Warning Out, Then and Now


You might know what dispossession feels like if you’ve ever jumped into the Charles River at night. I felt something like that, I think, throughout the year of 2008, when I was living alone. And then again, having come back to my town but seeing nothing there. And then when I left again. September 8th, 2008 the first night I slept at Harvard University, I could have told you that dispossession feels something like black water, like drowning beneath the lights of a city in September, and like feeling totally alone.

I had met a girl named Joyce who was real shy. She said her father was a diplomat so she never stayed in one place for more than a few years and had never had many friends. We walked together from the Yard to the River, the lights of Dunster Street glowing as if very wet and totally yellow, like they do. We stripped off our clothes on the dock – I remember feeling very cold – and danced a little – I spun her – and then we jumped into the water. Whooo ahhh I shouted. Someone else, a boy’s voice from the road beyond the grass, said Yeeeehaaaa. When we got out of the river, we folded on the grass and sat there, in total silence, with the air, light and brilliant – the air was very light that night – mixing with the lights of Boston beyond the river, and me, I remember thinking something like This, this is the day your slumber breaks…She asked me: Are you just going to forget about this? I smiled and she smiled too and I said: Nothing counts, you know – it’s Freshman Week.

That night, I guess, rounded something off for me. It was the first time that I wondered, real hard, whether I hadn’t just walked out the front door, when I could have walked out the back. It was that night, my looking at the city from that place on the banks, thinking about place, to be one thing and not another thing, thinking that I am a small part of something much bigger, more complex and totally indifferent, that I first began to think about homelessness. I can’t say that I know what dispossession feels like today, but I could tell you that night. Tramping back to the Yard in the soaking clothes, I thought Whooo ahhh Yeeehaaaa, what a thing it is to be here.


One of the striking things about Harvard Square is the thick, magisterial iron gate that wraps around Massachusetts Avenue, enclosing Harvard Yard.

The other striking thing about Harvard Square is the homelessness. Bowed and veiled figures sleep beneath the threshold of the bookstore, and if you stop to ask why they come they usually say that it is a safe place to sleep and that there is good money, and that the lights never turn off.

To me, the two facts of the iron gate and the homeless population are compelling evidence that if a place can be said to have deliberate design, that if communities are a product of something more than spontaneous individual desire, then the Designer must have a poet’s eye for symbols, or at least a good sense of humor.

Reckoning with homelessness requires that the two, the gated university and the homeless population, be dealt with together. They are too closely aligned, their presence here a juxtaposition too sever to absolve my story of. And me – me too, I am too much a product of my place within this world to pretend that I am something different; if I have any authority at all, it is from that place that I am given, from inside the gate rather than from the street.

The Square at night is something like a carnival. I have seen her in the dawn; she looks half-roused and ice-cold. But at night, she spins, like a lighted wheel, glitters. The lights are bright – air cold – the nights in the Square are entirely nonviolent, very happy. A man plays a saxophone. A chilly day, the lightness of autumn, the bright lights will never go out in the Square – if I look out the window at four in the morning from by bunk bed, as I often have, I will undoubtedly see a person walking through the square, from the Coop through JFK.

How does one find a homeless person? I think to myself.

It’s odd, but perhaps entirely practical, that we go first to the saddest-looking woman. We see across the street a figure sitting, leaning forward on the brick edge of a potted tree. She is in front of the stoop – like a gargoyle, very gray, bundled like a marshmallow with two gray hats. The color scheme of poverty; vibrant colors don’t seem to last; the city is in battle against chromatic vibrancy.

“Hey. I’m Max. This is Pete. How are you doing?”

“How do you do?” She was very quiet, so low that Pete never heard what she had to say. We shook hands.

“We’re from the College. We’re working on a piece about people who live in Harvard Square…”

“I don’t live here.”

“Oh?” I told her that’s OK. We’d treat her to dinner, if she’d be willing to talk a few minutes about her time.

“I don’t live here,” she repeated.

“Where are you from?”

“North Carolina.” One could detect the drawl. That drawl – passport, place-giver, what she still has.

“Do you have a family in North Carolina?”

“Yes.” She spoke quietly, in a whisper. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“We’re trying to help. We want to tell people’s stories.”

“All I want to do is go home,” she said.

“How’d you get to Boston? Did you take a train up?”

“I got a ticket. You know how it is. I got a ticket and now I can’t get home. I just want to go back.”

