Spirit of the Phoenix

As far as she could discern from what logical capabilities still existed in her paranoid mind, the world right outside her apartment was far too chaotic. Each day she saw hordes of strangers swarming in every direction atop the fractured sidewalks just below her second floor apartment window. Their urgency paralyzed her plight. She concluded that the prevailing temperament among these strangers was unfriendly. No one stopped to converse. No one smiled. No one helped when a person stumbled or dropped a belonging. In fact, it seemed a frustrating break in the tide, the crowd streaming around the incident like a car crash on a busy highway.

The thought that everyone would know she was outside further crippled her movement. Everyone would see her. They would see her dated apparel and worn shoes. She couldn’t remember the last time she shopped for new clothes. They would see the tattered hat she wore to cover up her dry hair. It had lost most of its integrity in the washer months ago. A couple of the buttons on her coat were missing. Repairing them meant leaving the apartment. She’d asked her daughter to do her the favor when she could but the opportunity never materialized, or so she supposed. Apparently, she just didn’t belong in this fashionable population. The women had such empowering attire – high heels and pencil skirts. Each dignified step purveyed such purpose and self-confidence. Not only did they know where they were going but they were sure to be in command wherever it was. And the men swung these leather brief cases like war instruments, gliding by ever so masculine in their Oxford shoes and tailored suits. Even the college and high-school students wore intimidating gear – pressed and starched jeans with the latest sneakers and matching caps. The street was a runway where these people proved to one another who they were by what they wore, not having to speak a word.

And who exactly was she? The answer dissipated within the confines of her apartment. She was no longer an active mother having to satisfy her children’s needs. They were now adults and far removed from the neighborhood she raised them in. No longer an active wife either, she divorced her husband after years of infidelity. But, somewhere along perfecting those two roles, she lost herself. She was incomplete without catering to someone else’s needs. She felt worthy only when those responsibilities allowed her to be.

The kitchen sink needed attention. She grew deaf to the sound of the drips and their broken rhythm. The thick black curtains, layered with dust, hung guarded against the sun. A single ray of light trespassed into the center of her bedroom, providing a warm area for her cat to lazily spend his day. The TV was always on but she rarely watched anymore; her remedy against mindless shopping. She didn’t have any more storage space for the items she was sure to buy from QVC. The refrigerator wore scattered magnets which secured her step-daughter’s drawings and a calendar on its skin. The outside was much prettier than its barren interior. The disorganized book shelf had restaurant menus, torn envelopes, and printed confirmation receipts poking out from in-between the pages. The laundry bin overflowed from the hallway closet. The standing lamp in the living room was blown out. She saw no point in maintaining an apartment no one visited. Her mess was far more comfortable than someone else’s cleanliness anyway.

Suddenly she saw a few people rush out the building door, followed by more seconds later, all coughing into their hands with charred marks on their faces and clothes. Surprisingly, one gentleman pointed her out to a concerned passerby as he struggled for air. She looked around as if there was someone else sitting beside her at the window. He couldn’t have meant her. She heard a scratching sound persist. Then she noticed her cat wasn’t in his favorite spot. She turned and raised from her computer chair looking for him.

“Jewels?”, she asked in a grumble. She hadn’t said a word in so long she needed to clear her throat of its thickness, but it only worsened as she tried. “Jewelsy, ahem, baby, ahem, where are you?” She opened the cracked door to her room and bustling gusts of smoke invited themselves in. She swung instinctively at the black air. Her eyes burned as she stepped back in shock. She ran to her son’s room in the back of the apartment. It was maintained just as he had left it so as to make his return, she hoped, that much more comfortable. The large window in the center of the back wall closed off the fire escape. Jewels clawed at is glass feverishly. She struggled to open the window as the smoke slowly followed her. She saw the amount of people in front of the building had doubled, most of them baring a look of mild hysteria on their faces. She started to panic. The window wouldn’t budge. Jewels was clawing at her lower thigh in fear. Would the very apartment she had loyally resided in ironically hand her over to the grim reaper? Maybe it was fitting. Maybe it had gotten tired of her. She turned and watched the smoke fill the room wrapping itself around them both.

