap said, his head stuck out his window.
“Back the fuck up,” Diego shouted.
“Back up where, genius?”
“Why are we arguing?” I shouted. Diego shrugged and began laying out the cones across the highway. I ran to the opposite shoulder, and began dropping the ones in my stack until we met in the middle.
“This is bullshit. Cones are supposed to be a hundred feet ahead of an accident,” Diego said.
“Where did you learn that?”
“Friedrich Fucking Nietzsche.”
More drivers were standing by their cars now, most staring perplexedly ahead. Others remained behind their steering wheels, honking like a flock of pissed off geese. This was New York, though, so at least half of them were honking just for the hell of it. Diego picked up one of the cones, and raised it to his lips like a bullhorn.
“Any one of you runs me over, I’ll kick your ass,” he shouted. Then he paced back and forth across the four lanes, warning about the oil on the road. Diego’s performance caused the drivers to quiet down considerably. Then Diego threw down his improvised loudspeaker, and the two of us ran towards the ghostly underpass, squeezing through the two-foot space between our van and the tractor-trailer. Joseph was now at the far end, pacing alongside a stalled school van It was facing the wrong way, and the passenger side was pressed against the tunnel wall. Smoke was curling up from its engine. Joseph shouted at us.
“Did he say Bagels?” Diego said.
“Bag gloves, jerk.” Diego sprinted back to the van and hopped inside. A minute later, he was back out with the gloves. He tossed me a pair, and we began running towards Joseph. I could see an orange glow under the hood of the damaged vehicle. I also heard the sound of sirens, but they seemed strangely distant.
We passed four or five motionless cars that had smacked against the retaining walls. A couple of drivers were outside their vehicles, shaking their heads in disgust. The guy with the Town Car was angrily kicking his tires as though it was his car’s fault for having crashed.
Diego and I reached Joseph, who was using the thin edge of a lug wrench in an effort to pry open a door of the passenger van. Four doors on each side, but none wanted to budge. Meanwhile, smoke was entering the interior, and flames flickered up through the partially crumpled hood. There were a bunch of terrified kids inside, squirming and crying, their fists clenched, their eyes filled with terror. The driver was dazed, his forehead, bloody. Luckily, the children were wearing their seatbelts. Apparently, the driver hadn’t.
“Damn thing could blow up,” Diego said. He ran to Joseph and grabbed the wrench, but even he couldn’t get the door to budge. I grabbed the driver’s door handle, but it was stuck. Worse, it was hot even through the glove. That’s when I stepped back, and noticed across the side of the van was stenciled Escuela Para Todos. Underneath, in English, was School for All. The driver must have ploughed into the side, careened off the wall, skidded, and spun around. Unlike our van, this one had no rear door.
“It’s like a sardine can without a key,” Diego hollered. Then he rushed up to the driver’s window. “Hey Mario Andretti. Who taught you how to drive?” he shouted through the glass.
“Doors are stuck,” Joseph hollered.
“No shit,” Diego said
“Watch the handles,” I said.
“Fuck the handles.” Diego bent over until he was inches from the driver’s window. He showed his fist and shouted, “Pendejo, muévete si no quieres recibir un puñetazo.” Then in English: “MOVE YOUR ASS!”
Despite his stupor, the driver finally understood, and leaned back a foot or two. Diego cocked his arm and slammed his fist through the driver’s window, shattering the glass. Then he rushed to the next window, signaled the kids to back up, and then knocked in the second window. With my gloves on, I felt around inside the driver’s door, searching for a clasp or handle. I got my glove on a door latch, twisted it until I heard a snap, and pulled hard. The door opened. I grabbed the dazed driver and pulled him out. The two frightened kids in the front seat scrambled after him. Diego punched out the windows of the remaining two doors as Joseph and I extracted the kids. When everyone was outside the van, Joseph guided the kids until they stood in a line several yards away. One by one, Joseph placed his hands on the kids’ cheeks, examined them for bruises, broken glass, or burns. His touch alone seemed to make them calmer.
“Now, who here is a big brave boy or girl, and not some little crybaby boy or girl?” Joseph shouted.
“Me!” “Me!” “I am!” There was a chorus of shouts as they eagerly waved their hands.
“Now, I want you all to line up in a single file just like you were in school, and follow me,” Joseph shouted.
