The Blue and White
The November Issue
Illustration by Watson Frank
Claire Shang, CC ’24, Editor-in-Chief
Sylvie Epstein, CC ’23, Managing Editor
Kat Chen, CC ’24, Digital Editor
Tarini Krishna, BC ’23, Publisher
Hart Hallos, CC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Madeleine Hermann, BC ’23, Illustrations Editor
Annie Poole, BC ’24, Layout Editor
Benjamine Mo, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Eliza Rudalevige, CC ’23, Literary Editor
Grace Adee, CC ’22.5
Cole Cahill CC ’23
Dominy Gallo, CC ’23
Anouk Jouffret, BC ’24
Kelsey Kitzke BC ’23
Becky Miller, BC ’24
Victor Omojola CC ’24
Sona Wink BC ’25
Henry Astor, CC ’24
Zibia Caldwell, BC ’25
Iris Chen, CC ’24
Margaret Connor, BC ’23
Andrea Contreras, CC ’24
Schuyler Daffey, CC ’26
Stephen Dames, CC ’25
Adrienne deFaria, CC ’26
Amogh Dimri, CC ’24
Cat Flores, BC ’25
Sadia Haque, BC ’23
Madison Hu, GS ’24
Josh Kazali, CC ’25
Clara Kraebber, CC ’23
Molly Leahy, BC ’24
Miska Lewis, BC ’24
Will Lyman, CC ’23
Molly Murch, BC ’24
Briani Netzahuatl, CC ’23
Leah Overstreet, CC ’24
Anna Patchefsky, CC ’25
Claire Schweitzer, CC ’24
Siri Storstein, CC ’26
Muni Suleiman, CC ’24
Jazmyn Wang, CC ’25
Dominic Wiharso, CC ’25
Tara Zia, CC ’26
Emma Chen, CC ’26
Lolo Dederer, CC ’24
Watson Frank, CC ’25
Jorja Garcia, CC ’26
Cadence Gonzales, BC ’26
Maca Hepp, CC ’24
Mac Jackson, CC ’24
Alexandra Lopez-Carretero, CC ’25
Vanessa Mendoza, CC ’23
Samia Menon, SEAS ’23
Oonagh Mockler, BC ’25
Nayeon Park, CC ’26
Amelie Scheil, BC ’25
Betel Tadesse, CC ’25
Phoebe Wagoner, CC ’25
Table of Contents
On a November to remember ...
by Claire Shang
by The Blue & White Staff
The Cult on 108th by Amogh Dimri
New York, New York by Zibia Bardin
Bookshop to the People by Dominy Gallo
A Landscape of Leftovers by Henry Astor
Charitie Ropati by Muni Suleiman
Why Is No One Talking About the Hedge Mazes? by Sona Wink
A Department of Our Own by Grace Adee
The Major Motion Picture Professor by Anouk Jouffret
The Specter of College Rankings by Margaret Connor
Bartender Fully Licensed to Dispense Advice by Will Lyman
Notes on Nostalgia by Zibia Bardin
by Staff Illustrators
Middle Ground by Will Lyman
Two Poems by Aliza Abusch-Madger
George Chauncey by Benjamine Mo
God Save the Queen? by Kelsey Kitzke and Leah Overstreet
by Lolo Dederer
by Sona Wink
by Watson Frank
Excerpted from The Centerfold by Lolo Dederer, Watson Frank, Jorja Leona Garcia, Cadence Gonzales, Hart Hallos, Madeleine Hermann, Betel Tadesse
Letter from the Editor
A good deal of the pieces this issue are, in various ways, about New York, which is to say they are about landmarks and institutions, appearances and disillusionments; about trying to describe the city’s happenings so precisely that you can imagine finding yourself under it all. The city we live in can hardly be considered a theme, though, so I’ll say instead that this month we are accepting familiarity and looking within it for something new.
Mining meaning everywhere, our writers found it in block-long bagel lines and volunteer-run bookstores and paper bags of leftover food. We looked under the well-maintained hedges on campus, leaving no shrub unconsidered. We even did the impossible: discover real-world implications in something as demonstrably vacuous as college rankings.
We confront the city more directly, too. We wonder what New York means when it doesn’t just signal newness, either because we grew up here and never left or because we’ve spent a summer hearing the stories of New Yorkers who feel they’ve been here for lifetimes.
We are learning how to be fully in the present without simply slipping into the stagnancy of the status quo. A handful of pieces in this issue trace how an institution manages to change, whether it’s the story of how Columbia’s film program came to be or how the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race is finding its way to new recognition—perhaps even department status. This month’s Campus Character, too, describes their spectrum of successes enacting changes at institutions as varied as Columbia, the Met, and the Anchorage School District.
Within the familiar frame of the magazine, too, things are changing all of the time. You might think putting out a monthly magazine—one with weekly meetings at the same time; one that even uses Slack to communicate—would become relatively routine after you’ve done it a few times. But each issue is defined by its unpredictability, its newness. In this one, we’re particularly excited: We’ve welcomed a fall cohort of brilliantly creative new staffers. The crossword is back! Our poetry and prose columns have both made their way into the print magazine. There’s lots to read, so get to it, and we’ll convene next month, finding meaning in other pockets of this campus and city.
Excerpted from The Postcard by Lolo Dederer
The Blue and White takes fall and films very seriously.
Claire Shang, Editor-in-Chief: Hua Hsu, Stay True. Carly Rae Jepsen. Naked Juice Power-C Machine.
Sylvie Epstein, Managing Editor: The Run-Up (NYT Podcasts). The Worst Person in the World (2021). Capers.
Kat Chen, Digital Editor: Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls. Emma Corrin as Orlando. Tilda Swinton as Orlando. Swiss chocolate.
Tarini Krishna, Publisher: White Noise (2022). Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen. Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille.
Hart Hallos, Illustrations Editor: Gillian Welch, “I Dream a Highway”; your roommate’s cover of “I Dream a Highway” by Gillian Welch. Not caring that juice isn’t good for you because literally what are you supposed to do.
Madeleine Hermann, Illustrations Editor: Pumpkin-scented candles. JJ’s french toast (seriously).
Annie Poole, Layout Editor: Zoe Leonard, “Al río / To the River,” Hauser & Wirth. Mr. Green Tea’s GINGER GINGER ice cream.
Grace Adee, Senior Editor: Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife. Sleep Resonance, “Brown Noise for Sleep.”
Dominy Gallo, Senior Editor: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love. Duke Riley, DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash (The Brooklyn Museum).
Anouk Jouffret, Senior Editor: Personality Crisis: One Night Only (2022). Dire Straits, “Your Latest Trick.” Mr. Green Tea’s GINGER GINGER ice cream.
Kelsey Kitzke, Senior Editor: The Little Hours (2017). Lauren Groff, Matrix. Novitiate (2017).
Becky Miller, Senior Editor: Stagecoach (1939). Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers.
Victor Omojola, Senior Editor: Funny Pages (2022).
Sona Wink, Senior Editor: The working relationship of Sohla and Ham El-Waylly.
Henry Astor, Staff Writer: Triangle of Sadness (2022).
Zibia Bardin, Staff Writer: ADP Jazz Night (every other Thursday). Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. Coconut rooibos tea from Sullivan Street Tea & Spice Company.
Margaret Connor, Staff Writer: Stuart Murdoch, “Another Saturday.” Decision to Leave (2022). The Hudson Line.
Schuyler Daffey, Staff Writer: Ricchi e Poveri, “Sarà Perché Ti Amo.” Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Steven Dames, Staff Writer: Anatole France, San Satiro. Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994). Gin Pig gin.
Adrienne deFaria, Staff Writer: Jia Tolentino, “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston.” Sex and the City (HBO). Green tea flavored Choco Pies.
Amogh Dimri, Staff Writer: Hinds, “The Club.” Robert Frank, The Americans. Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Sadia Haque, Staff Writer: Maisie Peters, “Rockstar.” Adrienne Rich, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.” Every paintball episode of Community.
Madison Hu, Staff Writer: Dora Jar, “Multiply.” Patti Smith, Woolgathering. Pumpkin shortbread bars.
Josh Kazali, Staff Writer: All the President’s Men (1976). Aftersun (2022). Dear Nora, Three States: Rarities.
Molly Leahy, Staff Writer: Campfires on screens in the background. Apple cider donuts from the Broadway farmers market.
Will Lyman, Staff Writer: Being from Minnesota. Lindsay Lohan–led comedies, namely The Parent Trap (1998). Madonna, “Like a Virgin.”
Molly Murch, Staff Writer: Lentil soup. Sheryl Crow, “Soak Up The Sun.”
Briani Netzahuatl, Staff Writer: Into It (Vulture Podcast). The genius of Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary (Hulu). Dear Mama’s Mexico City Mocha will change your life.
Anna Patchefsky, Staff Writer: The Magnetic Fields, “Strange Powers.” Nicole Krauss, To Be a Man. Pepcid.
Muni Suleiman, Staff Writer: Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room (The Met). Morgan Parker, “Confessions of a Perpetually Single Woman.” Following the fall foliage.
Dominic Wiharso, Staff Writer: Julia Roberts.
Lolo Dederer, Staff Illustrator: Cadmium red light. $2 farmers market apple cake. Pretending to be annoyed by high schoolers moshing at the Pixies concert.
Watson Frank, Staff Illustrator: Tree gazing. Minnie Riperton. Any Scooby Doo movie with a hyper-specific setting.
Jorja Garcia, Staff Illustrator: Rainbow Kitten Surprise, How to: Friend, Love, Freefall. Pulling all nighters outside in the cold.
Oonagh Mockler, Staff Illustrator: Bobby Womack, “California Dreamin’.” Rupert Holmes, “I Don’t Need You.” Derry Girls (Netflix).
The Cult on 108th
At Absolute Bagels, you get what you get.
By Amogh Dimri
Illustration by Amelie Scheil
If you keep an eye out you will start to see them everywhere: navy blue baseball caps embroidered with “Absolute Bagels NYC” in thin red lettering; in the center lies a golden, halo-shaped bagel. The caps burst onto the scene last spring when the family-run business released them for a fairly priced $10 as a thank you to their student patrons. The marketing tactic worked—now, students flock to the store to grab a bagel and their own wearable Morningside Heights memento. Despite being sucked into this retail scheme—I, too, bought a cap—the success of this secondary product revealed something that I had not realized: Absolute Bagels boasts a cult of devoted bagel buyers.
