Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tissues are on backorder

At the school where I work, boxes of standard-grade, no-frills tissues are available in the nurses' suite for classrooms.  Usually, when I go to fetch a couple of boxes, there is a tower stacked neatly in the supplies corner, waiting to be used.  Never in my four years have I wanted for tissues at Roland Park Country School.  They are there -- in forces armed to battle H1/N1, colds, bronchitis, mysterious liquids on desks, and of course, the inevitable tears for which legions of tissues have done due diligence.

When one of my students announced to the class yesterday, "Tissues are on backorder,"  I couldn't help but feel as though some higher being was giving me a shout-out reminder to burst my own bubble. "How can tissues be on backorder?!"  her classmate pondered.  Incredulity all around, the lot of us stunned into some disbelief that tissues, as we know them, have temporarily left the building. We really are THAT accustomed to having everything available to us - chocolate milk and my favorite, coconut water, in the cafeteria, Purell dispensers strategically located throughout the school, maps printed in color, laptops for each student grades's a cornucopia of privilege, and sometimes it makes me feel tremendously seasick.  The zipcode that places our school within Baltimore city is in many ways immune to the urban equivalent of a Greek tragedy gone horribly wrong.  It's a veritable Leviathan. There are not enough tissues to remedy the pain in Baltimore, "The City that Bleeds" (sometimes also referred to as "The City that Breeds"), and I sometimes wonder how many different ways we need to capsize for the city's citizens to notice that gaping hole letting water in faster than we can breathe.

I have watched all five seasons of The Wire (except one episode, when Omar is killed - I just couldn't do it).  I love the show for its writing, which verges on Shakespearean, for its tremendous cast, for the fact that it was filmed on location, and therefore I can connect my world to that on the television screen.  I love that it poetically addresses the many Achilles' heels Baltimore wears like battle scars- sometimes in defiance, sometimes in resigned acceptance, most often in a limping despair. In some ways, it was easy for me to watch the show and sigh, cry, fast forward through the particularly violent parts, and think deep, burdensome thoughts about what I could do to "make a difference" or "do more".  Apathy all around.  Baltimore is proud that a critically-acclaimed HBO show spotlights the city, but distances itself from the truths so plainly, and violently depicted. It makes me cynical about my city, and of the people who cavalierly state that it isn't violent, or "that bad."  THAT is a whole bunch of hooey.

My assumption well into Season 3 was that The Wire took some artistic license in the stories it told.  Even though I saw the boarded-up blocks, tagged with gang insignia.  Even though two students at Johns Hopkins were murdered when I was a graduate student there.  Even though one of my closest friends lives in Remington, and we hear gunshots while we grill our sausages and drink our fancy beer.

I met Waverly and Ramsey at Sylvan Beach Ice Cream (now named Taharka Brothers Ice Cream), a program that places at-risk young men into a work setting, while also offering them the opportunity to complete an educational degree.  A number of the guys were already known quantities within the juvenile justice system, and were released from their sentence for good behavior. I was there to serve as a "life skills mentor" because somehow, I was supposed to know more about how to cope with life than these young men. Ha.

I ate dinner with the Sylvan Beach crew on more than one occasion, ashamed that they were making it for me.  I listened as Emmanuel talked to me about a book he was reading on The Crusades.  I laughed with Waverly about the disproportionately small amount of food I ate, compared to the table of men with whom I feasted. Antonio, who had a sort of boundless, puppy-dog energy, cracked jokes and then laughed at them.  He was the youngest, with innocent liquid brown eyes and a penchant for lifting me off the ground when he hugged me. Brandon could leap intellectual circles around me.  He got EVERYTHING, and took pride in the excellence of his work.  He also struggled with anger management.  I watched Ramsey look right through me, without emotion. He made the best chicken, but compliments got you nowhere with Ramsey.  A smile was met with a chilled indifference.  I remember thinking, "If circumstances were different, he wouldn't hesitate to kill me." Ramsey was trying to leave the Bloods gang, but it wasn't easy.  In the time he was there, they tagged the ice cream shop, broke into the sleeping quarters while the guys were sleeping, ate away at his will. This was not unusual for the Sylvan Beach guys.  Of the several who were there in my time working with the organization, five left for various reasons. Three are back in prison, adults now.

