Accidental Kindness, Incidental Cruelty

IT WAS A QUESTION of accidental kindness versus incidental cruelty. The heat-grate business. The Leverett House controversy. Senior Tutor Thomas A. Dingman '67 summed it up best: "It was an agonizing decision." Forgetting, of course, that agony is dual-edged. That agonized decisions beget agonized results. That agony is relative, contagious, common. That agony, like charity, begins in the home.

There are plenty of bums in Cambridge. Don't call them transients, vagrants, victims. They're bums. Who smell bad. Who don't work. Who talk dirty. Who sleep on vents throughout the city at night when it's fifteen degrees or colder while passersby proffer money and pity and wonder what it's like to be one of them. A bum in Cambridge. To huddle on a heat vent.

Last week, citing security, the University decided to place iron grates over the vents outside Leverett. The University. Capital "U." Followed by "V." Ve Ri Tas.

It made the CBS Evening News. The New York Times. The Boston Globe. Your parents read it in hometown papers. "What's this about Harvard hobos?" they asked. "Son. Daughter. Was anybody hurt?"

Students at Leverett House rightfully protested. Passed around petitions, cigarettes, indignation. Some proposed making the basement a shelter. "It's in the planning stage," Co-Master John E. Dowling '57 said. A wonderful idea. The check is in the mail.

The grates were harmless enough to look at. Like bicycle racks or bar-becue grills. They weren't very cleverly constructed, however. A bum could stick his legs through, hang his head down, reach with his fingers, press with his chest. But it must have played hell on a poor man's posture.

One Leverett student demonstrated what might happen if a bum attempted to sleep on the grates. Leaning back like a Limbo dancer across the sabotaged ironwork, he found himself tumbling on the cold concrete. Everybody laughed and examined the structure. Look at those steel bolts. Solid. Soddered tight. Fresh coat of paint too. Reinforced steel.

Few things in life are more sickening than the sight of a bum who has just vomited on himself. But the iron grates provided a potent exception. They had a certain diffident brutality to them. Like the Berlin Wall. Or a jail cell. Or a strait jacket. Or a cage. They had that fragile, arrogant look of an injustice that won't be tolerated. And owing to the press, and the pressure, and an organized populace, the grates were not tolerated. They were removed.

The question is now one of accidental kindness versus intentional benevolence. Will the University further investigate the homeless situation in the Cambridge community? Will the student body work toward a concrete solution involving education, rehabilitation, and the more apparent requisites of food, warmth, shelter, and dignity? Or will the removal of the grates involve a removal of the conscience, a forsaken sense of duty and moral obligation?

Now that we're off the cold diagonal bars of University action, back onto the flat warm city-steel surface of heat and common humanity, it's time to do more than offer the barest, basest minimum of community charity. When we begin to congratualte ourselves for allowing homeless men to continue to take refuge on ventilation units, we have begun to reconstruct the inequities which put them there.

If the cage has been removed, the prisoner remains.