Magic in the Mundane
A former teacher’s love letter to the everyday, small-town happenings in big ‘ol New York City.
My favorite New York City story happened about 200 times over the course of a year. While the Groundhog-Day-nature of my favorite “story” could perhaps preclude it from being classified as such, it showcases a particularly beloved corner of my ever-expanding-heart for New York City. It’s neither fascinating nor unusual, and that is exactly the point.
But first, let’s rewind, as rewinding sheds light on why I adore this place like I do. I grew up going back and forth between Atlanta, Georgia and a small town called Aiken, South Carolina. Aiken is a delightful horse town that had about twenty thousand residents when I was living there. Atlanta, on the other hand, was big time; “The Empire City of the South!” I was, in my mind, both a city chick and a country gal and far more sophisticated than my Aiken-only-counterparts. Bless their country hearts, I thought. [An aside: I’m realizing as I write this that I was a seven-year-old snob. Precious.]
As a little girl, I was fortunate enough to come to New York City on a mother-daughter trip. Mom and I did it all; we saw Chicago on Broadway, ate at Tavern on the Green, bopped around Central Park, marveled while peering in the windows of ornate Fifth Avenue apartments, and experienced sensory overload at Times Square. We checked off all the remaining NYC Greatest Hits that leave a young person from a thousand miles away — or any person of any age from any distance — in utter awe, and rightfully so.
On the plane back to Atlanta, I was quite pleased with us. We’d done it just right. Not to mention that I’d stopped by a local salon to procure an absurdly *mature* haircut reminiscent of Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. Short as all get out, choppy, dozens of flippy layers, adorable on Meg, and terribly ill-fitting for a twelve-year-old with braces still very much growing into herself. Nevertheless, I was beside myself because a) I looked hip as heck, and b) I’d seen all of New York City.
Fast forward twelve years: I was about to graduate from college in Nashville, Tennessee, and was one member of a class of graduates working to sort out what in the world to do with our lives. I’d applied to the Teach for America program and had my fingers and toes crossed that, if accepted, I’d be placed in New York. If I’m honest, my finger-crossing probably had more to do with my then-boyfriend’s job offer in New York than any particular love for the city. That said, my trip with Mom and a few jaunts since had sparked an interest in what the Big Apple had to offer.
I was accepted to the two-year teaching program and was placed in the Washington, D.C area. Those two years were spent learning the devastating truths of our nation’s educational systems, but far more importantly, those two years introduced me to nearly 400 of the smartest, most resilient, and brilliant students on the planet. Every weekday, my trusty blue Honda Civic and I would brave D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue traffic to get to Ernest Everett Just Middle School in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The kids, families, teachers, and staff at EEJMS taught me more about life than my fancy private school education ever could have and, for them, I am eternally grateful.
All the while, I was BoltBus-ing my way up to New York on weekends to see aforementioned then-boyfriend. Our Manhattan-based weekends were always a blast, always exhausting, and always jam-packed full of activities. Those weekends were full of friends, boozy brunches, late night pizzas, hungover mornings on the couch amongst roommates, and extreme cases of the “Sunday Scaries” before they were dubbed as such. New York City was a ball, but it presented a lifestyle I couldn’t imagine maintaining for more than 72 hours without losing my mind. Even still, for a handful of indecipherable and likely illogical reasons, I was convinced that I had to get myself up to New York to give it a real go.
I cried as I hugged my kiddos goodbye on the last day of school and didn’t have a particularly cogent answer as to why I’d decided to move away from D.C. to, as they reminded me over and over, “leave them for those BROOKLYN KIDS.” Who knows how I responded, but they definitely saw right through it; my kids could smell weakness and incertitude from a mile away. In hindsight, I’m thankful that they were empathetic and forgiving enough to love me through my bumbling, mistake-filled years as a clueless new teacher.
My best friend (a fellow teacher) and I packed up our big house in D.C. and our respective classroom supplies, grabbed our NYC Charter School offer letters, and headed to the Concrete Jungle. We wept our way through the apartment hunt and watched as the stifling July heat nearly destroyed the kind and very old man we’d hired to haul our over-sized furniture up to the sixth-floor walk-up apartment we’d locked down for a small fortune. We laughed like madwomen when we had to stand on our beds to put sheets on, wept all over again when we found one lone bedbug in our new West Village digs, and offered dozens of tchotchkes (which we’d realized were ridiculous given our 400 square foot, 3br apartment) to the Christopher Street sidewalk gods. We’d made it to New York City.
The distance between my Christopher Street apartment in Manhattan and my new school on Marcy Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn was 5.2 miles. School started at 7:15am, which meant I needed to arrive around 6:30am to get my teaching ducks in a row. The 5.2 miles took about 35 minutes if I timed it right but, all too often, I’d spot the A train barreling away from the West 4th Street station the moment my lesson plan supplies and I sleepily arrived on the platform.
After giving far too much context (which I’m known to do), alas, we’ve arrived! This is where my favorite New York Story begins.
Every morning that year was the same. It was mundane and routine, but to me — because of what and who New York City is — it embodies so much of what this heart-stealing place is all about.
To anyone else, the story is as follows: girl wakes up, girl groggily navigates “getting her act together,” girl goes to work, girl teaches Spanish to kids. El fin. Adiós.
