13 January 2010


If you had been in New York on one of the Sundays just after 9.11.01, you might've felt a sense of deja vu if you were at the college today.

On Sundays, the city--at least in some parts--can seem oddly bucolic. I often cycle through the Wall Street area and the industrial zones because, most Sundays, there's practically no traffic. The quiet in those areas is somehow even more transformative than the calm of the countryside because it's unexpected, especially if you've never been in those areas on a previous Sunday.

The other day, Matthew, a colleague, compared the atmosphere at the college to what I've described. Only a few courses are offered during the winter intercession, and fewer students take each of those courses. So, even in the middle of the day, the hallways and even the atrium and cafeteria can seem almost deserted.

What's nice about that is that everyone's more relaxed, or at least less intense, than they are during the regular academic term. And there aren't any lines to use the women's bathrooms!

But today the quiet seemed almost sepulchral. People were shell-shocked: at once too numb for grief yet on the verge of tears. And, in fact, when I left the campus today, I saw two people crying as I passed underneath the Long Island Rail Road trestle to Archer Avenue.

The somber mood is a result of yesterday's earthquake in Haiti. Many of the students, and a few faculty and staff members, are Haitian. So are a number of residents of the neighborhood surrounding the college. Many more people in the college and neighborhood come from other Caribbean countries, and I've noticed that, particularly in times of crisis, people from that part of the world bond with each other, even if their cultures and languages are different.

It seemed that some people were reacting to the tragedy as if it had happened on Parsons Boulevard rather than in front of le Palais National. That's because, in a sense, it did happen here: I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say nearly all Haitians in this city have immediate or secondary family back on the island. The first generation of Haitian-Americans is still being born: just about all young Haitian-Americans have parents who were born in Haiti. So there is still a seemingly- unbroken chain between neighborhoods like the one in which the college is located and the ones that were leveled by the quake.

That such a powerful earthquake struck in such a desperately poor country reminds me of something Primo Levi said in Se Questo E Un'Uomo: To the man who has, God gives; from the man who has not, God takes away.

Levi could as well have been sitting next to me during my subway ride home when he wrote that. A woman whose peasant-like earthiness has been weathered by working too long for too little in a sometimes-frantic, sometimes-hostile city far from home sat across the aisle from me. She was reading snatches of Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife. I could see that she was just barely keeping her tears at bay for the first part of the ride. Then they sprouted from the corners of her eyes like streams from a fountain. I surmised that she was dealing with a loss, or the fear that she might've experienced one: After all, I never thought Tan was such a moving writer.

Anyway: When I return to the college tomorrow, I won't be surprised to find a similar atmosphere to what I encountered today.