Editor-in-Chief | Sona Wink, BC ’25
Managing Editor| Anouk Jouffret, BC ’24
Deputy Editor | Victor Omojola, CC ’24
Publisher | Jazmyn Wang, CC ’25
Illustrations Editor | Oonagh Mockler, BC ’25
Co-Layout Editors | Siri Storstein, CC ’26 and Annie Poole BC' 24
Literary Editors | Miska Lewis, BC ’24
Digital Editor | Jorja Garcia, CC ’26
Henry Astor, CC ’24
Andrea Contreras, CC ’24
Josh Kazali, CC ’25
Muni Suleiman, CC ’24
Claire Shang, CC' 24
Becky Miller, CC' 24
Sagar Castleman, CC ’26
Iris Chen, CC ’24
Schuyler Daffey, CC ’26
Stephen Dames, CC ’25
Adrienne deFaria, CC ’26
Amogh Dimri, CC ’24
Jake Goidell, CC '24
Madison Hu, GS ’24
Shreya Khullar, CC '26
Molly Leahy, BC ’24
Molly Murch, BC ’24
Leah Overstreet, CC ’24
Anna Patchefsky, CC ’25
Sofia Pirri, CC ’24
Claire Schweitzer, CC ’24
Dominic Wiharso, CC ’25
Tara Zia, CC ’26
Emma Chen, CC ’26
Lolo Dederer, CC ’24
Cadence Gonzales, BC ’26
Maca Hepp, CC ’24
Mac Jackson, CC ’24
Alexandra Lopez-Carretero, CC ’25
Nayeon Park, CC ’26
Amelie Scheil, BC ’25
Betel Tadesse, CC ’25
Phoebe Wagoner, CC ’25
Hart Hallos, CC ’23
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Table of Contents
Letter From the Editor
“O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (Shakespeare, The Tempest)
This is what the adolescent Miranda exclaims when she sees, for the first time, strangers washed upon the shores of her island home. Up until this point, she had experienced near total solitude, living solely with her father, Prospero, and a slate of spirits.
Arriving at Columbia’s shores two years ago, I felt akin to Miranda: awed by the newfound rush of human energy, by the feeling of the world suddenly expanding. The ten days of orientation felt like a bizarre, month-long summer camp, in which, in true Shakespearean fashion, time passed at a confusing rate and was punctuated by dialogue that toggled rapidly between sincerity and sarcasm.
Prospero is the puppet master of The Tempest. His powers are vague, yet clearly linked to his intensive study of the “liberal arts.” While Miranda is naive and joyful, Prospero embodies the power and influence that comes from education.
We might understand our four years at this university as an opportunity to transform from Miranda into Prospero. We enter bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, thrilled by the discovery of a larger, more complex world; we leave as adults imbued with the wisdom of the liberal arts, yet also with the weight of responsibility.
There are certain things I wish I’d known when I entered NSOP as a naive Miranda. For one, do not wear your lanyard around your neck, lest you look like a SILLY FOOL. If you’re wearing one now, remove it as fast as possible. Second, do not hesitate to join clubs, such as, perhaps, The Blue and White Magazine (which, in all honesty, was one of the best things I did my freshman year).
At the end of The Tempest, Prospero’s manipulation of those around him has succeeded wildly. Yet, instead of boasting, he turns to the audience and admits, solemnly, that his project was always “to please.” I relate to Prospero—oftentimes, it is difficult to untangle learning from the need to impress.
The scariest and most important fact I have learned here is that academic excellence is not particularly important. The first grade I received at college was a 33%, followed by a lofty 58%. I was shocked and horrified. And then everything was fine.
In approaching our studies, I argue that we ought to channel Miranda over Prospero. While the latter is learned, masterful, and dedicated to asserting his excellence over those around him, the former approaches the new with genuine curiosity. Over the next four years, do your best to hold onto your inner Miranda. Reading this issue is a good start.
My best wishes to the incoming class of 2027.
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Sona Wink, Editor-in-Chief: Bananagrams. Neil Young, Live at Massey Hall 1971.
Anouk Jouffret, Managing Editor: The Retrievals, (Serial Productions & This American Life). Kryptogram, “Woman Like You.”
Victor Omojola, Deputy Editor: Buck and the Preacher (1972). Paris Texas, MID AIR.
Oonagh Mockler, Illustrations Editor: Jane Austen, Emma. Dan Reeder, “Born a Worm.” Cibo Matto, “Flowers.”
Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Hélio Oiticica. Crochet tunics.
Siri Storstein, Layout Editor: Borgen (Netflix). boygenius. Carrots with hummus.
Miska Lewis, Literary Editor: Rainbow Kitten Surprise, “Polite Company.” Heirloom tomatoes. R.F Kuang, Babel.
Henry Astor, Senior Editor: Rob Doyle, Threshold. On the Silver Globe (1988). Lô Borges, “O Trem Azul.”
Andrea Contreras, Senior Editor: Outkast, “Spread.” B&H Dairy Restaurant. Dominoes.
Josh Kazali, Senior Editor: Henry Green, Loving. Al Pacino in Heat (1995). Pistachio ice cream.
Becky Miller, Senior Editor: Leslie Mann. Baby Keem. Words With Friends.
Claire Shang, Senior Editor: Lykke Li. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Saint-Paulin cheese. Ax throwing.
Muni Suleiman, Senior Editor: Sarah Kinsley, “Oh No Darling!” Kalakuta Museum. Attending Atlanta Night 1 of the Renaissance World Tour. Winning Beyoncé's “Energy” Mute Challenge.
Iris Chen, Staff Writer: The Beasts (2022). Panini press.
Stephen Dames, Staff Writer: Die Hard (1988). Die Hard 2 (1990). Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). Live Free or Die Hard (2007). Nectarines.
Amogh Dimri, Staff Writer: Fred Again, “adore u.” Ryan Gosling, “Push (From Barbie The Album).” Past Lives (2023).
Madison Hu, Staff Writer: Alice Phoebe Lou. Alice Sola Kim.
Shreya Khullar, Staff Writer: Philosophize This! (Stephen West).
Molly Murch, Staff Writer: Japanese Breakfast, “Posing in Bondage.” Michelle Zauner (lead singer for Japanese Breakfast), Crying in H Mart. Decluttering my childhood bedroom.
Anna Patchefsky, Staff Writer: Beirut, “Perth.” Children of Men (2006).
Sofia Pirri, Staff Writer: Jenny Erpenbeck, Kairos. Mina, Studio Uno. Pinkberry original tart frozen yogurt.
Tara Zia, Staff Writer: Flea market jewelry. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own. Canva premium.
Jorja Garcia, Staff Illustrator: Harold Pintor, Betrayal. Asteroid City (2023), Music, Benny Sings.
Hart Hallos, Staff Illustrator: Being one of the billions served.
Maca Hepp, Staff Illustrator: Andor (Disney+). Petting your dog(s).
Phoebe Wagoner, Staff Illustrator: Who really knows, really? If you think about it.
Take Me to the River
Navigating the revamped orientation program.
By Shreya Khullar
I awoke on a summer morning in 2022 to find a message lurking in my inbox, the consequences of which I would not fully understand until months later: “The New Student Orientation Program (NSOP) is your introduction to life at Columbia as an undergraduate student! Help us learn more about you to ensure that you have a meaningful NSOP experience.” The message was accompanied by a link that loomed on the page. Like every other overeager freshman, my cursor flew toward it.
What followed was a vague and thinly veiled personality quiz that sought to sort me into one of four immersion experiences: Explore NYC, Arts and Media, the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program (COÖP, affectionately), and Community Action, Responsibility, and Engagement (CARE, a little less affectionately). I knew what they were doing. I had watched NSOP vlogs on YouTube, had researched what these “immersion experiences” would entail, and could peer through the deceptive administrative language—or so I thought. I catered my answers accordingly. Any question that implied I would be sitting in a classroom painfully enduring ice breakers or dodging Times Square Elmo in the New York heat, I immediately answered with something along the lines of, “I would feel deeply uncomfortable doing this activity.”
When the next few emails from Columbia rolled in, I learned that I got exactly what I hoped for: I would be in COÖP. I was thrilled by the idea of being in nature, immersed in a program that “uses the outdoors and adventure education to build connection”—something I knew I wouldn’t have much time for once classes began. However, despite months of preparation for college, nothing could have equipped me for what was to come.
The day after move-in, before we had any time to adjust to college life, all the students in COÖP boarded buses at 11 a.m. and headed for the Delaware River Gap. After an hour or so on the bus, the skyscrapers of the city gave way to dense forests. Suddenly I felt far away from my new home.
Two hours later, once I was thoroughly disoriented, we arrived at the campsite. Our Orientation Leaders requested we leave our phones in our dorms, not only due to potential damage in the woods and water, but because COÖP was meant to be a retreat, a place to connect with each other away from screens. The initial appeal of a phoneless adventure was fading as I was slowly becoming more uncomfortable with the fact that suddenly, just hours after I moved in, I had been plucked from the comfort of my bed, tossed among a sea of faces only identifiable by matching them to pixelated GroupMe profile pictures, and shuttled to the middle of nowhere. There was no turning back.
I recall my COÖP being a string of mishaps. On the first night, I was squished into a comically small tent, four girls flanking me on either side, all of us forced to spoon due to the utter lack of square footage. We awoke the next morning to sit through a tedious safety training. We were already behind schedule, yet the day only spiraled further when we got on the water. The river’s depth oscillated between being so shallow that we consistently got snagged on rocks and so deep that we couldn’t see the bottom. Several times, one brave soul from our boat had to hop out, shove our boat loose from the nook we had crammed ourselves into, then speedily hop back on before the current carried us away. It had been hours and no one had seen the landmark that signaled our halfway point.
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Still, the worst was yet to come. After we had crossed a particularly difficult turn against the current, it started to rain: first a slow drizzle, then a complete downpour. The sunscreen we had applied hours ago melted off in wet clumps and our hair began to stick up from static. The entire rafting trip was meant to take two hours. Instead, it took around six.
