Belmont Avenue

Evening. Chicago.
Late 80s.

Just ended
Spring shower
Steams the warm
Pavement.
A Big appetite
Neighborhood
With more walkers than
Wheels
And more
male walkers than female.

Et tu, César.

After eating at a Greek diner, Cyrene and I stroll down a busy Belmont Avenue.

Cyrene enjoys regaling me with stories of his many summers spent in Montreal. I, recently an undergrad, have little conception of how adults still in high school spend summers.

As he would then but no longer, Cyrene smokes. Cigarettes calm him. I like how our walking paces to the casual nature of his inhaling and exhaling, how we pause every now and then to tender a thought. I’m learning that reflecting on teaching matters. The ends of his cigarettes redden and shorten as he, taking in breath and nicotine, reflects on his day, and life, of teaching. Up and down the street behind parked wheels, rain water mounds debris in the gutter.

I admire Cyrene. I have never witnessed an older adult connect so effortlessly with young people; each connection I witness feels right. Authenticity without bullshit. Humor without bite. Cyrene is built for this human business called education, and, in our tatterdemalion high school, he helps me to calibrate my compass. In the business, what really matters and what doesn’t, music from noise.

That night, walking among many, we meet César, a well dressed junior at our school. I teach freshmen, English and Algebra, but know César from hallway chat. He is kind to this first year teacher.

César happies himself to see us yet looks down as I greet him. Cyrene steps away from me, talking privately with César. I wonder about summer. César tosses his half-smoked cigarette to the ground and steps on it, wishing me a good night, and continues on his way. Cyrene and I do not discuss what they have spoken of.

A few years later I’m studying, lunching between grad classes in a local college’s cafeteria. Bites of pre-fab pizza between The Philosophy of Education and School Leadership in the Modern Era.

César sits down across from me. There’s an eagerness to talk. The pizza drips oil down my fingers and I take the last few bites.

“Hey, you know Cyrene saved my life, don’t you?” César interjects as we are catching up.

César, what are you talking about?

“C’mon? You knew I was working the streets.” He pauses. A backpack hangs effortlessly from his broad shoulders.

Then regroups.

“Cyrene got me off the streets. You had to know that.”

No, César, I did not.

“And into college. The first in my family.” Part shimmering pride, part testing me, his eyes do not look from mine: can you handle the truth of me?

“I’m not proud of it today, but through parts of high school, I was hustling — like a crack head. You name it. If I could make money, I’d do it.”

César shares his tale, that Cyrene, also a counselor at the school, had been working with César, his grandmother, and child services in an attempt to get César off the streets. Connecting a wholely unraveled human with the care and resources needed to re-build himself. Working with César’s loving grandmother, Cyrene had intervened to help restring extended family disconnections that had led to the young man’s “working the streets.” Classic context of decayed American family: absent father, alcoholic, disintegrating mother, sexual abuse, and poverty had imprinted César before he was ten.

“Anyways, can you say hi to Cyrene? Tell him I’m good?”

Yes, of course. Anything else?

“No. Just hi for now. Last time I saw him, he was walking, smoking, you know, the way he does.”