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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

Finding Home: A forced excursion in sensitization (August, 2019)

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

One humid morning this summer I closed my eyes, listened to Kolkata’s sounds, and jot down this poem which I’ve since titled, “Kolkata’s morning song:”

Close your eyes to the

Sweeping brooms,

Birds and monkeys,

Horns, lots of them,

Boiling water at Dhabas, for Chai,

The light crinkle of newspapers.

The grumbling motors of three-wheeled taxis, ‘autos,’

People, on his/her morning walks, clapping

At their own pace, 6 AM,

Discovering a personal rhythm for this day.

These are

Kolkata's morning sounds. Beautiful, of course, especially to a foreigner.

Sounds like these are everywhere,

But we are desensitized,

Losing touch with the beauty,

Which undeniably surrounds us all.

As much as I enjoyed my creative outbursts and my inclination to explore while in India, when I returned home I realized this was problematic. Now, why could I sketch flawless maps of Kolkata and Delhi, but not of my hometown, Danbury, or of my college town, Boston? When in India, I walked in Kolkata. I walked in Delhi, even in scorching 118-degree heat. I walked in the Gurhwal. I walked in Ladakh. But I’d never gone on a damn walk through Danbury. Well, I had, but only to get from point A to point B, only and always thinking about point B, never the present place which lay between the two. I've never gone on a walk just to go on a walk, just to meander, to look around. Why have I reserved exploration only for the world’s distant lands?

And so, when I got home I made it my priority to walk through Danbury. You* may not know a lot, if anything, about Danbury, or my home state of Connecticut (*Note: this essay was originally written as a letter to a mentor of mine, who lives in India). Connecticut is considered one of the wealthier states in the U.S., home to country-clubs, fancy inns, and a lot of big celebrities. But, most of my state's wealth is confined to the southwestern corner of the state, an area within reasonable commuting distance to Manhattan. Lots of bankers live here; lots of old money; lots dirty money, too. But, Connecticut also entertains profound wealth and opportunity gaps, while also encompassing some of the more dangerous cities in the country, such as Waterbury, Bridgeport, parts of Hartford, and even New Haven. Furthermore, racial tensions and discriminatory practices can be common in these urban areas, even if many of these cities' environments have improved in recent years. My home city of Danbury is one of these cities, and downtown Danbury -- although also very much improving -- can sometimes still be a problematic area. My house lies just outside this downtown area, and as I mentioned, I never really perused through the downtown area other than to merely travel through it.

Planning to head back up to school one afternoon, I budgeted myself a few hours to explore my city before boarding the Greyhound back to Boston. Forty-liter pack on back, eighteen-liter school-bag strapped across my chest, running-shoes clipped to a carabineer, hiking-shoes on my feet (too bulky to carry on my pack(s)), I walked, trying to find the pulse of this place. A backpacker in his own town. Having drank a bit too much water that morning in anticipation of the suffocating bus-ride ahead, I searched for a place to pee. Prematurely abandoning this much anticipated ‘walk,’ I discovered a little hole-in-the-wall Spanish café, barged in, and locked eyes with one of the employees: a short-ish, teenaged boy, spray bottle in his left hand, rag in his right. Seeming to not speak much English, or maybe startled by this white explorer – for some reason in Danbury? - carrying a home on his back, he simply stared at me. I asked him, not even constructing a full sentence, “Bathroom?”

Somehow, this interaction paralleled one I had on the other side of the world that summer, in Delhi. One afternoon, as I rode the yellow line southward from Central Secretariat, intending an eastward transfer at Haas Kaus station, my impatient bowels forced my surfacing to street-level a few stops early, at Green-Park station. I sprinted up the stairs, from the cool, underground metro-complex into the sauna that is Delhi in July. My confused body tried to regulate itself, “Are you in a hot, or in a cold, environment?” I scanned the area. As I knew, most of the Dhabas, or road-side food-stands, normally didn’t have bathrooms. I walked a block away from the metro-station, until I found a friendly-looking hair-salon. I walked in unapologetically, and said, “Washroom?”

Also, somehow, I had asked this Danbury-man the same exact question I had asked the Delhi-man. Wasn’t there a more local, niche way to speak to this this Danbury guy? How could I have approached him the same exact way I had approached the Delhi man? Wasn’t this my fellow American? More specifically, my fellow Connecticutian? Most specifically, my fellow Danburyite?

