Friday, August 19, 2016

The Brink Of The Bronx

The Hall of Fame on a cliff overlooking the Harlem River
A COOL SPOT to visit and spend some time in if you find yourself in the University Heights neighborhood of the city (maybe before a Yankee Stadium ballgame) is the Hall of Fame for Great Americans on the campus of Bronx Community College. Built in 1900 by New York University (before it was the billionaire that it is now and sold the campus to the city university in 1973 due to financial crisis), the shrine offers a panoramic view of the valley below from the Harlem River to The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park to the New Jersey Palisades beyond. Designed by architect Stanford White and featured in the movies A Beautiful Mind and The Good Shepherd as the backdrop for scenes that were supposed to take place at MIT and Yale University respectively, the Hall of Fame is only four blocks but is a universe away from the frenzied bustle of Jerome Avenue; it obliterates all stereotypes of this borough as a lawless gangland and drug den perpetuated by movies of the '70s and '80s. In the company of 102 bronze busts of people of achievement from John Adams to Wilbur Wright, one is sure to think about and evaluate the state of affairs of his career, and it was in its quiet in the spring of 2009 where I sought enlightenment as I processed the question of whether or not to leave the academic world behind for a much higher-paying but restrictive job with the federal government. And because I know this post is going to generate tons of hits from people who enjoy reading about characters teetering on the edge of a precipice, let me play from memory what I remember of myself in this situation.

After my master in library science degree, I worked a city job on campus with the title of Assistant to Higher Education Officer, managing faculty development efforts and college board meetings as coordinator of its Center for Teaching Excellence, then directed by Jewish poet Harriet Shenkman. Coming home one afternoon, I found in the mailbox a letter from the Minneapolis Hiring Center, offering me a federal job that I had applied to years before and had forgotten about, asking me to report to a Human Resources office in Newark so that my name can be enrolled in the next class that would run for three months in a boot camp in Georgia. The letter also emphasized that I would be required to do the 1.5 mile run in 15 minutes or less, taken in two attempts, otherwise fail the academy and be literally sent home right there on the tracks. Now, I have spent all my adult life in the academic world and the federal government was terra incognitaI knew that the academic part of it would be routine, but my cardio stamina was laughable; I had been smoking for as long as I could remember, and quitting to begin a daily regimen of running would be like asking me to climb Mt. Washington in the middle of February. What if I didn't make the run? There would be no job to come back to, because the offer came in the middle of the semester and gave me no option to finish my duties until the end of the term, to be able to come back if I did not pass the academy or like the new job.

Decisions, decisions. As I was consumed by my dilemma, the Hall of Fame became the leap of faith, the brink of destruction, the precipice of doom. Should I stay or should I go, step down or turn down, resign or decline, quit or forfeit? During break periods, I would linger at the Hall of Fame hoping for an epiphany, but while the advice of the heroes (stolid like Easter Island moais looking beyond the horizon of their barren ground) were muted, the voice of our financial situation was thunderous. We had recently bought a house, and the monthly mortgage snapped up my wife's Wells Fargo salary, while mine was a poor supplement to take care of the rest of the bills. The starting salary and benefits of the job offer were great. Academics or economics? That was the question. Gotta do what I gotta do, the 1.5 mile run be damned. I had to take my chances. It's a go. That crucial afternoon I submitted my resignation, I stopped by the Hall of Fame once again and went through the rows of heroes, hoping to find one that was in the profession of customs, but never found it.

So in early May, nicotine-free, I kissed my family goodbye in Penn Station and was on Amtrak bound for Savannah, all alone and wondering if I had made the right decision as I watched the late spring trees outside morph into subtropical, the anxiety weighing me down full force like the ugly Spanish moss all around when I arrived. A van with a U.S. government license plate was waiting at the station, and the driver, a talkative officer from Long Island, delivered me and seven other rail-opting hopefuls under the porte cochere of a Marriott hotel in FLETC (called "Fletsie" by oldtimers), still an hour away in a town called Glynco in the middle of southern Georgia pinelands. A Marriott hotel in boot camp? What the f---? (Obviously, Marriott executives are well-connected to the federal government.) This was going to be a breeze, my ignorant mind told me. How wrong I was. Little did I know that the hotel would be a requisite comfort after every exhausting day of physical training and shin splints, peer pressure, asshole instructors, weekly exams on dull topics, lack of sleep, crappy food in the cafeteria, the heat, mosquitoes, anything you could think of to humiliate the academic brat in you on top of the homesickness. For ninety days.

SEVEN YEARS LATER, I am still amazed at how I survived those ninety days, and wonder if I had made the right decision. I graduated from the academy with a bling on my diploma, my proud family flying in from New York to be by my side. And oh yes, I made the 1.5 mile run in 14.34 minutes on my second attempt, thanks to the adrenaline and the potassium and the FedExed adobo and the prayers of my family (I always thought mine had no clout). But when I returned to the work unit in Newark the following week, I saw how different the new job was. Within a short period of time, I realized that whereas, in my previous job, I could express my dissent to the president of the college on any issue, in this new job you just don't jump ranks when speaking your mind and there were hierarchy protocols that must be sternly adhered to, and that the orders of my first-line supervisor were like royal decrees, no questions asked. Intellectual and academic freedom in the job was, to understate it, limited. We were instructed never to share security-compromising information on social media, including work-related photographs and personal identification, duty details, any information that may compromise the classified nature of the job. (I am even afraid as I write this post that I may have to take it down in the future.) For years, the task of writing made me sick, and even now as I recuperate, I am still blind to the boundaries of its new confines. We issue charges and penalties everyday and must build a firewall between us and the public to prevent vindictive offenders from being able to track us down. And in the wake of the recent police shootings, we are required to change into street clothes before going home to avoid being assassinated. This is a small price to pay in exchange for the bacon that I bring home every two weeks, surely a day on the beach compared to that of a recruit deployed in Iraq. And after seven years of service, I have the tenure and salary of a full professor, health and life insurance, tax-free contributions to a retirement fund, leave entitlement, and most of all, no papers to bring home and grade at the end of the day. We are able to buy a summer home in the lakes region of northwest Jersey, and save for our daughter's college fund. Did I make the right decision? I still do not know, and one of these weekends, I'd like to go back to University Heights to see if this time, I can find the answer. Until then, the response to my first-line supervisor's orders will be the same: Hooah!

Hall of Fame for Great Americans, Bronx Community College, 2155 University Avenue, Bronx, NY 10453  To schedule a tour call: Therese LeMelle (718) 289-5160 or Remo Cosentino (718) 289-5146

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