I must admit that I have unknowingly been part of said cult. On most weekend mornings I, accompanied by the odd suitemate who didn’t sleep in, make the pilgrimage down to 108th and Broadway to wait in the infamously long line for a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. The sleepy stroll down Broadway has become a ritual of mine: the brisk morning air, the book salesmen playing chess, the congregations of aproned employees smoking on the curb as they open shop.
Daniel Kim, CC ’24, has been a regular at Absolute since freshman year. During the turbulent pandemic era, the bagel shop offered stability via routine: Kim would listen to “My Way” by Frank Sinatra during his stroll downtown, grab a bagel before the resurgence of post-pandemic lines, and walk to the mansion on 106th and Riverside Drive to admire the architecture and dog-watch.
Sam Thongkrieng opened Absolute Bagels in 1990 following a stint at Ess-A-Bagel, a popular haunt in Midtown. An immigrant from Bangkok, his bagel shop is probably the only in the city where customers regularly walk out with a Thai iced tea instead of an iced coffee. The shop’s line, which is not for the faint of heart, is testament to Thongkrieng’s success: From the hours of 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday, many saw it and fled. One man in a T-shirt reading “Beer is Beautiful” immediately pulled an 180° turn after seeing the crowd. Another student, presumably dragged out of bed by her roommates, remarked, “I’m not waiting in this. I’ll see you at home.” Morningside Heights resident Carlos Cardinales saw me sizing up the bagel line and asked me if there was some sort of sweepstakes or giveaway going on. When I answered that this particular crowd was just crazy for these particular bagels, he remarked aloud, “I’m absolutely dumbfounded … who would think that the public would go absolutely nuts for Absolute Bagels?” More bizarrely, people ate while waiting in line: A couple in their thirties devoured halal gyros while edging closer towards their Absolute Bagel, while others threw back munchkins from the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. The bagel was not a mere means of sustenance, but a reward.
Put simply: Those who get it, get it. For every New Yorker who recorded the atrociously long line on their phone, there were 10 more locals and students lined up, unfazed by the 45-minute obstacle ahead, purses stocked with snacks and coffee to fuel their 150-foot trudge. Seemingly, what the cult admires about Absolute Bagels is their unapologetic commitment to do things their own way. Absolute Bagels embodies the mindset: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t come. We have a B in sanitation? Doesn’t bother me. The line is too long for you? Sucks to suck.’
While the bagels are well-above average, they are not phenomenal. They are chewy and warm. The cream cheese is flavorful and lathered on thick. The Thai iced tea is delectable. While the bagel is good, the line is why I return. It is here that the community finds itself. Each week I chat with fellow students, often hungover from the previous evening, or old couples with puppies in tow, some who have been bagel patrons for three generations of dogs. I leave my AirPods in my room—I would rather overhear friends debate whose professors are the hottest or attempt to answer tough questions like whether buying gently used underwear from Facebook Marketplace is a viable solution when the mailroom loses your package. The ubiquitous hat is my claim to be part of this community, not just of bagel-eaters, but those inquisitive minds who can romanticize 40 minutes standing in the cold.
During our conversation, Kim paused and ran to his room to show me his baseball cap. He pointed to the awkwardly long spacing between the “E” and “L” of “BAGELS.” “There’s not really attention to detail. And I love that about the hat.” To Kim, the essence of Absolute Bagels is encapsulated in the cap: “No frills. You get what you get.”
New York, New York
On the choice to stay.
By Zibia Bardin
Three days of rain this week and I can’t stop thinking about the pavements I grew up watching. The plastic rain cover, the one wheel of the stroller that pulled crazily to the left: I learned to tell where I was by the type of pavement I was looking at. Each one has its own type of gray, its own type of speckles or not-speckles, its own shapes—big gray squares like the ones by Cadman Plaza Park or little hexagons like in Washington Square.
A therapist once told me to keep track of the different kinds of gray I encountered. “Watch the sky,” she said. “You’ll find that each gray is really very different from the last.” She had an office on 11th Street and a maroon leather couch, and for a long time I knew that room very well. Sometimes I see a plant like the one she had in her office and am momentarily stunned and feel I might do something erratic, but then I become fascinated by something else, like a bug, and it passes.
That room feels like a different life now. On my way home for Rosh Hashanah, I pass by it. The doorway is the same, the little green awning, the buzzer with her name on it. I am certain that there was a time I stood under that awning in my father’s old raincoat, my hands cold on the umbrella, waiting to be let in, but I couldn’t tell you why I would remember such a banal thing as that and then I begin to feel as though it may not be a memory at all, but a fragment of some old dream.
I’m becoming a Russian doll of this city. Every day I form a new layer, the way water moves to make a puddle.
I don’t remember deciding to stay—I remember sitting on my couch one night and writing the Barnard supplements, and I remember sometime in junior year I was sent a Barnard pin or I got a hold of one somehow, and I remember pinning it to my bra strap and wearing it under my clothes. I remember my acceptance letter, a confetti of tiny Bs on the page. To me it seemed like freedom. A tiny door, a new rabbit hole to fall into. I biked down the West Side Highway and felt the first taste of my new life in the wind moving through the roots of my hair.
One day in August, before all of that, I took the bike path along the Hudson all the way up to 116th Street. Barnard’s campus was closed. I sat on Low Steps, apathetic, eating one of the fruit roll-up things from Garden of Eden, 17 years old in every direction. I had no idea then what this place would come to mean to me.
Still, sometimes I get jealous of my friends in New Jersey, Ohio, Connecticut, California. I know they’re changing, some of them even got a driver’s license. Other times I get jealous of my friends here, how they’re so far from home. They don’t know that the restaurant on the corner has closed, or that their neighbor’s kid just got into college. I know these things because I constantly find myself in neighborhoods from before. It’s a tiny grief but somehow it adds up.
All of this can be explained to my friends but it hardly matters what the explanation is, and a lot of the time it’s not worth explaining. Here’s this diner exactly like all the other diners except this was the one I went to after prom—nothing special happened here at all on that night, we sat down, I think you had an omelette, I asked what stop we were taking the 3 to, you said Hoyt, we sat in silence, a group of squash players we knew came in, you said hello, I did not, the church across the street sat there and stared at us, you laughed at something I said, some cruel comment about some vulnerable someone as I was prone to making at the time, and somehow I still have to concede that the love I had for you, that place, that time, was real. And it is by virtue of that fact that I find myself provoked by corners and restaurants and delis, the very color of the sidewalks.
And now I’m not that much older and walking with people I have come to love but wouldn’t have recognized then and I pass that diner on my way to something else, and this whole thing, the memory of your face, the church, all those years of absentminded glances which have conditioned me to recognize that stupid awning with an immediacy I wish I could transfer to something else, happens in an instant and then is gone. The night whirs on. I have to keep going.
Melancholic on Low Steps, 19 this time, I call home. My dad picks up. He points to the ledge I’m sitting beneath and says, “Do you know what happened there?” I say yes, that’s where you proposed to mom. I ask him if they had talked about marriage before. He says, “Well, I can’t tell you that story.” I ask him why. He says, “Because your mother behaved badly, and she wouldn’t want me to tell you about it.” I say, “But you forgave her?” And he sighs and smiles and then says “yes, over and over again.”
Maybe those of us who stayed are doing the same thing. Forgiving the city of its callouses. Forgiving the corners and sidewalks, forgiving the diners, forgiving the 3 train for carrying us to so many parties, only for you to live in a different state now. Yes, over and over again.
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
Bookshop to the People
Word Up serves as a liberatory library in the Heights.
By Dominy Gallo
A red awning wraps around the storefront at the corner of 165th and Amsterdam, shading shelves of secondhand books and a papered-over community fridge. “Word Up Community Bookshop,” it reads, and I was there in early September to buy coursebooks for an English seminar with professor Denise Cruz. Just inside, a pair of newspaper clippings, one in English and one in Spanish, features the bookshop’s 2018 initiative to collect books for young people who had been separated from their families at the border and came to New York as refugees. Bilingual pamphlets burst from plastic containers: information on disability rights protections, immigrant services, anti-discrimination law, health insurance support, and substance use clinics; advertisements for early childhood programs, music festivals, arts grants, and LGBTQIA+ sex education; socialist newspapers; flyers for tenants organizations, a youth chorus, and a bilingual feminist revolution group. This was a place of learning, of more than one kind.
“Making books available in communities that don’t otherwise have access due to language, geography, socioeconomics” is Word Up’s founding principle, the bookshop’s founder, Veronica Liu, told me over the phone on her commute. It’s a mission she was “taken to” when working as an editor at Seven Stories Press, from which Seven Stories Institute, Word Up’s parent organization, emerged. Years ago, an old friend of the Press’s publisher told him she believed the publishing industry had designed distribution channels such that books of political import don’t reach the communities they’re meant to serve. He took that as a challenge, and, in 2004, the Institute came into being; Word Up is its latest and greatest neighborhood initiative.
Liu recently opened a second location, Recirculation, to accommodate the sprawling collection of the late Tom Burgess, a longtime Word Up volunteer. The new space, on Riverside, doubles as a site for community organizing, just like Word Up’s main location, which hosts the Afrofuturism book club Black Magic; children’s literature festival Uptown Kid Lit; Uptown Reads’s bilingual book club events; the People’s Fridge for shared neighborhood food resources; Lo’Mas Lit Book Club for 14- to 21-year-old readers; and a series of afterschool programs—the latest, an eco-group called Earth Defenders.
In 2015, nearly three-quarters of characters in children’s books were white, I learned from two Social Justice Books printouts taped by the bookshop’s door. Children of color from all backgrounds combined had roughly the same level of representation as “animals, trucks, etc.” In 2018, the proportion of white kids in books for young people had dropped to half, but the difference made room for more quadrupeds than Black, Latinx, AAPI, and Indigenous children put together. The volunteer led me to the children’s section in the back, which brimmed with English, Spanish, and multilingual books.
