Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


Student 24's picture

I walk downstairs to the washroom in the Free Library in Philadelphia, because I still have a few minutes before the fringe festival performance begins. The washroom is nothing spectacular. There are six or seven stalls on the left-hand side, and a few sinks installed into the wall on the right. There isn't much light because probably this is basement level so the window on the opposite end of the washroom isn't all too effective.

I go into the third stall. There is no latch on the door; instead, the hole where the latch should have been is stuffed with a thick wad of toilet paper. It holds the door closed so I don't mind.

There is a woman in the stall to my left. She is sobbing. I don't know if she is standing or sitting, but she is shuffling her feet nervously. And she is sobbing, mumbling in a panicky voice. I can't understand everything she says because it doesn't seem to all be in English. But I can hear her words – between sharp, ragged breaths – that nobody knows, don't nobody know. Nobody.

And her voice sounds like pain and fear. Airy, high and small. Choking and weary and trembling. Small.

And I can't say anything. I can't ask her what is wrong or if there is any way I can help. There is much more than just the wall of a bathroom stall between us. I leave my stall, walk to the sinks and wash my hands. The woman is still in the stall, crying, speaking to herself as I dry my hands and walk outside. And that is that. I remain simply with the voice and tearful, frightened words of a faceless woman in a stall next to mind.

Would seeing her face have made me feel different? Would she have been easier to ignore if I had seen her distressed but not heard her? If she had been sitting on a park bench, rocking back and forth in clear sorrow, could I have approached her and asked what's wrong? If she was crouched on a street corner, holding a cup and begging for change – an indisputable signal as a plea for help – would I offer her myself as at least someone who could listen to her story?

Is it not that we pass by homeless men, women, and children all the time and ignore them? Before this trip to Philadelphia, it had been a while since I had been in an American city, where the division and separation between socioeconomic classes are so noticeable, yet regular. It reminded me that there is a system in social education that seems to be self-taught and self-learnt, that homelessness simply exists and on a day-to-day basis, you cannot do anything about it because 'that's just the way it is.' And I can feel pity and feel bad, but what I sense I've come to learn is that because I have never experienced homelessness or poverty or hunger, that I am not in a place to begin a conversation or interaction with someone who visibly is experiencing that right before me.

What men cannot imagine as a vague formless society, they can live through and experience as citizens in a city. Their unified plans and buildings become a symbol of their social relatedness; and when the physical environment itself becomes disordered and incoherent, the social functions that it harbors become more difficult to express.”

The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man's more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations.”

I understand that Mumford studied the city as a 'social institution,' and naturally, that would mean he conducts a more vague and dynamic-oriented analysis of city life, but I feel that he's taken it to the point where he has reduced everything to a wispy, wishy-washy state of existence. How can he ignore the fundamental, basic, primary requirements of an urban environment and move straight into unsubstantial, inconclusive ramblings? I don't mean to attack him or his writing personally, because evidently his intention was not about increasing awareness of serious issues with the social foundation in cities. “The art.” Is that the responsible thing to do? Make art and poetry of human struggle? Reduce a body to describe only its vague and beautiful elements, whilst forgetting that objectively in our written and spoken words we are still effectively referring to the entire whole?

And yet, is that not what I am doing right now? Reflecting literarily and poetically upon a fragment of hardship I happened to witness in a singular city at a singular moment? It is, I suppose, one of the easier things to do. Write, rather than act directly. Be the one to make others aware, to try and inspire them, so that they then are the ones who feel compelled to act. In that regard then, I have taken my experience as inspiration to act in the form of writing. I have reduced my thoughts and feelings and reactions into a confined, limited space as is language, from which only emerges a voice to an uncertain audience in an insecure environment. If the audience ignores or feels uncomfortable or uncertain in response to hearing the voice, as I did to the woman in the confines and limitations of her bathroom stall, then how far will these words have carried any intention? How far did the woman's sobs and mumblings carry her cry for help? They carried it to me, but then what? Pass it on? We can surely transfer words and ideas through more words and ideas into everyone's minds, but where in the concrete reality will we have realised our intention?