Drop me off in New Orleans

My nephew turns 18 tomorrow – coincidently the age I was when we first met – and in a few short months, he will take up residence in my favorite city, New Orleans.

I don’t know why I was so surprised when he chose the Big Easy as his college town, I mean, who wouldn’t. I guess I thought she was my city and my city alone to love. But it wasn’t until today that I realized that our love for the Crescent City was genetic when he asked me for my father’s (his grandfather’s) trumpet.

The first and only word out of my mouth was a resounding no.

And from the look on his face, I could tell that this wasn’t a word he heard often – and was especially not expecting it the day before his birthday.

I decided to interrogate him on his intentions, hoping he would say something ridiculous that would help my case in denying him his capricious ask.

“Why do you want it?”

“I want to learn to play it.”

And like the great flood from Katrina, the memories of my unrelenting nagging and begging of my father to teach me to play this unforgiving instrument came back to me. I remembered his notes on my sheet music, where he drew eight sets of three circles, representing the finger buttons, and shaded the ones I was supposed to depress to hit the notes Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do, all written in his meticulously neat, all-cap handwriting.

While my nephew continued to give me reasons of why he wanted his grandfather’s trumpet, I poured over music books and opened folders like a mad-woman…until I found it. Exactly the way I remembered it. He wrote it on the back of my sheet to “Spanish Eyes.”

“This is how he taught me,” I showed him.

I saw the excitement on his face and we both ran to the closet where my mom hides things, my dad’s trumpet being just one of those many things. I’m not sure who she hides it from. Would-be thieves. A cleaning lady with severe musical inclination. Me. My nephew. We all know where you keep it, Nola. (Yes, her name is really Nola.)

He stretched his tall body to pull down that black case I spent my entire childhood coveting. And when we opened it the horn was just as golden as I remembered it. I pulled it out and put my dad’s old mouth piece on it. For a moment I could smell him. I could taste him. And I tried with all of my might to blow through the scale he taught me, while the buttons stuck and my notes got louder with the frustration.

“Tia, it just needs a little oil. I need to open it up and clean the pistons,” he said.

I looked at him and handed him the trumpet. It was always his.

Just like New Orleans will always be ours.

Up against the wall

I’ve returned to the place where I made most of my messes.

This was a con I never weighed before accepting a job at the same place where I went to college. Every day I battle the ghosts of my late teens and early twenties, which is the last challenge I expected to have with this new job. From the gazebo that bears my initials, to the love triangles drawn within the walls of the student union, around every corner, in mostly all the buildings built prior to 2000, there is a memory that causes my heart to sink. Luckily, it’s just me and the walls that remember. And really, more so the walls. I hardly remember what I say when I’m saying it, let alone the mischeif that is at least a decade old, but boy did those walls keep accurate records. Every time I see one, they narrate stories of my past, like the one of the duck that got into my Alka Seltzer.

And that’s just one campus.

What will happen when I visit the other campus where I took my journalism classes and got into much more than just Alka Seltzer? Those walls will undoubtedly scream, “Quitter,” among other adjectives. It was during this time that I was earning a ridiculous sum of money, or so I thought, from the Miami Herald. I wasn’t even old enough to drink, but I didn’t need to, I was intoxicated with adulthood. I had press credentials around my neck and a vagina I finally figured out how to operate. School simply couldn’t compete. I had trouble making a one o’clock class, but no trouble starting my shift at 5am, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The jobs that followed, a non-profit, another news station, another non-profit, flowed money to my bank account and filled my calendar with events and happy hours that flowed my money back out of credit cards with limits that I can no longer qualify for today. The little bit of cash I did have, I used to enroll in a class or two, but then, when work consumed my nights and weekends, I’d forget to officially drop them, plummeting my GPA to a number that should be my interest rate.

Among all the false F’s I accumulated, I did manage to attend and complete other courses with A’s. Two years after my originally scheduled graduation date, I had enough credits to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English.

