Subway Diarist

Julia Vitullo-Martin
Overheard
Summer 1997

Taking a seat on the Broadway local last February, I noticed three African-American youngsters bouncing around the subway car, laughing, talking, and punching one another.

Thirteen years old? Maybe fourteen? It was hard to tell, decked out as they were in their huge Tommy Hilfiger outfits—all legs, enormous feet, and loud voices. Their things took up several seats, but as other passengers streamed in, the kids would politely pick up their down coats, backpacks, gloves, and boom boxes to make room.

They were boisterous, hollering back and forth, shifting from frivolous to suddenly serious matters—noisy but oddly thoughtful. I was on my way to interview Peter Flanigan, an investment banker active in the new School Choice Scholarships program, which helps low-income parents in the city pay tuition for their children at Catholic and other private schools. I had been checking my tape recorder to make sure it was working, and realized that I should leave it running.

Here is their conversation, mostly shouted happily. I don't know their names, so let's call them Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Tom: "Hey. Gerald's about to get hisself expelled."

Dick: "Gerald? But he be studying all the time."

Tom: "It ain't about studying stuff; it's about eyebrow stuff."

Harry: "What's with Gerald's eyebrows?"

Tom: "I don't know. He's at the Catholic school, and they got all those rules."

Dick (patronizingly): "Oh, man! That ain't about eyebrows. That's about mustaches.

Gerald's got those little hairs coming up, and he wants to keep them. The Catholics don't allow no mustaches."

Tom: "At the Catholic school, they don't allow nothing. No earrings neither."

Dick: "Earrings? Sheee-it! No jewelry. No gold. Nada."

Harry: "No shorts."

Tom: "No T-shirts."

Dick: "No colors."

Harry: "No jeans."

Tom: "No caps."

Dick: "No cell phones."

Harry: "Hell, no Walkmans!"

Tom: "No box cutters."

Harry: "Man! You crazy? You even be thinkin' about cuttin' someone, and they throw your ass outta there."

Dick: "Man! I'd kill myself if I had to go that school!"

Tom: "Oh no! They'd kill theirselves first if you went to their school."Harry: "Nah, they wouldn't. Those Catholics would just expel you. They don't fool around."

Tom: "Yeah, you got to go to class or they expel you."

Harry: "Yeah, and you can't talk in class or they expel you."

Tom: "Yeah, you be rude and they expel you."

Dick: "It's hard there too."

Tom: "Yeah, Gerald studying Latin."

Dick(jokingly): "They don't even speak that nowhere. Not even in those Latin places." Long silence.

Dick: "So what's gonna happen to Gerald? He be happy there."

Harry: "Don't worry about Gerald. His mother's gonna let him go along, hoping he do the right thing. Then if he don't, she'll make him cut those little hairs off. No ifs, ands, or buts with Gerald's mom."

Tom: "Is that constitutional?"

Dick: "Naaah. That's why you better off at the public school. At least there they behave constitutional."

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