When Liu took charge of Seven Stories Institute, she later told me, the first thing she did as executive director was start an after-school writing program in Washington Heights; the next was to found Word Up. “Then,” she said, “that took over my life.” For the first six years, the bookshop was entirely volunteer-run. Now, in addition to a handful of salaried staff, collective members—about 60 are active at a given time, though over 1000 have been trained in the last decade—take shifts, run events, and weigh in on the bookshop’s identity and image.
The project was conceived, in 2011, as a week-long pop-up. When the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, to whom Liu first made her pitch, lost the original storefront, it found a bigger space. A month became three months became a six-month short-term lease. When the building was sold, its new landlord preferred a tenant who would pay more than Word Up’s highly subsidized rent. But New York-Presbyterian/CUIMC and the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal development left only a few city blocks within the bookshop’s financial reach.
“As you get closer to the hospital,” Liu said, “the rents go up, like, 10,000 at a time.” (Meanwhile, patient care is responsible for roughly a quarter of Columbia’s GAAP revenue—$1.5 billion in the last fiscal year.) Eventually, Word Up found a landlord ready to accommodate them: Community League of the Heights, a nonprofit that assists community members with affordable housing, professional development, and education. It also rents out spaces to external organizations, like Word Up, that align with their values.
“Many good books posing alternatives to current governmental policies and attitudes,” Seven Stories Institute’s mission statement reads, “circulate largely within academic circles but never reach those most adversely affected by those policies.” Cruz was one of only two Columbia academics Liu could think of who sent her students to the bookshop, to ensure our coursebook dollars went to supporting Word Up’s mission. But Columbia affiliates are not, at base, the people the bookshop was founded to serve. When discussing these texts in an elite university setting, the target audience, to borrow from philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, is rarely in the room.
The neighbors and volunteers who walked into Liu’s makeshift book-sharing outfit in 2011 sensed its magic as immediately as I did. Word Up became possible not only because people volunteered to staff the register, but because the neighborhood organized to keep it alive. That first month-long project snowballed because volunteers and customers banded together and started a petition for a lease extension. Later, Word Up established its Amsterdam home with funds crowdsourced from 800 donors. “From the grand opening,” Liu remembered, “people walked in and said, ‘We need to keep this place here forever!’”
Illustration by Maca Hepp
A Landscape of Leftovers
Discovering New York through Too Good to Go.
By Henry Astor
Illustration by Mac Jackson
Scrolling through my purchase history on Too Good to Go—an app that lets restaurants offer their leftover food during off-peak hours at unbelievably low prices—I can tell a story about almost every entry. Safari Restaurant, a Somali joint on 116th: I secured a $5 plate of chicken and rice that I carried up the terraces of Morningside Park while listening to Hildegard von Bingen chants for Music Hum. Previti Pizza: I paid $5 for two pepperoni slices to warm my frozen fingers on the steps of the New York Public Library at the height of the pandemic. El Pipirin: I visited the South Bronx establishment in mid-July, weaving through traffic on a Citi Bike in search of $4 tacos only to discover that it was actually closed that day.
There’s admittedly little glamor in ordering a Too Good to Go meal. Pickup time slots are scheduled by the restaurant and are almost always after 9 p.m. Often, you’ll walk in and find someone mopping the floor or scrubbing a grill (or, at times, no one at all), to whom you must sheepishly flash your confirmation code. Your meal will likely be pre-packed in a paper bag, in which the presence of cutlery is highly unpredictable. And you may find yourself stricken with some residual guilt about contributing such a paltry amount to a local business that may be desperate for full-paying customers. Despite all this, I’ve received unequivocal kindness and cordiality in my every experience with the app. This quotidian compassion was not only indicative of the app’s charitable mission, but its capacity to nourish—physically and emotionally—while I was in a drought of companionship.
I installed Too Good to Go in December 2020, fresh out of a relationship and a dysfunctional roommate arrangement. In losing those people, what little social life I was able to cobble together that semester evaporated; fetching my Too Good to Go meals became virtually the only reason I left Morningside Heights. The admissions office’s refrain that “the city is our campus” deserves the mockery it tends to receive, but the cliché well describes the peculiarities of my freshman year. The New York I got to know was the New York of Too Good to Go, a network of green and yellow dots on its proprietary map that beckoned for my patronage. I fell into a rhythm, riding new subway lines and visiting new neighborhoods just about every week. Before too long, I was also happily paying full price at eateries across four boroughs. Washington Heights for mofongo and chicharrones from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the South Bronx for oxtail, and Richmond Hill for roti from Guyanese and Jamaican spots. I rode to the Q train’s terminus in Brighton Beach for vareniki and khachapuri from the former Soviet Union. And in Jackson Heights, the undisputed food capital of the world, I indulged simultaneously in the joys of birria tacos, Bangladeshi fuchka, and Tibetan momo. I knew most of the streets and stalls where each of these foods could be found before ever setting foot in Butler.
The restaurants and grocers that participate in Too Good to Go are fixtures of what I deign to call “the New York that stayed”: blue-collar, multicultural New York that didn’t, or couldn’t, budge when the pandemic sent hundreds of thousands of the city’s more affluent residents fleeing upstate, out to the Hamptons, or across the Hudson, some never to return. Even as the city’s allure to its wayward elites has rebounded—as institutions like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and, yes, Columbia repopulate—Too Good to Go remains an emblem of another New York, instead serving the city’s working class, including the 1.5 million New Yorkers who are food insecure.
Through Too Good to Go, I was enculturated in a very different New York from the one I would discover when campus reopened. As early as my sophomore fall, I felt the pull: friend groups arranging excursions to chic spots selling $25 pastas and cocktails no further than Greenwich Village. In finally finding friendship and community on a revived campus, I inversely lost my connection to the city. With bourgeois New York back in full force, I also saw more clearly how the city I had come to know and love was under siege. An afternoon in Bushwick—the front line of New York’s gentrification invasion—gave me a glimpse at how dire things really are: bodegas and hardware stores bifurcated by 5-over-1 condos going for seven figures, on one of which was inscribed “Death to Yuppi” in black spray paint.
I do look back on my freshman year, which I was fortunate enough to spend in Columbia housing, with sadness at the college experience I might have had. What I developed instead was a profound appreciation for everything that lies outside our gates. Too Good to Go showed me the best of New York without the impositions of elite domination, if only for a short time. Now, I wander less frequently into those corners of the city with which I became so acquainted. What I hold onto, though, is the intentionality of my consumption the app facilitated—those small acts of civil participation, forged out of necessity.
By Muni Suleiman
Charitie Ropati, SEAS ’23, first visited the Met in her freshman year, seeking threads of representations of their Native community and home in Alaska in the museum’s art.
Illustration by Cadence Gonzales
Now, she speaks with honor and pride of the increasing Indigenous representation she’s witnessed across the city’s museums and cultural centers. The Met, where Ropati and I met on an October afternoon, does call for a particular celebration; upon entering the American Wing, Ropati smiled at the featured list of collaborators on the exhibition Water Memories, and pointed at their name.
On display through April, Water Memories explores Native art, lamps and carvings, and ceremonies as an ever-flowing conversation with the culture of the past and crises of the present. The exhibit celebrates Indigenous knowledge and caretaking of the water as vital to water preservation. Ropati is credited by the Met as a contemporary Indigenous community member who provided insights on the significance of water in their Native communities. With the contributions of other Indigenous activists and community members (including Eva Brander Blackhawk, Western Shoshone, CC ’24, and Logan Shorthair, Navajo Nation, CC ’23), each piece in the exhibition refracts the complex position of water in Indigenous life.
Long shields with mirrored surfaces and black handles, made by Ropati and the other collaborators, frame the exhibition’s entrance and the museum visitor’s experience. Mirror shields, first conceptualized by Cannupa Hanska Luger of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota tribes in 2016, overlap one another on both sides of the entryway arch. The effect is kaleidoscopic; pausing in front of the collective of shields, Ropati and I saw ourselves at once occupying various positions in space, each mirror shield yielding a different perspective.
In Luger’s original, the shields protected Standing Rock protestors—water protectors—from physical harm while imploring law enforcement officers to view their own violent actions as such. Transposed to the Met, they fulfill a similar function, asking bystanders to consider the intellectual, emotional, and physical space that they occupy before engaging, while reminding museumgoers of the intimate importance of water in Indigenous life.
A Civil Engineering major concentrating in Water Resources and Anthropology, Ropati’s studies focus on water preservation and its intersections with “civil infrastructure, permafrost, plant ecology, and cultural resilience.” Interning at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, they conducted a study that simulated the effects of climate change on fireweed photosynthesis and observed permafrost degradation in coastal Alaskan native communities in the Griffin Lab.
As we both note the misspelling of Sāmoan on the Met’s wall next to Ropati’s name (she is a member of the Native Village of Kongiganak, Alaska and identifies as Yup’ik and Sāmoan), our eyes are drawn along the contours of a birchbark canoe model by Jo Polis as we discuss the dynamism within Columbia’s Indigneous community.
Efforts for the Special Interest Community formerly known as Manhattan House to receive their own brownstone were initiated in 2013 by Julian Brave NoiseCat, Canim Lake Band Tsq'escen, CC ’15, and attempted again in 2019 by Abigail Hickman, Cherokee Nation, CC ’21. Two years later, Ropati, Kianna Pete, Navajo Nation, CC ’23, Hannah Jimenez, Cherokee Nation, CC ’23, and Blackhawk proposed the brownstone as a restorative space for the Columbia Indigenous community. The students’ successful push resulted in Indigehouse, the first residential building dedicated to Columbia’s Indigenous students. The irony and frustration of having to fight for a space, recognition of their history, and “approval” from a predominantly white institution established on Lenapehoking Indigenous land is not lost on Ropati. Still, they expressed real faith in Indigehouse’s ability to be a sustainable home base for students.
Education has been a primary venue for Ropati’s activism since her freshman year of high school. The Alaskan Native and American Indigenous dropout crisis in Anchorage prompted her to look for ways to increase students’ educational engagement, from advocating for the ability of Anchorage School District graduates to wear cultural regalia representing tribal heritage to developing more Indigenous-informed lesson plans. This is, as Ropati says, “indigenizing” education.
