On a late Friday evening, few customers stand in line to pay for their groceries at a Gristedes supermarket on 170th Street, in Washington Heights. Three boxes of cereal, a large bottle of diet Coke, a can of peas, slowly move along the rubber roller. Brady Velasquez stands behind register no.4, he scans every item methodically. He is impatient to call it a night, but he still doesn’t let the repetitive process bore him: he greets every customer with a smile, heartily exchanges some words: “How are you doing tonight? Ready to check out? All right man, have a good one.”
Brady Velasquez is only 20-years-old, but already he knows what it means to look after himself. He pays his own bills and covers his small debts. Now he also has an added burden: he must pay back the financial aid he received before he dropped out of college.
“In America, without a degree, you cannot really do much. With a degree I am giving myself more chances and opportunities. And I am also making my parents proud. Kill two birds with one stone.”
– Brady Velasquez, former student
Even though he only attended Borough Manhattan Community College for two months, he must reimburse the school a total of $2,600. With that debt obligation added to his daily subway expenses, monthly phone bills and meals, he has no choice but to work. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem, with his little sister and his mother, a home attendant, who takes care of the rent and major expenses.
Velasquez’s mother helps elderly people do their errands, clean their houses, cooking, and escorts them to appointments. “She helps me when she can, but I am not really expecting that, she has her own bills and stuff,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“In America, without a degree, you cannot really do much. With a degree I am giving myself more chances and opportunities. And I am also making my parents proud. Kill two birds with one stone,” Velasquez said.
His days are split between work as a cashier at a small Harlem restaurant three to five days a week, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and he puts in 18 more hours a week working the late shift at the Washington Heights store. He earns a little over the minimum wage: $9.00 per hour at the restaurant and $8.35 at the supermarket. All together he manages to make around $300 a week.
Little by little, with two jobs and his savings, Velasquez has started paying back the loan. Every month, he allocates $100 for the school. As of early May, he still owes $1,700. He figures, once he’s paid that up, he will be able to go back to school.
“I don’t really want to work and spend my money to go back to school but it is what I have to do,” Velasquez says. “I got my own responsibility now that I have to take care of. I want to progress.”
Born in 1993 in New York, Velasquez was raised in Harlem by Dominican parents along with his older brother and a younger sister. Early in his teen-years he developed a passion for filmmaking and photography. He attended the Art and Design High School in Midtown, where he received a first introduction to filmmaking During school, he shot some music videos and made a documentary of his neighborhood. “I liked being behind the camera and capturing things. It is just something fun to do,” he said, in an interview after his shift at Gristedes is over. He smiles shyly, his big brown eyes almost hidden behind the thick frame of his square glasses.
When he finished high school, he didn’t want to enroll in college right away. He said he he needed his time, maybe just a year off, to figure out things at his own pace. But his mother had the upper hand—and she wanted him to continue his studies.
“I was 18, and my mom had more authority over me, she forced me to apply for college,” Velazquez recalls. Undecided and reluctant, he attended Borough Manhattan Community College, but his college sojourn lasted only two months. He ended up withdrawing. He tried again and again he dropped it. It wasn’t just the right time. Now, he says, it is. His love of film is pulling him back.
“Film is more of an ‘hands on’ thing, but you learn things in class that you won’t necessarily learn in the field or by yourself,” Velasquez says.
His plans have changed over time. He is now considering LaGuardia Community College in Queens. Hopefully the art credits will then transfer to Long Island College where he hopes to pursue a bachelor degree in Commercial Photography. Even if he has not quite laid out exact plans yet, Velasquez is thinking ahead. He is even considering a master degree in film, maybe at NYU.
But until then, he still has to pay his bills—his transportation fee, phone bills (he also pays for his mother’s phone), a $7 monthly Netflix fee (he needs to stay up to date on films) and a gym.
So he continues to work, two jobs, almost every day. Working at the register during the late shift, the time goes by slower, he says. At the restaurant, the work feels more dynamic. Managing take-out and online orders, the shift moves faster. Sometimes. Velasquez eats this meals there, getting half off on the menu price.
He expects he’ll have to continue working even when he goes back to school. He’s realistic, but he admits that working so hard at such a young age is rough sometimes. “I see my friends hanging out, and I can’t go because I am at work. It is a burden but I gotta do it,” he said. “Sometime I just want to chill, go for a walk, ride my bike for a few hours, but I don’t have the time for that now. It is a tough life to live in New York man!”
And so the grind continues. As the clock hits the 10 on Friday night, Velasquez finishes his shift at the supermarket, puts on his light jacket and heads out, the dark night illuminated by the light of lampposts and refreshed by a light drizzle. He walks south on Broadway, not heading home, not yet.
He has one more stop before hitting the sack. “The barber shop!” he shouts. “I couldn’t go earlier, I didn’t have the time.”
Just another errand and another little expense for this young man.