I didn’t attend commencement. I felt I had nothing to be proud of. Plus, my parents and I were estranged at the time, and, most importantly, I had to work that day.

More than a dozen years have gone by and, although I’ve made some pretty bad mistakes, no other project or venture has been more of a scarlet letter than school. My transcripts read like a criminal record and the admissions committee of those programs I previously applied to probably saw me as a recidivist felon. But, now I’ve returned to the scene of the crime and, to add insult to injury, I’m surrounded by eminent figures in their respective academic fields that require large walls, similar to the one I climbed to get away from campus police, to fit all their degrees and accolades. Doctors and deans and chancellors and professors – and me. Now more than ever I need to undo the mess I made so long ago, so that the next time one of those walls tries to retell a shameful story, I could nail it with a well-earned degree.

Not a house coat.

Generation hungrY

Socks go on feet.

Just the other day I was contemplating going back to school. It’s something I always talk about doing, but never actually get around to. Like organizing that sock drawer.

I have taken courses here and there, but nothing serious. Nothing degree seeking. I think because it was such a struggle to finish my B.A. that it just left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t struggle with the academics, I majored in English: i before e, except after o; use passive, instead of passive-aggressive voice, and always put an accent on the a. You see, I’m a natural.

I struggled in other ways.

Just having the silver spoon knocked out of my mouth, I was left to figure out things on my own, including paying for my last year of school. So I went to work. Trying to find a balance between career, money, a social life, independence, brand new credit cards and, technically, still being a college student. Before my senior year I was already employed by a newspaper’s dot-com department. By age 21 I had left to become a designer at a non-profit, but turned into a grant writer instead. I would’ve stayed, but I was recruited to join a television network’s dot-com department as a producer, where I was handed my first lay off.

While I continued to build my resume, school was put on pause. Because I was hungry. Hungry for a career. Hungry for a six-figure salary by 27.

I was having the time of my life. Meeting people. Learning new skills. Earning a ridiculous paycheck. I believe the first time I saw four figures and change on a check in my name I got dizzy and turned beet red. Although getting an “A” in my Mark Twain class was nice, it didn’t make me feel the same way as that paycheck.

I eventually completed those last few credits and got my degree through the mail (I was working, couldn’t go to graduation).

And that was my struggle. Pretty ridiculous in light of what today’s college students are going through.

On the streets of Miami, a rich metropolitan city with a bunch of private universities, including the internationally acclaimed University of, college students beg on street corners. They do not beg for you to buy them beer at the 7-11. They do not beg as a fraternity prank. They beg because they cannot find jobs. Jobs that would normally subsidize their meal plan, their groceries, their toiletries. Those jobs are no longer available. So, they beg their neighbors, relatives and distant cousins for enough money to buy Cup Noodles to combat the cold in their dorm room.

The seniors of that group will soon graduate when the cold has long left us. For those lucky enough to get a job, they will soon realize they have entered a world that is not looking to train, show or help. That they are perceived as large children that listen to mysterious satanic messages through their white earphones.

The freshly graduated will eventually report back their findings to their once fellow students. They will say that half of the office is old enough to be their parents and the other half, their grandparents. They will say that they are still broke because $21,000 a year can hardly cover rent and car insurance. And they will say how much they miss college and are considering returning for a Master’s. Not to learn something new, but to subsidize their child-labor salary with a living expense allowance afforded by a student loan — for lunch money.

Poor and hungry smart kids. Not hungry for ambition. Hungry for food. I suppose if they stay in school long enough they could become professors. I suppose they’ll be ecstatic when ten years later they receive their first, full professorial paycheck and realize that they have to now subsidize their paycheck by authoring a text book in order to payback those student loans.

So, you see. Not all is lost. We are now breeding scholars instead of career-driven numnuts.

The day I finally decide to go back to school, perhaps the professor can passionately deconstruct The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Or the day I decide to organize my sock drawer I can hire a Complex Systems Ph.D to do it.

If I have a job by then.

And if that job pays six figures.