Then, the glass shattered explosively behind her. A man in his early twenties, clad in urban sportswear, stood crouched just outside the window, baseball bat in tow. “Come on, ma’am! I’ve got you.” Jewels scrambled through the man’s legs and down the fire escape ladder before he finished speaking. “Miss! Come on! Let’s go! You wanna be barbecued?!” She lifted her hand into his outstretched palm. He warned her to duck through the window as he pulled her through and proceeded to guide her toward the ladder. The smoke still followed her. A couple of rather large gentleman gathered around below the fire escape. One called out to her in a burly voice, “It’s OK. We’ll catch you.” She snapped out of her daze, staring twenty feet down at people she didn’t know with another stranger’s hands on her shoulders. The fire escape’s gritty surface scratched the bottom of her feet. Her pajama gown floated in the breeze. She pulled it close to her body as she inched closer to the first rung. The young man’s voice carried sensitivity. “Slowly”, he warned. She grabbed the railing and took a step down. The height introduced itself in the form of terror surfing atop her spine. She looked back, around her hero’s waist, at the broken glass sprawled along the window pane. Smoke still rushed by. She took another step down. A frightened gasp burst from her lips. “Don’t worry. You’ll be OK, ma’am. They’re big guys. You can let go now.”

As she lowered her leg to the next rung, the ladder gave, sliding down, then re-wedging itself. The inertia shook her grip loose. She screamed as she dropped forcefully. But, the arms waiting below caught her gentler than she had imagined. “Ah. See. We got you”, said one of her catchers in a slight strain. They stood her up on her feet. “Are you OK? Are you alright?” She looked up at her former apartment in solemn silence. The smoke appeared to wave goodbye as it continued to barrel by above them all.

The fire department pulled up to the curb a few feet away. The sirens wailed. The fire truck was bigger than she remembered. A couple of firemen moved quickly inside the building. Another pair inquired about everyone’s health, checking for visible damage then escorting them over toward the truck. A woman dressed in a business suit approached her. “Here you go, Miss. He’s yours right?” Jewels sprang from the woman’s arms. It was over. She was safe.

Eventually the fire calmed. But, everything she owned incinerated. All the material possessions she hoarded roasted. She was left without shelter. But, for the first time in a long while, she actually saw a silver lining. Here she was outside her apartment, among the same people who discouraged her daily and surprisingly, she was just fine. They had actually saved her and Jewels. She did belong. Maybe the one thing that needed to happen finally did. The binding ties of anxiety were now gone.

She wanted to see her children. She wanted to buy some heels and pencil skirts of her own. She wanted to travel. Italy was always a desired destination. The opportunity to rebuild was present and she wasn’t going to squander a single second. This destructive ending was just a reawakening to a life long neglected.

Toy Story

I never had a favorite childhood toy. Choosing just one would be wrong. I’d feel like a parent preferring to treasure one child over the others. And the sheer amount of toys I had would make it about a thousand times worse. Imagine having a thousand children (somehow) and they all knew you favored just one. You’d be the worst parent ever. And I’ve gone through bins of miniature super heroes and WWE action figures. And they all occupied a special place in my little lonely heart.

However, I only handled action figures built to my meticulous specifications, none higher than the articulation points. For you regular people, those not obsessed with action figures, articulation points are a toy’s flexibility. Some toys simply axle at the waist, elbows, knees, or head – the basics. My figures bent at practically every joint. This allowed me to perform complex maneuvers with them such as suplexes and power bombs or fight off endless hordes of henchmen in my imaginary world. I wouldn’t let my parents buy me a toy with limited points of articulation. I simply couldn’t work with them. That was child’s play.

As a semi-mature adult scratching his way through a career path, I’ve noticed the very same traits I admired in my little men are what these employers are seeking in their subordinates – supreme flexibility. You need to have a college degree, adequate experience in the field, familiarity in whatever programs the company uses, low salary expectations, and a very sacrificial social life. You need to be a team player who doesn’t mind working independently; follow directions yet know when to take the initiative; be ready to put in extra hours and provide additional support when the need arises.

Unfortunately, I’m just not that flexible. My college education proved rather fruitless.  A limited work experience shortened my knowledge of various programs such as QuickBooks and Adobe which many quality jobs use. I live on my own with my girlfriend and stepdaughter so my salary requirements aren’t allowed to be low. And as far as my social life, well, I really don’t have one so no gripe there.

Consequently, here I sit, neatly packaged on the shelf, hoping someone will give me a chance to develop the requisite qualities. I watch the other toys get picked for their inherent advantages. I see the smiles they produce. I envy the mutually beneficial relationship. A flame ignites within. I know it only takes a single owner, much more open-minded than I was to notice the potential. I regret looking past other figures. I realize now they too had a place in my collection. I practice patience. I cling to faith. I visualize the day where I’m given the chance to flex.

