“Young man! Do you want to learn electrical engineering the seven passwords of the Gnomon?”

My employer had its annual Community Service day today: this year, hundreds of bright-eyed, well-scrubbed, enthusiastic and keenly competitive marketers convened on a public school in the South Bronx, there to accomplish a number of one-day jobs from stenciling quotes on the walls to repainting the gym to reorganizing the library (We’ve done this for a while now.)

The directions given to us were clear, but I am not good with directions. Instead of getting off the 2 train at Jackson avenue, I accidentally found myself on the 5 at 180th street, took the local train back down, and arrived at the station almost an hour late.

As I was walking down Jackson avenue towards the school, an older man in a half-untucked janitor’s shirt waved at me and said in a thick Jackie Mason voice:

“Young man! Do you want to learn electrical engineering?”

Seriously, that’s exactly what he said. If you imitated Jackie Mason saying that, that’s what he sounded like. “Do you want to learn electrical engineering?” This on my first trip ever to the South Bronx.

I was so intrigued that I followed this guy several blocks to a catholic rectory. He was talking about learning his trade in “the Old Country” (Malta), his time in India, and his electrical career at IBM, then Morgan Stanley in the sixties. I didn’t really plan to follow him through the locked gate of the parish building, but he had a shiny key to the locked gate. That seemed legit. And he seemed to really want to show me his school.

Even so, I didn’t really plan on following him around the back of the building, but there was a printed sign that said “Free Electrical School”, which was intriguing.

And I really didn’t plan on following him down a flight of narrow, stained concrete steps through a warped wooden door, especially since the paper “Go in to basement. Go inside” and “walk right in to basement” signs posted on every surface were starting to remind me of the “FREE BIRD SEEED” signs posted by Wile E. Coyote. “STAND DIRECTLY ON ‘X’ WHILE LEARNING ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING.”

However, I reminded myself that in stories, the malefactors lure travelers with promises of wealth, or power, or beautiful, welcoming women in harem pants. Not promises of free electrical engineering classes. So Alladin (who also had to navigate a cave) won over the coyote, and I went down the stairs, rubbing my Treo like a magic lamp (and snapping pictures for the detectives to find.)

Once he had wedged the door open, I could see sheets of plywood mounted on the wall, covered with rows of electrical sockets and light fixtures — teaching tools. So I followed him down a long, damp basement hallway, and saw…

…well, you know the obligatory ingredients of a supervillian’s lair?

  • Underground
  • Big, heavy, inscrutable machinery
  • Some kind of platform or catwalk
  • LCD monitors bolted to the walls
  • Some kind of big blackboard with lots of math on it.

The damp, flyblown, and utterly terrifying unimproved basement space two stories underground had ALL OF THAT, including twelve classroom chairs jammed next to a big blue boiler, facing a six-foot concrete platform, in back of which was mounted a big dry-erase board covered in capacitance diagrams. Or, er… something. It did not appear to be the plans for a nuclear-tipped drill aimed at the molten core of the very earth itself, but you never know with scary subterranean lairs. He even gave me a brief lecture on calculating capacitance.

Anthony (that’s his name) turned out to be a really interesting guy — he’s 78 years old, and teaches classes for free that would cost two grand at trade school, and his only requirements are that you don’t have any felony charges and that you show up for class. He builds a lot of his own diagnostic equipment. The idea is that the students can take their first electricians’ tests and get a leg up on a good job.

Anthony had a bank of computers in another room down another hallway, with LCD monitors mounted to the walls with galvanized brackets screwed into plywood. The computers had the plastic windows cut into the sides with the glowy cathodes inside — gamer computers. Network cable was strung around the walls. It was CAT6 cable, the good stuff, not just CAT5. But he was running AOL over dialup, slightly spoiling the overall effect. He gave me some business cards, and told me that he’s looking for students. Right now, he has five. He wants twenty. That’s why he’s stopping people in the street, and asking if they want to learn electrical engineering.

I swear to God this is real. Tony kept talking away with a blend of stuff you might happen to know something about (DC versus AC, how induction works) mixed in with theories that are either screwball or visionary or both (he wants to find a boiler converter so the church can burn restaurant grease instead of oil for heat.) And here’s the hard part — have you ever had a conversation like this? — he’s parroting back enough of what you’re saying that you start to worry that you’re not having a real conversation, but he’s simply fracturing and kaleidescoping what you’re saying, pushing all your conversational triggers in a kind of chat-bot Turing response that you only realize 45 minutes later isn’t a real conversation at all. By which time you’re deep in a basement. Or is he truly a nice old guy teaching a useful skill for free in the basement of a poor neighborhood’s mainstay church? In which case you feel like a jerk for having those thoughts in the first place.

I’ve known several people that give you that dizzy, short-circuited feeling. One ended up publishing a find of some importance (though in the field of dinosaurs, not of UFOs, which is the context in which my dad knew him.) So I did what you do in that situation — I nodded a lot, and listened a lot, and eventually decided that Anthony is a good guy doing a good thing.
Anthony gave me another very respectable-looking school card, and I sincerely wished him luck and told him that I’d send prospective students his way. Which I will: Reader! Do you want to learn electrical engineering? Email me! Right this way! Come right in!

Update: Anthony’s business card declares that he is a member of an order called “Christians of the Pointed Cross”, an outfit that yields exactly zero Google results as of this writing. So now I’m back to thinking that the whole thing was an elaborate, labyrinthine deception. Clearly, I’m now being pursued by Nazi archaeologists.

PS. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m making fun of Anthony — I’m sincerely not. I think it’s awesome that he’s teaching these skills for free. The fact that he appears to be a world-class eccentric just makes it more awesome. He was just robbed last week, too — a set of slightly-irregular digital voltmeters had been stolen while he was teaching the class. I’m gonna reach out to the parish to get some more background on his school, and will let you know what I find out!

One response to ““Young man! Do you want to learn electrical engineering the seven passwords of the Gnomon?””

  1. tuesday, august 22, 2006
    dear sir,
    tonight, one of my co-workers and i walked by St. Roch church and knocked on the door. an Hispanic woman came out and told us the electrical classes were no more. but i’m not sure she understood our questions (i’m not sure how good her English is).
    do you know? is the class still going on?
    mark hermann


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