Standing in Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, the exhibition neighboring Water Memories, Ropati supplements the museum’s descriptions of cultural and elemental relevance of masks worn in Yup’ik culture. A mask in front of us depicts a face that represents the spirit of a seal centering a hunter’s kayak. A skull above it represents the natural cycle of life and death while the surrounding fish carry with them the hope for a strong fishing season ahead. Masks like this are used in ceremonies and dances, emphasizing a sense of unity that Ropati described as essential for healing, preservation, and motivation.
But community is often easier said than practiced, especially in activist spaces where differences in members’ socioeconomic statuses make themselves manifest. Campus spaces, too, can tend to adopt hierarchical leadership structures and thus reproduce, rather than resist, the hegemony of the university. So, Ropati does not take community for granted; it must be actively developed and maintained. While developing curricula in Anchorage public schools, for instance, she drew upon readings and lessons from Black radicals to inform the contours of education.
After exploring Water Memories, they ask if there are any other exhibitions I would like to see. Scrambling for an eye-catching title, I admit that this is only my third time at the Met. Ropati assures me that this is far from embarrassing. In fact, they have spent quite some time thinking about the problem the museum poses, as an inaccessible cradle of violently extracted art and presenter of inaccurate representations of Native culture. Native-informed exhibitions such as Water Memories appear as a possible solution, allowing Ropati to at once grieve the atrocities committed against Indigenous communities while celebrating her ancestors.
Understanding Water Memories, and perhaps art itself, as a genealogy—a flowing history of humans and culture—is a throughline of our conversation. Sharing a tweet in which her mother tells her that “Being indigenous is STEM,” she emphasizes that matrilineage is central to her identity. Knowledge of her cultural identity was bestowed by maternal lessons and ancestral stories passed down from her grandmother. An empowerment generated by the women in her community was essential to persevering in STEM fields when facing discrimination based in misogyny and anti-Indigenous rhetoric.
In Ropati’s words: “Indigneous knowledge is not [only] underrepresented in the field of STEM, but is intentionally excluded and invalidated.” Her Native community members, without accreditation from institutions that relied on Native exploitation, are scientists as much as those with doctoral degrees. The legacy of Indigenous people as the original scientists and land caretakers is one that Ropati intends to continue.
Shortly after our visit to the Met, Ropati received in the mail a copy of the Malala Fund’s Dare to Learn: The Power of an Educated Girl, an anthology featuring “25 inspiring stories by young women on their fight to go to school,” of which Ropati is one. Just as water courses through the art within the exhibit, it’s the ancestral power of generations of Indigenous people before and Indigenous people to come that courses through Ropati: healing, restorative, representative.
Why Is No One Talking About the Hedge Mazes?
On the negotiation of nature and artifice on campus.
By Sona Wink
Illustration by Vanessa Mendoza
Spend enough time sitting on the steps of Earl Hall and you will begin to notice that we go to school in a hedge maze. Cubed bushes line the red brick paths and grass fields that sprawl behind and beside Low Library, their tops flat, their edges crisp. If you look from a low angle, you might spot the dark recess where the base of each plant meets the soil. Each stem stands in a neat row at a perfect distance from its neighbor, like Rockettes or guards at Buckingham Palace. They are the stock image of a hedge. The same goes for campus’s grass, trees, and bursts of flowers: nature, all so perfect it borders on uncanny. I suspect that this most unnoticed element of our daily lives as students might be crucial in understanding Columbia’s institutional identity. Further investigation shows that planted landscapes and gardens embody a push-and-pull relationship between nature and artifice that has played out over the course of centuries, a conflict that continues on campus today.
Human interference marks the difference between nature and artifice. Despite our trademark narcissism, human beings tend to assign a negative moral valence to the latter and a positive one to the former. Artificiality is a flaw in a person’s moral character; the word implies deception or falsehood. Nature, on the other hand, calls to mind ease, equilibrium, or beauty. A person is “a natural” if they possess innate talent. There’s a somewhat religious association: The word “natural” implies proximity and alignment with God’s intentions. Philosophers obsess over defining “human nature,” that slithery substance that always seems to slip from their grasps.
Gardens present a paradox: Designed to embody nature, they are inherently unnatural. Human beings often design them to appear untouched, to hide the artifice, the irony being that the more effort you put into achieving a “natural” look, the more artificial your landscape becomes.
Historian Lionello Puppi describes one instance in the centuries-long contest in Nature and Artifice in the Sixteenth-Century Italian Garden. The 15th-century garden, he reports, sought to imitate nature. He describes a series of thinkers who saw a contrast between “rus and urbs, between the serenity and order of the rural world and the disorder of urban life.” Cities, urbs, were filled with distracted professional class busybodies; gardens, rus, were occupied by contemplative thinkers. Here, we see the moral valence of the natural outweighing the artificial; cities as a place of moral corruption and gardens as a site of purity. These gardens were geometric and formal, but simplistic.
In the 16th century, however, Italians began to favor artifice. Gardens became the home of elaborate decoration and mechanism with the aim of provoking surprise and awe in the viewer. Designers moved away from attempts to emulate an aesthetic of Edenic purity and toward an embrace of total domination of nature. Artifice represented uncharted territory, possibility, and a new theatrical capacity to inspire the viewer. These landscapes became more ornate and elaborate as a means of symbolizing the power of their aristocratic owners; the more spectacle they produced, the more glorious their estate. The designs drew intentional focus to the human interference involved in their creation. An element of urbs was integrated into the rus in such a way to construct what Italian humanist Jacopo Bonfadio called a terza natura, or “third nature”: an elevated fantasy within nature created by artifice.
Elevated in another sense, Andrew Dolkart’s office in Buell Hall overlooks the sweeping stone plaza in front of Low Library. A lauded architectural historian, Dolkart literally wrote the book on the architectural history of Morningside Heights, including comprehensive background on the design of Columbia’s campus. I peer out of his window as he explains the original intent of the campus’s lead architect, Charles McKim. His original design focused largely on hardscape, hence his devotion of such a large swath of campus’s space to the brick court (prioritizing urbs over rus). When the campus opened for student use in 1897, it had little in the name of planting aside from a handful of trees and grass plots. For the next century, little attention was paid to the landscape.
“They kept it as simple as possible,” Dolkart explained. The planted landscape “was just not a priority.”
Little documentation of the caliber of campus landscape is easily available; however, few fragments shine through history. A photograph of Earl Hall in Dolkart’s book, taken between 1910 and 1915, shows sparse planting: A meek patch of grass sits in front of the stairs, where there are now two trees, ornate hedges, and a decorative sculpture; in the two squares that hug the stairs, now filled with varying and magical bushes, are sad and small shrubs.
A Spectator article from 1926 aments the “general ugliness of the landscape” of the South Field (what is now Butler and the two southern lawns) and emphasizes the “need of a landscape architect” on campus.
A survey conducted by Zion & Breen Associates in 1983 charts the physical flaws in the plantscape and hardscape of the campus. Nothing came of this assessment, according to Dolkart. Yet the survey still captures a moment of time via hundreds of detailed photos of the campus’s uglier elements: shabby, balding hedges; patchy grass bleeding into puddles of mud; tiles bleached or askew.
Originating in England as a backlash to Italian and French formalism, the wild garden presented a return to naturalism and sought to “achieve the semblance of unspoiled nature,” writes scholar Anne Helmreich. This aesthetic was a total rejection of the Italian infatuation with artifice and symmetry. It sought asymmetrical, sporadic, billowing forms of flora that appeared as if no human interference had taken place.
The wild garden gained traction among the American middle class in the late 19th century. Here the rus and urbs dichotomy pokes its head out again, scorning the grit and degradation of the industrial city and glorifying the cleanliness and health of the country. The wild garden was an expression of a burgeoning middle class identity, argues historian Virginia Tuttle Clayton—one that framed itself in direct contrast to the aristocratic Italian moment of the 16th century. The rich were “portrayed as foolishly wasting their fortunes on pretentious Italian-style gardens,” formalist landscapes now associated with aristocracy, excess, and artificiality. The wild garden seeks the aesthetic purity of untouched nature and ascribes to it a moral purity.
Things began to change on campus with the turn of the 21st century, when Columbia commissioned a master plan study with landscape consultant Thomas Balsley. It was Balsley who brought distinguished landscape architect Lynden Miller to our dessicated campus. For the past two decades, Miller has guided the design of Columbia’s planted scene, working alongside Assistant Vice President for Campus Operations Don Schlosser. The pair worked to plant essentially all of the flowers, most of the ornamental bushes, and many of the trees present today on campus. According to Miller’s 2009 book Parks, Plants, and People, Columbia went from spending “next to nothing” on their campus in the early ’90s to maintaining a “substantial annual budget” for landscaping. According to Schlosser, Miller remains to this day a vital resource for the department.
Miller’s work elevated the formal elements of the campus by thickening and sharpening the hedges and cleaning up the grass, thus raising the University’s standard to that of the garden home of a 17th-century Tuscan aristocrat (not in a bad way). Simultaneously, she introduced moments of informal design that evoke the wild garden. Their loose, free-flowing addition grounds the viewer in a sense of realism that naturalizes and softens the rigidity and artificiality of the formal hedge mazes. If the Renaissance and wild gardens represent two ends of an aesthetic spectrum, one end embracing artifice and the other disguising it, Columbia seems to lie somewhere in the middle, perhaps slightly on the side of formalism. The two ends of the spectrum operate not in tension, but harmony: a unity of rus and urbs forming a unique terza natura.
The effect of such a well-tailored combination is one of psychological transportation to a fantasy world where the business of attending Columbia University feels like an important, storied, even romantic act. Speed-walking to Havemeyer feels like a jaunt through a magical garden; eating a sandwich in front of Uris transforms into a moment of elevated tranquility. Miller is aware of the psychological power that a landscape can have. “Beautiful parks and gardens in the city are not a frill,” she writes in her book. “They are essential to the well-being of its citizens.”
Schlosser echoed Miller’s philosophy when I spoke to him on Zoom. “That was our intent—to invite people into these spaces,” he told me. “They can take time out of their busy schedules and just feel at peace, and have this little moment where they can really relax and reflect on nature.” Renaissance philosophers, too, saw the garden as a “a place of repose and sanctuary,” according to Puppi.
