Harvard Square Station
You join me on a familiar subway platform in the town I grew up in. It is familiar because I’ve been in and out of Harvard Square for the better part of twelve years. Back in middle school, I’d meet up here with friends to look through CD’s, sneak into R-rated movies, get ice cream and all the other shit teenagers do to distract themselves from the gruesome fate that is facial acne and ongoing misery at home.
Things heated up in high school, when puberty boosted an already prolific pairing of hormones and ego. My first girlfriend, an exchange student from Madrid, would drag me into corners, stairwells and alleys to make out — by which I mean to eat each other’s faces off. We’d go at it for hours, experimenting and breathing heavily until the time inevitably came to head home, doing so reluctantly with swollen lips and a neck full of hickeys it never occurred to us to be discrete about, so we never really tried.
The rest of my sophomore shenanigans I will omit in the interest of preserving taste and mystery.
I moved back to Boston last summer after being gone for almost eight years. Having done some school hopping, table waiting and globe trotting, a timely blend of counsel from my oldest friend and raw, gut instinct compelled me to come home. It is my sincere pleasure to report that this city — my city — still feels very much like home.
Texas (where I moved from) is an absurd, fantastic, sweaty and special place in which I never felt I fully belonged. That’s not to say I belong in the Northeast for good, either, but it sure has felt that way of late. Rest assured, the city of Boston is a gorgeous, nostalgic and fascinating place full of history, heritage, sporting excellence and a lot more besides.
And it’s true, my affinity for the epicenter of higher education and home to the single most obnoxious regional accent in the country runs deeper than just the achingly pretty brownstone architecture and plethora of Super Bowl rings — five, to be exact [smirk]. I feel an affection for and camaraderie with the people here, even when a lot of them are vastly different than I am.
For those of you who are familiar with myself and/or my writing, it’s no secret that I am a) politically inclined, and b) multi-racial. Not only do my beliefs more closely align with those generally fostered on the East Coast, but the diversity here speaks volumes to a personal sense of belonging, of safety. People are open-minded, progressive and intellectual, on the whole.
Spoken like the truest, most pretentious of Cambridge kids, to be sure.
But anyway, back to the train station. Typically, I’ve gotten through about half of my morning rituals by the time I walk on the Harvard platform every weekday morning — showered, uniformed, coffee in hand and, of course, thoroughly medicated. I am incapable of getting the day started without music, so I’ve got the headphones in and blaring Aretha Franklin, whose vocal performance on “Dr. Feelgood” sounds very nearly as good as it feels to slide into a hot bath with someone you can’t live without.
Despite the volume of my soundtrack, I can hear something over it. As I turn around to see where all the racket is coming from, I meet eyes with a homeless man, who is disturbingly close to shouting in the company of no less than eighty or ninety strangers. Twelve years in and out of Harvard Square had never exposed me to anything of the sort.
Well so then we all get on the train, a train which happens to be quite crowded, you should note. Once I’ve somehow managed to squeeze myself in, I think to myself that we must surely now be at capacity, at which precise moment an older, exceptionally tenacious Asian woman sees fit to cram her minuscule frame and over sized handbag into what little space was left between my ass and the automatic doors.
Albeit annoyed by my personal space being intruded upon, part of me has to respect her defiance in the face of elderly stereotypes.
And so now we’re all fucking packed in here like some [insert clever simile which eludes me at the moment], and less than five feet away stands our homeless man. His right eye is quivering and neck twitching in unison with the tirades, so when I remove an earbud to see what’s going on, it’s not hard to infer that he is afflicted with Tourette Syndrome — which, for those who don’t know, is a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by frequent, uncontrollable tics (verbal and/or physical).
This being 2017, most of us are listening to music or staring at our phones, anyway, but it’s hard to ignore him, nevertheless. Not only is he being extremely loud but, more to the point, he is being extremely loud in Arabic, a language which, even at the best, most culturally tolerant of times can be an extremely coarse and abrasive one to hear for those who aren’t familiar with it.
