Law in Contemporary Society

My Walk Home

-- By NonaFarahnik - 13 Apr 2010 Unfortunately, every part of this reflection is true.

I live on 110th and Amsterdam. When I walk to school in the morning, I am usually late, eating breakfast, and focused on getting to the law school in less than eight minutes. The only person I notice at that time is the crossing guard, because she is yelling at me for ignoring her signals and the crosswalk. In the evenings, though, the six blocks of Amsterdam between my home and the law school provide for a time of conflicted meditation. I usually have headphones on, and my music provides a cinematic sheen to the daily event.

Over the course of the year, my walk home has developed two spots of purposeful acknowledgment that serve to humble me after playing Solicitor General For A Day. The first are The Grates between 114th and 116th streets. The second is the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. In my head, they combine to confuse me about our world and my place in it.

Peppered in between The Grates and The Church are useful lessons in their own right. The St. Luke’s stop where sick people and their family members slowly walk on and off the bus in front of an HIV awareness ad that features an extremely excited and happy woman. The pharmacy across the street that doesn't try to hide the fact it sells drugs. The loyal husband who, having recently returned with the spring, sits outside of the Amsterdam House and earnestly speaks to his wheelchair-bound, stroke-rendered dumb wife with a tenderness that always makes me want to cry and sometimes succeeds. The North-African fruit stand man who came back around the same time and gives me free oranges with promises of the freshest avocados and blueberries in a one block vicinity: “if I am not on 12th, you can find me on 11th,” he always says. The three food carts on three subsequent blocks with cheap coffee, but food that seems uniquely tailored to clog arteries. The People's Garden on 111th Street that is often empty and wilted but pleases me simply by virtue of its being a community garden. And the pseudo-hipster Hungarian Pastry Shop that almost-but-doesn't-quite match my vision of the romantic intellectual cafe that I was a little too late for.

St. John’s Cathedral is a testament to human prowess (and waste). In my first week in New York I see a father with a yarmulke on his head admonish his adolescent son to stop: "Do you realize how lucky we are to walk by this Cathedral every day? Look up there high and in the middle. Have you ever noticed the outside of this famous rose window?" The Jewish admonishment about the Christian church transfers to me and now I always stop and notice the Cathedral. On a purely architectural level, the Cathedral is pretty damn grand and arouses the Roarkian in me. When I feel really contemplative, I walk in and under its soaring arches, down the impressive length of its stained-glass window and candle-lit aisle, passed the kneeling tourists, and up to the cross at the altar where I marvel at the phenomenon of human faith. When the organ is being played, I get swept up in the solemnity of the whole thing and can understand, for a brief moment, why it would be nice to feel that Jesus died for my sins.

The Grates, on the other hand, are a tribute to human inanity. They sit up against the thick marble walls of Columbia’s John Jay and Alexander Hamilton buildings and are home to between one and three homeless men (or their sack of belongings if they aren't around… at least some cop lets them have a twig in the bundle). The men like to sleep next to The Grates for the same reason I slow my quick gait when I walk by them in cold winter evenings. They give off heat.

When I walk by the homeless men I admonish myself, but not for being an uncultured passer-by. Sometimes, I remind myself that I am in school to learn how to do something about it (I am in the homeless clinic for God's sake). But typically, I walk by and burn with the shame of a comfortable person who sees a man seeking sustenance off of the energy waste of a college dorm. I feel shameful for knowing that we have captured the power to create towering edifices to our existence, while a man sleeps on a cardboard mattress next to my Ivy League and God's fourth largest vacation house on planet Earth. I walk home by myself, so I when I feel the shame and the absurdity and the irony, I feel it silently and alone.

After the NYU-CLS basketball game on Thursday night I joined a few students neat the Alma Mater statue as they walked to the after-party, a little further down Amsterdam than my apartment. Journal applications were due the next day and we discussed our editorial preferences. When we got to The Grates, I slowed down and interrupted a student to say that I feel shameful every time I pass the men who sleep there. There was a tiny beat in the conversation before the student continued, “Anyway, back to the Journal of Gender and Law.” Yea, I thought… Back to the Journal of Gender and Law. Maybe it's just my music.


Given that Nona's paper is about her walk to school, it is impossible for me to express, far less modify, her own attachments to the journey. Thus, I decided to go on a walk myself -- treading her path once and then once more. I must admit that I had no music (it was sunny outside and some birds could be heard over the sound of traffic) and the want of David Byrne might have reduced the value of my walk. But I doubt it. In any case, I went on Nona's walk.

I saw the middle-aged cross guard lady who yells at Nona every morning. My identification was confirmed when I saw her in action, yelling at another rule-breaking pedestrian! And just as I was thinking about how frustrating a job as hers must be, she surprised me by smiling cheerfully at the pedestrians crossing west. As if that were not sufficient to mark her disposition, she then (playfully) yelled at one of the drivers who had stopped a little too far beyond the cross-line. According to her, following traffic rules has always been difficult for "people from New Jersey [which was where the car was from]!" I wanted to observe this woman for a little longer, maybe ask her about her work. But she gave me that look which reminded me that I better be moving ahead.