Yet, I remember looking behind me on the water and thinking of how beautiful the Delaware River looked. The rain had created a light mist over the river and everything green shimmered with dew. Though we were drenched, hungry, and completely exhausted by the end of it, the beauty of the landscape and the camaraderie built between the students with me on the raft is something I will cherish.
The speedbumps we experienced (both metaphorical, in the form of logistical dilemmas, and physical, in the form of rocks) resulted from the fact that this was the first time that the immersion experience incorporated such a large swath of the freshman class. Before 2022, pre-orientation programs like COÖP were only available to a select group of people: seasoned adventurers who had to apply to get in. After Covid, NSOP underwent a large revamp and the four immersion experiences were created.
My Orientation Leader, Briani Netzahuatl, CC ’23, sat down with me to reflect on her own orientation experience. Before the program was revamped, she explained, “Some students might have felt a bit discouraged to want to apply, even though I think there were resources provided for students who were coming from backgrounds that perhaps did not have access to buy new hiking boots or gear or bags.”
The restructuring process made these experiences mandatory for all freshmen. COÖP expanded to be a more representative, chaotic mix of people from the entire freshman class, not just those who had the confidence to apply to an immersion experience. “College can be scary and a bit isolating at times and is definitely a daunting experience because you’re really on your own,” Netzahuatl told me. “To know that there were people coming in who, by the time of NSOP, already had their ‘friend group’ is crazy.”
NSOP’s expansion meant that many more students found themselves paddling on rafts, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, and taking dance classes. For me, it meant getting stuck in the rain, and, after the slow bus ride back home, taking the longest shower of my life. Aside from the obvious hurdles, COÖP did deliver on its most salient promise: an “adventure education” I will never forget. We had navigated the Delaware River, fighting off everything nature threw at us. We overcame the elements, became masters of improvisation, and developed a firm understanding of the mechanics of kicking rafts off rocks. After all that, how scary could college be?
Cloudy with a Chance of Haze
An online weatherman puts the personal back in forecasting.
By Anna Patchefsky
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Weather-wise, April 12, 2023 was unbeatable. The temperatures were in the high 70s with partly cloudy skies. There was a low dew point and a light breeze. “That’s it. It’s perfect. The vibes are immaculate!!” reported the viral account @nymetrowx on the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Before signing off, John Homenuk—a meteorologist and weather consultant who has become something of an influencer with @nymetrowx—admonished his audience: “The lack of photos so far is mildly concerning.” He also excused all New Yorkers from attending any job, function, or event that afternoon. They would be spending time outdoors, not to be contacted or disturbed by the demands of their lives.
Weather-wise, June 7, 2023 was precipitous. The temperatures were in the high 70s with some reduced visibility. The sky darkened throughout the day as the smoke blocked out the sun, causing the temperature to drop. “The vibes are…sort of surreal out there,” admitted Homenuk. Successive posts explain New York’s descent into photo-filter dystopia.
Over the summer, the Columbia Emergency Management system reiterated an air quality alert for the New York City region. With a thick plume of smoke from Canadian wildfires drifting southward to the city, the air quality in New York would, in the following days, become the worst on the planet. With an AQI surpassing the “hazardous” designation at 480 parts per million, the University advised caution for all outdoor activities and encouraged the use of N95s when outside.
Homenuk, with tanned skin, frosted tips, and a gold chain necklace, is a true weatherman, well-equipped to calmly guide his viewers through a summer of looming abnormalities. And there are visuals. In a wide-angle shot across the Hudson River, One World Trade Center is invisible. The sky is the same color as the base path at Yankee Stadium. And from my camera roll, the high vaulted windows in Butler Cafe peer into a bright orange sky.
In a two-minute video, Homenuk, behind the camera and equipped with an appropriately urgent cadence, explains why the sky has enveloped the city. As the wildfires burn, their smoke is lofted into the jetstream. Vertical mixing forces the air down closer to the surface, casting New York in a visual obfuscation.
Meteorology relies on a diverse array of technology in order to make predictions: satellites, radar, formulas, and computer simulations. Different weather models may each produce different weather readings. Forecasts go awry, however, when meteorologists use just one model or algorithm. Apple’s weather app is consistently criticized for being faulty and unreliable for this very reason: problems arise when data is pushed without human interpretation to qualify the caveats and reflect the range of possibilities offered by a probability. By design, weather apps generally ignore the crucial human component of a reliable forecast.
When asked by Caitlin Lent of Interview Magazine if weather is a feeling or a science, Homenuk confidently replied, “Both.” Anticipating another top-tier weather day, Homenuk writes, “Source: Me.” His tweets proceed like a confession. He tosses his hands in the air as he admits the uncertainty and defeat of human forecasting: Even the weatherman isn’t right all the time. As Homenuk tells Lent, there’s a difference between knowing the weather and knowing what the weather is going to be like. New Yorkers don’t actually want to know how many inches of snow will be on the ground; they just want to know whether or not they will have to wear their Uggs.
In the morning, I check Apple’s pre-installed weather app and then turn to Homenuk’s posts. This is a routine that is not merely a display of choreographed neuroticism, but also a shy testament to the fact that a holistic forecast requires human interpretation.
There’s a famous scene in That ’70s Show where Mila Kunis’s Jackie complains that she is cold. Instead of giving her his jacket, Ashton Kutcher’s Kelso replies, “Well damn, Jackie. I can’t control the weather!” Jackie almost smiles at Kelso’s discourtesy. She did not want the leather jacket—just an acknowledgment of shared human experience.
Like Jackie, we New Yorkers are forced to share the weather, but ours is increasingly bizarre and unpredictable. @Nymetrowx succeeds in putting humanity back into weather. Weather generally exists as a sanitized visual phenomenon, but Homenuk preserves the weather's natural position as a conversational, subjective experience. When climate change renders us speechless, we can still talk about the weather.
Vanessa Tasé Sueiro
By Becky Miller
If you are searching for Vanessa Tasé Suiero, as people in Morningside Heights often are, she can usually be found at Arts and Crafts in a verbal joust with a friend while wearing a perfectly angled beret, or perhaps at Hex and Co at the center of a heated Uno game. On weekdays, she may be lounging on Futter Field between classes or AirDropping a seductive Notes app poem to a stranger. In the late afternoon, you can hear her zooming around Milstein’s first floor on a children’s scooter she found on the street, in a race with only herself, shaking hands with passersby like the president.
The first day I met Vanessa, we were riding the packed 7 train home from a Mets game when she overheard a man speaking Portuguese. After an hour of chatting, she parted ways with the Brazilian man like they were cutting off an intimate romance, months-long at least. When I asked her how and why she makes friends out of thin air, she attributed her charm to her unlimited curiosity in the mundane; subway riders, cashiers, and strangers are all sources of creative inspiration for Vanessa, and she approaches them as if they were an opera or a thunderstorm. “I guess it’s not me wanting to entertain them but expressing to them that I am entertained by them, you know?” she explained.
Illustration by Nayeon Park
When she arrived at Barnard, Vanessa was a musician, but was calling herself a poet. Now, she calls herself an artist, and “artists are just people with good taste,” she told me, the only declarative statement about art she was willing to make. She churns out poetry, photography, and music, but she thinks of creation in simple terms; her art is but an amplification of her emotional state. She takes inspiration from her surroundings and pours the product back out—to Vanessa, once her words leave her body, they belong to the audience.
Vanessa’s habit of weaving art into everyday life made my sophomore year a lot more exciting. Her Plimpton single doubled as a tattoo parlor, a barber shop, and a studio. She organized a poetry night in the Plimpton piano room, where the guard on duty, her friend Sharrod, was a surprise performer. We both tried out for sketch comedy group Latenite; she left the audition with a bloody knee and the part handed to her. Perhaps most iconically, she was the founder of the short-lived but well-marketed band Vanessa and The Aquarians (for which I was technically the bassist, but missed the only-ever band practice). The band had aspirations to inhabit a sweater-vest-rocker sort of niche. Vanessa, the songwriter of tracks such as “Candela Wants Good Sex,” occupied her post with a sharpness of vision that far exceeded her meager two weeks as a guitarist. The band’s one live concert, at a house party in Queens, was a moment of true glory; Vanessa fell to the floor screaming into the microphone, amid a living room of cheering friends-of-friends. After about five restarts, she got all the way through “Bloody Bones.” Since the group disbanded due to a lack of dedication, I asked Vanessa if she would form another band. “I should probably work alone,” she confessed. “Unless someone is totally dedicated to whatever my creative vision is, and has no particular vision other than their vision being my vision, I don’t want it. I can’t take that kind of collaboration.”
As a prelude to our interview, Vanessa invited me to a book talk at the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn, the literary nonprofit where she worked this summer. The authors in conversation turned out to be Cristina García, BC ’79, and Ernesto Mestre-Reed, both Cuban writers. While García read from her new book, Vanessa snapped photos for the Center, silently shaking her head in praise of passages that resonated with her. On the long train ride back uptown, she explained how the conversation reminded her of the emotional politics of Cuba, where she lived until she was 11. She read me a poem she wrote recently about being Cuban, a rhythmic piece with short sentences that capture the potency of her memories of the island where she grew up. I asked her to text it to me:
Soy cubana. Nacida. Mudada. Mutada. Vacía. Doblada. Divina.
No libre. Sincera. Mentira. Metiche. De gira. Me vuelo en miradas.
Espina. Cubana. Por vida. Gitana. Rendida.
As a kid in Cuba, Vanessa was as expressive as she is now. “When I was four, I was dressing in rain boots, gloves on my hands that were made of socks, and a big ass hat in, like, 90 degree Cuban weather,” she said. When she studies abroad in Rome this fall, she wants to adopt local fashion and vows to only speak Italian when she returns to the States. “It’s the coolest thing, to speak another language. It has always been the coolest thing and it will be the coolest thing—until, like, AI can translate whatever you say in two seconds,” she reminded me.
