Hall Haunting: A Student’s Reflections
There is a curious way in which, despite being surrounded by the same people every day, one fails to see them. My fellow students are so many heads, smiling and waving and passing without a word. This one I recognize: we were in an economics class together. He seemed friendly. He smiles at me for a moment, and then his eyes pass vaguely from my face to the corridor over my shoulder. I remember, I think, that he is studying finance. I am not studying finance. He has other things on his mind than I do: stocks and companies and interviews. In his spare time, he practices giving a firm handshake and maintaining strong eye contact.
I think I know why these fellow students of mine seem so distant. It’s because we are all in our own little worlds, here. For many of us, they are quite busy worlds, career oriented and time-pressured. I pass a group of students talking, all premed. Premed students are identifiable by a special, stressed buoyancy. There’s a smile that’s the hallmark of a successful premed. It reads, more or less, “I-work-damn-hard-and-I’m-smart-but-don’t-worry-I’m-still-a-good-guy”. That’s for the ones who get by. The struggling premed is a different beast. He smiles weakly, a gentle terror about his eyes. There is an appeal for mercy there and a prayer for the end. As a group, the premeds are dispersed among the departments of the hard sciences. Their friends are our physicists, chemists and biologists – fellow devotees of Newton, Mendeleev and Pascal. Around 3:00, they stream out from Glueck, Morg and the Rubin cafeteria. These separate currents of bodies converge, around the Amsterdam crosswalk, to form a new tributary, which diverges from the main bustle and heads off toward Belfer. I watch my group chat; they talk of research and labs and MCATS. From what I can tell, they know little about stocks.
Everyone is busy with something that I know nothing about. That’s good training for life. What’s that saying: “Everyone who you meet carries a burden you know nothing about”? Well. Here, it’s true in the most basic sense. I pass a sociology student who is giving two presentations this week. I can’t remember the last time I gave a presentation. He carries a stack of notes. His mind is on his slides. Looking further down the hall, I see three mathematics students arguing over the latest test in linear algebra. To an outsider, their conversation sounds like gibberish. “Will you be taking mathematical statistics this spring? I hear it’s awful, but you do well.” “No, I’ll take elliptic PDE. No one understands a word, but Chen is dependable.”
While they talk, an eddy forms in the space before the elevators, as students branch off the current that now heads out the main entrance of Glueck and toward Furst Hall. The doors open, and the students stop fidgeting and enter. In elevators, different departments meet for squashed encounters like two-minute culture clashes. “I like your shirt,” one guy grins to another over a sea of pressed heads. “Thanks,” the shirt-wearer replies. His tee has Maxwell’s equations printed on it. The students who divide the two stare dully. There is an exchange going on that has nothing to do with them, a joke that they cannot, and frankly have no desire to, understand. A bell dings, and the doors open again. Students pour out, students pour in.
At some point during freshman orientation, someone said that YU is not one college, but a collection of colleges. A strange thing to say, but accurate, in a way. Not only because of the diversity of majors, but because of the different shades of Jewish culture that exist here, each with drastically different social norms. Social circles intersect, it seems, only at the fringes. But every now and then, one stumbles into the center of a new perimeter, like a traveler chancing upon a sunlit valley. I am invited to a Friday night Shabbos meal; I know no one. I look at the smiling faces around me and realize: these people do this all the time. Drinks and conversation flow; laughter abounds. They talk of dates, and how girls are easier to find in the summer. Their bodies are beautiful and carefully maintained: stylish beards, smooth arms and necks. Their rites of male beauty fascinate me; I listen as they share professional tips. “Have another drink,” the host urges. I am an outsider, but they welcome me with masculine camaraderie. I accept the drink with a smile.
The separateness of our social circles may have something to do with our shared spaces. That is, YU doesn’t have very many. If only there was a green lawn where students could plop down, relax and watch each other. Just to have them all in an uncurated space at the same time would be something really interesting. Our campus common areas are all too small, too inamicably toned, or too segmented to spawn real community. The tables on 185th street: too few. Heights lounge: a collection of individual couch-cubicles. These are rest stops, places to step into when you step out of the stream of inter-class traffic. Students are travelers, here. We smile at each other with genuine fellow-feeling, but it is only to wish each other a good trip.
The library – there’s a place where students can meet and talk. I look around at the clusters of students: groups of friends studying, talking, laughing. There are girls here. That’s exciting. No one I know, though. Somehow, though, the environment is hardly casual. If you watch the faces in the library (the ones here for the people, not the books), you’ll find that they’re searching for something. Look at that girl over there, the blond one, her face carefully made up. See how she looks up every time someone passes by? Perhaps she’s waiting for a stranger to say hello. Did she put on makeup before coming uptown? Hm. The culture between the sexes is weird, here, something that may have to do with our ideology of separation. Girls who come uptown wear makeup. Do they think they’re being appraised? Do the guys sitting in the library think that they’re being appraised? Hm. I do my work. I imagine what it’s like to travel uptown and to wear makeup.
The closest thing we have to a lawn, within reasonable distance, doesn’t belong to us. I’m talking, of course, about Fort Tryon Park. We share the park with other Washington-Heightsians of all stripes and colors: the Jews of Breuers, African-Americans and Dominican-Americans, young professionals and their children, black robed monks. Fort Tryon is the public space we lack, but it doesn’t create a campus community. If anything, it draws our circle wider. It brings us into contact with people who are as different from us as can possibly be. It does this, in fact, for the Dominicans and the black robed monks as well; from all walks of life, people come to Fort Tryon to smell the flowers. This is part of the appeal, I think, that the park has for us YU kids. I think we try to balance our parochialism with a far reaching cosmopolitanism. In the process, however, we avoid genuine community. A warm identification with the world avoids concrete ties to anyone. To be fair, this attitude is characteristic of New York City. We are a city of cloistered people in cramped quarters. Our subways are filled with hijabs and crosses sitting side by side, actors and businessmen who rub shoulders in packed cars.
The city and the park, then, can teach us something about our halls. Theoretically, college unites us by our pursuit of knowledge. That’s some idealistic fluff. But, if not knowledge, we are certainly united here by something. We are people in transition, shuttling from the world of adolescence to the world at large. We are all working for something. We are all working, in fact, for the same thing. What that thing is, I guess, is some mixture of financial security, self-realization and a place in the world. In college, because in transition, we first become aware of our need for salvation. And with childhood behind us, we realize that our redemption is in our own hands. That pursuit unites me with those heads passing in the halls and, indeed, with the people in the park.
I was once walking in Fort Tryon Park on a grey, autumn afternoon. It was a windy day, and as I stood on a precipice overlooking the highway, some fallen leaves detached themselves from the mountain side. They swirled and spiraled upward, whipped by the wind, rising above the cars below like a pillar of frankincense. The people driving to the GW bridge were each coming from somewhere different and heading somewhere different. But from where I stood, the highway traffic moved and flowed like the Hudson River beside it. It was as if those cars had some continuity of identity, were something other than a thousand atomized humans who didn’t even know each-others’ names. They were joined, unbeknownst to themselves, in a common project, for whose sake the wind and the mountain made offering before the open sky. It was a soothing thought. I’ll take it with me the next time that I walk our halls.