Morning ninja. Mentor. Traffic cop. We head to predawn Bushwick to track down the City Year corps member.
“I put up with them at night, so they put up with me in the morning.”
“Hey guys.” Ben Johnston quietly answers our already gentle knock. It is 5:30am, dark, cold and windy. We are in Bushwick at a converted space full of large and elaborate lofts. Ben has seven roommates. “I put up with them at night so they put up with me in the morning,” he says matter-of-factly.
Ben, 24, is one of thousands of young people annually who become corps members at City Year, an organization aimed at battling dropout rates in public schools in 25 major cities. Ben currently serves as a mentor, tutor and role model to children at the Danny Kaye School in East Brooklyn. Originally from Sonoma Country, California, he’d been living and studying in Istanbul when he applied and subsequently found out he was accepted to the program. “I flew back on the 4th of July and started 2 days later.”
A typical weekday morning finds Ben waking to his alarm at 5:15, relieving himself, and gathering all his clothing into a bundle before making his way downstairs. Asked about his grooming routine, Ben laughs. “Usually I shower and dry myself.” He gets dressed in the bathroom. But not before he starts breakfast, a meal that has become sacred during his time with City Year. “One of the things I have to do is eat a big meal at this hour,” he pulls an onion from the refrigerator and begins dicing it. He pours a helping of Café Bustello coffee into his coffee maker. “It’s hard to work 10-12 hour days, on your feet, without a sure meal, so I need this,” he explains. “I forgot my lunch yesterday… Can’t do that again.” For the past few weeks, Ben has been making egg and chorizo tacos. He tells us he’ll switch it up soon. He tosses the now diced onions into a pan and sautés them, adding eggs and then heats the tortillas on top. He sits at the kitchen table in the dark, eating, listening to NPR on his headphones.
Ben tosses on a bright red jacket with ‘City Year’ across the shoulders. He swaps his house slippers for the organization’s signature Timberland boots; he brushes his teeth and we’re on our way. Bushwick is inanimate at this hour. The sun has just come up over the horizon. We march with our heads down to the L Train, hands jammed in our pockets. Through the hum of the wind, Ben says, “I’ve never in my life seen this time of day as much as I have since I began this program.” We believe him.
At the Halsey Street stop, we are not alone. Down the platform, another City Year corps member’s red jacket gives him away. Ben greets him. They speak in knowing glances and smiles for the remainder of the ride. Ben sips his coffee from a mason jar he brought from home. The L jerks above ground, and we’re surrounded on all sides by low-hanging pink clouds. We exit at the Sutter Avenue stop and momentarily lose Ben. He’s gone to offer a swipe of his Metrocard to a stranger standing outside the turnstiles.
“It’s hard to work 10-12 hour days without having a sure meal, so a big breakfast is necessary. I forgot my lunch yesterday. Can’t do that again.”
At every crosswalk between the subway and school (roughly 500 yards), Ben stops us: “In organization, you’re taught not to cross the street until the sign reads: WALK.” There could be children around, and corps members are meant to set a good example. Having the patience to stand and wait for the ‘WALK’ sign on a street void of cars is harder than one might think. We lurch into the street each time, and shake our heads as we backpeddle. A young boy in a Brooklyn Nets jacket and a red hood yells over to our group. He’s looking for Ben. He waddles across the street and they exchange a high five. He doesn’t leave Ben’s shadow for the remainder of the walk. After learning we’re unable to enter the school, we’re forced to say our goodbyes on the front steps. Ben thanks us. We thank him. The boy with the red hood starts to bounce towards the student entrance around the corner, but Ben has something he needs to tell him. “Don’t forget to eat breakfast,” he says.