Last night, roughly 120 MBA students -- including me -- stood outside a hotel near UC Berkeley where the Haas School of Business had put us up for the orientation weekend. We were waiting for a shuttle that would drop us off at Memorial Stadium where we would be welcomed into the VIP Lounge that provides a stunning view of the bay. We stood on the curb chatting in small groups, the same conversational loop, what do you do, where are you from, why do you want to get an MBA -- meeting fascinating people, making new friends. But before I go too far, let's establish some facts. I have to say, we looked like a fine group, arguably some of the most driven individuals I know. All of us, in one way or another, demonstrated intellect, resilience, discipline, and potential in order to end up in this program -- all of us also demonstrated that we are gainfully employed and able to afford (or secure a loan/grant for) this education.
As we waited for the shuttle to arrive, some of us huddled around cars parked on the street when a homeless guy walked up to us. Just as we represented some degree of privilege, he very starkly embodied tragedy -- I use that word with perfect cognizance. His faculties were very clearly impaired, probably attributable to substance abuse. He carried a small jute sack of his belongings, his clothes were filthy, I could smell alcohol, and even from several feet away, the stench of unwashed human flesh. He almost walked past us, but then he paused and looked like he was about to stumble. He sidled up to a man in my class whose name I don't remember now (I have met too many people this weekend). My classmate said, "I'm sorry," respectfully and firmly. The homeless man came close to him, too close, whispered something in his ear. My classmate cocked his head forward, listened, showed compassion. I could tell the homeless man's speech was garbled, indistinct words, a sigh really. My classmate raised both palms up like one does in surrender, and moved away from the curb. The few of us who were close enough to witness this incident followed without a comment. We gave the homeless man a wide berth. We did not make eye contact. When he was gone, someone commented on how close the homeless man had come to the man in our class. To which our classmate said something in assent and with perfect composure, something I could never have demonstrated had I been in his place. I don't think I could have mustered the kindness that my classmate portrayed. As for the rest of us, there was no disrespect shown to the homeless man in discourse. We simply turned away, refused to acknowledge him, even when he thrust his existence in front of us, even when he shattered the walls that always stand between us and them, between the visible and the invisible. And I want to emphasize this point by taking ownership -- I turned away, I took an instinctive step backwards, walked resolutely towards the safety of the hotel awning leaving the treacherous curb behind. Whereas my classmate showed the homeless man compassion and respect, as much as one can in a situation when one's personal space is suddenly invaded, I did neither. I didn't even acknowledge that this incident had taken place. At the very least I could have silently reflected on it -- thought about how, in the grand scheme of things, my big problem of the evening (not having read an assigned case study) really was quite insignificant. At the very least, I could have recognized my own capacity for apathy, or to make it more palatable, for self-service.
The homeless man shuffled away with his small jute bag mumbling to himself, the MBA students huddled on the curb with their arms crossed across their chests making small talk, mingling, networking, doing what we were there for. And for the rest of the evening, I did not think about the homeless man. I looked at the bay from the balcony of the VIP Lounge of Memorial Stadium for a long time. Fog licked along the tops of buildings, water glittered at a distance, the sun gave us all a subdued glow, a light breeze nipped at our hair, and soon it became cold. The world looked very small from that height, and anything seemed possible.