To me, the story is and will always be so very much more than that.
Every day, the same predictable ringtone woke me up around 5:30am (a song written and performed by a group of college friends who formed a frat band). My room was predictably tiny: my bed touched three walls and was on risers to accommodate the same under-bed storage bins I’d bought as an 18-year-old stocking up on supplies for my college dorm room. The toaster that heated up my generic-brand Eggo waffles on a daily basis was on top of the six-foot tall “pantry” we’d fashioned out of an over-the-toilet cabinet on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond. [Aside no. 2: I’m five feet tall, so I was practically hurling said waffles up into the toaster.]
Once I’d managed to gather myself, my Eggos, and my stack of eternally-ungraded-papers, it was time to hit the road around 5:45am. The familiar smell of the tragically senile old couple that had lived in Apartment 5A for forty years woke me up every morning, predictable as clockwork. Every morning, the scantily-clad Christopher Street frequenters were still out from the evening before. I’d shuffle past loud arguments over who had snapped whose neon bra strap and witness the whispers of sweet nothings into lovers’ ears each morning, but never once were they too occupied or fixated on their own situations to stop and smile at me — even despite my bleary eyes and nerdy teacher cardigan.
Every single morning, the brown paper bag full of baguettes had magically appeared outside of Tio Pepe, the Spanish restaurant on West 4th Street. The bag sat there untouched every morning, pristine baguettes tempting passersby to snatch it up. Incredibly, no one ever did.
Upon returning to my regular commute post-flu-induced hiatus, the man with the big smile and warm eyes at the newsstand yelled out, “Where ya been, kid? I’ve missed ya!” By being stuck at home sick, I’d violated our pact: an unwritten rule that we’d exchange a cheery “Good morning, sir / ma’am!” every day, even when we both looked like we felt far too tired to speak to a soul. My friend wore a Sikh-style headdress and looked like he was from South Asia but spoke with an undeniable accent straight out of Long Island: living proof that New York City is far more than what meets the eye.
And there they were, every morning on the subway: the steel-toe-booted Freedom Tower construction workers, lunchboxes in hand and hardhats atop their sturdy heads. The faces became familiar, and they’d look at me protectively as I got out my shiny new computer to finish my lesson plans on the train. We didn’t know each other, per se, but I have no doubt they’d have pummeled anyone who tried to mess with me or my laptop. We never exchanged a word, but I hated those huge boots for carrying them off the train every morning upon arrival at the Fulton Street stop. I still wonder what their names were and what treats they carried in their lunchboxes. I regret never asking.
The Bed-Stuy locals who had cued up early at the Trinidadian doubles stand on Nostrand Avenue became familiar faces, and I was crestfallen on the days when the proprietors appeared to have exercised their Caribbean-earned right to randomly remain shuttered all day. How dare they not give any warning to the masses who counted on them for morning sustenance?, I wondered. In hindsight, good on them. Probably not surprisingly, I was the only one who seemed absolutely incensed by this thrice-occurring injustice.
Every morning, I’d groan as I struggled to open the beautiful yet enormous old door at the Old Boys High School on Marcy Avenue. The school security guards welcomed me as family every morning, despite the fact that I didn’t look a bit like most of the local residents and could have been perceived as an untrusted outsider. My security guard friends were, miraculously, always alert and ready to welcome the steady stream of often-grumpy teenagers who didn’t want to be awake and certainly didn’t want to take off their belts for the metal detector at such an ungodly hour.
To my students, my kids, my babies, who made me laugh and marvel at the same things every single morning. Every day, I’d ask if you’d done your “tarea” (“homework” en español) and you’d pretend you hadn’t because you thought it was funny to watch me “flip out.” You’d shake my hand at the threshold of our homeroom every morning despite, in many cases, having taken care of your little brothers and sisters until late into the night. Daily, you taught me about perseverance. You taught me it’s okay to shut down my meticulously-planned lesson to listen to what you have to say. You taught me to get real with myself about how sickeningly unjust it is that millions of young people in this country don’t have the opportunities they deserve based exclusively on the zip code in which they were born.
To you, my scruffy-faced subway guardians and my insomniac friends on the corner of Christopher Street. To you, my turban-wearing Yankee of a morning greeter and my never-to-be-seen baguette deliveryman/woman. To each of you who comprised this collection of 200 nearly-identical yet magically mundane mornings. You are why I love New York City.
And to you, New York City. I love you for your deceptive ways; for how you tricked me into thinking you were just a bunch of boozy brunches, Broadway shows, and billionaires. How wrong I was, and how irreplaceable you are.
Author Campbell Glenn is a southerner by birth, a former Spanish teacher, and a cheerleader for equal rights for all of our nation’s young people. She’s into solo travel around Latin America, horseracing, having friends over to eat her mediocre tacos with a side of far-better conversation, buying countless books that she tells herself she’ll get around to reading one day, and weeping that President Obama can’t be our President forever.
Big-time shoutout to Eljay and the amazing Why I Love NYC blog (also on Instagram), who asked me to write and first posted this story. Eljay, you provided me the space to think about and forum to share how and why NYC stole my southern heart. Thank you for reminding me to stop and think about just how fortunate I am to be here. I appreciate you, our new friendship, and your love for our town, amigo!