I worked one-on-one with Waverly, a young man with a slight build and a huge smile who to this day refers to me as Miss Paige.  He is eager to please, good with people, disorganized and scattered, but quickly forgiven due to his charm and warmth. Waverly knows something about everything, and makes amazing coffee.  He is a poet and a musician and he spent virtually all of his salary on recording equipment (a problem when we addressed the notion of budgeting in our "life skills" program). He shared several CDs with me, and my all-time favorite running mix has two of his songs on it. Waverly has dreams of opening a music production company, and I told him he could use the name of what mine would be: Track 6 Productions (based on my theory that track 6 is often the best song on the album). We had an instant connection.  He spoke openly with me about his past, and I, mine.  We talked about abuse and the particular ghosts it leaves.  We discussed in great depth the impact his father's experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War had on his family.  Waverly is the youngest of three boys; his brothers are both in the army.  The brother to whom he was closest went to Iraq as Waverly was nearing the end of his two years with Sylvan Beach.

Waverly struggled with alcohol abuse, and he was ashamed to talk about this with me. We danced around the topic, and he shared what he needed to, even though I was privy to more information than he ever gave me.  He did discuss his penchant for stealing cars, and in graphic detail, recounted the story of his stabbing.  I remember sitting on my hands to stop them from shaking when he showed me the scar. It was not little. 

Because Sylvan Beach has consistently received press for its efforts in Baltimore city, it wasn't uncommon for the local celebrity or two to walk through its doors.  Method Man was a frequent visitor, as were actors from The Wire.  Waverly and I spoke about the show one spring evening, when the windows were open to the streets of Baltimore and all of the cherry blossoms offered the cynic just a little bit of hope.   "It's all true, Miss Paige...all that shit is true," he said, shaking his head and looking down.  I remember the sting of that moment still, and I remember pressing the point, asking him again whether he felt like some aspects of the show were exaggerated to make a stronger statement.  Waverly looked out onto the street at a crowd of MICA students heading to a nearby bar. "Nah,'s all out there." 

I swallowed my gum.

Around the same time, Ramsey borrowed my favorite pen, a gift from a dear friend.  I like the weight of the pen and the green marble swirls that decorate it, and I'd taken to bringing it with me everywhere, if only to have something to hold onto and fidget with while I worked with Waverly on his assignments.  Ramsey had recently started nodding an acknowledgment in my direction when I came into the ice cream parlor. He was in good spirits that night because he had recently purchased a new belt buckle (Ramsey really liked clothes).  He was wearing it, and I found it nearly impossible NOT to stare at because it repeatedly scrolled and blinked his name in red, LED, all-cap letters: RAMSEYRAMSEYRAMSEY.

Seated at the table next to the corner where Waverly and I liked to work, Ramsey was hunched over an assignment and needed a pen.  I offered him mine.  He smiled, a shy, sincere smile and thanked me.  Five minutes later, he dropped the pen and ink splattered across the floor with all the splash of fake blood in a horror flick.  Ramsey's reaction was instant.  His feet kick backed and he jumped up out of his chair.  I'm not sure what spooked him more - the fact that he broke the pen, or the pool of red ink that marred the pristine floors of the cafe. Waverly grabbed a box of tissues, and threw several over the ink, and we watched as it bled through.  Teary now, Ramsey mumbled over and over, "I'm so sorry Miss Paige, I'm so sorry."  I reassured him that it really wasn't a big deal, watching mutely as he knelt on the floor, wiping the ink with fistfuls of tissues, with his belt buckle blinking and scrolling his name over and over again.  I knelt next to him and starting collecting the tissues. It took the rest of the box to wipe the floor clean.

Ramsey always greeted me with a hug and a smile after that night. He gave me a Big Boyz Bail Bondz pen the following week, and I still have it, stored in my drawer with the defunct swirly marble pen.  Relics of what is wrong and what is right in this charmed and challenged city.

Waverly worked for Sylvan Beach until last spring, when he left to pursue other dreams. He lives with his parents now, and has apparently started drinking again. He was taking classes at CCBC in business. Ramsey left Sylvan Beach after he was involved in a carjacking. As far as I know, he is in prison now.  As conflicted as I felt about doing so, I wrote a letter for him, as a character witness in the process of his sentencing, as I did for Antonio, also now doing time. And Brandon, whose smile carried his pain but also his capacity for hope, is in for murder.

So yes, tissues are on backorder. We use them to mop up our messes and our tears.  We use them until the box is empty.  And then we wait for more.


  1. - - - - - - and we need those tissues even more now, as we watch in horror the pain and devastation in Haiti. A tragedy, not caused by mankind, like the problems in Baltimore, but one that is almost impossible to comprehend.

  2. A patient came in today and sat down to check his blood sugar... he said, "Hey, where are the tissues?" to which I replied, "They're on backorder....". He was puzzled, but I knew exactly what I meant.

    Paige, you have an incredible gift. I wish I could think half as well as you write :o) ~beautiful!