Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,there is a field. I’ll meet you there.—Rumi
In a noisy city teahouse due west of the Appalachian Plateau, I sat sipping hot rooibos and spying on a lop-eared man sleeping on the sidewalk. Rumor had it that this man, nicknamed Doc, panhandled strictly from eight to five, and if you donated a mere quarter during office hours, he spat and cursed. For pennies tendered, he’d swing a weathered boot at your head.
At eight sharp, fearless Doc emerged from a makeshift sandwich board, sloughed off a blanket, tidied his belongings, and amid the bustling foot traffic arranged the infamous Doc Martens boot. Stolidly, he strapped on the sandwich board, which read:
3 Years 0 Job
My father would have laughed at me, but I became determined to approach Doc, partly out of respect for his gumption, and partly out of shame, for he brought to mind a disconsolate Parisian girl, like one of Orwell’s down-and-out urchins, dashing down cobblestoned Rue d’Orsel, fleeing from me.
In graduate school, I conducted research. At least, I fancied myself a researcher, more scientist than scut monkey. In truth, I dissected data. These fed a greater good, my masters in engineering: “Genetic Algorithm Selection of Mammographic Microcalcification Features for Detection of Breast Cancer.”
I’m blanking on what exactly that long-winded title means. Let me back up.
Genetic algorithms: software designed by engineers with God complexes and kick-ass computers. Microcalcifications: bone dust in the breast, that versatile hub of compassion. Cancer: an argument within the body.
I labored in earnest, believing my research benefited indigent [End Page 70] women. Only, I never saw these women. Never saw the X-ray machines pointed at them. Never saw their mammograms, only the radiologist who analyzed films of patients he may not have seen, and we met but once, at my thesis defense. I interacted with digitized films, chasing down false positives and data crumbs, ones and zeroes, bits I played dice with, crunched, churned out, agonized over with ludicrous seriousness.
Around campus, though, I encountered destitute men and women, some lecturing sidewalk cracks, others cradling paper-bagged bottles of King Cobra. As they neared, their rheumy-eyed stares filled me with pity and panic, making me hightail it to my advisor’s cramped, frigid laboratory, desperate for the company of my fellow graduate students: pole-thin Kevin hailing from Vermont’s Green Mountains; Yateen, a cherubic Pakistani who strolled home mid-day for salat al-Asr; and sallow-skinned Alexender, a recovering Kosovo war victim who coded so fast his keyboard rattled.
Hunched at roughhewn particle board desks, we ogled computer monitors and warmed hands over whirring motherboards. We never talked about breast cancer.
“To make chutney, you must buy green mangos,” said Yateen.
“Ohio should not be reclassified as a New England state!” said Kevin.
“Five dollars I am keeping in my sock for the robbers,” said Alexender.
We obsessed about being mugged. We believed that Burnet Woods, the city park surrounding campus, was crawling with pickpockets. We thought: We’re next.
Late one morning, Kevin stormed in, minus his omnipresent lunch sack.
“Man, I got jumped last night,” he said, hurling down his backpack and raincoat. “The guy took me for fifty bucks!”
Turned out, he’d been mugged between his apartment and Keller’s iga by a teenager pulling the timeworn gun-in-his-pocket routine.
“But maybe it was only his finger?” Kevin whispered.
“No way,” I said and handed him my lunchbox apple.
“It could not be,” Yateen said, passing him homemade chutney inside Tupperware.
“I am with certainty it was a gun,” Alexender said and slipped him two Oreo Double Stufs.
We spent the afternoon commiserating. We commended Kevin [End Page 71] for surrendering the cash. We thought: At least he’s gotten his mugging over with. We felt sorry for him, for ourselves, and yet we believed in benevolence toward the poor around campus, a tendency in people with scant time and even less money. We believed compassion has to matter.