“Hey, are you sure you wouldn’t be interested in having a nice dinner with us and talking a little.”

“Yes. Thank you. I’m not interested.”

“What’s your name?” She looked up. “Oh, uh, don’t worry about that – I’m Max and this is Pete.”

She turned and – thinking back I remember vividly, as you do such things – she winked and smiled.

I said: “If I see you around, I’ll say hi.”

That was the first substantial meeting I had with a homeless person in the square. That night, if it is like most that I spent in the early part of my first semester, I spent talking about Barack Obama with my roommate – we would talk about him for hours on end – and then, other than that, not talk much at all. I would walk from class to class, wave to acquaintances that I passed in the yard. And in the dinning hall, drifting slowly from the conversation, I would look around. A small girl with a fleece squints with a tray in her hand. A blonde boy and blonde girl with freckles talk about going home with over the weekend. “Yeah, it’s restorative. You just feel like that boost will give you something, and you can last until Thanksgiving.” There was one day (I remember it distinctly) looking at this place, all these people, that I realized with embarrassment mostly and a little relief, that I considered myself homeless, and that the gates did not divide nearly as much as I thought. I began this project with the question: how far is the trip from here inside the gate to the outside; how far must one travel before one can sleep on the street. Now I’m not sure. We’re all looking to be connected. I think everyone is trying as hard as they can be not to be invisible.


It is the aim of this essay to describe a part of our past that concerns the creation of community and the alienation of citizens.

Harvard Square, as I’ve said, is an odd community to walk through, because walking through it is like being on the inside and the outside at once – it is to walk into the very center of a world society, of which Harvard University is both an agent and an index, and to be with those on the outskirts of that society, the kids in the pit with joints and those panhandling on the side of the street. I think it’s accurate to imagine that in the Square there is an invisible boundary line that swoops around, separating people, cutting the space into pieces, a precipice – like an iron gate – between society and those on the outside.

The act of creating boundaries achieves both inclusion and exclusion. On the one hand, I know with whom I belong; I am like all these people, in at least one respect: I am a member of their group. Such communities are defined by the reciprocity that exists between members. I can help this man, because he can help me back. And the need that these communities thrive on is as old as Western society itself: to be thy brothers’ keeper. But such imperatives only go so far; they go as far as the boundary line. A person outside of the community is different from me; I cannot imagine his pain or his needs, because we are of a fundamentally different substance. He is a puzzle to me; he exists beyond the limits of my empathy.

The boundary line absolves the moral imperatives to aid those on the outside, while maintaining it for those on the inside; it reconciles the primordial need for community with the eminently practical, eminently human, need, borne of fear and of reason, to exclude other from that imperative – to not give everything to everyone. The history of American protest movements has been the history of the process of expanding this boundary line; it has been the history of enfranchising different groups into the American community, drawing the line of empathetic obligation to a still greater circumference –foreigners, African Americans, women, gays…

The process of psychological boundary-drawing that occurs in Harvard Square, between the homeless and us has its explicit analogy in history – it is, as we will see, one manifestation of a legal code, which is another manifestation of this process, brought by the earliest settlers from England and observed for at least one hundred and thirty years from the founding until the mid eighteenth century.

One strategy for understanding the present, and I suppose it is a theme, is to understand the past – to explore the attempts and failures we have made in divorcing ourselves from that plot of land we were handed to till. I acknowledge as a writer and a person that I cannot divorce myself entirely from my Self – that I can only explore homelessness from my place. America, as all nations, is just this way – it owes a great deal to the place it was given, like a child that owes a lot to its father. The notion that the settlers broke free from their history is as silly as the notion that any tramp coming to the Square can truly be said to have no past, no place, to be absent of identity-giving context.

We now turn to a look at the manner in which current psychological practices existed in the past as legal institutions, how our forefathers codified the practices of exclusion that Harvard Square, so many years later, portrays in sharp relief.

