Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An Officer in Training and a Gentleman

Eighty percent of the time, the multitude of strangers is one of New York’s drawbacks. They get in your way. They jostle you. They line up for things -- buses, tickets, bagels -- in unmanageable, time-consuming droves. Sartre has said that the most widely accepted interpretation of his “hell is other people” is wrong, but I’m sticking with it.

Often enough, though, I witness entertainment from people that makes me glad I live among so many of them. Late last week, I was writing at Starbucks (I’m perched there an alarming amount of the time; their wireless is free, they never bug me to leave, and I enjoy cake products), just about to pack up and leave. It must have been about 5:00, just starting to get dusky outside. A short, wiry older man sat down at a chair near me. He was wearing a dark brown corduroy jacket, with a neatly folded New York Times in its left pocket. He had a cheap blue backpack secured over both shoulders, and a dark straw hat on his small head. He looked like Hume Cronyn, but with a long, scraggly beard and a very short gray ponytail.

He proceeded to scream (he was just talking, but talking for him was screaming; add more than a dash of Bobby Knight to the Cronyn) into his cell phone, telling someone how to manage their money. He wasn’t saying anything particularly crazy, but the fact that he was shouting it, divulging this person’s every last bit of financial information to everyone in the Starbucks (“So, what...that’s $1,600 a month from just that account! If your wife keeps teaching, you won’t even have to work!) made me think he was a loon.

At the same time, a very schlubby, squinty guy, maybe in his mid or late 20s but with the hairline of a 60-year-old and an air of defeat about him, was trying to plug his computer into a nearby outlet. From his brief interaction with me, regarding the plug, he seemed socially awkward, easily cowed. The old guy got off his cell phone, and the younger one must have caught something I didn’t, because he asked the man if he had attended some school or other. The old man said, “No, but I teach there.”

Thus introduced, the old man asked him whether he was in school, and what he wanted to do. “I’m studying to be a cop,” the schlub said.

“Then why aren’t you going to John Jay?” the man shouted from his seat, about five feet away.

“My grades,” the kid said, looking down with some trace of shame.

Ignoring that, the older man shrieked, “You do know that John Jay is one of the very best criminal justice programs, don’t you?!”

“Well, I’m going to try to transfer there.”

The man made his way to the kid’s table and I had a sense this would be fun. Before long, the kid was being grilled about some basic information for an upcoming test.

“What are the three branches of government?!” the man asked.

“Legislative...” The kid paused. No, he stopped, dry. “Um...”

The man slapped at the table impatiently. “One of them starts with a J, one with an E.”

"The judicial?"

"Yes, and what's the last one? Starts with an E..."


(Slap) “You deserve to fail!!”

A little later...

“Did you read chapter one?”


“Give me that book.” (The kid hands him a textbook.) “Doesn't chapter one say” (holding up the book and pointing to a page) “. . . executive, legislative, judicial. What have you learned? What have you been doing?? This is not Mickey Mouse, this is not junior high school. This is real. You've gotta put that stuff in your head! If you can't tell me that the president is the executive branch, then what the hell have you read?”

A little later:

“Ya ever heard of Franklin Roosevelt?”


“All right, why don't you go to the Internet and look up Franklin Roosevelt?” (He got up and stood over the kid’s shoulder while he looked it up.) “Gee, look at that -- there's the WPA! Tell me, did you ever hear the word infrastructure? Did you ever hear of roads? Did you ever hear of dams?”

Then, toward the end:

“Imagine if you were in my class what you would go through. Basically, we don't even do this -- we do this as a general outline. Do you see the way, in 10 minutes, I've already explained everything to you? This is what kids go through in my class. I scream at them, but they learn!!”

The kid genuinely thanked him, and a phone number was handed over, along with an offer for future help/screaming. The entire time, the man hadn’t the slightest compunction about upbraiding a total stranger in public, and the kid had no reservations about silently taking it. It was like a drill sergeant had met a self-loather and they lived happily ever after.


Anonymous jpw said...

This is abso-freakin'-lutely hilarious. Thanks for transcribing their exchange. I'll have to remember this 'master educator's' technique and bring it up in class next week. ("Umm, how do y'all feel about screaming as a pedagogical method?)

A reminder of why we pay these insanely high rents...
(the free entertainment!!!)

5:24 PM  

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