Oh, what a beautiful day it will be.

 

The Advantage of Being Disadvantaged

Transitioning into the ‘hood from another lifestyle would be quite the culture shock. Not everyone is capable of swimming against the low-income current. The resources are limited and the quality of life is sub-par. You’d have to step up to a steep learning curve right away. And they don’t exactly teach “How to Stay Afloat Amidst Ghetto Ignorance and Poverty-fueled Crime” classes. So, I’ll illustrate a basic portrait of inner-city living for the unenlightened. Surprisingly, it’s not all bad, but you’ll need to bear with me.

First off, it’s over-populated. Pregnancy looks good to a lot of women since government-funded programs such as Child Support and Welfare provide income for qualifying families. More children means more money. So, children are simply a means to an end in a lot of circumstances. And it becomes a cycle of dependency as these children grow into misguided youths and exhibit lazy preventive measures in their sexual endeavors knowing the government will pick up the tab. Consequently, child birth rates soar.

As for the fathers, they are rare gems in the ‘hood. The typical household here is a mother and her children. The man’s role as a provider is extremely strenuous in low-income situations. A large portion of men crumble under the financial pressure. Others just grow apart from their women having had children before they were aware of who they were and what they really wanted. Unfortunately, these conditions make men recurring images instead of lasting influences in ghetto children’s lives.

Then, there’s the chaotic, fleeting social life. Slang is the first language and it varies depending on your location. Everybody has an attitude problem. Greeting someone wrong could potentially generate a gang fight. Staring at someone too long during a stroll through the neighborhood is more than enough reason for a vicious beat down.  A visit to the corner store can land you in the middle of an armed robbery. So could a late-night train ride sporting the latest Smartphone or Jordan’s. Hit-and-runs are commonplace. Shootouts even more. One afternoon you’re discussing the weather with a stranger while waiting for the bus, then, the next day, there’s a memorial set up just outside their building. Candles, wreaths, flowers, and enlarged headshots adorn the front stoop.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “that’s horrible”, you’re right. It’s quite an edgy existence. Although these rappers might embellish their personas, they don’t lie about the overall ‘hood temperament. It’s all just a part of inner-city culture.

Still, amazingly, there are upsides to living in such impoverished circumstances: the mental toughness and ingenuity required for survival can be a potent tool for success. The reality is a large chunk of your friends and family will pass away or land behind bars chasing the American Dream. It’s practically a rite of passage suffering hardship and loss. But, it thickens the skin. You grow numb to situations that would normally cripple someone from privilege. In order to make it these days, you need to be strong in the face of adversity. Few places develop inner-strength and resilience like ‘the hood.

Then, there’s the craftiness of managing with little to no help, little to no income. Therefore, the person most skilled in maximizing a dollar reaches a taller rung on the success ladder. This is a basic survival tool for poverty-stricken families. But, you’d be surprised how many people fail to embrace the fundamentals. Instead of practicing frugality, fools spend their hard-earned money on short-lived moments in nightclubs and insignificant objects like jewelry. The Y.O.L.O. (You Only Live Once) mentality plays a big part in people’s negligence toward their own future.  Since the surroundings breed such a violent and reckless tempo, most people feel they might not see the next morning. It doesn’t make sense to postpone living in that case. But, the responsible individual knows better than to waste a low income on junk. Rather, they discipline themselves into making investments that’ll pay off in the long run. It’s all about building towards the bigger picture, the greater goal.

And with nowhere to turn for a helping hand, you develop an independent and creative spirit. Your achievements rest solely on your shoulders. That can be a great thing once you embrace the notion. You’re free to think outside the box and execute the appropriate escape plan. It’s truly liberating.

Those who have persevered through the storm of financial struggle and personal tragedy have found themselves better off once the sun rose. Examples of people who pulled themselves from the quicksand of low-income living is extensive and inspiring.

50 Cent, Charlie Chaplin, Chris Gardner, Daniel Craig, Ella Fitzgerald, Eminem, Halle Berry, Harry Houdini, Howard Schultz, J.K. Rowling, Jay-Z, Jewel, Jim Carrey, Mariah Carey, Mark Wahlberg, and Oprah Winfrey each catapulted far from the crab barrel that is poverty. By effectively using the limited tools at their disposal, they molded themselves into super successful figures. And although their trades may differ greatly, they share the same character traits as so many others from similar walks of life – that tough skin and alchemist mentality of morphing a little bit into a whole lot.