When the earliest settlers arrived in New England they brought with them the principles of English common law; in particular they brought with them an understanding of the town that is fundamentally different from our understanding of it today. For the English, the town was a collective property owned in part by each inhabitant; it was a private body rather than a public one. As per this status, each inhabitants of a town was responsible for the conduct and support of each other member of the town. Each member now had compulsory obligations to stave off the crime and the poverty of each other, provide bail when their neighbors were in binds and anticipate problems and enact justice – the individual towards the whole, the whole for the individual, each for all and all for each. The town as a unite of economic support. Francis Palgrave in his 1832 Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth, writes that such a custom goes back to the principles of English Teutonic Townships. “The earliest notices respecting Teutonic Townships are to be collective from the laws of Salic Franks. A ‘Villa; was entirely the property of the inhabitants, and no stranger could settle within its boundaries, unless with the consent of the whole incorporation…”

This obligation, termed “frankpledge,” after the Teutonic law, began first as a custom. Neighbors would give money to a family that was victimized by crime, and would then search out the person who perpetrated it. After the Norman invasion, England was organized by feudal divisions, and the obligation was codified. Each town was broken up into units of ten, called tithings, and each was responsible for enforcing justice and welfare of the whole unit. One of the earliest itineration of the arrangement comes from a twelfth-century scribe who said that "It is of this sort, namely that all men in every vill of the whole realm were by custom under obligation to be (debebanf) in the suretyship of ten, so that if one of the ten commit an offence the nine have him to justice."

During the English Civil War and the confusion that followed, local governmental machinery was dismantled, and the church replaced the tithing. The “parish” took up the secular responsibility of maintaining public peace and supporting the poor. In the following years, as the population increased, towns began to increase in size, and local infrastructure was revitalized, roads built and townhouses increasingly put in roles of prominence. In 1601, when the first Poor Laws were written, the town had once again replaced the parish in its original role of providing for the mutual security of its members. The poor, affected by the inchoate symptoms of an increasingly modern England – unemployment, bad harvests, famine, disease, land enclosures, inflation, industrialization, the dissolution of monasteries, the decline of feudal families – those that dwelt on the margins of these processes – were to find relief in their towns, among their neighbors.

These were the legal foundations that the colonists brought to the new world. The town for them was a unit of support. With support, however, comes the complementary and implied right to choose to whom a town is willing to pledge it. The town support structure could not accept anyone indiscriminately, because each new member was an additional legal obligation that might potentially become chargeable to the public good. With this logic, the settlers in the New World enacted laws that strictly regulated citizen mobility. Each town in New England set up statues that defined the “right to inhabitancy,” demanding that prospective members petition for such a right before legal entrance. Towns were to be established by mutual consent, not individual prerogative –
If we here be a corporation, established by free consent, if the place of our co-habitation be our own, then no man hath right to come in to us without our consent
This “right to inhabitancy,” also called “freedom of community,” is the necessary complement to a system of mutual support. This is the necessary two-ness of boundary drawing: that the right to support implies the right to exclude. It is a fact that this asserted right to regulate inhabitancy was exercised in the New England Colonies such as New Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island for reasons of religious preference, nationality, prestige of the family and economic wellbeing. Regardless of the ultimate reasons for exclusion, it is important that the moral justification was based on the premise of a community of reciprocal aid; for if members are to support each other, they must also be able to consent to the parties that they are going to be supporting.

At first, inhabitancy rights were granted only to those families that the town was prepared to give land to; in time, rights were given to any family that could arrange to buy a plot of land. The Puritans, like their predecessors, regarded land as the basic unit of power, and considered any well-functioning government to be grounded in land ownership. In November, 1634 John Winthrop made a general proclamation that he and the six other chief council of the town should have the right to allocate land to newcomers at their discretion
It is agreed that noe further allotments shalbe graunted unto any new comers, but such as may be likely to be received members of the Congregation: That none shall sell their houses or allotments to any new comers, but with the consent and allowance of those that are appointed Allotters.
In Boston, March 1640 the following was issued, illustrating the connection between land and inhabitancy –
John Palmer, Carpenter, now dwelling here, is to be allowed an Inhabitant, if he can gett an house, or land to sett an house upon (it being not proper to allowe a man an Inhabitant Without habitation)
Town councils made additional restrictions on the flow of visitors. On December 29, 1657, Derman Mahoone was fined twenty shillings for apparently “intertaining two Irish women contrary to an order of the towne, in that case provided and is to quitt his house of them forthwith att his perill” The problem of guests became so bad in Boston that on June 13, 1659 a general proclamation was given:
Whereas sundry inhabitants in this towne have nott so well attended to former orders made for the securing the towne from charge by sojourners, inmates, hyred servants, journeymen, or other persons that come for help in physick or chyrurgery, whereby no little damage hath already, and much more may accrew to the towne. For the prevention whereof Itt is therefore ordered, that whosoever of our inhabitants shall henceforth receive any such persons before named into their howses or employments without liberty granted from the select men, shall pay twenty shillings for the first weeke, and so from weeke to weeke, twenty shillings, so long as they retaine them, and shall beare all the charge that may accrew to the Towne by every such sojourner, journeyman, hired servt., Inmate, &c, received or employed as aforesaid.
In these laws, we see an early American expression of social “pre-destination,” the notion that individuals inherit a place a within a structured social order. This is a very old conception of the world, indeed, dating back to Aristotle, who wrote that society was divided by birth and predisposition between those who are among the ruling class and those who are to be ruled; but the exact nature of pre-destination that the early settlers expressed was less about restricting access to positions in a lateral hierarchy – between the ruled and the ruling – than it was about placing one into a spot, and keeping one there. People were not entitled to move freely from one place to another; they were bound instead to the town that they happen to be born into, or happen to gain admission into.