Feeling slightly disoriented, I exited the café, and since my bus-departure neared, I headed to the bus terminal and pitched a seat on the sidewalk. Instead of exploring through walking, I sat atop my backpack, having turned it into a makeshift chair. For my remaining time, I planned to watch this Danbury world go by. After about twenty-minutes of what should have been full of keen observation, two white cops approached me and asked, "Have you seen a heavyset African American man? White shirt? Dreadlocks? He was just walking over, in this here direction. Wasn’t he?" I may have been looking down, admittedly, or maybe contemplating into the distance, a problem in itself because while though I set out to see Danbury, I inevitably found myself longing for more, for something else, somewhere further.

I hadn't seen the man, and I told the police just that. Moments later, looking to my left, only about 25 feet away, the two cops aggressively frisked the man. I felt wildly uncomfortable. They then handcuffed him right before me. A white woman, protesting the arrest and telling the man, "Chazz! Resist these fucking pigs!" stood just next to the scene. "Chazz, don't you do nothing stupid! You're a fuck up! You have my fucking bus ticket, how the fuck am I supposed to get to Waterbury now!" She shrieked, her voice congested, her pronunciation a bit slurred, her walk, flimsy; her eyes looked tired, and her face, pale. The cops then walked in front of me, guiding Chazz from his rear, four hands gripping his shoulders.

The woman, whose name turned out to be Sara -- Chazz shouted her name a few times, too -- ended up making her bus. As the Greyhound approached, I saw her hop in line a few spots behind me. We were headed the same direction. After boarding the bus, she strut down the isle and joined me, sitting immediately to my left. A few minutes into the ride, her phone rang and, you guessed it: Chazz. He had used his one call to dial Sara. She called him a loser, and added "You're retarted, you keep getting arrested Chazz." I put my headphones in, but didn't play any music, trying to be unassuming, pretending not to snoop; I wanted to listen, but didn’t want her notice my listening. The call ended with the Sara's discouraging statement, "They're the state. They're gonna win."

From walking Danbury's streets like a foreigner to the whole Chazz situation, I realized just how disconnected I had been from my life at home; but, at least now I’ve realized this, and in this way, this disorientation was productive. I've had big goals to see the world, to understand it from a macro perspective, to study world history. In a way, I’ve tried to solve problems, and tried to make the world a better place from a top-down perspective. In India, I had wanted to better understand the history and contemporary prevalence of Muslim-Hindu dynamics. But, as the Chazz situation showed me, I didn’t truly understand the confrontations happening just beyond my backyard, cringing as I experienced only a snippet of this black man's aggressive arrest. Had I been running away from those problems closest to me, those of which I am -- by virtue of my identity -- a part of?

The world can be seen in more ways than one. Pico Iyer writes one sentence that really resonates with me, which seems to parallel my intentions for my past summer's travels, "I went to Asia, then, not only to see Asia, but also to see America, from a different vantage point and with new eyes. I left one kind of home to find another: to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate - in both senses of the word, the home I had left." But as Iyer goes on, he seems to have similar reflections, referencing Thoreau as the "great traveler who saw the world without ever leaving home."

I saw parts of India, and I wish to continue doing so. But I must not reserve exploration for those places that are literally, geographically distant from me. While I certainly appreciate my education at Boston College, I must not confine myself to its gates in Chestnut Hill; I must not approach my time in Boston as one which is single, that being to singly study at Boston College. While I love to learn, to read, to write, to think, to discuss and to debate, I must not confine myself to those places where these exercises are practiced. An irony of higher education is that, while we learn and read about an array of topics, this lens is often distorted and fashioned through other lenses.

I think my conundrum is less personal than I’ve made it out to be, one more representative of a larger issue. I am a merely an example of this larger issue, an issue I keep noticing: Just the other day as I perused through the travel section in a bookstore right in the Boston suburb of Brookline, I couldn’t find a map of Boston. I noticed Lonely Planet books for just about every major city in the world. I found travel itineraries for the staple American cities: New York, L.A., Chicago. There were even entire shelves dedicated to places like Cleveland; not to discredit the place, but this Boston bookstore really had a whole shelf dedicated to Cleveland but absolutely nothing pertaining to Boston, the most historic city in the U.S., the city that sparked the revolution, the city just outside the revolving door.

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