Life in Washington Heights

By Yudi Meltzer

Welcome to YU.  Yeshiva University is nestled in Washington heights alongside the scenic Hudson River. It’s your first day here and there is a lot to see. There are many young males running from office to office, signing up for classes, and greeting old friends, but we will have time for all that later. I want to help you enjoy your time here. Let’s go on a walk. I always bring a notebook when I go walking. I suggest you do too.

We have only traveled two blocks but it’s as if we went through JFK airport security, and boarded a Dominican charter flight. We hear Spanish floating through the air. There are dark-skinned middle-aged men in tank tops gathered around a checkers board. Their eyes are wide as they shout words of advice and encouragement to the players.  A man with a push cart sells his wares, calling out “Manzanas” and “collar”! His words are strained, attempting to be heard over the sea of voices. His wife sits beside him in a plastic lawn chair. She bounces a little girl up and down on her lap. There are small boys with black hair and wild eyes running up the sidewalk, soccer balls gliding beside their feet. City busses pass by us on the wide streets. Let’s continue walking.

Just a couple blocks away from the Spanish flea market, another scene awaits us. The people here look different. Look over there! A girl wearing ripped jeans and a hip multi-colored sweater topped with a hat. What once seemed like South America has now turned into modern berlin! Young professionals (yuppies), heading to quaint coffee shops with their girlfriends. Publishers and artists meandering in and out of apartments. Musicians dragging their instruments in heavy cases and young startup CEOs shuffling quickly glancing at their watches. We can see people popping in and out of bars, enjoying an afternoon beer. Washington Heights holds these communities side by side.

The contrast between these cultures is sharp, but what makes it worth seeing? My first day at YU, I was nervous and had so many things to do. So naturally I avoided it all and walked behind the school building to sit on a bench in front of our local scenic park. A rugged-looking young adult stumbled in front of me. He turned to me and asked me what time it was. I told him it was 2PM. He took a step back in surprise and told me he had been walking for 19 hours straight. Now it was my turn to be shocked. “Come sit down on this bench with me,” I said, and offered him a banana I had in my bag. He didn’t take the fruit but sat down gratefully. “So, why have you been walking for so long?” I asked him. He explained that he had to run from people who wanted to hurt him. He kept looking over his shoulder nervously as if he was still being watched. He went on to explain that he lived life in constant fear. At any moment, a pistol could be pointed at your face and bang! Good night.

These kinds of stories aren’t foreign to me having grown up in New Haven, CT, a city with many gang wars. I asked him if he enjoys the kind of lifestyle he lives. He responded that he didn’t. “So why don’t you make a change?” I asked innocently. “Go to school, meet new people.” He looked at me blankly, as if I was speaking Mandarin. “If I were to leave Manhattan, I would be hunted down.” Then with a curious look in his eyes he said “I actually promised a girl in high school that I would go to college.”

I learned something important from the conversation on that bench. I realized something about myself. I didn’t think badly of him because of the crimes he must have committed or the people he must have hurt. A couple of years ago, I may have not even been able to speak to someone like that, but today I felt empathetic to him. He must have had vastly different experiences than I’ve had to end up in such a fix. He didn’t even think he had a way to help himself. I wrote down the whole experience in my notebook.   

Through opening our eyes to reality, we can come to an appreciation of the world and ourselves. Keeping a journal is the medium for this art. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion takes us through the experience of being alive and aware of the happenings around us. But you may ask, what do the simple actions and conversations of some middle-aged woman, running down St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights have to do with me? What is there for me to understand? Didion asks herself the same question. Why does she record things in her notebook? Is it for factual records of history? Not likely. Didion explains to us subtly that only in looking back at old writings did she realize the use of her notebook. By looking through some old entries in her notebook, she realized how much she had changed, and how she had come to view the same things differently now. We as humans change over the course of our lives. Our minds develop, and we perceive things differently. By keeping a notebook, Didion could remember her former perceptions and gain insight into the mind of a 17-year-old, 22-year-old or 15-year-old, something that is easy to forget once we grow older.

On the Wilf campus, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the people around you who might become your friends or teachers. However, don’t be satisfied. There are invaluable lessons to be learned from strangers who live their lives just blocks away. Speak to the girl smoking a cigarette on the corner. Don’t ignore her simply because she is different than you. Notice the depth in her eyes that tell you things words only hint at. Speak to your cab driver. Ask him about his family. Speak to the boy trying to get you to come into his father’s store. What’s his story?

My suggestion is to learn from that which you know nothing about. Write your thoughts and perceptions in a notebook, and don’t be scared to experience. Take a walk around the block. Maybe you will make a new friend. Or maybe you will remember someone that you used to be.

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