One important American narrative is the myth of mobility – to move up and to move out, to gain in statured or get up and leave. Early inhabitancy rights expose some of the falsity of the American mobility narrative. They present us with a choice: either stay in the spot of admission or be free to move, not true freedom but the false freedom of homelessness. Early America was based on a permanence of place, and contemporary institutions, Harvard for one, indicate that the conceptual framework for a society based on admission has not been entirely shaken.

The word “hierarchy” here is not entirely appropriate. Puritanism, based as it is on a democratization of the individual’s role in religion, replaced catholic hierarchies, which mirror governmental monarchies, with town meetings and the individual’s relationship with the text. Yet Puritanism called for a different sort of rigidity. Max Weber called “the central dogma” of the puritan faith, the reliance on a society arranged according to the individual’s calling --
The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the word
The Puritan religion bound the individual to his “position” in the world. The Calvinists went further, arguing that from this positions one was predestined for to be saved or to be damned – any resistance is ultimately futile, for an individuals fate is inextricably bound up with his origins. This concept of calling is a particularly American one. In Emerson’s famed essay “Self-Reliance” he argued for a radical individualism based ultimately on an acceptance of his unique place within a complex and diverse society. It is often overlooked that this doctrine was not about freedom, but rather about a version of obedience. The individual was bound to his place, and it was from here – and only from here – that can he live as truly fulfilled
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age…
Trusting “thyself” is an act of acquiescence. One must “accept the place [that] divine providence has found for you.” He uses a metaphor about land – in parallel to the land requirements of inhabitancy rights – to make the point
[A man learns] that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Self-reliance, then, is the act of obeying a “Self” that was given from above; it is to take “for better, for worse” the “plot of ground” that one was given. Emerson did not think that this was a dreary prospect. For him, the Self was imperial, it was the source of great wealth and beauty. The individual Self – like the young country that he was writing for – must accept the virgin soil that it had, by the preference of God, been given, if it was to be true to its actions, and grow up in full.
The settlers based their ideals of community on these conceptions of place. The individual was born into a spot in the world, the “calling” in the words of the protestants, the “self” in the words of Emerson, and it was expected that that was where one would remain. The inchoate admission society, based on exclusion and power, which would flourish with the growing prestige of Harvard University and a diversified country with increasing divisions of labor, can be see in Cambridge (then Newtowne) at its very earliest. Here is the writ of admission that John Harvard himself received in 1637 – the first admit to Harvard College, being Harvard himself –
Mr. John Harvard is admitted a Townsman with a promise of such accommodations as wee best Can…

When I said that the colonists did not break from the past, it was meant to illustrate the continuity of laws between England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But there is greater significance, in that the laws that they inherited directly pertained to the manner in which people define themselves by the past. One’s past – according to the inhabitancy laws put forth – was the best and strictest way to determine one’s future, for it was only that spot towards which you were necessarily entitled. Accept that place and know your future.

