When Mike Bryant is an early riser with his alarm going off at 3:20 in the morning. Most are probably still in bed dreaming, but he’s getting ready for another day of living the dream.
An hour or so later, Bryant is walking into the Geoffrey Canada Community Center, ready to do whatever the day brings, whether it is fixing a toilet, collecting trash or doing some carpentry work.
“It’s a tough job, but I take the bitter with the sweet,” he said. “Of all the jobs I had this is the best one … I’m more than happy to be here.”
Bryant joined HCZ in 2001 — the week after 9/11. He spent about two days at the former TRUCE high-school site as a security guard, but then became the site’s maintenance person when staff saw how he had made sure everything was neat and clean.
“They took good care of me,” he said. “They gave me birthday parties. They treated me like other people didn’t. My own family didn’t even treat me that way. So I was excited, I was happy. So there was nothing I wouldn’t do [for them].”
In his 18 years at HCZ, Bryant has become a familiar sight walking about in his own version of a uniform: paint-splattered, dark-blue coveralls, kneepads, and — like Batman’s utility belt — a wide leather weight belt with a large assortment of gloves tucked into it and dozens of jangling keys.
“My boss even said I’m different from everyone else. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m happy with it.’”
Bryant was born and raised in Harlem and saw the neighborhood’s street culture turn.
“My brothers got caught up,” he said. “I got caught up right behind them, following them … like you wanted to be with the Joneses. They’re wearing Pro Keds, you want Pro Keds, too. That was the kind of mentality I was rolling with back then.”
Bryant described himself as “live barbed wire” as a teen, but today he uses the hard lessons he learned to point the way for HCZ students. “I give them what I didn’t get coming up. A lot of times I explain to the kids about the other side of the world. I tell them, ‘Do what you got to do to better yourself.’”
“Children are always first,” he continued. “They’re the backbone — so we have to educate them and get them ready. Most of them pay attention. Then you got some that still don’t quite get it yet. You got to give them more time, but as time goes on they’ll get it. They want to be like the other kids and go to college.
“It’s just like a protocol you got to follow, like A to Z,” he continued. “You try to get from A to P then say you’re complete, then no — at the end of the tunnel there’s going to be dark. [There won’t] be no light. You go from A to Z — you’ll see at the end of the tunnel there’ll be plenty of light.”