Every so often, a particular woman enters the basement of Lerner Hall and is trapped in a ballet of shattered dreams and living nightmares---and I don’t find it funny.
In the bookstore last week, she started dancing to Whitney Houston. From the layers of tattered clothing, I surmised she was homeless. The thrashing and babbling expected of a severely schizophrenic person encumbered her otherwise graceful performance. Admittedly, I was intrigued by the spastic foray of freestyle motion. While she was in mid-pirouette, my attention was diverted by the collective elation of bookstore staff and students alike. This micro-current of mass euphoria seemed to transform those around me into a bourgeois brigade of sociopaths. The dancer was oblivious to the crowd’s blatant derision.
The female staff member working the reference desk was the only (alleged) human in this crowd that wasn’t on the cusp of pointing and laughing. After a brief eye-lock of mutual-disapproval, the worker explained that this MoHi Martha Graham was a bookstore regular. Along with killer moves, the dancer was known to show up with her son at her side---that is, until a state agency took him away.
Taunts started flying, then giggling turned to near hysterics. I actively ignored an urge to interject and left the bookstore swiftly and silently. It was difficult to put my finger on what was specifically horrifying about the whole encounter. Trust me, I’m no stranger to the “non compos mentis," the homeless, the deliriously homeless, or their sometimes-mocking spectators. The fact that these seemingly insightful people not only experience jubilation, but felt a need to outwardly express it, is probably what’s most disturbing. But to be fair, I have around a decade on most CC students. The penalty paid for the high crime of getting old is a heightened sense that my past transgressions are not written in erasable marker, but written in red Sharpie that forever stains my soul.
To the same point: I was meaner, more judgmental, and less forgiving in my late teens.
18 is a difficult age in many, if not most, settings. A demanding new city, a hyper-competitive social hierarchy and the austere discipline required to compete in this academic terrain of too-much-talent makes Columbia the sort of scary thing I wouldn’t put on my worst enemy. Suffice to say, no matter what your struggles are, keep in mind that we are already gentrifying the hell out of their neighborhood---let’s try to not mock the locals on their way out, regardless of their housing status.
The return of sub-temperatures brings to mind our dancer and where she might be. Maybe, Mayor de Blasio’s “code blue” has her somewhere warm where she can dance. “Code Blue” isn’t permanent, it’s great for polar-vortex time, but it is another Band-Aid slapped on the severed limb of homelessness. How would I know? Four short years ago, I left my long-time home: a homeless shelter.