Vanessa relates to the Apple TV+ show Dickinson, in which Wiz Khalifa plays Death and reminds Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily Dickinson that her life will be full of suffering as she is the only one who knows her true genius. Vanessa also has a singularity that can be misunderstood. She, for example, elevates the casual practice of finding keepable goods on the streets of New York to a focused craft; her sidewalk treasures include a volleyball that was once marooned on the roof of Milstein, a Christmas tree she dragged up the stairs to prank her roommates, ladders, ottomans, and helmets. She idolizes other marauders: When I asked her who she models herself after, she answered, “My future self. And Captain Jack Sparrow, I love his style. Or any swashbuckler written by Alexandre Dumas.”
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
By Stephen Dames
I first met Renny Gong, CC ’24, two years ago while attending a potluck dinner for new members of 4x4 Magazine. Sitting on the floor, Gong (who is one of the recently departed Co-Editor-in-Chiefs of the campus literary magazine) continually badgered me with questions about myself.
While initially I thought he had been specifically assigned to do this—perhaps to gauge what type of new member I’d be—I later learned that this is just the way Gong speaks, probing those around him with the earnest kindness of a long-time talk show host. When a question comes to the surface, his face wrinkles slightly, and, looking right at you, he’ll shoot-off something like, “how far do you think you could jump?” or “are you free to play the balancing the egg on the spoon game this Saturday?” Gong loves questions so much, he even punctuates many of his sentences with them, often ending thoughts with a reassuring, almost plaintive, “you know?” But unlike many peoples’, Gong’s “you know?” invites a real response, imploring you to let him know what you think and feel.
Illustration by Hart Hallos
Two years later, Renny Gong is still sitting on the ground. I’m speaking to him in the Woolley Lab: a Neuroscience lab at Columbia’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute focused on the way song-birds communicate, where he worked this summer. Gong’s hand is deep in a birdcage; his eyes darting back and forth, his body alert, all of his energy intent on catching one of the dozen or so finches flying around inside. After a tense beat, his hand flies forward, coming away with a small darkly colored bird grasped in his fingers. He looks up at me, beaming, and says, “Pretty cool right? You know?”
Startling at first, but comforting later, his proclivity for inquisitiveness feels quite natural in the context of 4x4’s editorial meetings, where, with a warm and keen sense of solicitude, Gong dives deep into others’ pieces, going through them line by line with a fine-tooth comb. Joining the magazine three years ago as a staff editor before becoming events editor—planning events such as 4x4’s S&M (submit and mingle) Valentine’s Day open-mic, and the magazine’s annual print launch party—last year Gong joined fellow editor Skye Levine, BC ’24, as Co-Editor-in-Chief, helping to publish 4x4’s tenth print issue.
Besides his editorial work with 4x4, Gong is himself a prodigious writer: his prose and poetry are published in Split Lip, The Potomac Review, Adroit, and The Longleaf Review, among others.
Despite this output, Gong’s innate sociability may seem at odds with his craft. As he puts it, writing is “necessarily, a lonely activity,” and he doesn’t quite fit the bill for the infamous image of the solitary writer; his wide smile and gregarious nature clash with a writer’s stereotypical cynicism and gruffness.
But reading Gong’s stories displays how his extroversion lends itself well to his sincere (and quite writerly) interest in character. While writing itself may be solitary, his stories are anything but. The joy in Gong’s writing is not found in his plots or settings—though these too are beautiful—but instead in the social worlds he builds. His characters drag you into their lives with casual wit and brutal emotion in equal measure. Rather than chase after a story that’s already been realized, they instead leap in front of it, the plot running to catch up with their self-constructed narrative momentum. His realism is not stark or ascetic, but warm and open—a feeling cultivated through dialogue that transcends true ‘reality.’ Such dialogue bursts Gong’s stories open, his words dripping with pathos, humor, and grit.
Gong’s interest and curiosity in those around him fill his stories with the same sincerity found in him as a person. As I profiled Gong, however, I learned that his preoccupation with those outside of himself is a double-edged sword. Indeed, his proclivity for asking about others is matched by a certain level of reserve when it comes to himself. While not “quirky” exactly, Gong’s character includes its share of quirks and cranks that are not always visible to an undiscerning eye and are, to an extent, hidden. Getting to know him involves finding hidden easter eggs, trying to pry him open while he’s even more interested in prying you open—and his pliers are almost always better than yours. For instance, it was just a few weeks ago that I learned of his bird lab escapade for the summer.
While explaining to me the process of trying to get two birds to mate, he insists that Marvin Gaye is the perfect finch aphrodisiac while also telling me that if it is going to be good, “this whole piece should really be about the birds, Stephen, nothing else.”
His peculiar interest in animal sex extends even beyond this experiment; he’s given an off-the-cuff speech about animal sex facts to the judges of the George William Curtis Prize in Oratory, and, before a fall meeting of 4x4, told anyone who would listen in the lobby of Hamilton Hall how humpback whales sometimes need a third to help keep the mating whales stable in the water.
As a creative writing major, his interest and expertise in animals may seem out of place, but, as his now long-time friend, I view this summer job as just another oddly colored piece in the rich mosaic that is Gong.
In a similar but unrelated vein, in the office of the Woolley Lab, there is a ping-pong table, yet another marker of one of Gong’s idiosyncrasies. For most of his childhood, Gong was one of the top youth ping-pong players in the nation, competing in such events as the 2015 table tennis US Open, and the 2013 US Junior and Cadet Open. While not a professional today, his level of play is still incredibly high, and when he plays casually with other people he often feels as if he’s just being watched, with people clamoring that “they want to see, they want to see—like I’m a spectacle.”
He also spent several summers at an intensive ping-pong training camp in China, which, also, just so happens to have inspired the setting of Gong’s first novel. Tentatively titled Ping Pong Kids, it takes place in a camp similar to Gong’s, but features characters like Big Wheel (a kid who smells like cheese, a food Gong says isn’t present in Chinese cooking but which still follows this kid around regardless), Jean-Pierre (a 12-year-old alcoholic who Gong says has “real issues”), and a character who specially-makes the glue needed for ping-pong paddles and is, as Gong puts it, “really ugly.”
During the second part of our interview—which took place in an over-touristed diner near Carnegie Hall after I turned down Gong’s suggestion of having it in the Times Square McDonald’s—I asked Gong about a favorite passage of mine from his story “Kissing My Father,” published in The Adroit Journal last year: “On the drive there, my father says nothing—I have never met anyone else who is able to sit so perfectly in silence. He has never desired accompaniment—not music with his drives, not ketchup with his fries, not even water with his food.”
After reading this passage back to him I asked, rather pointedly, what kind of accompaniment he needs—how he feels about the character here, in other words. He spoke vaguely for a while, stressing how he loved and needed accompaniment, but didn’t really know what kind. He gave me a long list of half-answers about what accompaniment is to him (one of the few specific responses he offered was that he needs near constant games of duck-duck-goose) but never landed on anything.
In this, I spotted what accompaniment might be to him. Being lucky to be Gong’s friend, I have more than once had the experience of him sprinting up to me, breathless—a few scrambled phrases reaching me almost before he does—because he just wanted to say hi. To me, this is what Gong means by accompaniment. An interaction casual in the moment (small enough to be a single sentence in a story, or, for that matter, an article) but memorable in the abstract. Deeply informal, but, in the end, profoundly moving.
The Last of Us
The imposter paradox, post-affirmative action.
By Andrea Contreras
On Feb. 23, I received a most reassuring email. It wasn’t from one of the many academics I had cold-emailed, seeking advice on attaining a summer internship. Nor was it from one of the nonprofits I had applied to via LinkedIn, requesting my availability for an first-round interview with their diversity team. It was the elusive, though ever-present, Joseph Defraine Greenwell, Columbia’s senior vice president for student affairs, hoping to impart some wisdom on practicing self-compassion. With midterms looming, Greenwell confessed, as intimately as a mass-distributed correspondence allows, that he too is a victim of the most rampant disease plaguing higher education today. “I continually manage my own imposter syndrome, and at times, self-doubt. Sometimes, I can be hard on myself and even wonder if I belong or am successful in the various spaces I have the opportunity to engage in—work, friends, etc.,” he admits. He then expressed his surprise that many Columbia students feel the same way, although our success is seemingly reinforced daily by our Ivy League patronage.
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
Luckily, Greenwell offers a clockwork cure to our shared ailment. Every couple of months, University Student Life hosts virtual workshops on constructing confidence, combating imposter syndrome, and practicing self-compassion. Led by groups including Columbia Health, Columbia School of Social Work, the Graduate Initiative for Inclusion and Engagement, the Department of Multicultural Affairs, and the Campus Conversation Initiative, the campaign to quell student self-doubt emerges from myriad institutional angles.
Imposter syndrome, once a lesser known term, is now a championed buzzword of Columbia’s kin, Corporate America. As defined by psychologist Pauline Clance, the “imposter phenomenon” refers to a sense of anxiety and discomfort, a belief of not deserving success, and a fear of being found out as a fraud, all within a high-performing environment. Over the past five years, endless socio-economic research has investigated the prevalence of imposter syndrome in the workplace. Every study comes to the same conclusion: Imposter syndrome is experienced at monumental rates by American professionals (between 65% and 82%, depending on the study). The biggest victims: women and people of color. Corporate women today are diagnosed with imposter syndrome at higher rates than Resting Bitch Face; Black women and Latinas at higher rates than “Too Loud/Aggressive” (the previous reigning disorders, respectively). Their prescription? Mandatory attendance at company webinars, Microsoft Teams hangouts, and other virtual spaces specifically designed to inspire the confidence of the afflicted.
