From WTP Vol. V #5
By J.D. Scrimgeour
A few years ago I took my two sons to look at Columbia University, where I’d been a student some thirty years ago. We went into the mathematics building, where my years at Columbia had begun. I had thought that I’d major in math until the thirteen-year-old in my calculus course held indecipherable dialogues with our famous German professor. “That’s a very interesting question, Jeremy,” the professor would say, and they would converse while I dreamed of basketball.
I went into Hamilton Hall, the building I had sat in front of during the divestment protests of 1985, when the doors were locked with chains. I even walked down to Riverside Park, where I used to play basketball and softball with other New Yorkers. I went up and down Columbia’s great stone steps, past students sitting in the sun. How odd to see so many people wearing light blue.
Everywhere I went, the memories came: doodling in my notebook during that calculus class, then walking back to my dorm by myself; sitting off to the side in the shadowy dark at the protests, soaking in the atmosphere, listening to the drums, the drums. And those games at Riverside Park. How it pleased me when someone said “Good hit” or “Nice game.”
I watched my sons appraise the glitter and force of the city, the majesty of those steps, and even if they didn’t come to Columbia, the city lured them, as it did me, and I stopped myself from saying no—don’t do it. I stopped because who was I at eighteen? Maybe I was meant to be alone. Maybe it wasn’t Columbia, or New York, that made me live this solitary life.
I stopped myself, too, because the words for my melancholy wouldn’t have come if I had tried to call them forth. How can one say, I always felt alone? And how can young men with so much music in their heads that it spills from their mouths and fingers understand how deep silence can be?
It’s almost tragic how the rhythm of a thought can obscure facts. In those long-ago days I drank with friends in The West End, Ginsberg and Kerouac’s bar, gone today. My baseball teammates showed me how to chew tobacco, and I had a girlfriend whom I loved with all the beautiful confusion of first love. Loneliness may be a passing mood more than the truth of my past.
Those years in the city were bleak. Reagan’s America filled the streets with homeless beggars. I’d give them my change when I left the deli with my sub sandwich and soda, trying not to touch their grimy leathered hands. The building where I lived my senior year often had someone sleeping in the tiny vestibule between the locked and unlocked doors. In Greenwich Village someone tried to sell me pot, and when I said no he followed me for a block, saying “you hear about people getting killed in this city, this is why.”
Those were the years Reagan joked “We start bombing in five minutes,” where posters in the subways and bus stops showed doomsday clocks signaling that we were less than three ticks from nuclear Armageddon, where I’d hear a jet zooming over the city and, for a moment, wonder.
One afternoon during those years when I was at my work-study job in the school cafeteria we heard that Marvin Gaye had died. The Haitians and African Americans who were always bitching at each other cooked their food silently as the radio atop the freezer played “What’s Going On” and “Sexual Healing.”
On that trip to New York my sons and I stayed at a beat-up Days Inn on 94th Street. It was the cheapest place we could find in the city, and it was still over two hundred bucks. Some peeling wallpaper, a few tiles missing in the bathroom, and before we slept we pulled back the bedspreads and checked the sheets for bedbugs—as if we knew what to look for.
How many people that we passed on the streets would have loved to spend a night in that room? How many would have pushed and bullied their way to the front of a line, if there was a line? We had taken a taxi from Port Authority to 94th Street. It cost fourteen dollars, including tip. Do other people think about these things? They must. How much money they have, how much others have, what they can afford.
I’ve never forgotten that when our new president, Donald Trump, declared bankruptcy in the 1990s, he received over six hundred thousand dollars a month from the federal government so he could maintain his lifestyle. How can someone declare bankruptcy and get six hundred thousand dollars a month? I declare bankruptcy!
How much money can one person earn in one day? Mitt Romney, who didn’t work for six years while he ran for President, was been making nearly fifty-seven thousand dollars a day during all that time. He didn’t have a job, and he was making fifty-seven thousand dollars a day! If there were fifty-seven thousand one-dollar bills scattered on the ground, do you think you could pick them up in one day?
Let’s say you averaged one bill per second. If you worked straight, with no bathroom breaks, no eating or drinking, if you just kept bending over and collecting money, it would take you over sixteen hours to pick up fifty-seven thousand dollars. And then, the next day, you’d have to do it again.
Is this an old story? If it is, then what is a new story? What’s a more important story than one about making fifty-seven thousand a day doing nothing, and our two-hundred-dollar hotel room and the hundreds of thousands of people—no, let’s be honest, and global—the millions of people who will never enjoy luxury like that shabby, but bedbug-free, hotel room on 94th Street.
Whenever I take a bus, like we did to get to New York, I think of the times I’d take a bus back to Connecticut when I was in college. Sometimes the bus would be crowded and I’d end up next to a stranger. One guy, a middle-aged white businessman, talked with me a few weeks before the election in 1984. He asked whom I was voting for, and I said Mondale. He asked why, and I said I feared nuclear war. He was voting for Reagan, but something I said must have touched him, and he gave me his card, said to contact him if I wanted a job.
Another time I sat with a Latina nurse in her late twenties. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about—her long work days? my girlfriend?—but there was a good feeling between us, and when she got sleepy, she put her head on my shoulder and I sat there, her forehead so near my cheek, her black hair pulled tight in a bun.
That moment I felt far from the lives I knew, far from the lecture halls of Columbia with their dark wooden desks and dingy windows, far from my own home with the comforts and limits of family, playing basketball in the driveway with my brother. The world was greater and more mysterious than I had imagined, a place where a kind stranger puts her head on your shoulder.
It was never a choice for me, but if it was, I’ve chosen that anonymous head beside my anonymous one, some passing contact, our bodies close enough together to share warmth. That businessman’s card? Who knows? I didn’t save it.
J.D. Scrimgeour’s book Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In & Out of Class won the AWP Award for Nonfiction, and his work has appeared in Solstice, The Boston Globe Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and Off the Coast.