by Jerry Guarino
On top of a hill, fog
rolled slowly over the university campus on a
cool, September morning. At the bottom of the
hill was a city filled with crime and poverty.
Between the two worlds was a road. The two towns
were less than a dozen miles apart but could have
been separated by two oceans. Tony Mariani
traveled that road each day, hoping to join the
elite culture above while living in the
dysfunctional, urban ghetto below.
In the university campus coffee house, he sat
doing his community college homework, imagining
that he was a student here. He sipped his earl
grey tea with half and half, and took a bite from
a blueberry muffin. He avoided conversations.
Tony had been recently discharged from the army
with two tours served in Afghanistan. He could
only afford an apartment in the run down section
of East Oakland. No one was looking for
applicants with skills in urban warfare, weapons
marksmanship or hand-to-hand combat, so he got a
job lugging baggage at the airport. Only his
survival skills transferred from war to living in
the hood, this time the enemy dressed in gang
colors running drugs and prostitution on his
block. Instead of roadside bombs, he had to look
out for drive-by bullets shot indiscriminately.
Like heaven and hell, two opposite destinations
based on which direction you were going, what
choices you made. That road was more than highway,
it was a chasm he had to cross if he wanted to
get anywhere in life.
Excuse, me. May I sit here? said a
pretty coed holding tea and a scone. Tony looked
up from his screen and smiled awkwardly.
Sure he said pulling his laptop
closer to himself to make room for this beautiful
young coed. She sat down across from him, set up
her computer and opened a literature book.
Tony wondered whether he should introduce himself,
but decided not to. She was obviously a serious
student. She wore clean, faded jeans, a pink L.L.
Bean shirt and a matching cardigan sweater.
Around her neck were small pearls and on her
wrist a jeweled watch. Tony could just make out a
scent of an expensive perfume. She wasnt
only out of his league; she played in the majors.
If he was a student here, he might introduce
himself; but he quietly enjoyed her presence. An
hour passed without either of them talking.
This was the best part of his day, in the coffee
house on campus. By noon, he would leave the
university campus for the community college; take
two classes and head home to make dinner before
his swing shift job at the airport. Dinner
consisted of frozen meat and vegetables, fried in
a pan and a microwave rice packet; he put soy
sauce on everything to give it some flavor. It
was chicken or ground beef every night. He hadnt
had a good meal since he left home, before his
mother passed away while he was in the Middle
One night, as he was putting his dishes in the
sink, he heard gunshots and screams from a baby.
He peeked out his front window blinds. A punk was
standing over another punk, making threats while
next to them a woman and baby were screaming
hysterically. He called 911 and left for work.
Tony knew he had to get out of this neighborhood
so he saved as much as he could from his paycheck.
In nine months, he had saved enough to get out.
He moved five miles up the road. It was only a
studio in a run down part of town, but there
werent any gangs around and he was closer
to the university. Tony was climbing out of
poverty, slowly but he was moving in the right
direction. He was almost halfway up the road from
the gangs and drug dealers. Now he just had to
avoid slipping back there, but trouble tries to
suck you back.
At work, some guys propositioned him to smuggle
drugs onto a flight. Tony, help us get a
package on a flight and you can make a quick $5000.
Tony realized he could get away from the streets.
He could get a better apartment, some good
clothes, decent food, and maybe even find a girl.
But he wanted a chance to think about it. Ill
have to sleep on it Mike.
Sitting in class the next day, he couldnt
concentrate on the lecture. He looked up the
penalty for drug trafficking; six to nine years
in state prison. Hed be locked up with all
the drug dealers and gang members he was trying
to get away from and hed probably never get
to the university, the life he wanted. He decided
he wouldnt do it, even if it meant taking
more years to get somewhere.
The next morning Tony was back at his favorite
coffee house, with his earl grey tea and
blueberry muffin. He opened his computer to do
homework when the email ping alerted him.
Dear Mr. Mariani,
I am pleased to announce a new program we have
for veterans with honorable discharges and
service in combat locations. Our university
extension program will accept you for
matriculation. If you can complete two years of
prerequisite courses with a 3.0 grade point
average or higher, you will be eligible for
acceptance into the regular university. We have
to limit our admissions to the first 500
applicants. To apply, please click on the link
Tony quickly clicked on the link and began
entering the information. He finished the
application and pressed enter to send it in, sure
that he was one of the first 500. He had made it
to the right side of the road. His daydream was
Do you mind if I sit here? said a
A broad smile ran across Tonys face. Not
at all. My name is Tony.
Nice to meet you Tony. Im Angela.