The messaging in the corporate context is clear: Confident employees are more productive. Confident employees brush things off. Confident employees don’t file complaints with HR. Confident employees don’t quit. America runs on Dunkin’, not crippling feelings of workplace alienation.
It’s not surprising that Columbia is participating in the “overcoming imposter syndrome”-industrial complex. Columbia can’t afford to lose its most vulnerable students (and employees) to self-doubt. Thus, its faculty have been tasked with the responsibility of educating the world’s present and future elite. However, for those of us who aren’t the future of the upper echelon, the point feels nebulous. For first-generation students, low-income students and for many students of color, these workshops often fall flat because most realize that we’ve been misdiagnosed. Greenwell, charming as he is in his striped bowtie on your Zoom screen, cannot make you feel like you belong at a place like Columbia.
Students of color are always out of place in predominantly white, elite institutions. Low-income students, first-generation students, children of non-Western immigrants, non-Western immigrants themselves, are always in way over our heads. We know it when we step foot on campus, and we realize that academia’s gods are all strangers; when we don’t recognize a single author inscribed at the top of Butler Library; when we mispronounce their names on our first day of LitHum.
—“Play-doh? ¿Como la plastilina?”
—“No mami, Plato, como el filósofo.”
—“AHHHH estás leyendo Platón. Guau.”
Despite Columbia’s claims of being the most socio-economically diverse Ivy, the structural preservation of Columbia’s white, elite history insists upon itself. You re-realize that you don’t belong every day. You’re estranged because you realize your naïvete. You know so little about the way the (capital-W White) (capital-W Wealthy) World Works, about how things truly go: how people get jobs (their parents), how people keep up with school (they don’t work), how people read so fast (they don’t read), how they maintain regular sleep schedules (they ask for extensions), how they understand the material so quickly (they learned this in high school). It’s having your place at school challenged by the Supreme Court, then casually debated about by Michael and Jessica during dinner parties (“Affirmative action: Yay or Nay?”). It’s deciding whether to sit there and engage in yet another spiel defending your deservedness, or to politely excuse yourself from the table. It’s being poked and prodded daily about your identity, about people trying to figure you out. Being inspected, being interrogated: How did you get here? Who are you in relation to me? It’s the daily use of your experience and identity as a source of intellectual dissection.
There’s some comfort in knowing you’re not the only one out there who feels this way. There are spaces to have these conversations outside of the moderated context of Columbia’s bureaucracy—with friends, through groups for students of color, in certain classrooms. We make spaces for ourselves, and they can feel pleasant and safe. But it’s uncomfortable to know now that we are the last of them: the last affirmative action generation, the end of the lineage of frauds.
Most overt racist and classist hostilities on this campus are dampened by the New York City white liberal shroud. Columbia prides itself in being a diverse, need-blind, progressive Ivy League university. The university will, of course, never “agree” with the Supreme Court decision banning race-based admissions. Columbia’s ex-president Lee Bollinger himself earned his litigatory fame while fighting to uphold affirmative action in his landmark case, Grutter v. Bollinger. Not to mention that banning race-based admission will likely cause Black and Latino student admission to plummet at rates that Columbia can’t afford to face if it wants to maintain its image. Though Columbia’s campus itself has long been a host to structural, racial hostilities, many of us now have never experienced an explicit condemnation of our place here. But the court’s language has exposed us; it has ripped the veil from the faces of many who thought we were blending in well enough. It feels like they (some invisible force of power) are pointing directly at us, singling us out, and locking the door behind them. The court has epitomized and solidified our status as real life, big bad imposters.
I tend not to think so much about my admission to Columbia. I think many of us probably try not to. Three years in, and questions like “how did I get here?” don’t feel as relevant anymore. But lately, the details feel more visceral again. I, with around 110 other students in my year, was admitted through the Questbridge Scholars Program, a scholarship program designed for low-income, high-achieving students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to enter top colleges and universities. The application process perfectly aligns with most of the rhetoric about the lesser qualifications of an affirmative action admit: When I applied, the average applicant had a 1320 on the SAT and was in the top 10% of their graduating class, numbers significantly lower than Columbia’s median statistics. The scholarship offers a filter through which elite colleges look at your application: your background and identity. I wrote my personal essay about being from a downwardly mobile Venezuelan family. My racio-ethnic background was an enormous part of my story, as it is for so many of us. A textbook affirmative action case: I know I entered this school an imposter, and will leave it an even bigger one.
And so now we must reconcile, not with the syndrome, not with the general feeling of perpetual discomfort, but with actually being the imposter. Affirming language and a positive sense of self do not change these facts. There are no workshops on how to deal with being a successful imposter, or dealing with being perceived as one too. If before we were banking on the idea that we just “got lucky,” that we were admitted by the skin of our teeth, now our place here feels all the more elusive. We’ve realized how quickly it can all be taken away.
We all deal with being an imposter differently.
Some of us do what our parents did: We assimilate. You trade your studded jeans and Nike Techs for a sweater vest and loafers. You code switch in class; I’m so soft-spoken. You start to learn their language: Greenwich is in Connecticut; coxswain means they’re on the rowing team; Goldman Sachs is investment banking, Morgan Stanley is also investment banking, and there is, in fact, a difference. You eat the unseasoned chicken, take your first employment offer, buy your parents a home (their first home), sponsor your abuela, tía, or prima to come to the States. You donate back to your alma mater with your disposable income because you’re grateful, you’re so grateful, the institution gave you a chance.
Some of us embrace total con artistry. Being here is an act of resistance accompanied with brown lip liner, and giant hoops, even if you never wore them before. You perform your identity so that no one can mistake who you are, blasting throwback reggaeton in your headphones, and sometimes on warmer, bolder days, straight from a speaker on Butler lawns. You exchange anxiety for an acrylic-tipped middle finger to the Man. You’re a little snide, you roll eyes when someone mentions their Ivy League-graduate parent (although you know in the future, you will be an Ivy League-graduate parent), and you wholeheartedly resent The Institution. You speak to the Dominican dining hall workers in Spanish, you know everyone’s name, and you shred every trace of Columbia when you go past 125th street for a plate of plantains. I’m not like them, you promise yourself, you promise them. You major in ethnic studies so that you can finally exhale during a discussion section. I’m such a scammer and a trickster, no one on Philosophy Lawn knows that I know every lyric of Atrévete-te-te. You get off on the nature of your rebellious identity: I’m like brown/Latine/Black/poor Elizabeth Holmes or Anna Delvey, except I don’t want to be a billionaire, I just want to make my parents proud.
These are the ways we begin to “construct confidence” as imposters: We assimilate, or we disavow. They’ve worked enough over the last few years to get us our degrees. But lately, both methods fall as flat as Greenwell’s workshops. The fact that we are the last people to enter this place in this way with federally-sanctioned support makes me reconsider our coping mechanisms. Now, I find myself wondering how the class of 2028 will be received. Will Black and brown students, especially if they come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, be imposters all the same? Will they be perceived as more deserving or less deserving? How will they make spaces for themselves, how will they find ways to exist at this institution?
The uncertainty of what it will look like for them means that we can’t take it for granted, because what would that make us? A solidarity-less people? Now, it feels like all of us have to be grateful. Thank you, Columbia. Thank you, Institution. I’m so lucky to be here, to be one of the last people to benefit from this federally-sanctioned opportunity for upward mobility.
We have been forced, as imposters, to develop a racial and class consciousness within the University. If we didn’t have it before, the pointed finger of the Supreme Court has ignited it. We can’t sit tight-lipped at the dinner party as Michael and Jessica coax you to deliberate, yay or nay? Don’t you remember what Rubén Blades sang in “Siembra?” Usa la conciencia latina, no la deje’ que se te duerma? No la deje’ que muera? Use your Latino consciousness, don’t let it sleep, don’t let it die. You look around and Pantone 292 suddenly looks so drab—a esta institución le falta sazón.
We know that the University needs us. Not just for the photo on their website or to report colorful statistics, not just as an accessory to wealthy white students or as a catalyst for their radicalization (I just found out society is unjust; a Black/brown/poor person told me during first-semester Contemporary Civilizations!). They need us because we push back. They need us because we know the real problem, and we can properly diagnose them for once. Because beyond colonial definitions of “belonging,” of “inside and outside,” of “purpose” and “deservedness,” we are able to see our identities within an institution more clearly. From the outside, our ivory tower has become a permeable, transparent one. Our perspectives contain nuance and multiplicity and truth, things impossible to replicate within institutions entirely occupied by the elite. “Imposter” or not, resister or adapter, we must be heard.
Centerfold by Jorja Garcia
By Henry Astor
“The greatest crime in the world is not developing your potential.”
– Roger Williams.
Or so read the etching on the facade of the library that evaded his glance each day. He would ignore it on his way to work as a precariously employed humanities lecturer at a well-endowed yet austere private university in the northeastern United States. These days, he doesn't walk by the library much. It was early June, weeks past the end-of-semester grading deadline, and his students had yet to receive their midterm exams back. He had not published a paper in three years, nor mobilized on his dissertation in as much time. Instead, he was a prisoner of two daily activities.
Illustration by Maca Hepp
First was the wood shop in the basement of the engineering building, where he would hew lumpy, asymmetrical figurines of animals out of pine scrapwood. He found some tranquility, or at least diversion, in the work, but he could never get his creatures quite right. Something was always slipping out of place, whether the lathe, the buzz saw, or his own fingers gripping a whittling knife. His hands were riven with scars from the latter, each slash at once an embarrassing reminder of failure and a taunt to try again. And try again he would, only to waste more wood and blood.
When he wasn’t in the shop, he ate, and ate without consequence. Every morning, a bomb went off in his body. Hunger, as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, as if there had been a poor harvest or a blight on the crops, a meager catch, a futile hunt. Hunger so manifest that it constituted a thing inside him rather than the absence of one. The hunger was always in control. He could warm up leftover dining hall chicken, disappear a whole sleeve of Chips Ahoy!, or even scramble some eggs if he could muster the will to cook, but he was never feeding himself, only the thing, the hunger-entity into which all his organs seemed to fall. Eating begat hunger. Sometimes he felt as if the little wooden sculptures were trapped in the pit of his stomach, slowly eating him from the inside out.