Perhaps we’re better off than we even realize.

Familiar Strangers

My heart’s wallpaper

The reason I smile

The reason I rise

Innocent true love.

 

Hands clasped together

Holding the moment

Afraid of its end

Appreciation.

 

Inevitably

Circumstances change

People grow apart

The love dissipates.

 

Memories live on

The wounds start to heal

Inevitably

Someone fills your shoes

 

Then it all comes back

In that sweet embrace

As you pass me by

Not saying a word. 

Alma Mater

Thank you, Mr. Sullivan.

Good evening alumni, staff, and students.

Honestly, I never saw myself stepping back into this building. I never saw a reason to. I remember my time here vividly and there aren’t many happy memories for me to share with you all. But, I think you’ve heard enough of that anyway. My story is different. However, it’s just as poignant.

I wasn’t a stand-out student. I wasn’t an athlete. I was easily one of the most forgettable people to ever stroll these hallways. I was a ghost by choice. I hated this place. I hated my classmates. I hated the homework and tests. The teachers sucked by association. If my father wouldn’t have driven me every day, I would’ve been expelled for truancy. There’s no doubt in my mind.

Not what you’ve heard from others who have graced this podium before, right?

I’m going to shoot it to you straight. This place blows. Those of you who feel that way are not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you. Allow me to explain.

Firstly, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you all that there aren’t any girls here. And I will give credit where it’s due – my fascination with Mrs. Haren’s tremendous breasts got me through English class and the voluptuous posterior of the lunch-lady who worked the register pleased me to no end. Either way, you’ll spend most of your time surrounded by immature teenage guys. Everywhere you look in this place, there’s a pair of testicles looking back at you. It sucks.

“Not another one!”

I remember standing outside after dismissal and two women strolled by with a carriage in tow. They gazed at me awkwardly and began muttering among themselves. I heard something to the effect of, “No. He’s not gay. My man used to go to an all-boys school.”

How delightful.

The selling point is that the lack of women will set up a better scholastic environment making it easier to focus on studies. My parents fell for that line. But, it’s bullshit, anyway. School should prepare you for life. And in life, there are way more women than men. Look it up. You’ll have to take my word for it until then because the nightlife scene will abundantly show you otherwise.  Even still, you’ll need to know how to speak and perform in front of women. I left this place with no idea how to do so. I lost all ability to relate to them since they were never around. My life outside of school didn’t grant me the opportunity. I relied on school for more than book smarts. It was my only way into the social scene. An all-boys school robbed me of that necessity. Hence, I became one of those Darwinian guys who couldn’t have a female friend he wasn’t engrossed by the thought of plowing. These characteristics make it very easy to unintentionally ostracize the fairer sex. So, the next four years were utterly terrible in that regard.

Then, there’s the preparation for college. Granted, I didn’t excite any of my teachers into informing me on the essentials of college life. I was a C- student who coasted through everything. Everything. Why waste time talking to a kid who wasn’t paying attention?

“Is Mr.Johnson sleeping back there? Is that a fucking pillow?”

But, I remember the lectures and speeches we all sat through. Principal Sullivan over here pushed the Ivy League colleges in our face. According to him, SUNY and CUNY schools were inferior. I’m here to tell you after four years in college and a bulging debt of $50,000, he’s full of shit. It just makes him look like that much more of a principal if a higher percentage of his students enroll in expensive, fluffy institutions. I’m sure you’ve heard his numbers during orientation. “This many were accepted here, this many get accepted here. Graduation rate is such and such…”

Douche bag.

I’ve met people who have gone to college and graduated free of debt. Scholarships and grants were more than enough to cover the cost. They were high-school underachievers just like me. However, I took out multiple loans each semester for four years at a private college and didn’t even graduate. So, don’t listen to him. He doesn’t give a fuck about you. Go to a college that won’t burden you for the rest of your life and take advantage of the extracurricular activities and connections which can help you land that coveted post-graduate job. It isn’t rocket science. I wish someone explained that notion to me while I was here.

These four years greatly affect your future. I hope I’ve shared all the crucial information you need to leave this place with a better sense of the man you want to become. I didn’t.  This place threw me off track. But, there’s a silver lining in every cloud. And I think this is the reason.

Good night.

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