Hasan Bhatti is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He attended Colby College where he majored in Anthropology. As a New York Corps member, he works as a Case Assistant in the Break Free Program at The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services -Kaplan Center.
I got my first glimpse of New York City in May of 2009. I was a junior in college at the time, fresh from a semester abroad in Southern India, and to continue in the spirit of my adventures abroad, I decided to stop in New York City to visit a friend attending Sarah Lawrence on my way back up to Colby located in rural Waterville, Maine. The decision was an interesting one, as I never really had any interest in visiting New York City, partly because I was an avid Red Sox fan and hated all teams with the words “New York” in them, and partly because of my upbringing in the slow lives of suburban Boston and rural Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I had arrived at Penn Station from DC an hour or two early for the train leaving for SLU from Grand Central, and to fill the time, I decided to walk the mile and a half between the two train hubs and take my first peek of New York City’s most populous borough.
I stepped outside Penn Station and into the New York streets. The air conditioned clean air of the train station took on an eau de car exhaust mixed with a bit of cigarette smoke, and the industrial walls of the underground station turned into lazy sky-high skyscrapers, reflecting the sun’s rays straight down 8th Avenue. Stores and restaurants of all kinds lined the streets, often accompanied by bright lights that probably would have been seen by an airplane if it were dark. Buses raced by, cab and car honks filled the air, and the ever-long pedestrian trains walked briskly up and down sidewalks, eyes forward, mouths chattering to a nearby friend or a hands-free cell phone. So much was happening on the ground, that the blue sky with spotted clouds almost got overlooked. It was a beautiful day, but not in the same way that a Maine or North Carolina day was beautiful: the sun shining in your face, the trees lazily waving against the wind with the sounds of the leaves reverberating in your ears, the air crisp and clean, the rolling hills of Maine boasting the foliage of a summer day from the hilltops of Waterville. Instead, New York City’s beauty laid in its ability to completely and fully captivate your attention. New York City certainly was the melting pot, a vast diversity of seemingly separate lives smashing together at an unpredictably quick speed.
But while my senses were busy bathing in New York’s rapidly stirring melting pot, I found myself wondering how people could function in such an environment without tuning the world out. The country boy in me wanted to keep me out of the city because I loved the grounded feeling that you get when you take a hike in the Maine hills or run through the forests of North Carolina. New York life, to me, seemed to be an incredibly fascinating clash of experiences, but also the most intimidating, and it scared me to see that many people seemed to join the wave and chaos of New York as individuals instead of stopping to really watch others understand them.
My time in AVODAH over these past few months has been spent mostly sifting through the continual mash of individual lives crashing into each other. At Break Free, I serve as a case associate for adolescents from all different backgrounds that have had trouble at the public school level, and come to the program to help them get back on their feet academically. I am charged with the task of keeping the environment secure for all of the students while also guiding those that seek it on a path to academic empowerment. Doing so takes stamina, and a great deal of intuition of what a particular student needs at a particular moment in time. Additionally, living in an 18 person brownstone on the border of Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant, two of the most diverse neighborhoods in Brooklyn, inevitably makes it imperative for me to interact and cooperate with 17 other people on a daily basis in order to intentionally create a space that fits all of our needs. This community, then must also be able to fit within the larger diversity of the two neighborhoods as well. The list can go on and on because New York seems to have an endless supply of people, but the basic fact remains the same: I am at the crux of many people’s lives, and my interactions with them have an impact on both of our lives collectively.
I seem to pass by similar scenes to the one I experienced a year and a half ago, and every time I do, I like to remember how I felt that afternoon when I first came here, because in a city full of opportunity that spans five boroughs and is home to 8.4 million individuals, it’s so easy (and often quite necessary) to just tune everything out and live according to your own path. I see many people here walk with a distant but definite purpose and make eye contact with nothing other than a singular point off in space somewhere, as if they’re trying to go somewhere above and beyond where they are at that very moment. Everyone is always trying to go somewhere here, and rarely do I see people stop to really look at how truly amazing it is to hear 15 different languages on the way to work, or appreciate the thousands of different shops and retail stores they pass, each with its own vibe, humanity, and diversity within it.
But, I don’t actually believe in the stereotype of the hustling bustling New Yorker who always keeps his eye on the prize and not on the people passing by. I have noticed, rather, that it is you yourself who has the power over whether or not the ignorant New Yorker stereotype rings true throughout your daily life, and within the largess of New York life, it is the small things you do that hit the target the most. On my way to work each morning, people sometimes sit on brownstone stoops or in front of Grocery-Delis and when I greet them with a simple nod, smile or ‘mornin,’ they smile back. While at Break Free, simply asking a question or listening to a student’s concern can make or break a student’s mood, and thereby their academic performance. Giving a hug or a smile to a housemate who has just walked in can alter the mood and determination of the group dynamic entirely. I miss my past for sure, but most of me is not caught up in how much I miss it. Instead I use what I love about my past to influence the life that I live around me, to personally put the aspects of the country life I love back into the urban environment in which I live.
In AVODAH terms, I’m using my love and appreciation for all things small to bring humanity and justice brewing into the melting pot each day I wake up.