A dream is a vase without a bottom, each one a different shape, yet equally infinite. Wakefulness marks the shattering. Our impossible task, upon waking, is to remember, to locate the bottom of the vase while gluing the shards back together. In doing so, we encounter the incomprehensible wealth of pieces which, as we probe downward, collapse, becoming smaller and smaller until they fall out of the perception of the mind’s naked eye. We confront the endlessness of the abyss: a boundless universe inside the human brain.
He is a woman with flowing blonde hair, wearing a beige trench coat and a maroon scarf—he knows this despite the world around him being black and white. She is not who she thinks she is, doesn’t know where she came from or how she got there. The world around her is silent. A man passes by, presses a coin into her hand and says, “Look around.” A river of people flows behind the man, they pour out of apartments, stores, cars, shuffling and spilling over one another. Above them, a gray sun glints over the rows of concrete apartment blocks. She tries to discern what might be attracting the people’s attention, but her gaze won’t, can’t, latch onto any identifiable facial features: only skin where eyes, nostrils, and mouths must go. Another woman in the crowd stands still, a boulder in the torrent, her face in crisp definition against the anonymous mass. It appears she is screaming, but no sound escapes her lips. A two-syllable word? The woman repeats it over and over, her enunciation so pained and precise that her message can still be deciphered:
She looks around for anything that can be consumed, but the gray world is dead, inorganic. She opens her hands, signaling her confusion, and a clink of copper against concrete meets her eardrums, a deafening reverberation against the crushing silence. She looks down and sees the coin, kneels, picks it up, and looks back at the screaming woman.
“Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow. Swa-llow,” faster now.
She pops the coin into her mouth.
The mortician would’ve completely forgotten the 18th cadaver of the day had she not noticed the little green leaves peeking out of its mouth. Curious, she thinks, he’s only been dead for three days. She runs her hand over his skin, but it flakes like tree bark. Using her scalpel, she tries to cut the usual rectangular incision around his abdomen and meets not the usual flesh but something hard. Fetching a bone saw, she completes the cut, hacking away at the trunk of his body, the smell of sawdust clashing with the sterile odor of the morgue. She recalls an anecdote from mortician school: the story of Roger Williams, a New England colonist whose body was swallowed by the tree under which he was buried. She sets what should have been the man’s organs on the stainless steel table next to her, neatly placing them in a row. His liver is a meticulously carved mahogany whale. His kidneys are two hummingbirds, each feather in their wings discernible. His intestine is a snake, scales forming a spiral pattern that traverses its body. His lungs are two bears, jaws agape and claws raised in combat like a medieval herald. His arms are now thick branches, and from his hands, cracked and gashed, sprout little white flowers with long petals. The menagerie conjures Noah’s Ark in the mortician’s mind, a caravan of creatures released from a dying world. In the place where the stomach ought to be, however, the mortician can find no animal – only a single copper coin.
At Two Swords' Length
By Madison Hu and Miska Lewis
Illustration by Hart Hallos
My roommate Lila is drunk in the corner mumbling the classic will.i.am lyric about “screaming and shouting” while her boyfriend James consoles her, as always. Kyle and Maya tripped up the stairs to the pregame spot, my fourth-floor walk-up apartment, sending our tools for the day (beers, umbrellas, extra socks, blow-up hippopotamus suit) flying. The air is vibrating with anticipation for the biggest event in recent memory (Eras and Renaissance Tours be damned): will.i.am’s solo show in Central Park as a part of the Summer Concert series. “It’s the Big Day!” James consoles Lila, but the only thing that dries her drunk tears is will.i.am’s voice cutting through the pregame: “Bring the action,” he demands. Lila jumps up and James is freed; he gets up to put on a party fedora, the sparkly kind, the signature will.i.am headwear. Her phone lights up with an alert from the AXS app: 3 hours left until your will.i.am concert, the man that has contributed to literally every pop hit of the 2010’s. Get ready for The Night that Makes Everything Right. I feel a rush of adrenaline. Goosebumps sprinkle my arms. I begin to salivate.
I’m trying to stick a lime in a bottle of Corona when Lila takes it straight from my hand. “Tequila shots?” Maya takes out a handle of Tito’s, conjuring an empty milk jug. “will.i.borg?” she says, scrawling the words in pink Sharpie. She adds a heart instead of a dot to finish up the question mark. I don’t think will.i.am, mirrored-ski-visor-sunglasses extraordinaire, would approve of the half-baked borg name, but I find it amusing. James turns up the music, and the familiar thumping bass and high snares tickle my ears. I can almost feel the skater skirts and combat boots. Lila has somehow found a cowboy hat and exclaims through the hum of the shot-taking, “I hope he does his hits from the Madagascar movies!” I understand now why Kyle and Maya have somehow stuffed an arm and leg each into a blow-up hippopotamus suit, paying homage to will.i.am’s legendary role as Moto Moto, the anti-hero of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.
Dark clouds pull over the 4 p.m. sun, covering the already shafted apartment in their shadow. What would usually be a bad omen for an outdoor concert is overlooked due to yet another one of will.i.am’s bangers filling all of our ears, courtesy of Lila’s monstrosity of a Bluetooth speaker.
My head spins. I’m feeling my unforgiving breakfast combination come back for revenge: orange-flavored liquid IV, one and a half chocolate croissants, and too many shots of watered-down vodka. I push through the nausea and keep high spirits as I mumble to no one in particular, “Look. I don’t care that he hasn’t released an album in ten years. I don’t care that he hasn’t been on Broadway. I don’t care that he’s never stepped foot on a television set. will.i.am is entitled to an EGOT.”
Across the room, Maya tries and fails to file proof of sobriety: “When I was abroad in Sevilla,” she says, pronouncing it like vanilla, “this much alcohol would have been three and a half dollars, tops. I can’t believe we pay so much in this country for so little. Europe does it better.” Cue the hair toss.
Two hours! the AXS app reminds us, lighting up our phones in unison like a beacon calling out to a faraway ship. It’s go time. I give myself one last look in the mirror, adding some sunglasses to my outfit to channel the iconic smoldering look of will.i.am as Britney Spears’ guest on the 2013 season of X Factor Teens.
As soon as we walk out the door, Maya and Kyle take a crazy tumble, clearing all four flights of stairs in one go. The hippo suit lays deflated over their dejected bodies. Embarrassed but unscathed, they peel off the Lycra suit to reveal three beers they tried to hide in the arms, miraculously unbroken. They put the suit back on and it sags against their bodies. Grunts of effort echo down the hall.
Lila runs out the door. She immediately comes back in, whimpering, “Why is it raining?” James tries to console her. “It’s ok! I’m, like, pretty sure it’ll be, like, you know, like, the concert can still happen, it’s a little drizzle, just a little sprinkle.” As if on cue, the door flies open and our neighbor runs in drenched. “It’s POURING out there, oh me, oh my!” Lila cries harder while Maya exclaims with joy, “This reminds me of the one time it rained in Sevilla!” Pronounced, again, like vanilla. Lila sniffles and steps outside, but she doesn’t get too far out of the building before 60 miles per hour winds knock her off her feet. The last thing I see are the soles of her platform low-rise shoes, disappearing down the avenue. James runs after her, wailing and waving his arms like those inflatable guys outside car dealerships.
Unwilling to move, I check their locations as we wait for the Uber. Their floating faces move down the avenue with incredible speed.
Two will.i.am enthusiasts down from our group already, James and Maya have unwavering confidence that will.i.am will happen; I can’t be so sure, but I don’t vocalize it, partly because I need to see how the hippo suit will withstand the wind–will it inflate? Will it make odd noises? Will it pop?
The suit flaps wildly, sounding like a broken firecracker as the pair fight their way into the Uber.
There is loaded silence in the car once we’re all in.
“How are you today?” our driver tries to make conversation.
“Sooooo good!” Maya yells over the crinkle of her suit.
I peek at the GPS: A whole hour to go ten blocks. We may not make it, I think to myself.
“We will make it,” our driver proclaims, as if reading my mind, “you girls off to the will.i.am Summer Stage concert?!” he asks. “I heard he might be releasing an album just for you guys.” I feel myself start to tear up. My chest gets tight. I can almost see the EGOT.
Kyle answers. “Yaaaas! Are you a fan?”
“Are fedoras his forte?!”
We all high-five in agreement. I see James and Lila on Find My Friends. They are somehow in New Jersey, speeding down I-80. Our phones buzz in unison from an email, echoing through the car. I check it first: WILL.I.AM CONCERT MOVED TO COVERED VENUE AND ALSO AN HOUR EARLIER (IT’S ALMOST DONE NOW, AND IF YOU ARE TAKING 1 HOUR TO GO 10 BLOCKS, YOU WILL NOT MAKE IT). It feels targeted.
Maya lets out a yelp.
I decide to save the day:
“Guys. We can run.”
We thank the driver, pay our fees, and clamber out.
Ten blocks is not a lot to the average person, but to three drunk young adults pawing their way into Central Park without WiFi, two-thirds of whom are in a hippo suit, it may as well be the equivalent of doing Iron Man with no training.
People spill out of the train station adjacent to the park like lemmings.
We all know that this is our Everest.
will.i.am’s voice blares towards us, reminding us that our childhood hero is LIVE at the end of the torrential tunnel. With nine blocks to go, we can just faintly make out “It’s will.i.am and BRITNEY BITCH!” At one point, all I hear is beatboxing. Maya claims Justin Bieber is out there with him for “#thatPOWER.” “I think they’re doing the moonwalk,” Kyle says, face twisted, hair stuck to his forehead.
“WE WILL MAKE IT!” I scream, catching glimpses of His fedora over the sea of heads leaving the station.
