September 11, 2013

GUEST ROOM: An Unsympathetic New York State of Mind

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I am from a place that some have said, jokingly, is on the wrong side of the river. I was raised in New Jersey, so its no wonder I am naïve enough to still allow New York City to pull at my heartstrings (despite the fact that I have interned there for two summers). Many of my Cornell colleagues, who are proudly self-identifying native New Yorkers (as well as summer interns eager to prove how well they have assimilated) have mocked me for my expressions of sympathy toward the homeless, while wearing their impenetrable apathy like a badge of honor. Every pained look I give a beggar is followed by rolling eyes or a patronizing speech about  how I simply do not understand New York City. I began to understand that being void of emotion toward those asking for money goes beyond economic necessity, but has become a source of superiority, exclusivity and humor for many.

I have heard many of my Cornell acquaintances joking about devising elaborate plans to ward off beggars on the subway, such as bringing around a book as a prop or slowly pretending to pass out as they are approached. They employ these tactics while those asking for spare change slowly shuffle by with outstretched baseball caps and plastic bags.  Despite their insistence that I adopt their attitude and join in the fun, I take pride in the fact that after two years of interning in the greatest city in the world, I have yet to cave and conform to bragging about how good at not caring I am.

When did apathy become elitism? Many of my more sympathetic friends, similar to myself, have been lectured in some rather demeaning tones by NYC natives, as if they were giving us valuable insider information about the lifestyle and culture of NYC. Although I can acknowledge that becoming somewhat desensitized to the stories of misfortune and the cardboard signs littered across Fifth Avenue was a personal necessity for me, I have never been proud of it.

I’m writing about this because of a particular woman I saw slowly declining as I commuted to and from work this summer. What I saw as her  transition into homelessness still weighs heavily on my heart. Once hesitant to even ask for money, she grew dirtier and more comfortable with begging each day I saw her. The first day I saw her she was neatly dressed in a clean striped T-shirt and khakis, shuffling her feet and selectively approaching the stream of commuters on their way downtown.  However, as the week passed I saw her gradually begin sitting on the floor of the tunnel, her hair matted and her clothes covered in stains and dirt. Eventually, she stopped showing up.

As students, we are accustomed to learning, and when we enter the workforce for the first time, our instinct is  to do the same. Not only do we learn to do our jobs at our various summer or permanent positions, we learn from what we see and hear from our friends and peers  in order to fit in. We learn by mirroring the speech, actions and attitudes around us, and therefore abide by the rules of the society we have entered. However, once in a while we do need to remind ourselves that the attitudes we adopt should be subject to our personal judgment and moral values.

I do not donate to someone every time he or she asks me to. I have neither the financial means nor the heart and soul of Mother Theresa to do so. I carry around my fair share of cynicism, especially when hearing about the fourth person whose house burned down in the past week on the A train late at night. Everyone seems to have no money and three children to feed after a long day when one’s patience is wearing thin. However, I do find it disturbing that to many, this attitude toward the homeless has become not simply a norm, but a pride-filled rite of passage to show that one has truly developed a New York state of mind.

Cecilia An is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.