In the 1970s, I spent five years as a graduate student at Columbia University. The school has always meant a great deal to me, and in a speech at a graduate school award ceremony in 2022, I found myself referring to it as “Mother Columbia.”
Later, in December of that year, I was disturbed at the sight of a homeless man sleeping up against the facade of a closed bank branch near the campus. He was covered by a blue Columbia Lions blanket that someone had placed on him while he slept. Disturbed by the man’s condition as well as the incongruity between privilege and want, I photographed him, and shared the image with several friends. One of them, Tim, who has a doctorate from the University, sent the photo to then Columbia President Lee Bollinger, writing, “I think this man is advertising for help. He is living around the corner from the university.”
Then, about six months later, in early July, as I walked by the vacant bank, I saw the man sleeping in the same place. Again, I photographed him, and later returned to the spot to ask him his name, age, and where he had been for the past six months. His name is Damian, he was 54 years old and was born in the Bronx, had done a little carpentry for a living, and in the past half year he had been “somewhere else.” I asked about the blanket, and he said that he had used it for two months, but then when he went back to the spot by the bank, the blanket was gone. He seemed happy that I was interested in him, and gave me frequent toothless smiles. I gave him $2. He then asked me for a $20 bill, but I didn’t respond.
Two days later, I went back to see if he was there, but he wasn’t. I needed to go somewhere, and usually would have taken the subway at 110th Street, but on a hunch, I went to the stop at 116th. There I encountered Damian again. I asked him where he was going, and he said that he was headed to Penn Station to get out of the rain. I was headed the same way and used the opportunity to talk with him some more. I asked him how, back in December, he had gotten the blanket. “I was cold,” he told me. “When I woke up, the blanket was on me. It was new.” I took his picture and gave him $5.
I would like to think that with a Columbia blanket over him, Damian was under the protection of “true blue.” But he wasn’t. Whenever he tried to sleep near Columbia, security guards told him, “If you don’t get up, we’re going to call the cops.”
In an interview in Columbia College Today in summer 2018, former U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder said: “If you are going to be a good citizen, you have to be a participant. You can’t merely be an observer. You need to be knowledge based, you need to have a grounding for the ideas and theories you want to expound, and you need to take the abilities that are polished here at Columbia and use them in the real world, for good.” The interview is entitled “True Blue.”
Featured image: Butler Library, Columbia University, January 18, 2020. All photos by the author.