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PROLOGUE: THE PLANS GOD HAS FOR YOU
Unlike many of the stories I have written in my past, this one starts with a real-life protagonist, William Fredrick Cooper, at church.
Cleaning a church.
Dreams that come true always start with obedience to the Most High, even when you don’t realize it.
But as with everything we do in life, only God knows the plans He has for all of us.
We’re the last to know, what He wants us to know, when He wants us to know.
Such was the case in December 2008, when I took on a temporary assignment as a sexton at my dwelling place, Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church. Like a desert needing a torrential rainstorm in the worst way, I was desperate for some sort of income; any income. Let go from an Assistant Managing Clerk position at a midtown law firm in March 2008, my nine months of unemployment took me to South Carolina and back, looking for something, anything to restore order to a world in disarray.
“I got your back,” Cheryl Smith, my future fiancÉe, said after my return, then turned her words to action by splitting her salary into two as I continued searching for work.
Going from agency to agency, I was met with the aftershocks of a failed Bush administration: No one was hiring clerks in the legal profession; in fact, many law firms were in the process of offering buyout and layoff packages to long-tenured employees. Even returning to my occupational roots by becoming a foot messenger for a day, I was unceremoniously canned after one day, because I was overqualified.
Through it all, my better half remained steadfast in her encouragement. But even then the wells once plentiful in supply slowly diminished; the resourceful waters having been replaced by growing debt, tension and frustration. Though nary a discouraging word was spoken, the shine in her eyes, once sparkling like enthusiastic diamonds, was slowly fading. The glow having been replaced by sadness, the new story was now of a woman growing weary of carrying a burden alone.
When you reach the end of your rope, that is when God swoops in, for you cannot be a vessel He can use if you are filled with resistance; and more importantly, too much of yourself. My favorite scripture, 2 Corinthians 4: 7-9 speaks of being in troubled, trying times while living in perplexing uncertainty, but knowing God will direct our steps when we’ve thrown our hands up. I seriously doubted that portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian congregation on December 8, 2008, when my senior pastor, Michael A. Walrond, Jr., gave me the responsibility of maintaining a 50,000-square-foot, ninety-five-year-old landmark building, with a three-tier balcony and 1,800-seating capacity.
Having no prior cleaning experience, save the childhood experience of weekly mopping and waxing floors, cleaning restrooms and washing walls in my mother’s Staten Island apartment, all I could rely on was God’s strength, and hoped that He was happy with my efforts. After all, He had shown me in my literary travels that with a mustard seed of faith, I could accomplish anything.
So for nine-to-twelve-hour days for three months, (two of which were spent substituting for the absent/injured custodians) the Trustees of the church and I maintained the landmark building to the best of our abilities. And what began for me as a humbling experience turned into one of transformation; a healing place for my soul.
Something I had been running from for years.
Something God was now forcing me to do.
Like a river running in many directions except the right way, I was so consumed in my efforts at becoming “the next big thing” in African-American literature that I forgot who was in charge of my life. Slowly losing my virtues and character while becoming obsessed with this endeavor, my poor judgment in terms of associations often led to critical mistakes when pursuing my dreams.
That should have been a strong indicator that I had morphed into someone I didn’t recognize.
More importantly, I wasn’t paying homage to the source behind my writing gift. While the purpose behind my books, delivering messages to adults about men of color and their feelings concerning issues of the heart, was pure, that my teenage daughter was unable to read some of my compositions should have delivered the message that I was astray. Maybe the reason why my literary success was uneven—each triumph was met with an even greater personal setback—should have screamed volumes.
Refusing to heed all warning signals that things were awry, perhaps the brutal things said about my character by literary peers, family and friends—words like “weak,” “selfish,” “self-absorbed,” “pretentious,” and “phony” were bandied about—and vicious, hurtful rumors that were shooting distress flares into the night should have said something.
