Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chapter Two

The best part of pursuing a dream is watching the small, daily rewards. Vanessa frequently found herself staring out the office window, watching the kids playing in the yard, laughing gleefully. Perching her chin in one hand, she rested her elbow on the desk corner and got lost in the small bodies running to and fro, kicking the balls across the playground and climbing on the long, horizontal logs. She remembered the day that she and her friend Eric had put them there.

"You really sure kids will like this?" he had asked, dropping the last end in place with a huff.

She has smiled at him. "I'm so sure they'll like it," she replied, "that I can guarantee you will hear happy squeals the next time you're here volunteering."

That had been five years ago. Eric had gone on to finish medical school and was in his first year of residency. Somewhere between that and the unending line of women he seemed to date, they had lost track. Mental note: give Eric a call.

Vanessa didn't know if the center would have made it without the dedication of her friends. When she had first proposed her idea over a night of shots at the local pub, she had half expected her friends to snicker in that way they had of indicating she was a lost, idealistic cause. She had expected the jokes about her unbelievable optimism, the skepticism that there was no way to bring about the dream she had imagined. What she hadn't expected was the interest expressed and the pursuant deep conversation over how to a group of individuals could create a nonprofit human services center for the children in Queens who needed it. She had seriously underestimated her friends.

And they had underestimated her as well. When they sat down together a week later, no one had been prepared for the extensive three-hour presentation she gave them, complete with extensive notes and financial plans, grant opportunities, and potential real estate possibilities. Sure, they all knew she was smart; she had proven that with two master's degrees and her ability to hold conversations with a variety of professors and guest lecturers for years. But developing and implementing an extensive human services program for the city's underprivileged families was an entirely different story. When her friend Allie asked her how she was going to build this place, Vanessa's answer was immediate. With a wry half-smile, she'd replied with a line from her favorite Beatles song: "With a little help from my friends."

So they all moved into the project together. Fourteen middle-class twentysomethings, pooling their resources, brought the center into being. A brother of a friend was a realtor and helped to locate a property near the projects; a mother of another friend assisted with grant writing projects. Friends volunteered on the weekend to bring the building up to code, and the word had spread that a new program was available for the families in the area. Someone donated a security system and somebody else installed it. Through the whirlwind of that first six months, Vanessa found herself amazed and humbled at how quickly her dream had come together. Never in a million years had she expected that he dream would become a reality, and certainly not this quickly. And when her friend Eric had helped to move those logs to the playground--one of the final steps before opening--she had looked around her and realized that something larger than herself had been at work throughout the process.

Fast forward five years, and here she sat, chin in her hand, watching the children climbing on said logs, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, kicking and throwing the balls to and fro. The best part of the job. She suddenly became painfully aware of the stack of papers her elbow was resting on--papers needing to be filed, signed, mailed, addressed. Turning her attention away from the window, Vanessa dug in to the task at hand.

Forty minutes later a knock on the door got her attention. She looked up to see Gloria in the doorway. "You got a minute?" she asked, hip against the door frame.

Vanessa grinned. "For you?" she asked, putting down the papers she had gathered in her hand. "Maybe even more than a minute."

Gloria entered the office and closed the door. Although she continued to smile, Vanessa picked up on the change in her demeanor almost immediately. Gloria eased herself into a chair across from the desk and brought her eyes up to Vanessa's. The smile didn't waver and Vanessa immediately felt her insides churning. This unending smile of Gloria's never brought good news. Last time it was a blind date with Gloria's husband's cousin.

"So..." Vanessa forced herself to maintain eye contact. "What's going on?"

Gloria continued to smile, but a seriousness hid distinctly behind her dark eyes. "You remember last week when we went to the police officer convention? I've been thinking."

Vanessa bit her tongue on her reply. The temptation to respond, "Thinking is dangerous for you," was almost there, but she caught it in time. Besides, she was a bit curious. Gloria did tend to come up with some interesting ideas at times. "Okay...I'll bite...whatcha thinking about?"

The smile became more intense, and the eyes didn't deter. "I got a phone call yesterday from the police chief downtown. Apparently you made quite an impression on the officers. Several of them have proposed creating a volunteer program working with the kids in the center. There seems to be a strong interest in working with the after school program. The more I've thought about it, the more I can't come up with a good reason to turn them down."

Chewing on the end of her pen, Vanessa thought about Gloria's proposal. "You know the parents are going to resist this...their experiences with law enforcement have been pretty bad."

Gloria focused her penetrating gaze on Vanessa again but this time, dropped her smile. "All the more reason to do it. We need to build bridges in this community."

Vanessa stopped chewing and met Gloria's eyes again. "I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, " she clarified. Pushing her chair back, she stood and walked around the small office, pacing the best the tiny space would allow. "This is an opportunity for our clients to build positive relationships with people who have always been the enemy. I just think it's a complicated issue and we need to consider how to go about it. Did they have something in mind?"

Gloria exhaled. It was clear to Vanessa that she had expected to be shot down completely and was somewhat surprised by her boss' response. In the two years she and Vanessa had been working together, she knew the younger woman to be even-keeled but extremely passionate and protective of her "clients"--the predominantly African-American community surrounding and using the center. It was no secret that the police had a negative reputation in the community. They were seen as outsiders who protected their own and cared little for those who were struggling in the projects.

"Well," said Gloria carefully, "the chief started off talking about something big...a big organized date or something for the police to come out and do a presentation..."

"Oh God," Vanessa replied, rolling her eyes.

"BUT," Gloria interrupted quickly,"I talked him into starting small...suggested we do something that would maybe introduce an officer or two at a time to the families. You know, less intimidating, better at building a safe relationship."

Vanessa sat down in her chair again. "Gloria." Just a word, then picking up her pen, she began to chew on the cap again. "So who's the lucky chump?"

To this Gloria grinned wholeheartedly. The Vanessa she knew and loved. "His name's Goren. He's a detective. Robert Goren. He's going to come by tomorrow morning around ten."

The cap stopped moving, but her eyes didn't look up. A slow smile emerged on Vanessa's face, followed by a sarcastic chuckle. "Heh,"she mumbled, shifting the pen cap in her mouth. "Way to go, Detective Goren. Do you think he's young or stupid?" Then, after a sigh, "Never mind. We take 'em however we can get 'em, don't we?"

Now Gloria laughed. "Yes ma'am, we do," she responded. Then, quickly, "And neither of us is young OR stupid." Pause. " least not stupid."

Vanessa tossed the chewed up pen cap at the door as Gloria closed it. Not THAT young, anyway.

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