“The sky is falling because of coronavirus,” says Carl Hall ’17, safely ensconced in his own kitchen, making dumplings and enumerating the personal disappointments the pandemic has meant for him so far: a long-planned trip to Las Vegas canceled, the gym closed, and his income as a street vendor nonexistent. Worst of all, his teaching job at the Queens Correctional Center has been suspended until further notice. Time is spent on Zoom meetings with people usually unavailable during the day, but suddenly able to spend hours conferencing.
Still, he is calm, acknowledging that his problems are pale inconveniences compared to those experienced by heroes on the front lines, including healthcare providers and first responders, and, of course, patients — some dying, many already dead — and their families affected by COVID-19.
“Everything has come to a grinding halt,” he expresses in a slow, low voice reflecting grave impact of novel coronavirus he already has observed and more misery he anticipates. The SUNY Empire grad with a bachelor’s in business, management and economics, and current VP of the Black Male Initiative (BMI) at SUNY Empire has a lot on his mind.
BMI is a program that nurtures its members — mostly black males, who are most likely not to complete college — with group sessions, peer counseling, and events that help them succeed as students and in life. Women and individuals who are not black also may join, if they feel BMI can be of assistance. Visiting Professor David Fullard, in NYC, helped found BMI and remains the organization’s faculty advisor.
“I remember the day I met Carl Hall,” Fullard says. “We were at the Metropolitan Center and I knew at that point he would become a member of the Black Male Initiative executive board. Carl’s extensive knowledge and love of U.S. and Caribbean history and its relationship to the business world was, and is, exceptional. Initially I called on Carl for those skills and asked him to lead an educational event for our members that dealt with financial planning. He did this several times at our Saturday meetings, which gave me the opportunity to not only witness his depth of knowledge, but also to get several tips from him that I’ve used in my own life. I also had the opportunity to watch him teach.”
Fullard continues, “Carl is a passionate and effective teacher who truly understands how to meet people where they are. With this in mind, I asked him if he would be interested in working with inmates at the Queensboro Correctional Center. Without hesitation, he said he would love to and immediately began to develop a lesson plan for a 16-week course of study addressing business in the African-American community.”
The indefatigable Hall is also pursuing an MBA at Mercy College and relieving the stress and monotony of sheltering in place through reading; his current intellectual passion is the Haitian revolution.
“I have a personal curriculum,” he explains. “It has nothing to do with college assignments. It’s how I continually improve myself, continually engage. I am not compelled to read these things for a class, I am compelled to read them to satisfy myself.” After a brief pause to tend to the close-to-finished dumplings, he paraphrases one of his favorite fictional characters, Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” “I am curiouser and curiouser as I travel through the looking glass.”
Hall’s circuitous route to his multi-pronged existence — student, teacher, veteran, business professional, chef, street vendor, volunteer — started early and evolved quickly as he taught himself to juggle its facets without flinching.
“I’m a New Yorker,” he explains. “I take everything with a grain of salt. Skeptical at first, but then, when the fit is right, I get fully involved.”
Hall was all of 11 when his father said to him, “Congratulations, son, you have a job.” His father, formerly an insurance agent, eventually owned travel agencies in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Trinidad, his native country. The younger Hall was to come to his dad’s office every afternoon after attending a full day at a strict Catholic private school and learn the business. He answered the phone, read airline guides, worked with customers, and promoted social events, especially the annual carnival in Trinidad, the high point of the year, with “its culture, costumes, food, music — the works,” recalls Hall, who points out that the whole year is spent preparing. The elder Hall chartered a plane to transport those similarly besotted with carnival festivities. Carnival was a time to get “every bit of debauchery out of you,” Hall said, launching into his description of the festival. His encyclopedic knowledge encompasses every aspect of its historic and contemporary meaning.
“My father was demanding,” Hall recalls. “He was attentive, aggressive, every i was dotted. He told me, ‘You’ve got to have discipline.’”
Hall says there are entrepreneurs who are dreamers about what is possible, and business professionals who execute the vision.
“He was both,” Hall says, respectful in retrospect. Carl Hall considers himself more of a business professional, “a doer.” In fact, the rigorous work for his dad prepared him, he reports, for a five-year stint in the U.S. Army, when he had to “wake up at the crack of dawn, be a leader, and get it all done. You also learn in the army that everyone is expendable. You might not be there the next day. You have to make sure the people you lead can step up, if they’re needed. That’s part of being a good leader and that’s what I learned working for my dad. How to do things. Everything.”
While he was working for his father, there was a revolution in the business world: computerization. Both Halls were excited, sure this would be an enormous boon. The intensive hours of pawing through heavy paperbacks detailing airline schedules and fares to create an itinerary would be replaced by a few minutes on a desktop, they exulted.
But no, Hall says with a bitter laugh, “Instead, it meant travel agents became dinosaurs. I can talk to you on my cellphone and book my trip to Bermuda at the same time. No middleman. No travel agent business.”