Those things combined with a fragile psyche feeling unworthy of God’s blessings of greatness led to the most bittersweet moment of my life:
On March 20, 2008, exactly one year after the publication release of my second novel, There’s Always A Reason—and the very same week it made the April 2008 Essence magazine bestsellers list—I checked myself into New York Presbyterian Hospital. Battling an emotional meltdown, for two nights my life played like an endless movie. Running the good, bad and ugly of the past year, the film always ended with a blank screen, like some purpose in my life remained inconclusive.
Emotionally drained, a painful truth had to be faced: It was obvious that God wasn’t steering my vessel to abundance. While my intentions were noble, my passion, career and life were like the Titanic after it hit that iceberg: sinking fast. Discombobulated while dwelling in defeat, dejection and despondency, debris and darkness surrounding my depression, God intervened just before I reached the bottom of an ocean of wasted talent, where many lay after the Most High has taken back His gift.
Taking refuge in His comforting embrace, hour upon hour was spent with Him in His sanctuary. Whether I was cleaning the church interior, shoveling snow outside during Sunday service in tears, praying in worship, or giving praise alone at the altar after a long day, I begged for one last chance with the gifts of love, life and passion He had blessed me with.
More importantly, help me be a better man, I asked Him repeatedly during those ninety days. And like a recovering alcoholic taking one day at a time, I asked Him daily for my continued growth.
In some weird way, after my assignment ended at First Corinthian Baptist Church in early March 2009, I felt like a new door was about to open in my life, one that I would stroll through and enjoy what appeared on the other side. About a week later, I came across an advertisement in the New York Post concerning maintenance work at the newly constructed Citi Field ballpark.
The home of the New York Mets, I sighed.
Though I was a New York Yankees fan at heart, at that particular juncture I was more of a fan of having a job.
Having no other options to weigh, I took the #7 train to Flushing, completed the application, and Express-mailed it before I returned home.
With this move, I had taken my first baby step on the path God was constructing.
When you take one step toward Him...
God takes two to you.
How else could I explain the phone call I received from the Alliance/First Quality Maintenance Management Company while playing Scrabble one Saturday afternoon three weeks later, telling me to report to the new Yankee Stadium?
“It would be an honor to work there,” was my instinctive response. While those words escaped me, the words “pride,” “tradition” and “excellence” flowed through my mind. So many recollections of my youth flashed before me: early morning high school sports arguments in the cafeteria over breakfast; Phil Rizzuto birthday wishes to any and everyone over eighty during the WPIX-11 television broadcasts; trips to the old stadium by way of my Staten Island Advance newspaper route in the late 1970s; and how I baffled high school gym teachers and local sportswriters with my extensive knowledge of sports history along the way.
And with this job, I concluded, I would finally be able to contribute my small part to its storied history.
Arriving early at the new stadium on April 1st, I took a ten-minute walk around the place before entering. The stadium exterior, a sturdy combination of limestone, granite and concrete, featured the building’s name above each gate entrance in bold V-cut and gold-leaf letters. One particular opening, the GATE 4 entrance, was more prominent than others. Accentuated by its concrete, dark gray background, the famous interlocking NY insignia appeared on the ground.
This must be for premium season-ticket holders, I deduced.
Completing my tour on River Avenue, I saw a blue “Housekeeping Entrance” sign and the long line of future colleagues. Eventually inside, the three hundred or so applicants that were chosen out of over five thousand were seated in right centerfield section 103 for orientation. Immediately noticing that the seat width and leg room was wider than at the House That Ruth Built, a three-minute scan of the surroundings told me that Jeter’s House incorporated many of the elements that made the previous stadium so special.
Adorning the interior of the stadium were hundreds of photographs capturing the history of the Yankees. The grandstand seating, beautiful in its rich blue, stretched well beyond the left- and right-field foul poles.
In contrast from the original Yankee Stadium lay the seating tiers. Inversely opposed to the stacked appearance of yore, the Field, Main, Upper and Grandstand Levels spread outward like a rising bowl, placing the paying customers further back from the playing field, but lower to it. In sacrificing seats for better sightlines and more leg room (in 2008, the seating capacity at the Old Stadium was 57,936; the second coming seats an approximate total of 51,000), about two-thirds of the stadium seating looked to be in the Field and Main levels.