Like an immediate curse, will.i.am says “Thank You!” in beautiful autotuned speech, and disappears into the night, taking his Top 100 hits with him.
We all fall to our knees.
Reviewing the life, death, and preservation of LGBTQ+ community spaces on campus.
By Muni Suleiman
When you open Queering the Map, you’re greeted with a constellation of stories. With the community-generated, interactive map created by Canadian artist Lucas LaRochelle, anonymous users add pins of varying length and emotional depth to places where they have had queer experiences. Some are dated, most aren’t, and one wonders if certain physical places have remained just as the pinner remembers them. Zoom in on Morningside Heights, and you’ll see that Columbia’s campus holds many pinned memories that go beyond the usual suspects for designated queer locations. The halal cart outside of the Law School serves as a backdrop for a first kiss between best friends. The 116th St. subway station on Broadway carries lovers to the end of a date. Outside of Pulitzer, a crush brews amid an hours-long conversation about dogs, babies, and trailblazing queer elders. A pin on Barnard’s Futter Field reads, concisely, “SO GAY HERE.”
Specific to New York City, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project also hosts an online map that charts over 400 historic places connected to the lives of queer and transgender people. The project’s founders are Andrew Dolkart, GSAPP ’77, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Ken Lustbader, GSAPP ’93, a historic preservation consultant, and Jay Shockley, GSAPP ’80, the former senior historian at the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. The project seeks to make explicit the queer influences of spaces not traditionally understood as such. Columbia’s Earl Hall and Riverside Church make appearances.
The effort comes at an important time as markedly queer spaces disappear across the country. For example, the Lesbian Bar Project, created by queer filmmakers Elina Street and Erica Rose, reports that the number of lesbian bars in the United States has dwindled from at least 200 in the 1980s to 29 today. According to the project, New York holds the most of any city with a total of four: Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson, Ginger’s, and the recently established The Bush.
In a similar vein, the Queer Students of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia’s GSAPP published Disappearing Queer Spaces in 2022 with Abriannah Aiken, GSAPP ’22, and Brian Turner, GSAPP ’22, as co-chairs. With participation from the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, the book charts how the Harlem Renaissance allowed for adventures in self-expression not only for the Black community but also the queer community. Seven case studies of apartments, parking lots, and open developments in Harlem restore the sites to the theaters, hotels, and bars they once were prior to destruction: the historic conduits through which queer people of color danced, created, and loved. The loss of these physical places in Harlem meant the loss of the spaces cultivated within them, which were hubs of joy, tradition, and safety for queer people of color. This change had consequences within and beyond the neighborhood.
Several factors have contributed to queer spaces disappearing. In Harlem, QSAPP attributes the destruction of queer spaces to events like rapid gentrification, which displaced the residents who frequented these spaces. Beyond gentrification, the prevalence of dating apps is altering how people physically navigate queer spaces. Moreover, hate crimes that have targeted markedly queer spaces, such as the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, have forced community members to consider the safety of opening or frequenting a queer space.
The United States’s current political climate isn’t helping. From Tennessee’s attempt to ban drag performances in public spaces and in the presence of minors to Florida’s expansion of “Don’t Say Gay” laws to ban classroom discussions of gender and sexual diversity, state and federal measures are actively restricting where people can express queerness. For the young people experimenting with queerness, measures like these also inhibit their ability to build community. In times like these, asserting the presence and history of queer spaces is important, especially those which act as hubs for queer joy and self-expression. “Until people can feel safe existing in who they are and their queerness in any public space, we’re going to need queer spaces,” Aiken stated.
In 1966, Stephen Donaldson (the alias of Robert Martin), CC ’70, formed the Student Homophile League. Originally operating “underground,” it would not be until April 19, 1967, and after significant resistance from administration, that the organization would become officially recognized by the University. The Student Homophile League became the first queer collegiate student organization in the world, with similar groups at schools like Cornell soon following.
Recognition, however, contained stipulations, and queer students—and queer spaces—were still heavily patrolled. For example, meetings in Earl Hall were restricted to dialogues about homosexuality, encouraging queer self-acceptance, and counseling services; the organization was “forbidden to serve a social function” due to concerns of potentially violating New York state’s sodomy laws.
Led by Morty Manford, CC ’73, the 1970s brought an activist spirit to a new iteration of the League known as Gay People at Columbia, or Gay People at Columbia-Barnard. In the pursuit of “a center where members of the campus gay community can congregate—as gays and as individuals—with dignity and without fear,” the basement of Furnald Hall became a battleground between students and the University as Gay People at Columbia-Barnard fought for a designated and recognized queer lounge, the first in the country. After a 30-minute sit-in outside of President William McGill’s office, McGill reluctantly granted them the space. It was renamed to commemorate Donaldson after he died of AIDS-related illness in 1996.
Gay People at Columbia-Barnard also hosted monthly gay dances in the auditorium of Earl Hall. The dances were the first of their kind among U.S. colleges. At their peak in the 1980s, the events—open to the public—were a major social event for queer people all over the city, once drawing 1,600 attendees. In the face of the AIDS epidemic, and with a new drinking age and identification requirements, the dances became a more safe, inclusive, inexpensive, and casual space than gay bars and clubs for young gay people to socialize.
The League’s history is memorialized on campus in various ways. Earl Hall has been recognized on both the New York State and National Register of Historic Places since 2018. On the 50th anniversary of the Student Homophile League, the Stephen Donaldson Lounge was moved to the first floor of Schapiro Hall in 2017 for better visibility and access; the lounge is now the designated meeting and storage space for queer organizations at Columbia. Other ways in which queerness is preserved on campus is through Q House, the queer student special interest community, and the Columbia LGBT records.
Since Donaldson’s days on campus, there are now more than 10 recognized clubs that serve different identity and interest niches within Columbia’s queer community. Donaldson’s Student Homophile League is now the Columbia Queer Alliance, a broad organization for the LGBTQ+ students, those questioning their identities, and allies geared toward encouraging queer self-exploration and expression.
A widely felt need among students of color for an intersectional queer space led to the founding of Proud Colors in 1995. Aiyanah Peeples CC ’24, recent treasurer of Proud Colors who joined the club as an ally before realizing her own queer identity, explained that, at the time, other queer spaces on campus “were too white and all the [spaces of color] weren’t necessarily super welcoming to queer-trans people.” Most of the group’s weekly meetings are discussion-based, but they also frequently host movie and trivia nights. Through community-building and resource-sharing events, the club navigates the emotional challenges that often arise during conversations about experiences of marginalization. “We don’t necessarily always go into super serious issues because we believe that we are burdened with the weight of our own existence,” Peeples explained. “Sometimes you just want a place to relax and exist and be around other people who understand how you relax and exist.”
Columbia is also full of spaces, as the pins of Queering the Map would suggest, that aren’t explicitly designated as queer, yet are considered to be so by students. One such space is the Audre Lorde Community Space in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which was renamed in 2020 after the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and Columbia ’60 alumna. “We’ve done a lot of our stuff in Multicultural Affairs,” Peeples reflected. “It’s not necessarily a queer space, but it’s not not a queer space.”
Compared to the days of the League, the queer community on campus appears larger than ever, but organizations are still recovering from the impact of Covid. Citing persistent feelings of disconnection to other queer students among the LGBTQ+ student body, the Columbia Queer Alliance started hosting weekly community dinners in the SDL and other smaller events. This, to CQA president Paige Lawrie, CC ’25, provides students with “a way to connect and rebuild the queer environments that have been lost.” Though Lawrie described that CQA’s current priority is rebuilding the community, the club maintains a willingness to shift toward activism “if there’s a need.”
Peeples expressed a similar sentiment. “We don’t shy away from advocacy if the opportunity is provided and we think that it is positive for queer-trans people of color,” she said. “For now, we tend to do more social events, again, because we’re trying to make sure that QTPOC have a place to relax.”
An occasion for advocacy arose on Nov. 1, 2022, when queer and trans students protested the presence of guest speaker Michelle Alleva, an advocate against gender-affirming care who was invited to campus by the Columbia University College Republicans. The incident contributed to a growth in dialogue between queer and non-queer affinity groups alike on campus as an act of solidarity.
The incident also renewed the historical tensions which question the reliance that queer students should have on the University for protection against homophobia and transphobia. On the one hand, when it comes to harassment—especially for queer and trans students of color—Columbia’s status as a predominantly white institution becomes particularly difficult to navigate. “For me, Columbia is not a safe space to explore my personal queerness, because my queerness and my Blackness are very much intertwined,” Lizzy George-Griffin, CC ’23, explained. “I didn’t move back on to Columbia's campus purposely because it felt very suffocating.”
But as Peeples explained, institutions tend to offer protection. Whether it be official policies against discrimination or its social status as a liberal institution, Columbia, at least in theory, offers a certain sense of security that public spaces in the city may not. “If you seek a queer space in New York … you don’t have an institution necessarily overlooking you the same way,” she said. “There’s always that level of danger.”
Collegiate queer spaces might be particularly important for those who feel intimidated or excluded by the New York City gay bar and club scene. Such feelings concerning the impenetrability of New York City gay bars and clubs are not unfounded. New York City gay bars and clubs have been notorious for being predominantly white and exclusive, and The Q, a formerly rising LGBTQ+ nightclub, faced allegations last summer of racist and transphobic behavior toward patrons.
Furthermore, the fact that so many of New York’s queer spaces are bars and clubs might misconstrue the fact that being queer isn’t synonymous with sex. For students coming into their identities, queer collegiate spaces “makes [students] feel like more things are possible,” according to George-Griffin. The SDL acts as a physical conduit to queer self-expression and visibility on campus, and its presence asserts the undeniable queerness of campus: A history of administrative resistance ultimately could not restrict queer students how it had intended.