Something else had to happen. He found he could leverage another skill. “I have an ability to make things clear, to think of examples, to be succinct. That’s what makes me want to teach, eventually,” he says. And that’s why he is so committed to his students at the Queens Correctional Center and the BMI participants, and why one of his ambitions is eventually to teach at the college level, even at SUNY Empire.
“How people do when they get out of prison depends on how well they’re prepared while they’re in, before they get out,” he is convinced, based on his observations of the trajectories of former inmates he has taught.
Hall has faith that his teaching Black history and business makes a difference, that it’s part of the preparation his students, who are incarcerated inmates, need to succeed when they reenter society as productive individuals. He is proud of this work and impatient to start again, once the novel coronavirus has been defeated, enabling him to get back to the Queens Correctional Center, back to his students.
“Initially, the inmates wanted to delve into the development and intricacies of portfolios that not only manage money, but would also meet their financial needs in retirement,” Fullard says. “Many of the inmates were quite realistic and spoke about their desire to invest in an effort to do the same thing.
“Carl went on to talk about exactly what the stock market is and how you don’t need a tremendous amount of money to develop a portfolio and have your money work for you. He taught the men to read the Wall Street Journal. These men were not only moved by what Carl was saying, but they actually began to make plans for investing in a stock. They came to understand that the stock market would go up and down, but they would eventually end up with more money than they had when they made their initial investments.”
Hall, in turn, credits Fullard’s input for his successes, asserting that his mentor’s support helped steer his aspirations toward accomplishments.
“I had gotten out of the Army after five years of being in charge of the arms room — I tracked inventory — and was trying to decide what to do. I had an injury and my vocational rehabilitation counselor steered me to SUNY Empire State College,” he explains. “Education doesn’t interfere with disability, and Empire State College was everything I needed. The college offers opportunities to improve yourself, there’s something in place to help you every step of the way toward success. I began to get focused, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
He got many academic credits for his time in the military and soon found himself well on the way to his business degree. “My undergraduate degree plus an MBA will have bite and marketability. I’m not afraid to be evaluated by peers or instructors — that’s also from my time in the Army and as a student. I’m not afraid of responsibility, either.” Then, a quick laugh, “That’s from both my time with my dad and my time in the Army.”
Meanwhile, Hall had to make a living, so he got a license to be a street vendor. “You know, sunglasses, pashmina scarves, cellphone accessories, gloves, hats, umbrellas — things you might need when you’re in the street, walking around, or things you might want to give as gifts. But then consumers could buy the same things conveniently on Amazon, and in the street, people become hagglers. Our prices at the carts had to go down to compete to make any money, but the prices we had to pay for merchandise went up. There’s nothing left to bring home.”
So, one day, when he was done working and on a break on a bench near the Museum of Natural History, a guy came around with a camera and asked if he could take a picture and interview Hall for his blog, “Humans of New York,” a Facebook page with 2.9 million followers. Hall said “sure” and shared his history with book author and HONY creator Brandon Stanton. Stanton published Hall’s photo (reproduced here courtesy of Stanton) and his narrative. Hall didn’t even know how popular HONY is until people he knows, Facebook users, started saying, “Hey, I saw you in ‘Humans of New York.’” Hall was stunned, but pleased.
“I had it all on the tip of my tongue that day,” he notes now, thinking of that pivotal conversation, which garnered more than 315,000 likes and enormous positive attention. “I had been doing a lot of self-reflection when Brandon happened along. He was personable, easy to talk to. I guess you have to be when you approach strangers every day and ask them for personal information. I think what was different about me was that people find it inspiring that I went back to school at a more mature age.”
Decades ago, he also attended a conventional college in South Carolina, on a basketball scholarship. It was his mother’s native state and he was around family, so he talks about the experience fondly.
“I enjoyed it, but the Army was the right direction, at the time, during the first Gulf War. I was stationed in Germany and Virginia, and later lived in Germany and the U.K. I wouldn’t have ended up at SUNY Empire if I hadn’t left South Carolina and hadn’t been in the service — and I’m so glad I did.”
Now, with perspective on the years and events that have passed since the travel business, he again sees computerization as a revolutionizing force. “Hell, I can go to college or open and operate a business without ever leaving my house,” he says. “Not that I want to. I like people, I like being in the world. The point is, everything is changing and this virus will change things even more. It will never go entirely back to what we thought the world was like. More will be online. That’s how we’ll study. People will work from home. Things move forward, not backward. It won’t be what we were once accustomed to.”
He remarks, “COVID-19 is momentous, borders are shutting down, the virtual world is in play, we won’t retrieve an existence of easy hugs and handshakes.”
Personally, he will miss the one-to-one contact. Hall likes “lively in-person engagement, including in the classroom setting,” where, he says, “I really leaned in on the personal interaction, the relationships.”
But he’ll get used to it. He’ll morph, just like he’s done in the past. It made him successful in the travel business, it made him successful in the Army, it made him successful at SUNY Empire as a student and with BMI, it made him successful as a classroom instructor, it even made him successful in the grueling work of selling on the street.
He concludes, “I’ve learned the importance of flexibility and now it’s going to be my saving grace.”