By the campus entrance on Amsterdam Avenue and 116th Street, a small box posted just outside the iron gates, like a telephone booth or a lantern glowing softly with white light, goes unnoticed.
Close up, the Public Safety booth seems like even more of an awkward singularity. It sprouts from the sidewalk beside a halal cart with neon posters and the LED promise of “LAMBGYROOVERRICE.” And though its light should make the booth and its occupant more visible, I find that Amsterdam, with its swelling rush of tires and footsteps, obscures it.
Pericles Almanzar is the sentinel posted at this medieval gate. He’s pleased when I guess he is 38, when, in actuality, he is in his mid-50s, having worked at Columbia as a Public Safety officer for 15 years. Periodically, he takes off his hat to smooth back greying, receding hair.
Sometimes we raise our voices to talk over the blare of sirens, but most of the noise seems to come from activity on the street. At a little past 10 on a Friday night, it’s no surprise that even Amsterdam, though it lacks Broadway’s 24-hour pharmacies, stores, and long lines outside bars, could have something to say.
We stand side by side in front of the gate. He stands in the booth, where he has turned the radiator up to full blast so I can feel its heat from where I stand just outside the doorway, holding a notebook in my ungloved hands. From here, I can see Almanzar’s swivel chair in front of a metal slab of a desk jutting out of the street-facing wall, just beneath the sliding window that is his opening to the outside world. I get the sense that the booth is like a stone in a coursing river. The moment the door opens, the breaths and sounds of night flood in.
During the day, when he’s not working his 4 p.m. to midnight shift, Almanzar keeps himself busy. He runs on an outdoor track near his home, but when the weather’s bad, he works up a sweat on a treadmill for 40 minutes and does sit-ups to “get the stomach down.” He cooks for himself and makes sure to get his rest before his long, idle shift, as overtime sometimes stretches into the early hours of the morning. When it’s time for work, he leaves his home in Queens at 1:30 p.m., hours before his shift begins—“Anything can happen in the train,” he says. Almanzar’s schedule rarely coincides with that of his wife. He has no children.
Closer to midnight, when it’s quiet, Almanzar often rises from his chair. It’s a small booth—he’s able to reach out and touch the windows on each wall from his seat. He steps outside to air so cold it feels sharp against his skin and patrols the sidewalk to stay alert. His domain is all that falls within earshot or his line of vision. It is a small, loud, and sometimes dangerous world.
“See, looking and observation are two different things,” he tells me. “You can look and not pay attention, but observing is paying attention when somebody's walking—‘Is that person drunk?’ ‘Is that person be able to go to their dorm safely?’” During one night of such observation, Almanzar spots a man sprinting down Amsterdam, right in the middle of the road. Disturbed, Almanzar calls the security base. It takes three men to restrain the night runner. They bring him to St. Luke’s Hospital, across the street.
Like his namesake, Almanzar devotes himself to excellence and understanding his place in the community. “Pericles was a Greek statesman, and he did a great job in government,” he tells me, cracking a smile. “I'm trying to be an excellent security officer.”
Almanzar’s actions and aspirations are predicated on his hypothesis that the world is an organized network of individuals who must put their faith in each other to survive. “You go out of your way to serve people in this community, or anywhere in life, people will remember you.” He remembers getting a call from East Campus once. It was late, and a student needed assistance moving into his dorm, so Almanzar, who was watching the Amsterdam gate, brought him a large blue bin. It was a simple act, but later, the student’s entire family came to thank him.
The radio crackles at his belt, and he hesitates for a moment to listen to what sounds like garble to my unpracticed ear. He continues, a bit wistfully, “The important thing is to try, even if you don’t have the answer for the person. If you try hard enough, they are thankful.”
I tell him about the time when, drowsy from medication, I stumbled across the street from St. Luke’s at two in the morning, discharged after being treated for a severe allergic reaction. A Public Safety officer at the gate called me an escort to walk me back to my dorm. Almanzar’s face brightens. He tells me that when students feel protected and supported, they’re able to focus on what they came to Columbia to do. That’s why he loves his job.
“If I have to make a decision that means I might get hurt to protect a student, I will,” he assures me. “Because I’m not going to let a student get hurt. I say that from my heart, because at that moment you’re not gonna think about you—you want to think about that other person.”