Sadly, the vendors in carts had no affinity for me (I am a faithful purchaser from a cart that stands on Broadway and 111th). But, walking Nona's walk, I smiled at each of them. New York City is not a place for smiles. In fact, each time I see a person walking on the street like it were doomsday, I smile at them. Very few smile back, most are surprised, some even afraid. But you can never go wrong when you smile to a child. Anyways, that small rate of success keeps me going.

Just below the church steps, a man wheeled his immobile wife, and happily so. Whether or not this is the same couple that Nona speaks of, it gave the cathedral a new look of grandeur. It seemed more humble, more like an abode that is inhabited by real people, rather than a majestic display of a religion's glory (or wealth). Having attended chapel six days a week for more than ten years, I cannot help but reminisce about my childhood -- the walk up to the altar steps, the bow, the placement of the body behind the podium, the opening of the sacred book, the first line: "Today's reading is taken from . . .", the closing phrase: "Thanks be to GOD." But when I stood gaping at the high ceilings inside the cathedral, those memories were so unfamiliar to me that is seemed as if they had never really transpired. The peace, the quiet, the beauty of this worship was lost to me, sans return, sans fondness. But pardon me, this is not my path that I walk.

The Grates, too, came to pass. And like Nona, I felt the compassion that arose within me. I knew that the loneliness of those seated there is not much different from my own. I have a convenient cover whereas they lay bare and exposed before the world. As for their suffering, it was urgent and more real than mine. But giving them sympathy would be like showing fire to a leper from afar. It is useless. And thus, I smiled and kept walking.

As I approached the law school at 116 and Amsterdam, the drizzle had turned to rain. But I could not bring myself to enter the hallowed gates of our law school. The smell of warm rain hitting the soft earth filled my nostrils. It was that sweet, familiar smell that stayed with me over the past fifteen years while everything else around me was fading away. And it so happened that just as this assignment came to a close, my walk began. I followed the scent of raindrops to Riverside Drive, walked by another cathedral and then by a magnanimous tomb. But in those open spaces, I felt more alive than I ever have within the renowned legal and medical pathways of Amsterdam Avenue. And thus, my walk continued for miles. Only this time, the course was of my own choosing.

Those homeless men that sleep on top of the heating ventilators surely provoke strong emotions in me too, including shame. And I always wondered why was it that I feel these things, but I cannot transform the emotions into actions?

It was one of those days with cold morning with brutal wind chills. It was warm just the day before, so I went outside with just a thin shirt and no jacket. And as the wind chill seared my skin, I passed by this man that sleeps on top of the ventilators, and I thought to myself, it must be so damn cold for him. Nevertheless, I continued to go my way. Behind me was this homeless man with a cart full of recycle materials, digging through garbage. He too, gazed at the men, but proceeded to take out few cardboard boxes and wrapped the guy with them, saying "hey man, it might help."

The rest of my walk, I kept thinking about what happened. How is it that he could so easily offer his fruit of labor to another person, when I just continued my walk indifferently? Was it that he was just genuinely a nicer, caring guy than me? Was it that he could empathize better with the other man's plight, and thus felt stronger urge to help him out? Or was it that he shared a strong friendship with the sleeping man that I didn't have?

I am still struggling with these questions. If you have any insights, I would be really interested. -KayKim

I am not sure if those questions are directed at me as my editor or at the class as a question. Maybe that's why we feel shameful. We aren't doing shit.

I think your comment on the homeless is a rather romanticised view of the reality -- easy for us to harbour since we are far removed from the plight. The fact is that there is homelessness, that hundreds die from cold every winter, and that people eat scraps of food from the trash. But sympathy will not solve the problem -- in fact, it only puts us on a pedestal of illusional superiority. You either do something to help, or you don't. The person who offered those boxes was not consumed by philosophical grief when he offered some of his "hard-earned" boxes. He did what he had to do. That's it.

-- MohitGourisaria - 22 Apr 2010

I respectfully disagree Mohit. I don't want to write too much because I feel like I am invading Nona's place. Like what Eben said, our feeling isn't an on-off switch. When we look at these homeless people, poor immigrants, Afghan kids dying from the war, etc, we feel a range of things and we do a range of things. Sometimes, we feel sad about what is happening, but we don't do anything. Sometimes, we don't feel anything. Sometimes, we feel sad and choose to help that person that is right infront of us. Sometimes, we get worked up enough to start a collective movement. Of course, there are a lot of circumstances that affect these behaviors. But what I am interested is what factors, what circumstances, and what kind of environment shape our feelings and conviction, and transform our feelings into action.

I agree with your statements about the emotions that are conjured within us. But most of it is just that -- an emotion. A collective movement is divisible into many, many individual actions; it does not emanate from a magic wand, or from sympathy for that matter. And while the emotions you speak of are natural, their context is rather uninspiring if they do not provoke action. And once the action occurs, the sympathy is merely a pretty prelude.

-- MohitGourisaria - 24 Apr 2010

this is great. Mohit, that's really cool that you went for your walk.


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r17 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:42 - IanSullivan
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