When I was in Los Angeles last week I heard that some 12% of the students in the University of California system are homeless. I couldn’t believe my ears. College students are homeless? Graduate students, too?
And then the Washington Post today reported that over one-third of all students in our country don’t have three stable meals a day because they can’t afford them, and a similar number don’t have regular housing. A few go to shelters; others sleep on a friend’s sofa, or in their car if they have one.
I discovered that Amherst College, a fancy college right in my own backyard, lets students who can’t afford to go home stay in dorms during summers. That’s nice, I thought, and then remembered a few times when I was invited out to lunch at the Amherst College cafeteria, where the food is organic, the roast coffee Italian, where milk comes not just from cows but from soy, coconut, and nuts of all kinds, and where lots of main courses were dairy-free, vegan, or vegetarian. I thought the price of lunch was very reasonable considering the quality, and now I realize how many of the students can’t afford to eat there.
All this came out on the day when a 20 year-old young man was released from prison after serving a two-year sentence. Some 4 years ago he drank too much, hit a group of people on the road leaving four dead and one in his own car completely paralyzed. His successful defense was called Affluenza, being raised with such entitlement and affluence he had no idea of right and wrong. He didn’t serve a day in prison for those deaths but rather for probation violations.
Tell me, are we nuts?
I live in my own kind of oblivion, in a house on a road 1.5 miles long with only a dozen houses on it. The only street people I see are those jogging, walking dogs, or else Tan, the Thai Buddhist monk in his saffron robes. I look out in search of deer, not folks without homes.
I like to walk the streets of Greenfield if because I know that close to the Co-op people will sit and ask for money. I’ll ask them their names, how they’re keeping warm at nights, where they’re sleeping.
I go to the Stone Soup Café because the woman from Ukraine next to me, speaking in heavily-accented English, will tell me about her struggle getting treatment for breast cancer, at some point opening up her blouse to show me what happened. Her husband misses their farm back home where they had a big tractor, and though they didn’t have the choice of foods they find at the Big Y, every morsel they once put in their mouth came from the food they grew and the animals they kept. The Café is nice, very nice, she says in a daze. We’re all children of the planet now, but she misses the yellow field of wheat that lay right under her own two feet.
The world world world calls, implores me to look, listen, see, bear witness, another life and another life and another life, all needing care. It’s not up to me to do all that, that’s arrogant, but to remember even in the middle of Passover’s liberation, Easter’s resurrection, and Spring’s rebirth the cold blisters on the lips of a man sitting on the pavement, the scars instead of breasts on a woman’s chest, and an Ivy College student sheltering inside a freezing maple sugar shack and eating vegan whole-wheat dumplings thrown into dumpsters.
I’m a writer, I have imagination, I read newspapers. More and more, this life is beyond me. What’s left is to go out to meet it, say hi and shake hands.
I took a van from the parking lot to the Hartford airport last week on my way to Los Angeles. Said hi to the driver, asked him how he was doing. He said: I’m just going in circles, living the dream. Like in “Groundhog Day.”
Circles? I asked.
You know, to the airport and back, airport and back.
But in the end of the movie the Bill Murray character doesn’t mind that things keep on repeating day after day, he even seems to like it, I said brightly.
Only I’m not at the end of the movie, lady, the man said.