Much of this past summer saw me negotiating the tragic, armored boundaries separating the West Bank from Israel. At the time, I was staying alone in a small, barren apartment in Jerusalem, where I retreated most nights to agonizingly press my experiences into non-trivial language, attempting to process them. It worked sometimes, thousands of words cathartically spilling out. But, it also often didn’t. Often, I was left shrinking into myself as blank pages jeered at me from across the room. Insomnia set in, and with it, minor derangement—irritability, muffled paranoia, emotional confusion, and erraticism. The only way to temporarily dull or subdue these symptoms was to transport myself entirely—physically and mentally—to alternate realities, reprieves from my own.
For hours, usually in fits of sleep deprivation, I would aggressively pace the 12-foot span of my room, eyes tightly closed, banging against the walls as I walked, and loudly, in crescendoed cacophony, recited poetry. I had rules, though, for which poems I chose. They couldn’t concern war (although I made a slight exception for Wilfred Owen and his “Anthem for Doomed Youth”), and they had to be visceral (easing the imagination’s task). There was, indeed, one poem that I kept returning to: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
Now, perhaps, you see my destination.
Ginsberg’s reality was New York. More specifically, it was Columbia. So, there I was, in Jerusalem, in my apartment, going somewhat mad—“who were expelled from the academy for crazy and publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skulls”—escaping onto Columbia’s manicured lawns, presided over by Alma Mater.
Now, I really am in New York—as a student at New York University, in fact. But, my semi-regular travels to Columbia are no longer powered by poetic teleportation. I take the very physical subway, and I do it not to escape the world I’m currently in, but to explore a new one. The allure of retracing the sacred steps of Ginsberg and the Beats may also have something to do with it.
Once 96th Street hits, I know I’ve started to cross over. Copies of the New York Times, crosswords in-progress, begin to populate the subway car along with obscure fiction and what I imagine to be Core classics—Virgil, Dante, Montaigne, some Sappho on a good day. Shirts sprout collars and tuck themselves into all-of-a-sudden formal, belted pants, and top buttons button themselves. Everything seems to surrender to that Jordy blue hue.
No entry documents are required, though, when breaching campus borders. I simply pick up my backpack, exit the train, and emerge from the underground onto Broadway an invisible foreigner, an unidentifiable misanthrope. This leaves me free to wander, to eavesdrop on conversations about no sleep and piling due dates and Syria, or to weave through groups of students deceiving themselves into believing that silently working next to one another counts as socialization.
The real test is remaining inconspicuous, hidden. Don’t ask for directions. Don’t clarify local jargon like CULPA or CAVA. Don’t mention “downtown.” Otherwise, the advantage slips away, and people no longer act as if they are among a fellow insider; the integrity of my interactions, and thus my observations and recordings, are compromised.
But I wouldn’t want to give the false impression that your uptown territory and microsociety are simply objects of study. Usually, when I do make my trips, they have some non-anthropological purpose. I sometimes come up to see friends or to watch those motorcycle tricksters who occasionally tear through Le Petit Sénégal.
More often, however, I come to attend lectures or readings by scholars and professionals I respect, like Jameel Jaffer or Robert Legvold. When this happens, I can’t help but notice the formality of the entire affair—the well-tailored suits, hyper-annunciation, meticulous note-taking, suspiciously thorough speaker introductions. This regal process usually comes under some comical duress when an unsuspecting, self-proclaimed dissident, convinced of his own profundity, filibusters during the Q&A. Just a few days ago, at an event concerning the role of religion in this election cycle, a man, at the end of a lengthy monologue, implored quite a distinguished panel to ponder the following thought: “We, as a human species, want to know the innermost sexual thoughts of our leaders.”
I enjoy my quiet, understated investigations of the Columbian world. I’m an outsider, observing as an outsider, but invisibly from the inside (at least to whatever extent possible). But I must say, these investigations are also worth it for their own sake. I get to walk the hallowed grounds of those “angelheaded hipsters,” learn a little bit, and laugh a little bit as well. Not too bad.
The author is first-year student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a prospective concentration in peace and conflict. He is from Shanghai when it suits him and Detroit when it doesn’t.
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