It was the third day of orientation, around midnight. I was sitting on the bench in the median strip of Barnard and Columbia with a plate of garlic knots from Koronet’s on my lap. I was on the phone with my best friend from home, breathlessly describing the events that had transpired since my arrival and attempting to laugh my way through the panic and exhaustion not uncommon for someone who’d just moved 1200 miles away. All of a sudden, a man approached, waving to get my attention. I told my friend I would call her back. He had a Jamaican accent, a limp, and could hardly speak. His voice cracking, he told me that his wife had given birth prematurely, and he had been searching the whole day to find someone to help with the cost of special formula for the child. He explained that they had just moved from Jamaica the week prior; he had a job in construction here and would start the following Monday, but his employer refused to give him an advance. He had no funds for an unexpected, costly purchase. He had left from his apartment on 198th street at 10am and made it to 116th street in twelve hours, the full duration of which he had spent on the streets begging for help. I was the first person who had even responded to him.
He said he knew where to go. It was a twenty-minute walk. “Is that okay?” he asked. He apologized for his hoarse voice, explaining that he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since he departed that morning. He talked about how he and his wife had been so excited to come to America and be exposed to so much opportunity. “The Americans I have met so far…they are so cruel, so cold. They won’t even look at me.” At that moment, a piece of me seemed to break. We arrived at the store — it had closed. He fell to his knees, sobbing. Watching him bawl, another piece inside me broke. As I attempted to console him, I asked where the nearest ATM was. We walked to St. Luke’s. “How much is the formula?” “49 dollars and 95 cents.” I walked inside the lobby to the ATM and took out $80. “No, that’s too much,” he protested. I shook my head, demanding that he use it for food, drink, and the subway. As we walked out, the security guard — who had been glaring at us since we walked in — yelled, “Save some for others.” I looked behind. “Fuck you,” I spat.
Once we returned outside, I admitted that I wasn’t sure which way was back to campus. He pointed me in the right direction. “Please,” he said. His palm was outstretched, his wedding ring in the center. “Please, that’s the least I can do.” I stared at the ring, not believing my eyes. I refused it, of course, but was quite literally speechless. He hugged me tightly and said that I was a blessing sent from God and that he would pray for me every day for the rest of his life. Just an hour prior, I had been sobbing on the phone to my best friend about typical NSOP woes: I wasn’t smart enough to be here, I made a terrible mistake, the world was ending, etc. while this man — whose transition was just as fresh as mine — was struggling to keep his family alive. I never learned his name, nor did he learn mine, and I never saw him again; but that interaction remains ingrained in my memory, as it gave me an immediate and enormous sense of gratitude and perspective for this new stage of my life, no matter how terrified I was of it at the time.
I tell this story because, as both students in and residents of one of the largest urban areas in the world, it is natural to be immediately dismissive of any stranger who approaches us — especially if they don’t appear particularly put-together. We walk past the same men near Morton-Williams who shout various remarks at passers-by; we keep our eyes to the ground as people weave through train cars, pleading for help; and we hear the clink as subway dwellers rhythmically swish their cup of change, holding a message scribbled in black ink on a piece of cardboard. And while my decade living in small-town Alabama instilled in me incredible bitterness and cynicism for innumerable reasons, it did immerse me in a culture notorious for its hospitality toward strangers. It ingrained in me an automatic sense of compassion — and, more importantly, compassion in action — toward anyone in need. Of course, this is felt and acted on within reason. Solicitude, however, doesn’t have to come in monetary form. Some people just want to have a conversation. Some just want eye contact — an acknowledgement that they exist. The moral crux of progressivism is empathy, and for a university notorious for its liberal climate, that principle seems to be neither inherently felt nor externally conveyed. During our daily walks on Broadway to a campus that verbally screams the importance of humanity, we are forced to physically confront those we arrogantly claim to raise our fists so mightily for, and we ignore them. We must come face-to-face with those who are not struggling due to their gender or sexuality or race — the social issues we are familiar with — but instead those who are constantly fighting simply to live another day. The bitter taste of our privilege makes us uncomfortable and so we bury it. We continue on our walk, pass through the beautiful iron gates, and are soon home in the safe, secure bubble of our dually tangible and abstract wealth. We keep our eyes forward because it is too painful to look back. So students, I implore you: do not avert your eyes…because only through that, can you truly see ahead.