In a promotional video on Columbia’s website, a disembodied voice describes the campus as a “peaceful oasis of the life of the mind, defiantly independent of the surrounding marketplace racket of Manhattan.” The video calls to mind an image of the campus as a lush garden amid an otherwise barren desert. The University presents itself as a burst of rus in the otherwise chaotic urbs of New York. The video goes on to describe the “doubled magic” that occurs within the synergy between the external city and internal University: “The best things of the moment were outside the rectangle of Columbia; the best things of all human history and thought were inside.” The urbs surges continuously through the “best thing of the moment” while the rus, more patient and peaceful, preserves the intellectual legacy of the past.
On a practical level, no one place can ever encompass all of “the best things of all human history and thought.” But it doesn’t matter whether the statement is accurate or not. Columbia is an Ivy League institution, and the image it duly presents to both the external public and its own students is that it is one of “the best” universities in the world. Whether this is actually true is a separate debate; there are likely some statistics out there to answer that question. What is of more concern is whether we, the inhabitants and functionaries of the oasis, think ourselves to be “the best.” And there is no objective form that self-image can take.
Despite its popular connotation, artifice is not always an instrument of deceit or moral wrongdoing. The viewers of Italian Renaissance gardens were aware of the artificiality that they beheld, and they delighted in it. Artifice can be awe-inspiring when you notice the prowess and effort of its creator. The campus landscape, like all landscapes, is a work of artificial human creation, and a beautiful and successful one at that.
In the Renaissance and wild garden alike, the aim was to transport the viewer to a fantasy version of nature: the former, a world in which humans wield total control, where nature is an object of spectral delight and pleasure; the latter, a world awesome in its resemblance to divine intention. Neither fantasy is “true” in any objective sense. When the human mechanism disappears, the artifice becomes natural. The University’s self-image, its artifice, is only as real as we believe it to be.
A Department of Our Own
Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race fights for its future status.
By Grace Adee
On April 1, 1996, after months of sit-ins and demonstrations, four students set up a tent on Butler Lawn and began a 15-day hunger strike to secure an ethnic studies department at Columbia. Over the next two weeks, the Ad Hoc Committee for Ethnic Studies, to which the students belonged, and hundreds of supporters held rallies and vigils in solidarity with the strikers, occupying Low Library and Hamilton Hall to demand that University President George Rupp and other administrators dedicate resources to this historically marginalized academic field. Twenty-one student protesters were arrested; one striker was hospitalized.
Two weeks later, six ethnic studies advocates and three faculty members spent a grueling 12 hours negotiating the path forward. Columbia met some but not all of the students’ demands: They agreed to hire three faculty members in Asian American and Latino studies and to form a blue ribbon committee to organize a program on campus. In 1999, that committee’s work resulted in the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, which offers an undergraduate major in ethnicity and race with specializations in Asian American, Latino, Native American, and comparative ethnic studies.
Now, CSER’s Student Advisory Board meets weekly on the fourth floor of Hamilton to discuss their grievances and goals for the Center. It’s been 26 years since student activists congregated in these same corridors, chanting “ethnic studies now!” with the urgency of prayer. The hunger strikers declared in their manifesto that “only with departmental status can such fields be insured centrality in the curriculum”; decades later, the SAB agrees that departmentalization is still the only way forward.
Last February, SAB members including Grace Fox and Karime Sanchez, both CC ’23, participated in Zoom interviews with the Arts and Sciences Faculty’s Academic Review Committee, which periodically assesses academic units to determine their current challenges and future goals. The ARC includes a self-study by the unit, an internal review by other Columbia faculty, and an external review by outside scholars. Interviewed by the external review committee about their experiences at CSER, Sanchez remembered explaining the necessity of departmentalization: “We need more faculty, we need more funding, we need more advertising. We want political power to make decisions.”
“We had this hour-and-a-half long conversation, all of us being very vulnerable in telling these ARC reviewers from different universities, ‘We are speaking to you today in hopes that you can put pressure on the university on our behalf,’” Fox said. “We work really hard internally, but we only get so far.”
Fox and Sanchez hoped that this would be a turning point in the fight for CSER’s departmentalization. Eight months later, they’re not so sure. “We don’t really know what has happened since then,” Fox said. Now, the SAB is left to wonder: Will the ARC report—in which the three external reviewers all advocated for departmentalization—create meaningful change for CSER, or will it get lost in the shuffle of Columbia’s notoriously opaque bureaucracy? And if the report doesn’t change anything, then what will?
The SAB’s argument that CSER has always lacked the resources to support its faculty and students is echoed by many. Associate Professor of History Manan Ahmed has been one of CSER’s core faculty members since 2013.“I haven’t been here long enough to know this institutional history, but my outsider perspective is that CSER has been underfunded and marginalized for the entirety of its existence,” said Ahmed.
Many students and faculty argue that this marginalization is the inevitable—and perhaps purposeful—result of CSER’s designation as a center, as opposed to either a department or an institute. CSER faculty members, owing to the program’s status as a center, each have a home department that prescribes their primary job responsibilities. A CSER affiliation thus often means additional work for faculty members, Ahmed explained.
This center status also means that CSER mostly lacks the budget and the autonomy to hire faculty. CSER co-directors Mae Ngai and Karl Jacoby, both tenured professors in the history department, described how difficult it can be to convince other departments to hire ethnic studies scholars. “Departments have their own priorities,” Ngai said. “Department X will say, ‘Well, we already have somebody who does ethnic studies. We don’t need any more.’” Because of this, CSER relies on adjunct professors to teach about half of its classes. Many of these adjuncts are “extraordinary teachers,” Jacoby acknowledged, but they can’t provide students with the same sustained advising and support as full-time faculty.
As of now, the only faculty member who works solely in CSER is Bahia Munem, a lecturer in the discipline; other professors have half or quarter appointments. So while CSER’s faculty may look sizable on the website, Ngai and Jacoby said, the Center only has the equivalent of 6.5 full-time professors, a number that hasn’t risen significantly in years. Meanwhile, the number of CSER students roughly doubled in the last five years—as of last year, there were 84 declared majors or concentrations in ethnicity and race studies. This high student-to-faculty ratio limits the Center’s ability to provide students with consistent course offerings. After four years as co-director, Jacoby describes feeling “a little bit burned out” by the outsized effort it takes to keep CSER afloat. “It’s been very, very hard to get the resources that we need to get the kind of program that the undergraduates deserve,” he said.
That CSER is not a department also means that it has no doctoral students. “What a department does is that it produces PhDs—it produces new specialized knowledge,” Ahmed said. “Columbia, then, by not making CSER a department, has not been producing new scholarship in a field that has been growing across the United States in the last 30 years.”
The fight for ethnicity and race studies programs in the United States began in the 1960s in the wake of the civil rights movement and subsequent organizing from Asian American, Latino, and Indigenous activists. But because these protests were concentrated on the West Coast, it has taken much longer to establish robust ethnicity and race studies programs elsewhere.
Debates over the expansion of ethnicity and race studies programs have roiled many of Columbia’s peer institutions. In March 2019, 13 senior faculty members at Yale withdrew from its Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program, citing administrative apathy toward the program. Since its founding in 1997, they argued, ER&M’s status had remained precarious, lacking the autonomy and continuity of other units. Two months later, those faculty members agreed to return after Yale granted the program hiring power and made faculty positions more permanent.
Ahmed expressed concern that CSER will continue to fall behind other universities in ethnicity and race studies if it fails to take similar steps. “Because CSER is not a department, it cannot invite or attract top scholars to Columbia as a department can,” he said. Jacoby provided one example of how this played out a few years ago when CSER tried to hire Hawaiian Kanaka food studies scholar Hiʻilei Hobart: “We really wanted to find a place for her, but we couldn’t find one for her here because there was no department where you put someone with food studies.” In March, she joined Yale’s Ethnicity, Race and Migration program as an assistant professor.
CSER’s lack of resources has had tangible effects on undergraduates who choose to major in ethnicity and race studies. Grace Fox, a double major in psychology and ethnicity and race studies with a concentration in Native American studies, spoke to the particular challenge of finding classes to complete her degree “because there are so few Native professors and Native classes.” In Modes of Inquiry, the required senior seminar that prepares students to write their theses, Fox and Sanchez described how their classmates have struggled and scrambled to find thesis advisors. “There [are] simply not enough CSER professors,” Sanchez said.
Many CSER classes are extremely popular with undergraduates, with waitlists stretching into the hundreds. Two core classes for CSER majors—Colonization/Decolonization and Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies—count toward Columbia’s Global Core requirement, attracting undergraduates to CSER who might not otherwise encounter the Center. Ahmed recalled 150 students vying for 15 seats in the Colonization/Decolonization course he taught last year, and lamented turning away passionate students to prioritize CSER majors. Sanchez expressed frustration with CSER classes’ inclusion in the Global Core because they lack enough sections to meet the demand. “If Columbia wants to make those count as Global Cores, then they need to supply the faculty, the staff, the time, the funding to be able to supply both your majors in CSER and the people who are trying to take it as an interest or as Global Cores,” Sanchez said.
With groundbreaking interdisciplinary scholarship and a palpable sense of community, the Center punches above its weight. “It’s an under-resourced, marginalized center that has also basically kept the intellectual mission of this university when it comes to questions of race and ethnic studies, largely without the type of support you should get in a university of this caliber,” said Ahmed.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner, professor of English and CSER core faculty member, directed the Center from 2009 to 2016. During her tenure, she wrote annual reports for the administration tracking CSER’s growth, eager to show what they were able to accomplish with a budget that had barely increased after a decade. (From 2010 to 2013, the number of CSER majors increased from 20 to 55 and the number of course offerings tripled.) Negrón-Muntaner also prioritized expanding CSER’s engagement beyond the classroom: While she was director, she said, CSER provided small grants and other support to seed several successful student projects, some of which are still active today.