The towns of the Massachusetts Bay not only had the capacity to enforce inhabitancy rights, but were bound to do so by early colonial law. In May 17, 1637, the General Court of the Massachusetts Colony issued the following law –
It is ordered, that no towne or pson shall receive any stranger, resorting hither wth intent to reside in this iurisdiction, nor shall alow any lot or habitation to any, or intertaine any such above three weekes, except such pson shall have alowance vnder the hands of some one of the counsell, or of two other of the magistrates, vpon paine that evry townse shall give or sell any lot or habitation to any such, not so allowed, shall forfet 100s for every offence, & evry pson receive any such, for longer time than is heare expressed, (or then shalbe allowed in some special cases, as before, or in case of intertainement of freidns resporting from some other parts of this country for a concenient time,) shall forfet for evry offence 40s [shillings]; and for evry month after such pson shall there continew 20s; provided, that if any inhabitant shall not consent to the intertainment of any such person, & shall give notice thereof to any of the magistrates wthin one month after, such inhabitant shall bee liable to any part of this penulty
In 1638 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote that constables
Should informe of newe comers, if any be admitted wthout license; & to that end warrant to bee sent out to the cunstable of each town, to infome the Court of Assistants, wch is to consider of the fines, whether to take them or to mitigate them.
In June, 1650, the colony issued the following. We see in it a characterization of the “wandering poor” as those that had chosen to break the binds of community and the ideals of the “calling” –
Whereas wee are credibly informed that great mischeifes and outrages have binn wrought in other plantacon in America by comanders, and souldjers of seuerall qualitjes, and other straingers issueing out of other parts, vsurping power of gounement ouer them, plundering of their estates, taking vp armes, and making great divisions amongst the inhabitants where they have come, to prevent the like mischiefe in this jurisdiccon, this Court doth order, and it is hereby enacted, that henceforward all straingers, of what qualitje soeuer, above the age of sixteene yeeres, arriving here in any portes or parts of this jurisdicon in any ship or vessel, shall immediately be grought before the Gounor…

These were the statutes of Colonial law, yet they were on the wrong side of history. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, New England’s economy continued to diversify, and the need for labor – artisans, farmers, goods peddlers, clergy, even doctors and lawyers – to flow from one place to another increased. Warfare, such as the King Phillip’s War of 1675-76, an Indian uprising that wreaked havoc on the Massachusetts’s countryside, provided the first instance in America of large-scale homelessness. Pious Bostonians noted in 1675 that “the sin of idleness (whc is the sin of Sodom) doeth greatly increase.” It became practically impossible for towns to enforce laws banning newcomers; and thus, impossible to prevent those that are likely to become chargeable to the town for relief – “the wandering beggars and rogues” – to become taxing on the towns support mechanisms.

With the increase of population and individual mobility as the backdrop, towns passed legislation that allowed them to legally “warn out” newcomers who had entered the town, telling them to leave immediately or else stay without the privilege of public charge. In other words, the towns passed legislation that allowed them legally to exclude those living within the town the benefits of communal support. They enacted legal mechanisms of boundary drawing.
In November, 1692, the following act was passed in Massachusettes, to provide for the legal exclusion of certain people, keeping a record of their name, and using a court for the purpose –
If any person or persons come to sojourn or dwell in any town and be there received an entertained by the space of three months, not having been warned by the constable, or other person whom the selectmen shall appoint for that purpose, to leave the place, and the names of such persons with the time of their abode there and when such warning was given them retunrd into Court of quarter sessions, every such person shall be deemed an inhabitant of such town and the proper charge of the same in case through sickness, lameness, or otherwise, they come to stand in need of relief to be borne by such town. Unless relatives be of suffiencient ability to do so &c.
March 14, 1700 a further act was passed, which recognized warning out, stating that no town shall
be chargeable with the support of any person residing therin who has not been approved as an inhabitant by the town or the selectmen…[unless they had] continued their residence there by the space of twelve months next before and not been warned in manner as the law directs to depart and leave the town, any law, usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding”
These laws were taken seriously, from the early 1600s to the 1700s when warning out provisions were passed until finally, in February 11, 1793, when new settlement rights were drafted for the town of Massachusetts, erasing all provisions for inhabitancy rights and warning out.

Warning out reconciled the Christian imperative towards the beggardly figure who is Christ-like in his humility, with the basic capitalist and Puritan imperative to affirm the importance or work and self-sufficiency. William Perkins, a Calvinist minister at the time, warned fervently against that “wandering beggars and rogues” who were not only a financial plague, but a religious one, who should “bee taken as enemies of this ordinance of God.” The American founding was a dialectic between these two impulses: the Massachusetts Bay Colony established as a religious refuge, and the Jamestown established because of entrepreneurial desire. By warning out a family, a town could continue to fulfill their obligations towards their spiritual brothers, while also respecting the autonomy of the individual who earns his keep and deserves what he receives.