Peering upward in wide-eyed admiration, I gawked in awe at the re-created trademark that lined the roof of the new facility. Restored in its entirety to a familiar location, the frieze at the apex of the original Yankee Stadium from 1923-1973 was replicated perfectly, yet enhanced with steel and zinc to protect it from rust. (In the original stadium, the frieze was copper.) Returning my vision to the bleacher seats, I loved the space behind the white walls that showed #4 subway trains as they passed by, just like at the old place.
Another throwback from the old Stadium was the manually operated auxiliary scoreboard built into the left- and right-field fences. Seeing it situated in the same locations it existed in the pre-renovation model of the old ballpark, the image of Don Larsen’s ninety-seventh and his last pitch of his ’56 World Series perfect game immediately came to mind.
Modern machinery, construction and technology meets the Yankee way, I enthusiastically concluded. Oblivious to the dreary morning sky and numb to the drizzle coming down, the kid in me couldn’t stop taking pictures of the ballpark on my cell phone. Once I finished soaking in the novelty of my surroundings, those childhood memories and high hopes I owned were replaced with the fortune of having a job.
About ten or so minutes later, another reality set in...by way of the responsibilities of the job. After Alliance Company President Michael Rodriguez detailed his ambitious journey from high school flunky to affluent business guru and how it could happen to anyone of us present, one by one the many Alliance staff supervisors addressed the daily upkeep of this big ballpark in the Bronx.
Speaking in English and Spanish, their tongues translated an authoritative unison. Painting a truthful picture about what the maintenance positions entailed—restroom cleaning assignment responsibilities; the daily wipe down of the Yankee Stadium seats section by section; the power-washing and scrub-brushing of everything concrete; massive wipe downs of the many blue stadium columns; major squeegee work on rainy days; the transport of large bins of food and trash to garbage and recycling dumpsters—the brush they used on the job description disrupted my rose-colored canvas.
From their view, being a maintenance attendant at the new Yankee Stadium was a monotonous mixture of madness in janitorial, custodial and sanitation form.
“We want this stadium looking brand-new every day,” one of the main bosses sternly directed. Then he gave the ultimate marching order: we were instructed to focus on the job, not what happened between the white lines of the beautiful baseball diamond in their background. The intimidating manner in which he, and the ensuing controllers, spoke altered that initial feeling I had of being blessed.
Surveying the blue seats and studying the faces of my colleagues, I wondered if anyone else shared the feeling of discouragement now running through me.
In return, I saw listless looks of defiance, hopelessness and “I’m-just-here-for-the-paycheck” mentalities.
In different shades and ethnicities, the pain was the same.
I don’t know about this, I texted to Cheryl.
Give it a shot, came her reply. God wouldn’t put you in a position to fail, William. He has you here so you can glorify Him, with your goodness and love. Remember our mission statement at Church. It applies to everything we do.
The passion in her text leapt from the screen and into my heart, causing me to recite the declaration.
We are an ever-evolving community of visionaries and dreamers who have been CALLED BY GOD to live the lives we were created to live; COMMANDED BY GOD to love beyond the limits of our prejudices; and COMMISSIONED BY GOD to serve!
For the next five minutes, the last portion of our statement, COMMISSIONED BY GOD to serve, blocked out the voices of the supervisors. Forming a protective shield from the pain-filled neighboring eyes and destroying whatever cynical thoughts I may have developed about what lay ahead, a smile fortified by faith creased my face. The task, as unenviable as it may have been to many of the people sitting in those stadium seats—including me for a short span—was an opportunity given by God for me to shine.
And given the dreary unemployment climate, I was grateful.
From that point forward, I approached job responsibilities with a mentality to serve, with everything that God had given me to work with. The road ahead would have its bumps and potholes, but I was determined to make the experience fun to whoever crossed my path.
Feeling blessed to be a Yankees fan working the inaugural season at this new stadium, I thanked my Heavenly Father for this opportunity with a quick prayer.
