At the corner table, where a chess set that was missing a pawn used to sit, there’s a lovely thirty something woman tutoring a twenty something boy in college math.
The first time I notice the two of them is when her words rise above the bursts of steam from the nearby espresso machine.
“You take the six, and the six becomes….”
I thought she said ‘sex’ not six.
It got my attention and led me to look up from my writing to study the pair. I’ve had my share of math tutors throughout my education, but never one so lovely.
The young man is nodding in syncopation with her explanation but I have to wonder what words he is hearing. Is he really able to concentrate on math? I’m not sure I would be able to.
They’re leaning in, her legs are crossed under the table and their knees must bump from time to time. They’re close. The curve of the small round table allows them to share both the textbook and lined notebook where her pencil stabs at the page and flips expertly to press the nub of the eraser into a miscreant number.
She has straight, very dark brown hair; it might be black as the light that washes from the floor to ceiling windows along the front of the café weakens at the back. A frail braid, a little more than a twist, hangs below her temple from where her fingers run through it without purpose.
She’s pulled the thick cable of her hair away from the works space so it falls across her neck to the left, dusting the edge of the table as she bobs in and out.
“I can see what you did here but I don’t know why you came up with a seven?”
At least the conversation for them has moved beyond sex. I’m the one who’s having troubles getting to what’s important.
When I was in high school, I struggled with math. I exhausted the patience and abilities of the teachers who were willing to give me extra time so my mother sought out a math tutor.
She doesn’t remember how she found him, probably in a weekly community newspaper, such as The Kerrisdale Courier. In those days, tiny columns of fine print filled the back pages. This is where people went to buy, sell, and trade for services. There were no Craig’s lists or eBay. There was also a prevalent attitude that if it was in print, it could be trusted.
The man she found for the task was a Merlin archetype mixed with b-movie mad scientist. Beneath the shiny crown of his bald head, patches of wiry gray hair got lost in his scraggly and tangled beard.
He lived on the third floor of an old brick walk-up on Broadway near Cypress St. in Vancouver. The room was always dark and mildly claustrophobic. There were mysterious shaded piles of magazines and newspapers that cluttered every horizontal surface in the room making it seem smaller. His side of the building provided a western exposure. At the hour I used to go it should’ve been flooded with warm afternoon light, but the black-out shades were always drawn.
The apartment and his clothing smelled of moist and mildewed noodles.
He cleared a space for my worksheets and text book on a thin square kitchen table that was pushed up against an over-loaded book case. The titles were more about Physics than math.
With his guidance I managed to complete my high school math requirements and didn’t expect to ever see him again
Five or six years later, I was working at the front desk of a luxury downtown hotel. It was late in the evening shift and the vast lobby was empty. I was working through a task on a NCR 250 when I looked up and saw him approach.
I greeted him courteously but without familiarity. Did he recognize me? What did he want?
His purpose became evident when he lifted a cloth bag full of coins, the size of a grapefruit, onto the counter and asked if he could convert it to paper currency. Normally we wouldn’t encourage transaction for non hotel guests.
The jumble of coins and his disheveled appearance spoke to a different role than from when I had known him. It was unlikely that he was trading math tips for small change in the doorways and dark corners of downtown Vancouver.
He was polite but not engaging, pretty much how we had been when math was on our shared agenda. I think he must have recognized me and as least as I remember it, we chose not to discuss it and I respectfully didn’t want to embarrass him. I did imagine that he watched me very carefully when I counted out his bills knowing that math wasn’t my strong point.
When he was gone I reflected on how such a smart person could be on the street looking for handouts. Somehow, he hadn’t been able to fit into the system, either academic or corporate. His finely tuned mind couldn’t rise above a lack of social grace or an ability to interact with people and be socially engaging.
It was also the first time I was confronted with a less fortunate, in this case possibly a homeless person, where I knew at least something of the person’s story. I know my attitude changed that day and a little compassion seeped into me.
At the neighboring table the math tutorial continues. She taps away at a hand held calculator while he clenches his jaw and presses his face to almost touching the paper.
I wait and listen to see if this time they both come up with the same answer, lest it be a 6 or any other number.