With this came the first class of American untouchables. From the middle of the 18th century to its completion, more than nine thousand people were warned out of Boston, with more than two thousand people in the year 1791-1792 alone. These numbers not only reflect a propensity for warning out, but a need to do so in the first place, a reflection of a class of migrants that had emerged in America, traveling largely from the countryside to the cities in search of labor. When they entered a city and were warned to leave, many of them did. Forty percent of those warned out in Boston in 1780 were not there in 1790. Entire families were legally expelled from towns, left to wander in search of a fixed abode. Such a class has never left us.

One of the first homeless men that I met in Harvard Square was named James. He had biked from Minnesota to Boston, and now lived on the streets of Cambridge. We had invited him to eat lunch with us at Unos, just a block from Harvard Yard. James looks like Charlie Manson, though, as he pointed out: “I don’t have a Nazi tattoo on my forehead and I don’t have blue eyes and anyways Charlie Manson was a total bastard.” James had signs that he wrote on lined notebook paper. He showed them to people who passed by, and sometimes they gave him money. He said that he was doing God’s work – Just Walk Away, said one of the signs. “That’s what the Jews did in Egypt. All you’ve got to do is to walk away.”

We see in the practice of warning out in the towns of New England an early genealogy of distinctly American narratives: the value and utility of work, life on the road, the limits of kindness, the conceptions of community. The first American underclass was not only poor, but literally expelled from a community oftheir peers; whatever aid they received was because of altruism rather than community, founded on a distinction between classes, rather than reciprocity and mutual help. And such a class is still with us, continuing to perpetrate a violence on the myths of our country. The ways that our Christian forefathers elected to categorize people, through the process of inhabitancy rights and warning out, is not entirely distinct from the manners that we attempt to do the same, creating titles (victims, lost souls, deviants, waste products) for the men and women sleeping on the ground tonight, in Harvard Square, outside of the gate this very night.


“Being homeless is not some sort of club.”


“I went to college in Maryland, dropped out. I became a carpenter and now I don’t have a job, so I sit here during the days. There, that’s my story.”

His voice was very steady, authoritative, commanding – it pierced through, like something very shameful in myself had been exposed.

“Well, you know, I just thought if you’d be interested in talking, then we –” The other man started to grab at my shoulder. He smelled of hard alcohol and his eyes were wild.

“Yeah, I know what you want,” he said, drunk, clearly, with a voice that was high and hard.

“You’re going to write this up in some special school report. I know exactly what you want. Yeah, I know you.”

“Look,” said the man sitting on the ground, with a hat on and the guitar in his lap, “look, I’m sorry, I want to be able to help you out – it’s just I’m tired, you know, some girl came the other day and she was talking with us. You know, I just don’t want to do another one of these interviews.”

“We’re freaks. Yeah, freaks. I’m a vet, you know that.” He put his arm around me. “Wanna go into that store over there, buy me something.”

“I’m not 21.”

“Of course he’s not,” said the steady man on the ground.

“I’m sorry to bother you guys – the point, I guess, was to try not to be, you know, stereotyping, to tell the story very plainly.”

“I’m sorry not to help you with your report,” the man on the ground.

“No – what, don’t be sorry.”

I left feeling great shame in myself, the shame of a voyeur, or a person who had committed something – I would later think – of a great act of dehumanization: I felt like I was treating people as types, the same anger in myself that flows from Baldwin to Stowe. He wrote that she had was dehumanizing by sentimentalizing, that she had turned African Americans into caricatures – and types, no matter how grandiose, can never, after all, be fully human. “The mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel” was how Baldwin wrote of sentimentality.

To step forward into Harvard Square, is to open myself to hearing other people, is to enter a hailstorm of self-reprisal, to question the nature of human interaction and the limits of human empathy. To be at Harvard is to be at the very center of society; to be homeless is to be outside of it. What is the path that one takes to get from here to there?

To put this question of limitations another way: am I going to live my entire life within that small subsection of humanity that I was born into – will I ever be anything but the Self that I was given?

“How does it feel?” Bob Dylan asks. Well maybe to have no home is the opposite of the feeling I get every time I walk to the Square. Every time I see someone I am not, I realize that I am someone. Homelessness lives in that limitation of traversing empathy. It exists in the boundaries between people. It says: I can go anywhere; I can do anything.

Homelessness lives in that limitation of traversing empathy. It exists in the boundaries between people. It says: I can go anywhere; I can do anything.

But is this freedom, the freedom of searching – the search is for somewhere to stop, it is not endless. It is defined by its negative, by the search for the home, the road extending only so far as it must, before you find somewhere called Forever that smiles back.

