This past summer, I visited Providence, Rhode Island, for the first time. I was helping my younger brother, who was spending the summer at Brown, bring his stuff from New York City. Even though a lot of my American friends described Rhode Island as “skippable,” I had been itching to escape the subtle claustrophobia prompted by living in New York City. And so, after what turned out to be an enjoyable day on a campus whose beauty rivals Cornell’s, I was upset to discover that the bus I was meant to take back to New York was overbooked. It seemed that the extra passengers, of which I was one, would have to wait hours for our next ride. After our collective frustration moderated, almost all the remaining five passengers attended to their phones, at first to consider possible alternate modes of transport, but thereafter to occupy their waiting time.
However, having lost my phone the night before, I instead struck up a conversation with another one of the passengers, whose British accent I’d overheard. I was immensely curious to know what a Brit was doing in Rhode Island, of all places. Were they students at Brown or RISD? The man explained that he and his friend were backpacking through the United States for half a year, and were curious about Rhode Island because they had heard that Seth MacFarlane had gone to school there. And being fans of Family Guy, they decided to add the state to their itinerary.
I couldn’t help but smirk at such a novel reason to visit Rhode Island. However, the more I reflect on it, the more I appreciate the extent to which these British backpackers so thoroughly embodied a spirit of curiosity. Being a foreigner in the United States right now allows one to sense a tectonic power shift afoot: the unipolar world we now inhabit is changing as this country, because of stratospheric social and economic inequality, further descends into a howling snake pit. However, by connecting their interests to so-called “skippable” places, they demonstrated an openness to exploring the full nooks and crannies of their geographic curiosity.
We continued chatting, and we learned a surprising amount about each other for the little time we spoke. Upon finding out that I was Australian, the Brit even began rattling off sentences in one of the best Australian accents I’ve ever heard from a non-Australian. Refreshingly, neither Trump nor Brexit were mentioned. Unfortunately, our conversation was cut short by the suddenly arrival of a replacement bus. We introduced our names to one another, knowing that we would likely never meet again, and parted ways. As I thought more about our encounter afterwards, I remembered a similar excursion a good friend of mine embarked on, when he spent six months travelling through Southeast Asia and interior China, avoiding prominent cities like Beijing and Shanghai in favor of less-known, equally-interesting names including Chongqing and Dongguan.
It’s saddening to think that of the seven billion people with whom we share this planet, we will have had by the end of our lives the pleasure of knowing a few thousand at best. It sometimes seems like a cosmic tragedy that there are others on this earth who could easily have been, had the ovarian lottery turned out differently, the most important people in my life. On the bus back to New York, I couldn’t help but reflect on how regrettable it is that encounters like mine, where an unanticipated sense of community revives our most humanist intuitions, are becoming increasingly rare. We spend so much of our lives with our headphones on, more alienated and disengaged from greater society than we likely have ever been in our history as a species; requiring unanticipated aberrations like bus cancellations to reanimate the public sphere with more than just bitter functionality.
Increasingly, we are encouraged to seek out “purposeful” conversations as we network our way to employment, seeing each other as means to whatever end, rather than as fellow travelers for whom unconditional attention is potentially available. In his recent Trustee Viewpoint, entitled “No New Friends,” Dustin Liu ’19 acutely identified the alienation wrought by our times in describing how his earnest attempts to befriend strangers resulted in “the two [other] people sharing a look before uncomfortably telling me I could have the table to myself.” Especially at busy Cornell, where attention is seldom directed unconditionally after the first two weeks of freshman year, this alienation is perhaps at its most pronounced.
Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.