18. Big Brothers, Big Sisters

The orientation session for Big Brothers, Big Sisters was held just across the river in the Bronx. Friends and family regularly chide me for charging into dangerous neighborhoods without a second thought, but today, I was apprehensive.

The only time I had previously ventured into the Bronx had been an accidental visit. Engrossed in a book on the 4 train, I had failed to notice that I was on an express train, and that the express train had left Manhattan. I got out at the next stop after realizing my mistake, but it was one of those transfers that requires climbing up from the underground and crossing on the street to turn around. Above ground, my gaze met with broken concrete and weeds and smashed chain-link fences. Not a soul was around, and this sudden desolation in the middle of New York City gave me chills.

I hurried back down the stairs as quickly as possible, but as soon as my feet hit the platform, I heard loud shouting and heavy footsteps thundering up behind me. The men approaching didn’t look like they wanted to make friends. The train whooshed into the station just then, and I lifted my chin and forced myself to make eye contact until the doors opened into safety. I was not eager to return.

This time, however, the station opened into a thronging traffic hub with sidewalk carts every few feet. I got more than the usual number of Hey, babys as I made my way to the recreation center, but armed with GPS, I knew the building was only a block away, and my anxiety dissipated.

The room was nearly full, and the content of the orientation pretty standard, so I spent most of the session assessing the other applicants. The group varied so much in age and appearance, I couldn’t keep myself from imagining each person with the tweens we would likely be matched with. Hypothetical scenarios played out in my head. Would the 12-year-old boy conflicted over gang recruitment respond better to the clean-cut, young, Nordic Big or the middle-aged, slightly unkempt Big who looked to have a bit more street cred?

Would my own little idolize me, or think me too dorky to emulate? Would she want to accompany me to the opera and the park, or would she only want to share slices over a greasy yellow tabletop?

These questions kept my mind active through the end of the session and all the way back down to the village.

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