There’s a man in a plain London Fog raincoat. The collar’s never up. I see him lighting a cigarette every morning in front of the Dept. of Education Building on Chambers Street where I hold my sign. It’s where he works. It looks like it’s a special cigarette time for him. Like it’s his first of the day. He doesn’t smoke it casually. There’s a delicacy about it. He looks like a quiet doctor. European-born maybe. An introvert for sure. He’s a curiosity to me. Who waits to light up until they get right in front of their workplace, just before entering? You usually smoke on the way to work and then flip the butt out into the street, like you’re heading into an AA meeting.
I noticed him for the first time four and a half years ago. Seeing him again today got me thinking about this sign thing I do.
I’d for years thought about kids and reading. I loved to read when I was young. Mostly sports pages and sports magazines. Whether at the kitchen table under a warm yellow overhead light enhanced by the white light from the window that the table was right up against or in the big chair in my father’s office where he read from when he got home from work until he went to bed or in my bed with the radio playing on the nightstand and the gooseneck lamp lighting up my pages like a big flashlight.
I loved playing sports and was good at them, but when I got to high school, a Jesuit boarding school of all things, I stopped playing them after freshman year. It was during that year that I’d discovered Ray Bradbury. It was a whole new life after that. I couldn’t spend every afternoon in a gym or on a field. I needed time to read and think about things in a new way. The Maharishi says the mind goes to what gives it the most pleasure. Books gave me more pleasure.
When I got to college, I spent more time reading books I was drawn to than going to class and reading the assigned chapters of books that didn’t seem as relevant to me as titles I’d found on bookstore racks and shelves. It was the late ‘60s. The racks and shelves were filled with exciting books. You could fit a Kurt Vonnegut paperback in the back pocket of your jeans.
Fast forward past a young marriage and three children and an early divorce while teaching school to beat being drafted to go to Vietnam, and then running a bookstore, and then starting a weekly alternative paper. I eventually, inevitably came to New York 20 years ago with an idea of starting a national book magazine, like a Rolling Stone for books. I couldn’t make it happen. Too much money was needed. And money was a sport I wasn’t good at. I worked on and off for some weekly papers here. Tried again to start that book magazine. Taught school. Read a lot. Looked for the right thing to do.
Five years ago I started this newsletter.
It’s the greatest thing for me every month to walk around town with a backpack filled with newsletters and drop off copies at some libraries and bookstores and coffee shops.
The theme of each issue has remained the same: The sinful failure of New York City’s public schools to teach the kids in the poor parts of the city to read. And it’s not just my take on things. The numbers on tests show it. Year after year. The numbers are so bad, that the issue seldom gets talked about in the papers. Or on TV or on the public radio shows where they ought to talk about it all the time when they aren’t talking about restaurants. It’s not that schools aren’t talked about. It’s that reading isn’t. And to me it’s the only thing to talk about when talking about schools. Eva Moskowitz and her charter schools here wouldn’t exist if the public schools had been teaching kids to read.
One afternoon six months or so into putting out acityReader an inspiration, what else to call it I don’t know, came. I’m sitting on the couch where I’m sitting now and the image of a sign comes into my mind and it says ‘Why Not Teach Every School Kid to Read Well.’ With a period, not a question mark. I said it once to myself. It sounded right. Exactly right. I emailed the woman in Brooklyn who lays out the newsletter every month and asked her to format a sign with that sentence on it. She did, and I took the design up the street to Kinko’s and they showed me how they could make a sign for me.
The next morning I took the #6 train downtown to the end of the line and took the sign out of the big Kinko’s bag and stood in front of the building where the Dept. of Education is housed. This was totally out of character for me. I don’t have a public self. Neither of my hands is a glad hand. But the sign wanted to be held. I would do it. At 64 years of age, I had a mission. I would go there every day. I would hold the sign for an hour from 8:00 to 9:00.
One of the people I noticed that first day was a guy in a trench coat lighting a cigarette, with a match, not a lighter. He looked like an unlikely smoker. I wondered what I looked like to him.
The way the light hits the cars that go by me as I stand there on the sidewalk keeps me from seeing in the windows. Some drivers must sense this. They’ll roll their windows down and give me a thumbs-up. Others will sometimes honk their horn a couple times. Mostly the sign is angled so the people walking by me can read it.
When my alarm goes off at 6:14, I get up like a kid, eagerly like it’s Saturday morning. I meditate like the Maharishi ‘s followers in Lakewood, Ohio instructed me 40 years ago. Eat something. Throw on some clothes that I think make me not look too bookish or at all like a politician, and grab my sign and head out the door, knowing it’s the best thing I’ll do all day. Who knows what will come of it? I like not knowing.
Recently the guy in the London Fog has acknowledged me. In his reserved way. Before he heads into the big building.
Bill Gunlocke is the editor of acityreader.blogspot.com, where this story first appeared