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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

24 Hours by Anna H. '14

From sleeping in a homeless shelter to waltzing in La Sala

10:25pm, Friday. I was sprinting down dorm row from French House to 77 Mass Ave, wearing baggy sweatpants and a baggy long-sleeved shirt, clutching a handbag that contained an article for my Science Essay class. I caught up with the bright green track jacket walking ahead (my friend Eric) and together we ran across the street, to pick up another junior named Bruce. The three of us speedwalked down the Infinite Corridor, and a sophomore named Kirstyn joined us. The four of us booked it across campus, descended into the Kendall T Station, and slipped through the train doors just in time.

Somewhere between Central Square and Harvard, the train sat still in the tunnel for five minutes. So, when it finally pulled into Harvard, we scurried out the sliding doors in a frenzy. We made it to the homeless shelter just in time.

The Harvard Square Homeless Shelter is the only student-run homeless shelter in the US. It was opened in 1983 as a temporary emergency response, but now serves 24 homeless adults every night, from mid-November to mid-April. It has the most volunteers of any single organization on Harvard’s campus.

The shelter is in the basement of the University Lutheran Church: a long, short brick building, with a single rectangular block of a tower. When we pushed the basement door open and found the kitchen, there were a few Harvard students already in there, including two girls who help supervise volunteers. They had us play a name game – name, year, major (at Harvard, this is called a ‘concentration’), and where in the kitchen you would hide if aliens invaded. I wanted to pick the recycling bin, but “AJ, senior, human evolutionary biology” got there ahead of me. Then, I wanted to climb up into the ventilator, but “Eric, junior, physics” got there ahead of me. I settled with pushing through a ceiling panel and hiding up there.

Midnight: time for business. Kirstyn and I volunteered ourselves for the 3am-6am shift (oh, boy) so after doing a few dishes we went to sleep in the staff room: a room just wide enough for a bed, a shelf, and a person, just long enough for two beds, and just tall enough for those beds to be bunk beds. I threw my handbag into a corner, climbed up, and passed out within minutes.

At 3am: “Anna? It’s time for your shift.” I pulled my sweatpants back over my legs (I slept in long underwear), tried to remember who and where I was, and stole out of the room as quietly as I could. Eric and Todd, who had the 6am-9am shift, were asleep in the other bunk bed; Bruce took my bed, and Amy took Kirstyn’s.

The 3am-6am shift is: quiet. We did the dishes, folded and started a few loads of laundry, and made an enormous vat of coffee for the impending breakfast. I read this article for my Science Essay class, while sitting on a chair in the kitchen; I cried for a few minutes, then read it again. Kirstyn sat out in the hall, on her laptop. To get to and from the laundry room, we padded through the main hall, where five of the guests slept in emergency beds. Behind a wall, longer-term guests slept in bunks.

At 5:45, Kirstyn and I had finished folding the last load of laundry. The guests were stirring; one woman with a walker sat at a table, watching TV quietly. I whispered “may I join you?” and pulled up a chair – she seemed pleased. Let’s call her Alice.

Alice has multiple sclerosis. I knew what multiple sclerosis was, from neurosience class, but she got ahead of me. “It’s the demyelination of the neurons,” she said. Startled, I tried to picture her in a doctor’s office. “Basically, it means that my wires are stripped.”

Alice told me about her family history, about how she arrived back in Cambridge – “and when I got off the train here, with a few bags holding everything that I owned-well, it was heartbreaking. Really heartbreaking.”

At 6:05am, Kirstyn motioned to me from the staff room door, reminding me that our shift was over and that it was time to go back to sleep. I told Alice that I had to go to bed; “you’re a sweet girl,” she said, “I’ll see you next time! I want to hear all about England.” I smiled, and wondered if I would be back. As I took my handbag off the chair next to me, she said: “good luck!” This was more startling than “demyelination of the neurons” – wondering what I could possibly need any luck with, and hit by a wave of nausea, I said “good luck!”and disappeared into the staffroom. I rolled left and right for half an hour, and when I finally did fall asleep, I dreamed that I was trying to fall asleep in the staff room but friends kept coming in to talk to me.

9-9:30am, Saturday. The guests had left. We swept and mopped the floors, did the dishes, took out the garbage. I was walking back from the kitchen, holding a garbage bag, when a wide-eyed Eric read me the text he had just received from the MIT alert system: “Multiple law enforcement agencies on campus in response to a report of a person with a gun on campus, further info on the Emergency Web Page.”

Dazed, I dashed into the staff room, and turned on my phone. I had also received the text alerts. The second one: “Multiple law enforcement agencies on campus in response to a report of a person with a gun on campus. stay indoors and shelter in place and report suspicious activity to the campus police dispatch dial 100.” The third one: “Continue to shelter in place, report suspicious activity by cell phone to MIT Police 617-253-1212. Or on campus phone dial 100.”

I sent a mass text to all my MIT contacts, in case they weren’t subscribed to the texting alert system. I borrowed Eric’s phone to e-mail my parents. Kirstyn called her room-mate.

We ate breakfast in Harvard’s dining hall*, figuring that we would wait to return to MIT until given the all-clear. It finally came at 10:45am, via another text: “Cambridge Police have issued all-clear. MIT returning to normal operation. MIT PD will monitor campus. Updates at emergency.mit.net”

*Fun fact: the Harvard dining hall’s waffle iron imprints the Harvard crest on each waffle.

Here‘s the full report, that has emerged since the scare.

Back on campus, I showered, changed, ate lunch, and went to Burton-Conner to read and drink hot chocolate with company. I read 500-ish lines of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (in the original middle English!) before breaking to cook dinner. We attempted a papaya milkshake, that ended up tasting like yoghurt; we overestimated the papaya potency. Oh, well.

7:20pm. Found myself walking down Mass Ave again, this time wearing a blue-and-white skirt and a black tank top, holding the same handbag that now contained a pair of black high-heeled shoes. The MIT Ballroom Dance club was holding a Winter Waltz social; a free-with-admission waltz lesson began at 7:30, and the dance itself went from 8 to midnight. I took a ballroom dance PE class last semester, and waltz holds a special place in my heart. Fortunately, Eric has also taken ballroom, and even teaches swing classes for middle- and high-school kids through ESP, so he was an excellent companion to rope along.

The waltz lesson was: short. It can be summarized as: “Here are the steps. Try it. Eh, most of you kind of get it. Great! Time for the social to begin! Good luck!”

Great.

There were at least fifty people in that room. And some – make that most – of them were really good. Eric and I spent some time just standing against the wall, marveling. I remember one Viennese waltz in particular, when it looked like the entire room was twirling, rising, dipping together. I pictured the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, only a few miles away. It felt like an eternity since we’d been there.

When the song switched, the DJ flipped the signboard at the front of the room. “Cha-cha”, it might read, or “Samba”, or “Viennese Waltz”, or “Waltz”, or “Swing”, or “Jive”, or “Hustle”, among others. Eric and I pulled out what we could remember from ballroom class, and even got the waltzing instructor from earlier in the evening to teach us the basics of tango. Eric taught me the basic Charleston footwork, and was super awesome at swing – I was reminded that if you dance with someone who really knows what he’s doing, you can look like you really know what you’re doing. Sometimes, even if a song was strictly speaking *not* swing, or *not* waltz, we’d modify what we knew and swing or waltz anyway.

At 10:15, the whole 3am-6am shift thing hit me hard. We walked (I limped) back down dorm row, exactly 24 hours after we had rushed in the other direction. In Burton-Conner, I finished my Chaucer reading, and sent a lot of e-mails. A bit past midnight, I splashed back to French House under icy rain.