For many students, this public-facing approach to higher education distinguishes CSER from other academic programs on campus. William Shammah, CC ’23, a political science major with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies, is currently enrolled in Elizabeth OuYang’s CSER course on Post 9/11 Immigration Policies. He emphasized the value of taking a class that felt grounded in the real-world impacts of theoretical work. For their first assignment, Shammah and his classmates were asked to go to Midtown to greet the asylum seekers who were sent to New York City by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “We are doing things where there’s an element of practice,” Shammah said. “It lines up much more with what I was hoping or imagining political science to be.”
In addition to engaging with the larger world through fieldwork, the CSER program is interdisciplinary not only because it brings together professors from various departments, but also because its professors tend to draw on diverse methods in their scholarship and teaching. Audrey Oh, CC ’21, said that her professors encouraged her to make use of diverse sources and modes of expression in her work, an approach critical to disrupting the “hegemonic thinking” often found in traditional academia.
SAB member Antonio Rodriguez, GS ’23, found much of Columbia incredibly alienating as a non-traditional student from a low-income, Latinx background. When he asked other liberal arts faculty what the “return on investment” of a Columbia education would be for a student like him, many of them told him that if he had to ask that question, he might be in the wrong place. CSER was different. “There was an understanding of that background that allowed them to respond to my questions in a way that was useful to me and inspired me to interact more rigorously with my academic life than ever before,” Rodriguez said.
Andrea Salamanca, CC ’23, described the feeling of belonging that professors create in the classroom—the consistent reiteration to their students, many of whom are students of color, that “You guys deserve this space, you’re not the exception, you have every right to be here—and don’t forget.”
When it was time for Oh to write her senior thesis, she decided to create a website on CSER’s history, collecting archival materials and interviews from the 1996 hunger strike to the present. “It really was a kind of thank you letter for CSER,” she said. Oh chose to create a website instead of writing an academic paper, hoping that it would be the most accessible to current and future CSER students. It seems to have been a good choice: Almost every student I interviewed proudly cited Oh’s project.
That history matters to CSER students—it’s fundamental to their vision of CSER’s potential to disrupt and reimagine the entrenched systems of the University. “The founding documents of [CSER] include a space for the CSER SAB,” Rodriguez said. “We are not a club. We are a foundational part of the department. We are written into its bylaws.”
In mid-October, orange and teal posters started cropping up across campus, imploring students to “Join the CSER SAB!” Recruitment is a top priority for the SAB. “We want this to live on past us,” said Fox. From its inception, CSER has relied on students who devote themselves to its success year after year. But this only works if the students retain an institutional memory, said Negrón-Muntaner—if they can learn from the successes and failures of past CSER advocates. “Then you are not starting from zero. You actually can build.”
The SAB hasn’t been active for all of CSER’s history. Negrón-Muntaner said that a student advisory group existed when she first came to Columbia in 2003, and she sought to revive and institutionalize it when she became director. The SAB was most recently resurrected in 2020 and recruited several more members in the fall of 2021, when Fox and Sanchez joined. “We realized that what we had been handed was something in its infancy, and it was something we needed to severely work on if we wanted it to be a real thing,” said Sanchez. Associate Director of CSER Josephine Caputo serves as the main point of contact for their activities. CSER provides the SAB with some funding for projects and events, including an alumni panel last year that featured some of the 1996 protesters.
But the SAB strives for greater input and insight into CSER’s inner workings. “When all of the CSER faculty have their monthly meeting, one or two of us from the SAB will try to sit in there,” Fox said. “They’ll let us talk for 15 minutes, and then they’re like, you have to leave now.” Though Fox and Sanchez appreciated the opportunity to speak to the ARC reviewers, they expressed frustration with the lack of clarity around the purpose and impact of the report. It turns out that the faculty share many of their concerns.
Jacoby and Ngai received the final ARC report in May. Ngai said that the report described CSER as “a vibrant intellectual space and teaching space”; it also noted that the program “suffers from invisibility and neglect.” The three external reviewers—ethnic studies faculty from Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley—ultimately recommended that CSER become a full academic department. They pointed to Columbia’s creation of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies in 2018 as a potential model for a structural change for CSER that would maintain its interdisciplinarity.
But in the past, the impact of the Academic Review has been negligible. CSER’s last Academic Review took place just as Negrón-Muntaner became director in 2009. Ngai acknowledged that the last ARC report recommended many changes to CSER—such as hiring significantly more faculty—that were not implemented.
During her tenure, Negrón-Muntaner turned to other tactics to advocate for CSER. She started creating annual quantitative reports to communicate CSER’s growth and needs to the administration. She presented one such report to Pierre Force, the Dean of Humanities at the time, and secured a minor budget increase. In 2015, she submitted a proposal to make CSER an institute—she has argued for many years that CSER is much closer to an institute than a center in terms of its function and output. While securing institute status might not drastically increase its faculty or funding, it would be a symbolically important step. “It’s a recognition of the University that this is a permanent part of the institution and that it deserves its support into the future,” said Negrón-Muntaner.
At the beginning of the ARC process, Ngai and Jacoby also sought institutionalization, but the external reviewers changed their minds. “They kept asking us, what do you gain from being an institute? Why are you asking for that? And frankly, we didn’t have a good answer,” Jacoby said. Ngai and Jacoby brought the report to CSER’s Executive Committee, which is composed of CSER faculty members. “We had a retreat and a prolonged discussion and a vote on all of this,” Jacoby said. Now, the Executive Committee is starting to imagine what the path to an ethnic studies department might look like. Renzo Aroni, a Humanities Fellow and CSER affiliate, spoke to the growing support for departmentalization among the faculty. “It’s in the everyday life of the academic context right now,” he said, expressing confidence that the University will eventually grant CSER departmental status.
While Negrón-Muntaner underscored the many academic advantages of departmentalization, she also worries that CSER stands to lose elements that contribute to its current prowess if it were completely absorbed into the traditional academic structure. “Whereas department status could mean a more robust and stable roster of courses, departmentalization may also mean that CSER may lose some of what makes it a transformative space,” Negrón-Muntaner wrote in an email, highlighting the experimental and public-facing focus that has defined the Center. Recognizing that an atypical program might require an atypical structure, Negrón-Muntaner suggested that departmentalization should not be the alpha and omega of CSER’s reforms. Advocates could potentially build new academic configurations—for instance, the University could establish a department devoted to training new ethnicity and race studies scholars in addition to an institute committed to social impact.
But Negrón-Muntaner recognizes that these solutions are ambitious and would take significant investment from the University. After the Academic Review is finished and filed away, what will incentivize the University to commit the funding and resources the department would need?
In late October, Ngai and Jacoby had just met with Dean of Social Science Miguel Urquiola and Executive Vice President of Arts and Sciences Amy Hungerford to discuss the ARC report’s findings. “We told them that we agree with the report that we should become a department, and that’s what we want to pursue,” Ngai said. She described the administrators’ response as “noncommittal.”
In an emailed statement to The Blue and White, Hungerford wrote that the ARC report “sparked a new conversation in CSER” about the Center’s future form, though she did not directly comment on whether the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will support the Executive Committee’s goal of departmentalization. “I look forward to working alongside CSER’s faculty and students as they build on the ideas emerging from the review in a way that best fits Columbia’s unique strengths and best promotes the essential—and thriving—fields and programs that CSER leads,” Hungerford wrote.
Still, the professors see this as a potentially pivotal moment for CSER. Not only did the ARC report clearly articulate CSER’s problems and propose tangible solutions, it did so at a time of university-wide transformation as new administrators take charge and 2020’s nationwide racial reckoning continues to reverberate across the institution. “I think they have to decide to put their money where their mouth is,” Ngai said. “They all talk about diversity and combating racism. So let’s do it.”
Professor Ahmed believes that the key to CSER’s future lies in its origins: “How will the University do it? My personal belief is 100 percent from students’ advocacy,” he said. But this advocacy can’t just come from a handful of students or professors asking for a department, Negrón-Muntaner noted, as this would cast CSER to the bottom of a long list of University priorities. Rather, she said, there has to be “a critical mass of invested people in the outcome of making CSER a more sustainable, better space that is also exemplary for the University.” It will take the kind of ardent coalition that first envisioned CSER for the University to recognize the crucial contribution of ethnic studies to Columbia’s engagement beyond the ivory tower.
“CSER is the only center or department at Columbia that came to be purely from student protests,” Sanchez said. “We got CSER out of it, which has, since that day, still been a center. Their needs were not fully met.”
Illustration by Nayeon Park
The Major Motion Picture Professor
Remembering Miloš Forman’s literary transformation of Columbia Film.
By Anouk Jouffret
Earlier this fall, the Columbia film community came together to honor the life of Miloš Forman, who—in addition to crafting many of cinema’s most memorable moments—left an indelible mark on the University’s film program. The memorial, which commemorated the 90th anniversary of his birth, was held on Sept. 9 at the Lenfest Center for the Arts in coordination with Film Forum’s 16-film retrospective of the Czech-born master. Forman’s introduction to Columbia Film runs through one of the night’s attendees, Grafton Nunes.
In 1974, Nunes—an administrator at Columbia Film—found himself at the pre-release screening of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Following the showing, Forman, accompanied by lead actor Jack Nicholson, made his way to the front of the room for questions. Nunes recalled that Forman had expressed to the crowd the importance of his education at The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU). He emphasized his hope to one day pay this forward.
A day after the screening, the chair of Columbia’s film department resigned, leaving Schuyler Chapin, the dean of the program, to find a replacement. Nunes, with Forman’s masterpiece and teaching aspirations fresh in mind, proposed that Columbia offer the position to the filmmaker. Despite his success in Czechoslovakia, Forman was still a year away from releasing the movie that would send him into Oscar-winning stardom. Chapin was unfamiliar with the director, but Nunes was convincing.
“If you can get to Miloš Forman, you have my permission to offer him the job.”
“Well, let me work on that.”
Within a week, Nunes was knocking on the door of an Essex House apartment, in order to be received by an enthusiastic, pajama-clad Forman. For the next three hours, Nunes explained the state of the film program and the work he felt needed to be done to better it.
Columbia Film was a young program in the 1970s, having only been founded in the decade prior. The curriculum was designed to train “a total filmmaker,” someone who would write, direct, shoot, and edit all on their own—an impossible task, according to Nunes. Consequently, the films that came out of the program were mostly shorts and lacked sophistication. Nunes had originally attended Columbia Film as a history, theory, and criticism student. “I was in love with narrative features. I was in love with classic cinema,” he told me over the phone. It was clear to him that script scholarship was missing from the film school.