I went up to my room. A girl was there at my desk doing a problem set with my roommate, and she didn’t even look up when I entered. I sat for a while without saying much and then I went through a blizzard of arguments with my self and my roommate, who could not finish his problem set. The girl, as it were, did not even look up as I spoke.

“There is nothing wrong,” I said. “Simply, nothing wrong with trying to understand people. Yeah, they don’t want to be observed under a microscope. A disorienting disruption of the paradigm,” I said loudly, now, gesticulating. “It’s a class thing, a class hierarchy that is being confused, the collapse of two supposedly autonomous spheres in society. I walk to Pinocchio’s and they sit and beg. We are different – I see that, but I reject the premise, I reject the premise that divisions are autonomous, totally final.

“There is nothing wrong with noticing. That is all. I want to understand people. Certainly our world would be better if we could extend empathy farther, and the 20th century, surely one of the most deadly in history, would be much different if we could walk out to Harvard Square and understand each other a little better.”

A yearning to be a part of a place, to be a citizen again, is, I believe, the ultimate connection between people.


In the end, if this period of my life, which I believe in some ways is ending, when I thought a lot about homelessness, and I had pretentious to believe that there was something I could say about dispossession – if it is judged as a failure, then I have to believe it is because I feel like shit about it, because I feel like a failure about it, and because I have been inured to believe that feeling like shit is reciprocally bound with failing, that feelings are twisted together with reality like ribbons in a rope and the rope either pulls you over the side of the boat or that slips through your fingers and lets you slap down to the water.

I don’t know much about the relationship between feelings and reality, but I think that it is a key to my place in this community. For a lot of people, life is a hell of a lot harder than it is for me, and they manage to feel pretty good. Some of the people I met in the course of doing this project had the whole world conditioning their own self-loathing, and they barely showed it at all. Where does the feeling of shame exist? And love? Is it in God? is it in our hearts? is it outside, floating in the streets? does it dwell on the lips of girls? I don’t know much about the answer to that, either. But I think – I’d like to think – that feelings exist as a collective. That every feeling exists as some big force between people, that we take when we need it, that we all share, a big bowl above us, from which we all eat, existing in the sky…

Let’s just for a moment, for the sake of those more-destitute people, think of the feelings rather than the fact, and accept that all the virtues of the latter rest ultimately on the existence of the former. That a man cries and that he wishes to act, and the way that the world is refracted within the prism, is due to his having feelings, and let us just accept that fact.

If this period of my life was a failure it was because I am too cowardly and not nearly creative enough, and because my heart is too small, and, ultimately, because I couldn’t feel enough. I feel like shit about it, but that alone does not mean I have failed. In fact, that’s the only success I’ve had in four months since I jumped into the Charles. I feel ashamed – good, piercing, shame.

Works Cited

Benton, Josiah H. Warning Out in New England. Boston: W. B. Clarke company, 1911.
Boston (Mass.). Registry Dept, and Boston . Record Commissioners. "Records Relating to the Early History of Boston." (a).
---. "Records Relating to the Early History of Boston." (b).
Bridenbaugh, Carl. Cities in the Wilderness : The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1742. New York: Knopf, 1960.
Coser, Lewis A. Men of Ideas : A Sociologist's View. New York: Free Press, 1965.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays. Vol. 3. Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company : the Riverside press, Cambridge, 1904.
Kulikoff, Allan. "The Progress of Inequality in Revolutionary Boston." The William and Mary Quarterly 28.3 (1971): 375-412.
Massachusetts, Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff, and Massachusetts. General Court. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. New York: AMS Press, 1968.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. "The Founding of Harvard College." (1995).
Morris, William Alfred. The Frankpledge System. Vol. 14. New York: Longmans, Green, and co., 1910.
Palgrave, Francis. The Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth. : Anglo-Saxon Period. Containing the Anglo-Saxon Policy, and the Institutions Arising Out of Laws and Usages which Prevailed before the Conquest. London: J. Murray, 1832.
Weber, Max, and Stephen Kalberg. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other Writings on the Rise of the West. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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Anonymous Q said...

"To be at Harvard is to be at the very center of society; to be homeless is to be outside of it."

I'd argue that THAT is a fundamental flaw of every Harvard student--thinking Harvard is the center of society when it's really at the cusp. We know nothing about the "real" world because we've been led to believe we encompass it. No?

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Q said...

Regardless, very touching piece.

7:06 PM  
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