Queer clubs have also often had to facilitate conversations specifically catered to different queer and trans identities. Boys, Butches, and Bros, a new club currently seeking recognition, hopes to create community amongst Barnard students who do not identify as women. George-Griffin founded LionLez in January 2020 as a new event-based, social club designed for queer and non-binary people who do not identify as men. Informed by her experiences with lesbophobia, from negative reactions to the label “lesbian” to pushes to engage in compulsory heterosexuality, George-Griffin created LionLez as a trans-inclusive space where minority genders can engage with one another without centering men. To her, a club for women and non-binary people was the next step. In the spirit of Proud Colors, George-Griffin also set out to make LionLez an inclusive space for queer and trans students of color.
George-Griffin’s persistence to preserve the social aspect for LionLez was partially fueled by Professor George Chauncey’s U.S. Lesbian and Gay History class. An academic testament to radical queer history at Columbia, Chauncey’s unit on the original social restrictions on the Student Homophile League until 1970 only emboldened George-Griffin’s belief in having spaces for queer students that prioritized socializing.
Engaging with a space, even if the goal isn’t to make it into a queer space, can introduce a presence that makes people question what this space can be for and why. LionLez, for example, planned their first lesbian mixer—“LezMix”—with Sigma Delta Tau, who suggested Mel’s Burger Bar as a potential host. George-Griffin was initially reluctant due to the bar’s reputation as fairly “white and also straight.” Yet due to the club’s financial restraints and Mel’s offer of a free space and discounted drinks, LionLez went ahead. In the end, George-Griffin was pleased with the bar’s metamorphosis. “It was really special to have the space be transformed into a queer space.”
However, events, especially major ones that celebrate traditions, are often constrained by limited budgets. “Tradition is a part of being seen and legitimized,” Peeples asserted. “If we have traditions, this community and culture set up, you can’t say that we’re not here … people come to us knowing that.”
A beloved tradition was revived in spring 2023 with GendeRevolution’s GenderFuck, an on-campus, body-positive, clothing-optional dance party co-sponsored by CQA this year. Reviving the event after the pandemic required trial and error, according to Lawrie. Despite these problems, Lawrie deemed it successful in achieving its goals: “[letting] people enjoy this [event] phone free, picture free, worry free.”
Proud Colors has recently revived two traditions: zine-making, with a focus on expressing the experiences of queer and trans people of color, and theBlack History Month dinner, which emphasizes how Black queer history is often left out of Black history at large. The invention of new traditions like Barnard SGA’s April Queer Prom echoes old ones, like the Earl Hall gay dances. Current traditions include Q-Splash, a queer, trans, and body-positive pool party where Columbia College students can also fulfill the swim test graduation requirement, and Lavender Graduation, a graduation celebration for queer Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, General Studies, and Barnard College seniors.
Defining a “queer space” is much easier said than done, especially within architecture. For most, a queer space is simply somewhere where queer people are. Professor George Chauncey argued in 1996 that “[t]here is no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use.” Queer space, in this line of thinking, is untethered to any specific place.
Aiken, on the other hand, expressed a less ephemeral view wherein the particular place is important to the cultivation of the space. “Because I’m an architect … I feel like there’s intentionality in spaces that are just queer because of how they were created or how they are used,” she said. Further, queer architects can establish the intended community-specific use for a space through architectural choices, such as form, color, and design.
In a collegiate context, queer spaces on campus will inevitably change with each graduating class. Earl Hall, for example, was a fulcrum of queer life in the 1960’s through the 80’s. Gay Dances were phased out due to a variety of factors, including concerns that the dances were an administrative burden, Earl’s structural integrity and its ability to host large crowds, and conflicts between student groups seeking to use the space for different purposes.
The Hall still physically exists almost exactly as it did before, but its relevance to campus queer history is obscure to those not already familiar. This is a loss. Some students involved with queer student life on campus expressed that it has been difficult to physically reinhabit their cherished community history in Earl, in which it is often difficult to book space.
Projects like Queer Harlem Renaissance, created by Aiken and her collaborator Terry P. Valley Jr., Queering the Map, and NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project seem to ride a mysterious middleground in providing an answer to queer space historic preservation. Holding a digital space, they manage to both transcend the physical space while still upholding its queer social function historically or sentimentally. In this sense, access, and the various ways it can manifest, is prioritized. Perhaps recognizing different ways of reinhabiting a space, whether it be physically, virtually, or intellectually through knowing its history, can act as a potential solution to these queer spaces disappearing through demolition or inaccessibility.
“The spaces I'm looking at, they don’t even exist anymore,” Aiken said. “It’s, like, a parking lot. It’s a new home … that’s someone else’s safe space now.”
Illustration by Maca Hepp
By Anouk Jouffret
The New York air was damp and heavy as I waited for my lunch partner outside of Tacombi’s new venture, a Mexico City-style taqueria on the corner of E 12th and Third Ave. I fidgeted slightly in anticipation, locking eyes with the cashier, who must have clocked my nervous state. He should have been nervous, too. But how was he to guess that I was meeting Hannah Goldfield, writer of the weekly The New Yorker restaurant column Tables for Two, and that she might write up this restaurant?
These nerves subsided, however, and morphed into a more subdued form of reverence as soon as I spotted Goldfield, who gave an approachable smile from under her white bucket hat and led me to the ordering station. With the eager guidance of the establishment’s manager, we landed on our taco order: one Suadero, two Al Pastors, and two Vegan Milaneses, complete with one housemade “Maya” Cola and one Lupita Naranja, a zesty-if-flat tangerine soda. Following Goldfield’s lead, I leaned against the wrap-around counter and commenced the professional dégustation.
Illustration by Jorja Garcia
I was keen to probe Goldfield about her enviable career and to observe her tasting methods in real time, but she put my curiosity on hold. With the same consideration she gave to the food in front of us, she asked me about my life, my family, my ambitions, and only when these questions were satisfied could I reciprocate them.
From there, Goldfield and I discussed how she got her enviable job, her thoughts on The Bear, a peek into some of her favorite New York eateries, and, of course, her tenure on The Blue and White.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: How did you get into writing about food?
Hannah Goldfield: I've told this story so many times now that it sounds somewhat apocryphal, but the story I've told myself is that I always loved and was always obsessed with eating from a young age. When I was in third grade, I remember I wrote a haiku and, for whatever reason, the teacher really liked the haiku and my parents really liked the haiku. It became this thing where I would carry the haiku around with me and read it out loud. That was when I was like, “Oh right, this writing thing is good. I could be a writer.” Looking back, part of me is like, why couldn't I have landed upon anything else? Because writing is so agonizing in some ways. But that was elementary school. I cemented my identity early as a writer. Then, when I was 10, I saw the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding which came out in theaters.
B&W: With Julia Roberts?
HG: Yes! And a very minor plot point that's introduced and then abandoned in the first two minutes of the movie is that she's a restaurant critic. It's a really absurd scene. She's having dinner with her agent or her editor, and they're at this very fancy, fine dining French restaurant. And everyone knows she's there. The kitchen staff is crowded around a porthole window of the kitchen, and they're waiting to hear what she thinks. Then, she makes this grand pronouncement out loud; “I'm writing it up as elegant yet restrained,” or something. It's just preposterous. But I was so taken with this. I don't think I knew that that was a job before that.
At the time, Ruth Reichl was the critic at the Times, so it seemed like a job for a writer who loved food who was also a woman and I must have said—I should ask my parents if they remember this–but I must have immediately been like, “I want that job.” They really encouraged me, and my dad would save the Times food section for me every week. And someone got me a copy of Ruth Reichl’s first volume of her memoirs, which is about her early childhood. I really identified with this kid being obsessed with food. So for years after that, if you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be a restaurant critic.
I sort of strayed from that in college. I remember getting to Columbia and realizing, “Wait, I'm not the only Jewish girl from the tri-state area who wants to write about food.” I remember feeling very threatened.
But I didn't lose interest in writing and journalism. I joined The Blue and White, which ended up being so important to my eventual career path. It was such an amazing experience of exposure to how a magazine works and I loved it. I think that kept me on this path of wanting to be a writer, wanting to specifically find a job in magazines. I stayed on that kind of track, and I actually took a year off after my freshman year and got an internship at The Paris Review, which was sort of insane in retrospect because it was a full-time unpaid job that involved some manual labor. I got paid in free seltzer. But I loved it. So that introduced me to the whole media world of New York really early.
My senior year, I got an internship with The New Yorker, which you can’t do anymore, sadly.
I got to do a little fact-checking as well, and I really loved fact-checking. I mostly fact-checked Tables for Two columns because they were short, easy things to give to an intern at the time. They were shorter than they are now. A fact-checker took a leave of absence, so they needed someone to fill in for her until she got back. And that was the beginning of my fact-checking career.
I still feel like it was the best job I'll ever have. It was such an amazing entrée to the world of really incredible journalism. I worked so closely with the world's best writers and editors and was doing this really important but very clearly delineated thing. It's not really creative. I mean it's creative, but the bounds are very clear. It was helping to make sure that these incredible works of journalism were airtight. Then the person came back but someone else left, so they ended up giving me a job, and I finally quit my restaurant job.
At the time, Tables for Two were shared by staffers. Someone left who had held one of the slots. I had just made it known around the office that I was interested in food. And so they asked me if I wanted to try writing “Tables,” as we call it at the magazine.
I wrote it every two months for years while I was a fact-checker. I did six years of fact-checking, and then I left to be an editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine, which was not the best fit. So after less than a year there, I decided to freelance. I was writing mostly about food and design, ‘cause I had kind of gotten into that at T. Then The New Yorker decided to hire a designated food person and they ended up hiring two people. One was me and one was Helen Rosner.
So that's how I ended up doing it.
B&W: Considering you write your column weekly, is there any formula to the way you approach sitting down to write a piece? All of your pieces are distinct and captivating. How do you keep it creative and fresh?