The project was compelling to Forman. He agreed to accept the position as chair on the condition that Frantšiek Daniel, who had been the dean at the FAMU and a producer on The Shop on Main Street, co-chair the department. The filmmaker and the University struck a deal that would soon transform the lives of thousands of individuals and paradigms of film pedagogy alike.
Forman, the professor, structured his teaching in the form of masterclasses in which no more than ten students would select projects they wished to workshop for a year. Tobias Meinecke, SOA ’91, and his cohort spent the year working on four shorts as well as a documentary that chronicled their production. For Meinecke, the workshop resulted in his own feature, The Contenders, and a short film, Dreams of Love (featuring an 11-year-old Claire Danes), which he produced. The documentary never ended up getting made, but now, three decades later, Meinecke is seeing it to completion.
Over coffee and the inevitable racket of the city soundscape, Meinecke told me that Forman was more than a world-class filmmaker and teacher. “To put it in one sentence: He treated our work as though it was his own, so when we worked on our pieces with him, we got him as if he was making it himself.” In footage from the unfinished documentary (which he was kind enough to share with me), one can see the energy and dedication that Meinecke lauds. A humorous yet intense Forman in black thick-rimmed glasses workshops scripts with students, schools them in directing, and agonizes over a casting choice. At one point, Forman and a few students look through reels of film in an editing booth. The student whose work is under scrutiny has implemented a piece of advice from Forman—unconvincingly, in the eyes of the professor. There is palpable tension in the exchange; the student concedes to Forman’s critique and classmates squirm uncomfortably. What strikes me is how invested Forman is in the student’s film. To teach art means to dig into the work that someone has poured their heart and soul into, and to do so authentically requires a level of trust and mutual respect. When I ask Meinecke about the exchange, he laughs and tells me that Forman was absolutely right.
The remark that Forman gave to the student in the editing booth was one I had seen him give in previous footage: “Unless somebody suggests something which really hits you absolutely as the right thing for your film … it’s better to make your own mistakes than to do somebody else’s good suggestions.” Forman was an instructor who prioritized integrity, a philosophical throughline in his work. In his autobiography, he writes of a desire to emulate reality in his films: “The paradox is that it was this very idea that steered me away from making pure documentaries. The camera’s presence alters most situations that it trails. People become stilted, put on airs, wear masks, show off, get intimidated, so you cannot simply capture the everyday life by documenting it. You have to recreate it.” From the “semi documentaries” which constitute The Audition to the mixing of actors and non-professionals in Loves of Blondes, Forman made a conscious effort to keep reality in the foreground. Such a devotion permeates his instruction in Meinecke’s footage.
Forman’s method is exhibited in 1967’s The Firemen’s Ball, a comedy based on a real ball hosted by the Vrchalbí Fire Department. After attending the event with colleagues Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek in an attempt to get his mind off another script, he found the night’s events compelling enough to be the basis of a film. Most of the cast consisting of the local firemen themselves, the film’s comedic genius is a product of its unflinching realism. From within the darkness of Film Forum’s retrospective screening, I nor anyone else, it seemed, could keep from erupting with laughter as one catastrophe after another befalls the drunken firemen.
Forman’s humorous sensibility penetrated all of his work—from The Firemen’s Ball to the biographical period drama Amadeus to his teaching. Nunes explains that Forman’s humor allowed him to be both delicate and critical when dealing with students’ work. With Forman, students received the “respect of a master teacher’s honesty,” and yet it was delivered with tact and good humor. When I probed Annette Insdorf, who co-chaired Columbia Film with Forman from 1990–1995, for an anecdote that would be telling of his character, she replied: “I remember moderating a panel at Symphony Space about 40 years ago; it was part of our celebration of MFA film student work and included his alumna Kathryn Bigelow. After I asked her what it was like to study with him—and she eloquently praised him—he opened his wallet, took out a $20 bill, and comically passed it to her onstage.”
But what most impacted Forman’s approach to both filmmaking and teaching was his literary education. Forman’s time in FAMU’s dramaturgical department centered on the creation of the script. “The Prague Film Academy ran on old-fashioned ideas,” he writes in his autobiography. In the four years he spent there, he never touched a camera or learned to match strips of film; instead, he meticulously studied dialogue, narrative, character, and expositional methods. He wrote screenplays, short stories, and adaptations. He watched countless films which he would discuss with peers “in heated arguments with grandiose claims and cigarette butts spilling out of ashtrays.” It was in a class taught by Milan Kundera that Forman first read Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons, which, some 30 years later, he would adapt for the screen with Jean-Claude Carrière.
Indeed, it was primarily this writerly emphasis that drew Meinecke to Columbia from Munich, where he was already attending a prestigious film school that provided full production equipment and studio access. “I was lacking in working with actors and in script construction,” Meinecke explained to me. In the form of Miloš Forman’s instructional method, he found this missing piece.
Nunes recounts that Forman would say, “If you get the best script and then you get the best cast for that script, your directing is halfway home.” This insistence on the importance of script development completely altered Columbia’s film program.” After Forman’s arrival, all students “started with taking acting classes and screenwriting” before choosing a path in directing, editing, or even screenwriting itself. And so—with courses taught by the likes of David Mamet, Nicholas T. Proferes, and Ralph Rosenblum—Forman helped to birth the MFA in screenwriting. Nunes believes that “the model for the teaching of film that they introduced at Columbia really became the model for most of the first-rate film programs in this country.”
Prior to Forman’s time as chair, the arts were often overlooked by the University. Nunes explains to me that it was considered acceptable to study the arts but less so to make art. Yet when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went on to be one of the biggest Oscar wins in history, taking home all of the “Big Five” Academy Awards, Columbia was quite content to be associated with such success. Forman brought credibility to the program, and eventually the University altered its attitude to one of appreciation for the film program.
The instructor—reconstituted to me through conversations with those who knew him—was humorous and resilient, critical and expressive; a person of great humility who rewrote the script for Columbia Film.
Illustration by Jorja Garcia
The Specter of College Rankings
Who gets to be a High Potential Individual?
By Margaret Connor
Illustration by Maca Hepp
A specter is haunting academia—the specter of rankings. How can the quality of higher education be reduced to a single number sans context, one which ruthlessly pits universities against one other? Do college rankings have any true utility beyond allowing us to judge our former high school classmates when we look them up on LinkedIn? Rankings mean everything, or they mean nothing. You either sue your alma mater for slipping down a peg (or 16), or you roll your eyes at the loons who attach so much import to an integer. Best of luck to the two people bringing lawsuits against Columbia for misrepresenting itself as the second-best university in the country, but, I mean, some of us have real problems.
If you take the latter tack and see rankings as a ridiculous simplification with limited real-world relevance, it’s startling to see the nebulous number impacting some material part of the world.
The twin vampires of Brexit and the pandemic have proved a brain drain for the U.K., forcing foreigners and nationals alike to weigh the merits of remaining within Britain’s borders against those of relocating abroad. On the blue-collar end, the drastic crash in the number of seasonal workers coming to the U.K. has created enormous gaps in agriculture and livestock processing, leading to wasteful pig-culls, fields of rotting crops, and a festive shortage of Christmas geese. (The haughty, self-sufficient United Kingdom, it turns out, was mostly a horrifically underpaid Jenga tower of Polish slaughterhouse workers, Ukrainian fruit-pickers, and colonial nurses. Go figure.) To remedy this, Britain issued more employment-specific work visas targeting understaffed industries: The expanded Seasonal Work Visa intends to combat dire shortages in horticultural labor, while the Skilled Worker Visa entices foreign nurses and teachers to emigrate. On the knowledge-sector, white-collar side, the exodus of academics, researchers, and businesspeople called for another solution—the High Potential Individual Visa.
With Britain slipping down the international rankings for economic health and quality of life, the nation is turning its focus toward snagging foreigners from high-ranking universities. The new HPI visa scheme allows recent graduates from 37 very specific universities around the globe to apply to live in the U.K. for two or three years without a job offer, sponsorship, or other reasons for emigration. The eligible university list, which comprises 20 American institutions and none from South Asia, Latin America, or Africa, is based entirely on rankings. The other schools include the twin Swiss polytechnic gems; McGill, UToronto, and UBC au Canada; Japan’s Todai and Kyodai; and the Karolinska Institute. The list resembles, not incidentally, a list of institutions which produce a large crop of state leaders and Nobel Prize winners. To qualify for the HPI visa, a school must appear on two of the following: the Academic Ranking of World Universities, Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, or the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. (For those keeping track at home, our alma mater’s slip down the U.S. News & World Report rankings doesn’t disqualify us Columbians from the scheme. We’ll have to wait and see where it falls on the international rankings at the end of the year.)
If the HPI is an elite exercise in international recruitment, it’s also an example of the parochiality of privilege: Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi called the program “yet another reminder that borders only exist for the poor.” A system that explicitly creates an express lane for the academic 1% to come and do whatever—or nothing at all—in the U.K. for a few years without the usual employment/sponsorship/spousal red tape is effectively an admission that the visa process could be relaxed and simplified, if the government were so inclined. The narrowness of the list, and the arbitrary and opaque reasoning that undergirds it, only sharpens the sting.
The most immediate and acute frustration comes from a few main rubs: Rankings don’t reflect reality, the schools listed are elitist and give priority to the privileged, and basing “potential” on pedigree is anti-meritocratic. The amount of effort, money, and stress involved in the visa process is nothing to ignore, and easing guidelines only for the academic elite is a slap in the face to those who lie outside the circle.
I spoke to Valerie Monaco, director of International Student Services with Access Barnard, about students’ experience with the visa process. As with Britain’s labor shortage, the pandemic caused international enrollment and studying abroad to crater. She described the chaos that international students faced when consulates shut down. The Student Exchange and Visitor Program accordingly made changes to the student visa process to better accommodate remote learning and provide alternatives to physical paper forms, digitizing paperwork and removing the need for pen-on-paper signatures.
