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 wasn't 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 hadn't had a good meal since he left home, before his mother passed away while he was in the Middle East.
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 weren't 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. "I'll have to sleep on it, Mike."
Sitting in class the next day, he couldn't concentrate on the lecture. He looked up the penalty for drug trafficking; six to nine years in state prison. He'd be locked up with all the drug dealers and gang members he was trying to get away from and he'd probably never get to the university, the life he wanted. He decided he wouldn't 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 below ...
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 interrupted.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" said a pretty coed.
A broad smile ran across Tony's face. "Not at all. My name is Tony."
"Nice to meet you Tony. I'm Angela."