Almanzar has an admiration for Columbia students that I doubt many have for themselves. “You guys are chosen, you guys are gifted,” he says to me. “What are your talents?”
I check to make sure my nose isn’t dripping. “Uh,” I reply, with a lot of talent.
“Well, this is one of your talents! You are an interviewer.”
“Wow, look at that,” I say. He laughs. He reminisces about how he used to be shy as a child. Back in the Dominican Republic, where he grew up, he once agonized over going to the park with a pretty girl with long hair.
“Are you sure you were shy, or did you just really like the girl?”
“No, I was shy.”
It was hard for him, then, to hear about the recent mental health issue on campus. Public Safety officers receive instruction on how to respond to a situation in which a student appears to be upset or troubled. They defer to a supervisor, who contacts Residential Life, which then decides whether the student needs further support. But sometimes officers’ proximity to students allows for more personal intervention. Almanzar remembers seeing a student crying after a fight with her parents while he was patrolling in Hartley. “I told her about the power of forgiveness,” he says. “Sometimes what people need is to talk to somebody. When I grew up as a teenager here, I grew up alone.”
After immigrating to the United States in 1976, he lived with his stepmother and his father, a former military captain in the Dominican Republic, whom he was just beginning to know. He grew up in Queens, attending school in Long Island City. When he first arrived, he didn’t speak English. “I didn’t have anybody,” he recalls. “And there [are] times that you feel lonely, and there are times that you feel that life is too hard.”
He looks up. Above us, the full moon stares through a film of clouds, like a hole in the sky.
We move to the inside of the booth, where the thermometer on the wall reads 81 degrees. He has noticed that I can no longer breathe through my nose. When I enter for the first time, I realize both how much larger it is than it seems from the outside and how much smaller it must become over the course of an eight-hour shift. In front of me, I can hardly see the street past the reflection of the tree lights on College Walk, speckling the glass over the ghosts of our faces.
Almanzar worked for a security company in the World Trade Center from 1996 until the day tragedy struck in 2001. His shift lasted from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., not much different from his shifts at Columbia. “They told me what happened,” he remembers. The security company sent him to work as a contract officer at Columbia, where a lieutenant told him to apply for a job at Public Safety. “So [working here] was not my plan,” he explains.
For a long while, he leaves me in the booth, alone, while he responds to a radio call. As I wait, I watch the ambulances flashing, inventing new siren patterns. The asphalt, glistening with newly melted snow. The groups of people crossing the street on a diagonal, ignoring the crosswalk. Do they think it’s odd that I’ve swapped places with the man in the booth? Do they even notice? At first I avert my eyes when they pass on the sidewalk, but soon I am leaning forward toward the window, daring them to glance at me. Only one girl—short brown hair, red lipstick—does. She does a double take. I wave at her. She waves back.
I hear Almanzar's radio sputter briefly to life through the wall before I see him. He slides open the booth door, apologizing for the interruption.
We stand, once again, side-by-side, the cold air from the breach gradually dissipating. I've told him the interview was technically over and that I was just sticking around to take notes on Amsterdam at night from this vantage point. But it isn't his style to entertain silence.
“I started writing a book,” Almanzar says, although he confesses that he has to “get back into it.”“What’s the book about?” I ask him.
“Maturity,” he replies firmly, without much further explanation. I respect his brevity. He says he has about two pages, but he’s not in a rush. “I want quality. It’s not about writing a book, it’s about helping people.”
I think back to my first creative writing workshop in the 10th grade, when thinking of myself as a writer was fresh, foreign, and uncertain. My instructor asked us to think about what we wanted to do with our writing skill. After all, we can accomplish simple “self-expression” with a crayon or a journal entry. But when you write, you write for someone else.
We talk about the idea of writing a page a day. I explain that I’ve always understood it as more of a brainstorming exercise. You put down on paper whatever comes to mind. But Almanzar is already looking past me, through the window, into Amsterdam. “If I could write a page a day, you can have a book written, you know, in about a year.” He looks at me excitedly. “One page a day—it seems very simple!”
I think so too. As midnight marches toward us, I consider the condensation clouding the edges of the booth’s windows, the din of anonymous passersby, the 50-degree difference in temperature. Day by day—or rather, night by night—Almanzar writes across that gap between himself and the community outside, building a fortress of words for more than one to stand in.
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