I came up from the subway at the Columbia University Station (116th St. on the West Side of Manhattan) last evening to encounter a crowd of happy students — Barnard and Columbia — assembling, coming and going in the passage way between the two station entrances on either side of Broadway.  The station at that stop is open on both sides and cold west winds were blowing through from the Hudson — it was our first drop below freezing this year and most of us were bundled up with winter gear.

Then I saw him.  We have many homeless men that solicit monies in the neighborhood.  Some sleep in the railroad tunnel that runs under Riverside Park — on still nights one can sometimes smell the trash that they burn to take off the chill of the prevailing west winds from the river.  One of these must have fled the bitter cold out there and had dragged a filthy sofa cushion with him into the station upon which he was curled up asleep in front of the Metro Card dispensing machines.  He must not have had enough money ($2.00) to purchase entry to the lower level track areas and the warmer locations there where the homeless sometimes sleep at the far end of the platforms away from the windy entrance.  He was wearing no warming outer garments.

I, as the rest, passed him by — later I wondered whether I might have been able to assist him.  I did not want to wake him from his brief sleep even to offer him some money to get food somewhere that would have at least gotten him briefly out of the bitter cold.  He was slight of build and also filthy in dress.  I imagine that he must be in some way mentally disabled — most of our homeless are.

In NYC we have protocols to pick up such homeless ones at risk of freezing to death to get them overnight into shelters.  As this is the first cold snap of the season, I wonder whether they are operative, whether the subway clerk overlooking the sleeping man may eventually have called for help, whether some religious person might have awakened him to offer shelter in one of our nearby churches?

Whatever — what struck me most was the barrier between two worlds.  None of the laughing students seemed to notice this man or to be struck in any way by the discrepancy between the warm rooms to which they would be returning and his truncated life out there where the winds were blowing as they are now at about 40 mph and the temperature (as I write this is at 8:30 a.m.) is 18 degrees and expected to rise only to a high of 34 today.

Morningside Heights for those who have not visited here by tour bus or other has been gentrified.  The cost of purchasing a co-op apartment here is now upwards into the millions.  Our college students are generally from comfortable family backgrounds and an attractive lot — the post ‘me’ generation just now finding itself in a world of wars being fought in far places by its nation and its politicians complaining over high taxes and “tax and spend” issues.  I gather that relatively few students vote in our elections and many don’t even know the identities of their ‘elected’ representatives.  We are currently watching a changing of the guard from Republican to Democratic here in NY as well as in the nation.  Where will it lead, I wonder?  And will these happy students ever notice the left outs — one of whom they they witnessed last night curled up and shivering on that filthy sofa cushion?

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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