Thursday, August 19, 2004

Here's to You
My department at Shitty High School in the Bronx is filled with all sorts of people, diversity at work. A patchwork quilt. A tossed salad. Mixed nuts. My favorite co-worker of all is a lady we’ll call Mrs. Robinns. I’m not sure what her official title is - School Aide, Para-professional, Head Flunky to the AP? – but nothing happens around the office without her touch. She doles out stacks of dog-eared books from the bookroom to which only she has a key. She knows where the coffee filters and cups are kept, a secret place she disappears to without a word as soon as someone whines that our supply has been depleted. She’s the only person who knows how to fix the copy and Rizo (high volume copier) machines.

Pretty much every morning the first thing I do is walk in and ask Mrs. Robinns for something, and pretty much every morning she responds by pausing, smiling genuinely, saying “good morning,” and then doing whatever it is that I need done.

An angel in a pantsuit and tacky red lipstick, Mrs. Robinns makes things happen, and that insistence on polite pleasantry in every interaction is often the only thing keeping me from stalking around all day in a black cloud of rage.

Mrs. Robinns is also the one around the office who’s always nagging for $2 for a card for the retirement of someone I’ve never met (which often makes those storm-clouds rumble,) and she’s always the one organizing end-of-semester dinners, happy hours and the like.

It was at one such Happy Hour where the subject of Mrs. Robinns’s illustrious tennis career came up. Once a week or so she’ll cut out of work early (or, more accurately, not stay late, as is her usual) to play tennis. She seems reasonably fit for her age, mid-fifties. She’s slender, not very strong (she’s often asking for my help lifting boxes) and she never takes the stairs. So I figured she played tennis for fun once or twice a week. Perhaps she used to be good as a younger lady. Turns out she’s a superstar.

She started playing on a whim when she went back to college. The overhand smash came naturally to her, as did a powerful forehand and a ferociously accurate two-handed backhand. Her topspin lobs dropped like bricks, rocking opponents tumbling back on their asses. Fans kept track of her ace’s as if she was Dwight Gooden throwing strikes. She’d never heard of a double fault in her life.

She lost only once her first year, playing against men because there was no women’s team. Every match was a Battle of the Sexes. Every small college tennis complex was the Astrodome. Every cocky, preppy, 20 year old was Bobby Riggs, only Mrs. Robinns didn’t even have Billy Jean’s youth and experience on her side, only her nascent talent. She had never played before in her life. She was 42 years old.

They ended up starting a women’s squad just for her (and likely so she’d stop embarrassing 18 to 22 year old men) and she went undefeated her next three years. Ten plus years later she still regularly wins tournaments playing against men and women half her age.

My hero. She ought to have her own postage stamp.

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