I love this train station. 125th St. The 1 is sentimental, alluring. It’s Ice T’s shadow in the credits of Law and Order SVU, It’s an isolated and spectacular scene that rises from below at 125th street, and Harlem is unfolded from panoramic elevation.
I stood on 125th street, listening the rumble above me as the train rolled into the ground. McDonalds smelled behind me. Cabs, like giant ants formed an army up Broadway. Crossing the street, the sun staring between train tracks, I hear a voice laced with the Grant Projects and affection.
“Yo, Ms. D!”
I knew her as my own immediately.
Gisele Henriquez-woman. She had the same sexy Harlem gait that I remember being alarmed about when she was my student (a girl her age with a body like that shouldn’t walk like that). Her face was unchanged: she was still beautiful; black opal eyes against the backdrop of alabaster skin, the slight curly patch that joined her eyebrows in the middle of her forehead, her long thick black hair alluding Taino heritage was in a ponytail, exposing her small ears which hung “banji girl” gold doorknocker earrings.
She ambled toward me, glowing and very pregnant and kissed me hard on the cheek.
She had house keys and Chico Stix in her hand, and as her face re-emerged from the nape of my neck I watched her seductive lips exclaim some statement of happiness adorned with expletives. This is how Harlem girls address each other, in affection, in nostalgia. In profanity. The train gargled uptown on top of us and I grabbed the Chico Stix from out her hand. I couldn’t stop smiling. When the 1 ran past she repeated herself.
“Mira, Oh my God, how you doin? Oh fuck!!! Ms. D”!!!!
I grabbed her hand and crossed Old Broadway, the small inlet that gave itself over to Grant projects and grand tenements, that housed so many of my students. We walked towards the sunshine, away from our train, next to the bodega that sells loosie cigarettes to all the hard faced man-children that plant themselves on the corners under the train when they should be in social studies class. I stopped and opened up the Chico Stix, bit down, and took my beloved student in, fully.
She started talking slowly, holding my arm, she complained about her feet being swollen, I told her how beautiful her hair looked-it really did. We walked towards the diner before the firehouse, where cars park at an angle when the cops are busy stuffing themselves with Dunkin Donuts.
-The diner, where all the waiters speak Spanish, the corner where the Citerella just didn’t quite take.
I walked with her and listened to her tell me about her life, and him.
I know this beauty. I know this woman from her 15th year as an angry and sarcastic and beautiful hold over- an overage school kid- a hot mouthed, neck swinging thing with a chip on her shoulder and signature Dr. Jay jeans that were way too tight. I liked her immediately.
And she liked me too, Thank God. I never got cursed at or fought like so many other of my District 5 colleagues, and plus, she loved my music class. She had a beautiful voice- clean, chimy, but nasal, like a true Latina. She joined chorus, and my Saturday morning community service outreach, and got into a pretty good high school, thanks to two recommendations from the principal and guidance counselor that I almost had to sell my soul to get.
She was on her way, I thought. She was fixed. She was going to break the cycle of degradation and miseducation that has plagued far too many young women of color in Harlem or any ghetto in the USA for so long. She was the story I told to skeptics and naysayers who wanted to scrap NYC’s public education system completely.
Gisele went to A Philip Randolph High School, next to City College. She also won a scholarship to Harlem School of the Arts (HSA). She was a vocal major, excelling in her studies. She enjoyed high school, remarked how much easier it was that middle school, both socially and academically.»
“There were girls there my age. None of these little bitches who gave me shit looks cuz they was jealous.”
She loved voice class very much, and was even crazy about music theory and appreciation class. She was asked to tutor students in the learning annex because of her prior community service experience. The end of freshman year found her on the Dean’s List. There was talk about putting her in accelerated college prep classes.
We sat down in the diner, she remarked about “Precious” being filmed there- I laughed when I remembered the bucket of chicken scene.
“Word,” I smiled bigger, and ordered some coffee to compliment her san cocho.
I asked her if her mother is still at 26 Old Broadway, where she was living in junior high school. She nods, and smiles.
“Yo, you remember when you showed us “Fame” the last week of school in 8th grade? I loved that movie, yo. “
“I remember, Ms. Thing.” I sipped my coffee slowly, watching her square-cut French manicured nails wrap themselves around the soup spoon.
“We was in vocal class last year tryna harmonize Body Electric n’ I thought of you. I sounded mad good too,” she smiled, and finished her compliment with a lip smack that would make all of West Harlem proud.
Then, She told me about Peter. She describes the first time he kissed her like she’s reading script from a novella, her street-Spanglish cascading out over tumescent lips.
“I fell in love with him the night he gave me this,” she points to necklace she wears, with a medallion, of Saint Peter, patron Saint of what, she isn’t sure. It was enough that he entrusted this necklace to her. From that moment, she entrusted her heart to him.
I asked her when she realized she was pregnant.
“I know from that day he would be the father of my children. We NEVER used anything, Ms. D, we just knew it was right.”
Peter subsequently dropped out of school, and has a job now at the new Costco that opened up in East Harlem. Gisele still lives with her mom and younger siblings in that house on Old Broadway and plans to attend Missions School, for pregnant teens. She says she still sings, and wants to name her baby, India, after her favorite Salsa singer.
“Its gonna be ok, Ms. D, you’ll see.”
I smiled again and looked away, not wanting her to notice the worry in my face. I stared out the window and I watched the baby banji girls on the corner headed towards the Old Navy and the braid spot, licking innocently on the deliciouso the Mexican woman pushes on the corner (“$1 mix coco/cherry”!). I eye them closely, like I did Gisele, and wonder if they really know what they’re doing, licking the ice like that, pretty sugar stained lips adorned beautiful ethnic faces full of attitude.
She reached across the table and touched my hand.
“He loves me.” She said it, I realized that after all these streets had thrown at her, after all the clawing over broken glass and racing under booming train tracks and fighting for a meager public school education has done to this girl, that was all she really wanted.
I told her I was happy for her.
Her phone rang, her face lit up, and she told me she had to go. She waddled up, saying her goodbyes way too loud for the small corner diner. She kissed me goodbye and left me with my coffee.
I sat for a minute, stared out the window, and watched this beautiful woman-child venture down a coolly-lit Harlem side street that seemed to me as precarious as her future.
Breeanne Elizabeth Daniels is a native New Yorker. She is taught middle school in New York City for 11 years and community college for 3. She is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the City College of New York.