It had always been an in-joke between us. I was the one who hailed the cab.
“Let them see that big yellow head of yours,” Tiffany would say. We broke tradition only once, separating at a corner during a light summer rain in Greenwich Village. The ugly truth left me stunned and incensed. The cab, a canary yellow mini-van with sliding doors, slowed to a crawl. Tiffany reached for its handle just before the driver gunned his engine, bolting past her for a white couple thirty feet away.
We started taking cabs back to Brooklyn from Manhattan because, as Tiffany explained, I stared too much on the subway. If a father trained his son to do cartwheels for change on the Q train, I stared. If a man spoke to his wife in Russian while casually shaving his neck in the reflection of her compact, I was mesmerized.
I grew up in a suburb where everyone drove. Tiffany said my gaze wandered too much. I didn’t have my ‘train eyes’ yet. The two of us always enjoyed a healthy rivalry when it came to our respective upbringings yet it was the interracial aspect of our relationship, the burden and beauty it supplied, that needed to soak into our pores over a stretch of time. Regardless of how well my train eyes developed, I would never truly know what it meant to be black in America, but I was now part of a team that did.
We both taught English at a large high school in New York City under Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral control. When the Department of Education declared the building unsafe and its students failing, we vehemently disagreed with city politics and got to know each other better. Every year the building lost another wing to a trendy boutique academy and every year Tiffany and I grew closer. By the time there was nothing left of the place and our classroom belongings had all been packed, my ring was on her finger.
Initially, I just wanted to know the beautiful teacher who shared my classroom a little better. Yet when things progressed and it was time for Tiffany to inform her parents of the new boyfriend, she made a conscious decision to do it in stages. First there was a new man in her life, and his name was James. It wasn’t exactly a lie. James was indeed my first name. I just rarely used it, opting for my middle name instead. So now I was James on my birth certificate, James on my taxes, and apparently James to a loving couple in Brooklyn with strong Southern roots whom I never actually met. It was simply an easier crossover name than Bryan, which served Tiffany well until her parents demanded to know who this James character was exactly.
“You’ve been dating this guy for months now,” her mother finally said. “How come we’ve never met him?”
“Well, James lives very far. Way out on the Island.”
“Is James white, by any chance? Because you know that’s perfectly fine.”
Back in our respective classrooms, diversity was never handled quite so delicately. The students simply had no use for political correctness of any kind, producing an atmosphere of equal parts honesty and madness. Moments of tolerance could turn ugly and raw in a New York minute, occasionally taking precedence over a lesson.
“Okay, who can tell me why Macbeth wants Duncan dead..?”
“Hey, Mister, what are those white ladies doing?”
I peered down at my book. “What ladies, the witches from the opening scene?”
“No, those three witches outside!”
Heads turned. Desks and chairs groaned across the floor. Deep inside our texts, Macbeth waited patiently inside Duncan’s chambers, dagger in hand, for the twenty-first century to get back to him.
“Those aren’t witches, Tyrell. Those are secretaries and you know it.”
“But what are they doing out there?”
“Getting some sun on their lunch break.”
“Because they think it looks good.”
My answer was greeted with snickers and smirks. Someone said something about white ladies and wrinkles. Someone reminded the rest of us that ‘black don’t crack,’ then thankfully we were allowed to return to the much easier topic of Macbeth’s ambitious mayhem.
For the most part, my relationship with Tiffany or ‘Miss Young’ was greeted as a fun novelty item by the students. Although the union was never confirmed or denied, each year graduating seniors gleefully awaited their wedding invitations in the mail or demanded we start producing as many ‘Obama kids’ and pretty ‘Derek Jeter babies’ as possible. Light heartedness aside, Tiffany and I did plan on having children one day yet I still had much to learn about race relations. After seven years of teaching in New York City, I could not produce a suitable response whenever a student informed me that I was a ‘good white man.’
The death of a New York City high school turned out to be a long drawn out process. Once a building was declared ill there was nowhere to go for a second opinion. As the years wore on, the school’s troubles only increased. The population took its final plummet once the faculty was required to pass out flyers to students stating that we were a dangerous, failing institution and it would be best if they transferred immediately. For Tiffany and me, it was akin to studying for years to be gourmet chefs, landing dream jobs in a wonderfully diverse restaurant, then being forced to hand out leaflets saying PLEASE DON’T EAT HERE. Our student body changed dramatically. It was simply no longer the same place and it broke our hearts.
We received our letters of excess at the same time. The school where we found each other would close its doors for good in three years, operating with a small skeleton staff until that time. It was now a matter of finishing up the school year with dignity, to not let feelings of confusion and resentment filter into the classroom. Frankly, it was exhausting.
To offset the final months of our teaching time together, we began to see a lot of theater on the weekends. Here again was another lesson to be learned. Even the plays I selected for us needed to be done with an awareness I had never considered before. Tiffany had no problem sighting performances, even audiences themselves for a lack of true diversity.
She did have a valid argument. Just this past June we saw a performance of Larry Kramer’s 1985 drama, The Normal Heart, about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, less than twenty-four hours after New York lawmakers voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The audience that evening was so eclectic and charged with victory that when a wedding ceremony took place in the final act the house broke down and sobbed as one entity.
It would be foolish to deny ourselves similar experiences on a stage or even in our teaching lives. We’ve since made a point to seek out theater that will enrich our relationship, as well as our careers. It was at a recent performance of an August Wilson play, an author both of us have taught for years, where the audience mix was as interesting as the performance.
“Oh, Mom,” Tiffany said, making a quick phone call in the lobby. “You should see this. We’re out in full force tonight!”
So it was on that wet little corner of Greenwich Village where I suffered a momentary setback. As I watched the driver pull away, stopping quickly to retrieve his desired passengers, my immediate response was frustrated rage. It was our last weekend together as teaching colleagues. Rather than celebrating a job well done and looking forward to our future, I instead discovered the true nun-chuck capabilities of a closed umbrella. It bounced off the cab’s back window, skidding harmlessly into traffic. I haven’t thrown anything that hard since the little league all-star game.
My reaction was immature and slightly insane, and in the end only made me feel worse. I wasn’t the one the driver elected to pass by. Mine was anger by association, something I would simply have to process better in the future, especially once children were involved. I should have realized that Tiffany and I had long since formed a unit by then. We needn’t be concerned with foolish cabbie stereotypes or Department of Education numbers games for that matter. We didn’t have to teach together in order to stay together. And as I went through all the machinations of the angry male, the huffing and puffing, the bleating heart and racing adrenaline, a tiny hand rubbed the nape of my neck until I was normal again.
“What exactly did you think you were doing?” she said, smiling up at me. “That guy has nothing to do with us. You know that… Come on. We’ll take the train home tonight. Try not to stare, okay?”
J. Bryan McGeever’s essays have appeared in Thomas Beller’s Lost and Found: Stories from New York. He lives in Brooklyn.