“En fila,” Diego bellowed. And despite the mayhem, the kids magically obeyed, and faithfully followed Joseph as though he were the pied piper. He led them beyond the underpass to the highway shoulder while I brought up the rear. Diego scurried behind me, the driver in his arms.
“You could get sued for moving him,” I said.
“Not if he doesn’t want me to drop him,” Diego barked, right into the guy’s ear.
No sooner were we out of the tunnel, when seemingly out of nowhere, a swarm of fire trucks and ambulances were on the scene. Several medical workers were examining the kids while two others were transferring the driver from Diego’s arms onto a wheeled stretcher. Others were checking on the disabled vehicles and their drivers. A group of fire fighters was carrying huge absorbent pads, laying them on the oil spill. The coup de grace was watching several fire fighters shot foam from their extinguishers at the van, covering it with foam as it took on the appearance of a dilapidated vanilla frosted cake. After a few minutes, it was evident we were no longer needed.
“Guys!” Joseph called. He was five yards ahead, standing in a patch of grass by the side of the highway, a bevy of multi-colored flickering lights illuminating him. He motioned to us to approach.
“I’d like to pray.” Joseph said as we reached him. Diego and I nodded our consent, and following Joseph’s lead, bent down on one knee. Then Joseph lowered his head, cleared his throat, and paused a moment.
“We give thanks to you, oh, Lord, for keeping us safe, and for allowing us to be of aid to those in greater need than we.” Then Joseph closed his eyes, and for a second I could swear his eyelids seemed to flutter like a pair of angel wings. I side eyed Diego, who only offered a befuddled shrug.
“Amen,” Joseph said.
“Amen,” Diego and I quickly repeated.
“Good work, lads,” someone interrupted. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned. It was a short, solidly built fire chief with greying hair. An axe rested on his left shoulder. “Is that your van back there?” He asked.
“That’s us,” Joseph said.
“Nice job,” the chief said. He reached out and shook hands with each of us. “Good Samaritans. A dying breed, lads.” Then he displayed a delightful grin. I saw Diego trying to suppress a smile.
“Let me get a few of my guys to escort you back. Then you’ll be on your way. We still need to keep the highway blocked off, though.” He called over four fire fighters. Two carried axes, the other two, long pikes. The chief consulted with them briefly. They approached us, and soon we were walking three abreast with Diego in the middle—two fire fighters leading the way, the other two behind. It felt like we were having a special escort. Like we were celebrities.
“I’m driving,” I said to Joseph, who was on the other side of Diego. Joseph hung a hook shot, and the keys made an arc in the air, traveling over Diego’s head. I caught them.
“Two points,” Joseph said, holding up his middle and forefinger. Then Diego broke in. “Hope I didn’t lose my fucking book,” he said, pointing towards the van.
“Diego,” Joseph said, stopping abruptly. He turned and put a hand on each of Diego’s shoulders. Diego halted and took a deep breath. Joseph looked into his eyes.
“I’ve been informed by a higher power,” Joseph said.
“Informed of what?”
You are going to get an A on that exam.”
Diego looked suspiciously at Joseph. He seemed to chew on the idea. He looked at me, back at Joseph, then at our van.
“Whatever,” Diego said.
The following week was our last working for the summer program. I drove the van a couple of nights, and felt pretty calm about it. On our final day, Diego came to work humming. When we were done and garaged the van for the last time, we headed for the Flushing Meadow subway, and waited on the platform. Diego had an impish grin on his face.
“Diego,” I said. “We like a good joke too.”
“Yea, big guy. What are you hiding?” Joseph said.
“Philosophy isn’t so bad,” Diego said.
“Who said it was?” I said.
“I got an A,” Diego said, trying to stifle his glee. “Professor said he thinks he can get me an assistantship.”
“Diego,” Joseph said. He smiled as he put his arm around Diego. “You’re the man.”
Diego looked at Joseph, then at me, as though looking outside himself for a clue about how to react. “Whatever,” he said.
When the train finally came, we sat down three across in the near empty car. Not a word between us as the doors closed and the train was on its way.
“My rideshare days are over,” I said. “Driving for a living is no fun. Took me a summer to figure that out.”
“All things considered,” Joseph said, “a couple of months is admirable.” Then he side glanced me, and winked.
Diego was half-following our conversation, and nodded half-heartedly. Then he slumped down against the seat as though it was a lounge chair. A minute later, he was asleep.