October 13, 2015

ELIOT | The Pursuit of True Nobility

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“And my whole crew is lounging

Celebrating every day, no more public housing

Thinking back to my one-room shack

Now my moms pimps a Ac with minks on her back”

– The Notorious B.I.G.

Christopher George Latore Wallace, who most of us know by the moniker The Notorious B.I.G., grew up in a single bedroom, subsidized housing project in the Brooklyn neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Today the tree-lined streets of Bed-Stuy are wearing the after effects of gentrification, with renovated brownstones purchased largely by outsiders attracted by the affordability of houses in the area and a crime rate that has declined substantially since the days of of the late 20th century.

In the 1980s, Bed-Stuy was struck with the same crack cocaine epidemic that plagued so many major American cities. Born in 1972, Biggie was 12 years old when he was swept into the trade and began to pedal the drug. Future undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world Mike Tyson grew up in the same streets and frequently fought with classmates and contemporaries who made fun of his lisp growing up. Jay-Z too is a product of Bedford-Stuyvesant and found himself caught up in the game before rocketing to stardom and becoming a hip-hop icon and business mogul. Gentrification may be helping to wash away the scars left by the drug epidemic, but it is also creating a problem of housing insecurity for many of the neighborhood’s poorer residents who helped create such a rich history for the neighborhood.

Many of the displaced residents have become part of New York City’s enormous homeless population. In 2013, an average of 60,000 people slept in the New York City shelter system each night, a figure that does not include the additional people who spent the night curled up in a subway station or on a bench somewhere in the city. I remember being struck by this upon returning to Cornell — a place where housing is essentially guaranteed for everybody — from my first visit to New York City in the fall of 2011. I had obviously seen homeless people before, but I remember thinking about how small the overlapping sliver of the ‘Homeless population-Cornell student’ Venn Diagram was. This percolating thought combined with another case of the Sunday scaries late in Donlon Hall one night that semester, causing a friend and I to ask, “Would be possible to be a Cornell student without paying for housing?”

The easy and obvious answer to this question is no. Without housing, how would a student find a place to get enough sleep and store the sufficient number of layers to survive the meteorological roller coaster that is life in Ithaca? According to the “Cost to Attend” page on Cornell’s website, housing for a year at Cornell costs about $8,100 dollars. Even if this figure seems a bit low (it definitely does), that amount of money is insignificant only for the smallest tax brackets. We felt like this question needed to be tested before we could confirm it is indeed impossible. Late the next Sunday we set out from Mary Donlon Hall, our book bags packed to the brim with all of our items for class, changes of underwear, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

The experiment was meant to last for just one academic week. We would be able to return to our rooms after class ended on Friday. Until then, however, we would not allow ourselves to go back to North Campus, surviving exclusively on on-campus amenities. When I tell this story to potential employers during job interviews or as the focal point of my Personal ads in various newspapers around the country, the question I am most frequently asked is “Did you make it?” Well, a week is a long time to stay away from the comforts of the fourth floor of Donlon, but when you are living almost 2,000 miles from home for the first time, you kind of feel homeless anyway. So does it really matter if we made it? Of course we did — if there is one thing I have in spades, it is commitment … ladies.

Sleeping and showering at Cornell without housing is easier than one might expect. It might not be the greatest night of sleep you have in your entire life, but there are plenty of dimly lit buildings open 24 hours a day around campus. Sleeping on campus is nothing out of the ordinary. If you are in a public place on campus reading this, odds are someone somewhere within 100 feet of you is sleeping right now. We slept in the cocktail lounge in Uris, the couches on the top floor of Duffield, in class and wherever else our eyelids started drooping. If anything, the challenge of finding somewhere to sleep was that so many of the spots would already be taken by someone snoozing between problem sets or thesis statements. We saw two real options for showering. Shower in Teagle Hall, or don’t shower at all. We opted for the former, even though so many Cornell students decide upon the latter. Either option though would still fly under the radar of most of our classmates. People are expected to shower in the gym, and plenty of people here are convinced showering is an unnecessary social convention. Other than our friends, nobody knew we were “homeless.” We survived because our friends who knew about the experiment were willing to help us with clean t-shirts and new socks from our drawers up north.

Not everyone is so upfront with what they are dealing with all the time and as a result may not get the support they need and deserve. The epigraph I wanted to use this week is a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man. True nobility is being superior to your former self.” I couldn’t use it because Ernest Hemingway is not a rapper, but that doesn’t necessarily make its message less valuable. The lyrics of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” echo Hemingway’s words. Biggie worked hard to elevate himself to superstar level from destitution. He brought himself and his friends to the point where his “whole crew is lounging.” Look around at Cornell and there are thousands of people all coping with issues big and small of their own. There is nothing to be proud of by not having those same problems — instead, one should be proud of the way he or she helps others overcome their problems and become better himself or herself. Biggie liked the life he lived because he and everyone around him “went from negative to positive. And it’s all good.” So for those who didn’t know, now you know.

Christo Eliot is a graduate student in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]. Christo’s Largely Unmoderated Creative Space appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.