Once that mindset was established, the very next day God again intervened. After being given a maintenance uniform (blue slacks, pinstriped blue shirt, matching bowtie and vest with the Yankees logo) I was assigned to a men’s room area in left field.
Immediately, I went to the maintenance office for supplies.
“Where do I find the cleaning agents for my restroom?” I asked.
A distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a blue suit with thin white pinstripes, one I would later find out was an administrative official from the company’s Manhattan office, looked me over imperceptibly, searching my eyes for sincerity.
Then he turned in the direction of one of his well-dressed peers.
“Do you think he’s cool?” he asked his partner.
Fighting off a sudden rise in my heartbeat, cool for what? I thought.
Before his colleague could utter a word, he faced me once more and said, “Come with me.”
With a blatant hesitance, “Are you sure he can handle it?” the other man asked coyly.
“I think so,” his partner responded.
Growing weary of all the “around-me-but-not-to-me” chatter, I finally spoke.
“With all due respect, could you let me in on the decision process? Maybe I can share some input about who I am.”
Where that query came from is anyone’s guess, but in hindsight, the direct yet professional manner in which the words left me served as confirmation to the powers-that-were.
Smiling, the brown-haired Caucasian man, now proud that he endorsed his own intuitiveness, escorted me down a stairway, then through a long, concrete tunnel-like corridor. Though his name presently escapes me, he introduced himself and told me about the sudden reassignment to the 000 level of the stadium.
“I think you can handle the cleaning responsibilities of this area, William. Many of the players’ families will come by, and on occasion you’ll see a celebrity or two.”
“I’m honored that you chose me,” I humbly replied.
Taking me to a premium, all-inclusive lounge area along the first base line complete with private restrooms, high-definition television monitors and grab-and-go dining foods, The Ketel One Lounge became home number one. Working there during the season’s introductory batting practice and two exhibition games against the Chicago Cubs—both Yankee victories, I might add—I established an immediate rapport with the bartenders, waiters, security guards and fellow cleaning colleagues.
Chris, aka Buddy Love, one of the recycling dumpster runners, and I connected immediately. A holdover from the old stadium, his smooth wit, innate sense of humor and easy rapport eased away whatever trepidation I may have owned about my promotion.
“You’re the ‘Chosen One,’” he kept calling me that Saturday afternoon. “There’s something special about you.”
Startled while lowering my head in humility, “You think so, man?” I mumbled.
“Pick your head up, brother. You have what it takes, man. I can just tell.”
Hearing those words was like good gumbo for my soul, though on this particular game day, I couldn’t visualize his assumption:
April 4 was a tough one.
About the seventh inning of the exhibition game versus the Cubs, a part of the sewage system malfunctioned, causing half of the lounge to be flooded with water, urine and...
Let’s just say it wasn’t a fun day.
Trying to clean as much of it as I could, sadly my efforts were futile. But they weren’t unnoticed. On April 15, a day before the home opener, I was moved once more, into the lower level of an exclusive area demanding premium cleaning and care.
In an irony that paralleled Yankees lore, I was the benefactor of some timely fortune: Like Lou Gehrig substituting for Wally Pipp, I was replacing someone who had called in sick.
“Do you want to man this area during the season?” Angel Chavez, my new supervisor, asked me. “It’ll take a lot of work to clean this place.”
Not wanting to usurp the job of another, I hedged.
“Don’t worry about him,” Angel assured me. “I like your work ethic.”
Like the office representative, he, too, went on a hunch. However, upon closer examination, maybe, just maybe, he, too, was a sign from above.
After all, his name was Angel.
God sure works in many mysterious ways.
Surveying the spacious lower region of the restaurant, then the dimly lit restroom, its five ceramic urinals and three stalls, I paused for five seconds, said my fastest prayer ever, then smiled at my boss.
“Let’s do it,” I responded.
Finally adjusted to the rigorous details of my occupation, it wasn’t one behind a desk like in my past, but it was a job nonetheless.
Unbeknownst to me, it was the beginning of a season where dreams came true.
© 2011 William Fredrick Cooper