HG: I think I'm always looking to tell a story. So part of the formula I've learned is that not every restaurant that you go to is worth writing about. I only write about a place if I feel like I have something to say about it. At this point, I can immediately tell if there's enough to say. The place we just went to, I'm not sure I'm going to write about that. I feel like it was fine, and the company is interesting on its own, but it just wasn't quite good enough.
There's so many different aspects to it because it’s service journalism, but it's also a kind of literary effort. Is it going to be interesting? Is it going to be useful? Am I going to be telling people to go or not to go eat somewhere, but also am I going to be entertaining them?
B&W: That leads into my next question. As a food critic, what is your responsibility to your readership? Do you ever go to a place that you don't enjoy but you still somehow find it interesting enough to write about or do you only write about places that you would recommend?
HG: Again, I think the first thing is, is this going to be entertaining? But also you don't want to be entertaining at someone's expense. I try really hard not to punch down. I look back at the second “Tables for Two,” which I wrote when I was a fact-checker. I gave a sort of scathing review to this tiny restaurant in a part of Brooklyn that wasn't really on the map yet. It wasn’t that good, but why was I telling people not to go to this place that they weren't going to go to anyway? It just didn't make any sense. So I quickly figured out that wasn't the right way to operate.
I'm trying to entertain the reader, but I'm also trying to provide service for people who are in New York and who are looking for places to go. And I would say especially post-pandemic, in this phase of Covid life, I feel like the restaurant industry was hit so hard, and I've mostly just been recommending places. Although there was a huge opening at this place called Le Rock, one of the places that opened in the Rockefeller Center and that was such a buzzy thing. They got so much press, and so I felt like I could be super honest about what I thought about that and I didn't completely love it. I gave it a very mixed kind of review. In that case, I felt like people are hearing about this restaurant they're hearing is amazing, and I want to give my honest opinion because that's ultimately what criticism is.
B&W: What would you say makes a good critic? Do most critics have any form of formal culinary training? I wonder, for example, if you're going to review a wine bar—I don't know if you are a sommelier…
HG: I'm not.
B&W: So then I'm guessing the basis of the judgment is a bit different, it's more about the energy. Do different critics pull on their own personal tastes and experiences or is there a pool of critics that do criticism based on training?
HG: I mean, it makes me think of my fact-checking career. One of the main tenets of being a fact-checker is never assuming anything. And I think there's a sort of connection to criticism there. You want to know what you're talking about to some degree, but you're not writing for people who are experts in restaurants, necessarily, just as a film critic isn't necessarily writing only for people in the film industry. You're writing for the average person who wants context and more information and to understand where whatever the object of the criticism is fits into the world. The way I see it is, I should be doing a lot of research, which I always do, and I should be showing my cards all the time, but I'm sort of just sharing the story of my experience in such a way that the reader will be able to orient themselves against my experience and understand if they would like it or not.
B&W: How do you choose which restaurants to go to?
HG: I pick them. I keep a really close eye on what's opening. I'm constantly reading The Infatuation and Eater and the Times. Then I'm trying to get all over the city. So I keep a running list of places, and I have columns for different boroughs and then neighborhoods within boroughs. I'm trying to keep a balanced mix of geography, type of cuisine, price point, casual versus formal. I have a real feeling in my head for what the right texture is. And it is not an exact formula. I'm like, well, I just wrote something about a Hong Kong-style cafe in Chinatown and I really want to write about this other place in Chinatown, but I need to give it a month or something before I go back to Chinatown, because not everyone is as obsessed with Chinatown as I am. And then something really big and buzzy like Le Rock or Torrisi is fun. Readers want to know about those places, and for me, I feel like there's a mandate to get to those places and give my official word.
B&W: As someone who does not write about food, being a food critic seems like such a pleasant job: experiencing new restaurants and tastes as work. Are there any unpleasant aspects of being a food critic that someone whose only reference is Anton Ego from Ratatouille might not expect?
HG: Yeah, don't get me wrong, it’s literally my dream job. But it is a job. There's a lot of pressure to do it at a place like The New Yorker, which has such a big readership. It's scary to be writing, especially because food is so entwined with culture. I don't want to inadvertently offend anyone. The New Yorker has a real system, because of fact-checking. There's a lot of copy editing. There's a safety net there. But I've definitely done things that I haven't meant to do. And that's a bit of a nightmare. I wrote about another Mexican restaurant semi-recently, and I included a line in Spanish. I was quoting something that the server said, and I got it totally wrong and somehow no one caught it. And there was a heyday on Twitter about, “What is this gringa doing?” It's all very low stakes, but that kind of thing is unpleasant, of course.
Writing a weekly column is really hard to me. It's been great having that engine of drive. But also, every time I finish a column I'm like, “Oh my God, I have to do this again right away.” And then sometimes too much eating. A friend recently described my job as athletic, and I was like, “Yeah, it's kind of true.” So funny and counterintuitive because it's the opposite of athleticism, but it does require a commitment to sacrificing your body.
B&W: People do refer to food eating competitions as an athletic activity.
HG: Well, yeah! Eating 85 hot dogs in an hour.
B&W: In terms of the writing itself, I can personally find, even though I love writing, that it is strenuous. Is there anything in particular with food writing that you find difficult?
HG: Yeah. Oh, it's strenuous, agonizing. But I think having to write every week has strengthened a muscle that I didn't have before. So I don't actually don't find the writing to be as agonizing as I used to, not for the column. Anytime I try to write anything else, I don't speak English all of a sudden. But the column, it's like writing a sonnet every week. I've said this before: there are only so many ways to say something is crunchy. And that’s a challenge. It's very descriptive, but that's the kind of writing I most enjoy.
B&W: Are there any people within the world of food criticism that you particularly admire? Are there any careers that you model yours after?
HG: Calvin Trillin has always been a huge inspiration for me. And Ruth Reichel. I used to say she was my idol when I was a kid, and she's had an amazing career. And then Mimi Sheridan. I was her fact-checker when I started out. She must have been in her eighties and was still writing about food. And then actually in the last year we became friends. I was visiting her up until she died. She was the first woman to be the food critic at the Times and just, very broadly, inspired by people who had been telling the story of New York City in particular through food.
B&W: Now, I have a few unrelated questions. Do you ever eat out casually or is it always a work assignment?
HG: It's almost always a work assignment, hence asking you to meet me at a taqueria. It's really hard to justify going out to eat if I can't write about it in some way. But I do cook, so that's not casual dining out, but it is a different kind of eating.
B&W: I was going to ask you about that. Do you cook? Is that enjoyable, extravagant, or is it out of necessity?
HG: It's both. I mean, I cook a lot for my kids and it's more preparing than cooking because they're both such picky eaters. It drives me insane. But I do still cook for myself and for my husband, and very occasionally for other people. I'm a pretty ambitious home cook. It's sort of strapped for time these days, so I'm not doing anything crazy. But I love grocery shopping. My grocery shopping is my favorite thing really.
B&W: How do you approach it?
HG: I like to stroll. I usually have a list, but I also just like to walk slowly down the aisles looking at everything. And I always end up buying way more than I need. My pantry is a nightmare. There's so many things in it that I have never used, sometimes inspired by my restaurant excursions. One of my favorite restaurants I've written about in the last couple years is this Persian restaurant in Bushwick called Eyval. They make amazing cocktails, including an orange blossom negroni.
B&W: I love orange blossom.
HG: Oh my gosh, me too, and so I bought a huge bottle of orange blossom water, which I have yet to open. I'm like, you never know when I'm going to need this. I could incorporate orange blossom water into my home life. And I have yet to do that. What do you do!?
B&W:Baking. My mom's favorite cake is a galette des rois, king’s cake. I make it for her birthday and often add some orange blossom. I also love making almond cake and I’ll add some in that too.
But I'm going to quickly pivot. This is a question that my fellow Blue and White writers wanted me to ask. Have you watched The Bear?
HG: I have! Well, I have a funny connection to it, which is that one of the producers is married to one of my childhood friends. So before it came out, he called me and said, “We have this show coming out, will you watch it and tell me if you think it’s good? We just want to know what to expect from someone who has an intimate knowledge of the restaurant world, is this going to pass the sniff test?” Not that they would've done anything differently if it didn't, but it seemed like he wanted to know. They were just bracing themselves a little bit.
So, I was actually, he claimed, the first person who hadn't worked on it to see it. And I loved it. I think they kind of nailed it. I'm sure people have quibbles with it, but I think it mostly falls into that thing that person on Twitter said, which is, it will pass muster with the expert, but also makes sense to someone who doesn't know anything about what it's like to open a restaurant. I've never seen anything that captures the drama of a restaurant in the way that it does, though actually The Menu was pretty good too.
B&W: New York City is a city of eating out, so to speak, and us non-NYC raised college students here are aware that integral part of experiencing this city is through food. And yet, we are students: We are on a budget. Do you have any top affordable eats to share with us?
HG: I mentioned I want to write about another place in Chinatown, where this very sweet, beautiful thing happened. There was this bakery that I've loved forever, since I was a college student, called Mei Lai Wah. They make the best pork buns in the world. They're so cheap. And so filling and delicious. Then there was this other restaurant called Wonton Noodle Garden that was a few blocks away that a lot of people think has the best wonton soup in Chinatown, and they lost their lease. I haven't quite figured out what happened, but I think what happened is that Mei Li Wah scooped them up and they went into business together. So now it's called Mei Li Wah Wonton Noodle Garden. Both of those places are just so good. I would say go to Chinatown, walk around. There's still so much good food to be had there. Go to Flushing, get on the subway, make the most of your $2.75.
B&W: My friends and I are going to Astoria tonight. We love Greek seafood.
HG: Have you ever been to Astoria Seafood? That's really fun because it's a fish market and you go and you pick out the fish yourself and then they just cook it for you. You fight for a table and then you pick up the fish, you tell 'em if you want it fried or grilled, then they bring it to you and it’s BYOB. It's really fun.
B&W: Thank you so much.
HG: You're so welcome.
B&W: That was so much fun.
HG: So much fun.