There is a student on the Georgetown campus that makes me uneasy. He has glasses, a bushy beard, heavy features, long brown hair knotted in dreadlocks. I see him often, and he always seems to be wearing the same thing: a camouflage jacket, brown trousers, and a heavy backpack full, I’m convinced, of books on anarchy. He’s one of the other bike riders on campus, and sometimes we make brief eye-contact as we wheel past each other on crowded sidewalks. More often, though, I see him in Red Square, one of Georgetown’s busiest quads, with a group of friends, all sitting cross-legged and smoking cigarettes. I’ve gotten close enough to hear his voice–surprisingly high-pitched, with a nervous laugh. In my mind, he’s angry, anti-establishment, maybe a future Unabomber. But in actuality, he laughs a lot and seems to enjoy being in company.
Two particular close encounters with this nameless boy stand out as somehow representative. Last year when George Tenet, former director of the CIA, made his controversial statement about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I was sitting on the 10th row back from the front. The press briefing was held in Georgetown’s Gaston Hall, and there had been a buzz about the event for a week. Black SUVs and men in dark suits had staked out the building from the early morning; when I finally got through security and walked into the tranquil hall suffused with stained glass light, I felt like I’d penetrated President Bush’s War Cabinet. At the end of Tenet’s speech, Georgetown President DeGioia opened up the floor for questions, asking students and press representatives to line up in front of a microphone half-way down the central aisle. There was immediate bustle and movement. In the two seconds that I considered asking a question and decided I had nothing to say, a line of about 50 people had snaked down the aisle, up the stairs, and into the balcony. The boy with the brown hair and camouflage jacket was about 15 people deep. Tenet responded to questions on prewar intelligence, national intelligence agencies, his relationship with the White House, and this boy came closer and closer. Then, when there was only one person between him and the microphone, President DeGioia announced that this would be the last question. There was murmured protest, but the line dissipated after the lucky student asked his question (quite frivolous, if I remember rightly). But this boy just stood there as George Tenet disposed of the question and President DeGioia dismissed everyone. Finally, when it was clear that the meeting was over, he turned around and walked out. That would have been the first time I heard him make any sort of statement, and I have never found out what question he wanted to ask.
The second encounter was much shorter. I was entering one of the dorms on my way to tutor a Long Island socialite who hates writing papers. Janelle often feels out of her element at Georgetown because she struggles in school and gets confused about politics (like me). Just inside the dorm entryway, there is a desk where all visitors have to swipe their student IDs to gain access to the rest of the building. At that time of day (and I’d been there many times before), there was usually an Asian girl eating her lunch and talking on her cell phone. This time, though, it was the boy. Same jacket, same backpack. He glanced up at me from his book–just a glance, not even a gleam of recognition–glanced at the scanner as I swiped my card and a green light flashed, and then went back to his book. I was legit–I wasn’t going to rob students, tape obscene flyers to their doors, or leave a bomb in the trash room. In an incisive, summary glance, he had checked me out and let me go. The elevator in the dorm is notoriously slow; during the minute that I was waiting, I could easily have said something, struck up a brief conversation. But I just stood there, taking off my gloves, try ing to see unobtrusively what he was reading. Then I got on the elevator and he was gone when I came back.
Today, I know exactly where to find this boy. He is in a large white tent set up in Red Square, participating in a hunger strike to pressure the administration to pay the Georgetown custodial staff a living wage. You might have heard about it on NPR this morning. He and his friends have been out there since last Wednesday, and in the middle of class on Thursday evening, while we were discussing leftist reportage during the 1930s labor agitation, I could hear an amplified voice leading a rally in indistinct chants. Maybe it was him.
I will admit that I don’t know what to do about this boy. He is at once interesting, troubling, mysterious. I find him both repulsive and attractive. I am worried that I’ve somehow made him more of an object than a person in my mind, that I’ve exoticized him. I’ve felt this way about other people, too–a sad-faced woman who might still work in the Cougar Eat, making endless rounds of the tables with a rag and a bottle of Lysol, swiping lacklusterly and moving on to the next table; a lady in her 70s, painfully thin, almost always napping in the graduate reading room of the Georgetown library; a group of street kids sucking glue that my companion and I would pass every morning on our way to the Bucharest metro. These are people who make an impression on me. I remember them for years after, but I usually never talk to them. I feel that I somehow sin against them. What are their lives like, I wonder. Could I become like them? Am I already?
I last heard President Hinckley speak at a Christmas devotional in the Washington, D.C. temple. I was one of about 2,000 temple workers all dressed in white, and even though most of us didn’t know each other, we looked at one another excitedly, with good fellowship and a sense of unity and safety. President Hinckley spoke about the immortality of the soul and how temples were monuments to that deeply-held belief. I, too, deeply believe in the immortality of the soul. I believe that the worth of one soul is inestimable. I believe that my own life is made up of a gradual accretion of interactions, relationships, chance encounters; a sedimentation of the souls passing through, passing by, sometimes staying. I want to move beyond being uneasy, suspicious, and defensive; I want to move beyond the dialectic of repulsion and attraction. That dialectic seems unfitting for immortal souls.
It’s early afternoon in Georgetown, and in a little while I’ll be passing through Red Square on my way to tutor Janelle. I’ll probably be in a hurry because I’ll be late, and I’ll probably pedal as quickly as I can around the outer edge of the protesters, trying to avoid people’s backpacks and most likely feeling slightly resentful that they’re creating such an obstacle course. The protesters, wearing their “Living Wages Now” T-shirts, will shuffle aside to make way for me, and as we negotiate shared space, we’ll probably exchange a glance or two, a face to face look. They will see a 26-year-old graduate student with messy hair, little make-up, and an over-sized jacket riding a second-hand bike. They’ll wonder why she’s all bundled up when it’s so beautiful outside, and they’ll probably move aside a little faster when they see the poorly suppressed impatience in her eyes. But I don’t think I’ll know what I see when I look into their faces. A 20-something undergraduate whose parents are paying for his semester abroad in Florence next fall? A deeply committed activist who’s been hungry for three days? A Unabomber? A dorm security guard? They’ll make way for this bad-tempered graduate student and then turn back to their rally; I’ll avoid their backpacks and tables and signs and tents and go off to keep earning next month’s rent. And perhaps, if I’m lucky, we will meet again tomorrow.