Whichever way your politics lean, there’s not much to suggest that these are anything even remotely resembling culturally tolerant times in which to live.
I speak Arabic poorly and understand it mediocrely, in this case just enough to discern that he not only sounds angry but very much is. From what I can make out, there was talk of someone being a dog and motherfucker who, Allah willing, is fated to die in excruciating fashion. Whether or not he suffers from other forms of mental illness remains unclear, but that said, paranoid schizophrenia wouldn’t surprise me.
What remains quite clear is that this man is actively (if unintentionally) making no less than a hundred people — maybe more — very, very uneasy. Being on a plane in this situation would probably be more uncomfortable, but a train isn’t the safest or most ideal venue for insane Arabic babbling, if we’re being honest.
But so of course it gets me thinking; about what other people are thinking, what he’s thinking. I wonder how this looks in the current political climate, or how it would’ve looked in the climate of only a few months past. I genuinely worry for the man, in the same way I worry about my North African father, my Muslim friends, and the clearly uncertain fate of our country while presided over by the incumbent administration.
My apologies, but it’s difficult for me to acknowledge the winner of the 2016 presidential election as being my president. Hell, I’m still wrapping my head around his having been a candidate.
I’ve grown nearly as tired of talking/writing about Donald as I am of hearing about him. What’s more, he’s not really the main concern — just the most obvious one. What we should really be concerned about is the palpable degree to which everyone on that train felt scared in response to a mentally ill person displaying symptoms he had no control over. Even though I consider myself a relatively educated and well-informed person on the subject of Islam and its role in the modern world, I still could not help but acknowledge a real sense of fear.
Lest we forget, this is not 2002. 9/11 is nearly two decades behind us. The Islamic State are on the back foot, and most every radicalist dictatorship established over the past 50+ years has been all but deconstructed by Western influence. In so many words, Muslims are not a threat — at least, not in the way and to the extent that we think — nor certainly are homeless ones who are just trying to make it through the day without killing themselves.
If you’re grinning to yourself over a cheeky joke about jihadists committing suicide, don’t feel too bad, because my mind went there briefly, too….but we are still shitty for having done so.
These are hard times, man. We have smartphones and ride sharing and self-driving cars and antidepressants. We have obscene wealth, affordable health care (well, maybe not, but that’s another issue), a stable economy and low unemployment. We have a high average of educational attainment — which is more than can be said for countries in which education itself does not exist. We have been very, very fortunate and are soon to be very, very fucked.
Call me a bleeding heart liberal, Islamic sympathizer; call me a fucking communist, condemner of free speech, or whatever it is you will — sticks and stones, love. No amount of labeling, false indictment or ad hominem will change the direction our country is headed in, the direction we chose, the direction we voted into existence.
A seed has been planted, one that will yield a bounty of hate, prejudice and xenophobia; it has been done. Before you write my comments off as mere fear-mongering, however, try and appreciate the distinction between that and realism, candor. I will admit to having contradicted this statement in the past, but parallels drawn between Donald and Adolf are no longer totally unfounded.
At the expense of getting cheeky again, “Make America Great Again” rhymes suspiciously well with “Make America Hate Again”.
People are frightened, others empowered. As a nation, we are scattered, divided; to wit, we are not United. We feel scared, paranoid and full of doubt on levels which would’ve been unimaginable only months ago. It’s hard not to be frightened — even on a train platform in the town I’ve called home for over a decade. I’m not asking you to be frightened, too, only that you keep your eyes open.
I’ll say again, these are hard times, my friends, but there is light to be found in their midst. Don’t let that darkness turn into blindness. Don’t be afraid of the dark. Don’t look away. Don’t back down, because yet harder times are approaching. We’ve gotten through such [times] before, but in order to do so, we can not, must not shy away.
Keep your eyes and heart open, head up and will strong. Trust me, I’ll be right there with you — every fucking step — come hell or high water.
That’s all I’ve got.