In addition to the recent move toward digitization, I asked Monaco what she thought could be done to make the visa process more equitable. While International Student Services isn’t directly involved in the visa process, she advocated for a more holistic evaluation process. Monaco explained that the most ideal visa evaluations would involve “taking a look at everything that the student is presenting, what their intentions are for studying, what their remarks are during the interview process, and their level of preparedness.” A question lies at the heart of our suspicion of prestige: How do we holistically rank a college? How do we assess the best college choice when the rankings may be biased? How does a government holistically identify a High Potential Individual from across the pond?
The HPI visa raises eyebrows because it goes against our meritocratic instinct, reducing education and achievement to the black letter on a diploma. Not transcript, letters of recommendation, or portfolio—just alma mater. If a holistic approach to immigration would be a step toward equity, then the HPI visa is a step backwards.
God’s chosen people—the participants in The New York Times comment section—weighed in on the controversy. One Palo Altoite commented, “How is NYU on the list but Dartmouth and Brown are not??? This makes no sense. Time to revisit the methodology of all these ‘rankings.’ And why is Columbia still highly regarded after their scandalous and blatant attempts to game the ranking system??” (Good question, one easily answered by checking which rankings the visa program uses to determine eligibility.) Some responders bemoaned the elitist implications of the list of universities, while others pointed out the notable absence of Indian institutions. (Some commenters even figured out how to activate spell check before hitting “post.”) The overwhelming response was one of outrage and scorn. A Californian summed it up admirably: “Rankings are an illusion. … There are scores of universities from the US which didn’t make the list, but have graduates more qualified than those from the listed ones.” Still on the flashpoint of merit, a dissenting Michigander wrote, “So the program to attract the best and brightest focuses on the best universities. Seems extremely appropriate and sound. Kudos to the UK for maintaining some belief in meritocracy while the USA descends into a Cultural Revolution to annihilate all measurement and judgment.” Personally, I eagerly await the Cultural Revolution; I think it would do wonders for New York rent prices.
If the United States introduced a parallel program, Monaco thought, it wouldn’t go over well. “Just to obtain a work visa, apply for U.S. residency—these are very expensive and time-consuming processes,” she said. “So I imagine if a visa such as that or status such as that came about, I would think there would be some resistance.”
Ultimately, the HPI visa has gone mostly unnoticed—one article in The New York Times, one from The Guardian. It would probably have attracted more opprobrium if it hadn’t flown so far under the radar. Compared to Rankinggate or the Varsity Blues scandal, the HPI visa isn’t a topic of national conversation despite its implications for thousands of graduates worldwide.
(… Mostly. The HPI visa has become attractive clickbait fodder for YouTube e-z immigration gurus, grifters who fall somewhere on the spectrum from scammer to violator of international law. Videos with titles like “UK work visa no job offer required” and “New UK VISA Announced - Get visa without a job offer!” promise a life hack that’ll get you a UK visa, no sweat. (If you can manage the simple task of graduating from an Ivy. (But not Brown.)))
For all our collective concern over rankings, and our concern about the concern over rankings, we ought to remember that our position on a numbered list can’t represent our education, our achievement, or our potential. Likewise, taking a tumble down the rankings doesn’t negate the power of Columbia’s prestige—whether or not CU qualifies for the HPI visa in 2023, bearing the name of an “elite” university on your diploma still confers upon you some of that privilege. Rankings are a symptom of a shallow, hypercompetitive, exclusionary system, but the same Ivy worship that places a school like Columbia so high on the Academic Ranking of World Universities has a tangible impact beyond the meaningless signifiers. The self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion and elitism, and the question of how to create a more equitable, meritocratic world, is larger than any individual school, scandal, or poorly formulated visa policy.
Anyway, I’m probably going to try for one of those visas this summer. It’s stupid, but not as stupid as suing your alma mater over college rankings.
Bartender Fully Licensed to Dispense Advice
Coming to terms with this city.
By Will Lyman
“Bartender Fully Licensed to Dispense Advice” reads the gold-framed sign that dangles above pour tops of Iwai whiskey, malt bourbon, and a top-shelf gin with a crouching monkey on the label. I started bartending at a restaurant near campus in May, serving jobless college students, locals on their work-from-home lunch breaks, and sometimes pouring mimosas on the weekends. It’s my favorite of the jobs I’ve ever had. But during the summer it entailed many slow, low-paying mornings. Bored and alone, I’d sit behind the counter and read. If I was lucky, a cyclist or a dog walker would come in to use our bathroom.
Summer in New York is a different monster. The city, as always, drowns you in proximity to others: millions of people milling on the sidewalks, walking past each other without a glance. The days are long, but they’re numbered. They bear the pressure of being the designated time for adventure, for relaxation, for productivity. The streets are swollen with interns clogging lines at Le Bain, gathering content for their photo dumps, and fangirling over rats. The visibility of everyone, everywhere, living their lives invites the worry that I was doing little in comparison. That I’d let the summer waste away. That I’d managed to feel neither rested nor caught up.
The first day the sign was installed in the bar, a man dressed in beige came in, read it aloud to me, sat down, and asked: “What advice do you got for me?” I probably spouted some run-of-the-mill self-help clichés: drink your water, don’t pay the subway fare, spend a couple minutes in the sun everyday. But my exact response remains foggy. He proceeded to freely recount the details of his life as I poured him pints of IPA. I learned quite a lot: He was 57. Bass player. He, like me, loved amaretto sours. He hated aperol spritzes. He’d lived in West Harlem for 12 years. And he was still in love with his ex-girlfriend Peggy.
It was the first of several similarly intimate conversations I had with customers over the weeks. I listened to them consider the weather, ConEd outages, and the complexities of their lives, all whilst I mixed them cocktails and plied them with spring rolls. I’d ask them about the city, their family, their likes and dislikes, and hear rants in return—about the smell of trash on the curb, about “Manhattanville,” rising rents, etc. I came to understand everyone’s sense of living in the aftermath—of having survived something. A man in an army-green crew neck got priced out of an apartment his family had lived in for 20 years. A woman named Sylvia lost her brother to AIDS, then her father-in-law to Covid. A bass player named Rick watched his bookings vanish during lockdown. Years spent in a brutal, ever-changing city.
“New York never promised you anything,” a friend once told me at the end of a similar rant—a melodramatic tale of never quite feeling settled here. And it occurred to me, thinking back on this moment, that this was the only wisdom I had to offer. It did nothing to resolve the woes of my customers, and even less to comfort them. I’ve seen that many of us—especially 20-something transplants—come to the city looking for something. We come here to Eat, Pray, Love our way into a sense of self. We come here in spite of what it is, with hopes of what we will become. We weather the storm—trash smells, high rents, broom-closet-sized bedrooms, rats dragging dollar slices down Broadway—because we think we’ll get something out of it, that the personal payoff (self-actualization, career opportunities, story-worthy memories with friends) will be worth the sacrifice. I hear it all the time: “You’re staying after graduation, right?” “I’ll stay three years after graduation then boot.” “I could afford a McMansion in Texas.” Because the pursuit of self in the 20s is all about this: working towards the point where you can leave, where you’ve done enough, seen enough. We acknowledge that we’re here for extraction—we suck the city dry and leave. We’re parasites.
The people I spoke to at the bar all shared one sentiment: that living here is overwhelmingly disappointing. It didn’t come as a shock, this admission, even though they told it to me with hushed voices, like a secret, shameful of their words. They’re lonely. They’re dissatisfied. Any feelings of estrangement are magnified, not soothed, by near-constant proximity to people; its perpetual evidence of what they lack. In prodding them about their lives, I stumbled upon dozens of love stories. Dozens of ones who got away. There was always someone. The lonelier their account, the more pride they took in talking about Sara. Lenora. Gabriel. Taylor. They all had hopes and dreams about New York, ones that existed through relationships that emerged, flourished, and eventually floundered in iconic landmarks like the steps of St. John the Divine, Battery Park, Sheep’s Meadow. The only times when they weren’t lonely were when they lived through another person. The city became Sara, Lenora, Gabriel, Tyler, and suddenly wasn’t isolating.
But these loves ended, the days went on, and the city became cruel again. “I spent a lonely few years writing love letters to her,” the man in beige said about Peggy. He never sent the letters. He explained, as I later brought up some grievance about the humidity, how the summer is brutal in all regards. New York becomes its purest self: It’s hot. It’s smelly. The throngs retreat to their more formative communities (home, the Hamptons), and only the lonely are left behind. Everyone else is off on an adventure, and so if you’re not, it’s crystal clear.
Hearing these stories from people much older than me did little to ease my dissatisfaction with New York, but still, I kept pushing for them. Secretly, I loved when people shared those most tender and tragic moments of their lives to me. I built a practice out of it—knowing exactly which movies and songs got people talking. I would always catch the dreamers with Wes Anderson. The lovers with Dolly Parton. The Truman Show was always a big hit with the existentialist types. Unsurprising, given the subject matter of the movie they spoke of: staged, hollow relationships, a search for life beyond.
Behind the bar, I re-read Severance by Ling Ma, where she waxes about the nature of living in New York, zombies, Whole Foods, nostalgia. She writes: “the first place you live alone, away from your family … is the first place you become a person, the first place you become yourself.” This has always been true of me. In many ways, I came to New York because I wanted to become myself. I felt as if that was something that could be done to me, externally, by living here. I was determined to be a New Yorker. I felt that there was glory in Times Square, in block-long lines for gay bars with predatory owners, in seeing rats on the street. I was invigorated by these things, because I wanted to be the person that survived. I wanted to be a hardened, independent, downtown gal. I could be what New York wanted me to be, what I could convince myself of by living here. If I could find myself in the most private rooms, with the most well-connected people, I would have achieved some grandeur that the city promises.
In a neighborhood like Morningside Heights, the numbers dwindle in the summer; the pulp of the community, the college students, all whisked home (or subletting in Brooklyn, cliff-diving in Barcelona, working at Starbucks in Indiana). I spent those months in Morningside Heights, living out the final three months of my lease on 111th Street. When I wasn’t at work, I wandered around the neighborhood lounging in the People’s Garden or getting Thai Market takeout. On these days, I’d pass through campus and watch as they replaced Low Steps. The concrete slabs piled on the lawns left me with a resounding feeling that this place, at this time, was not meant to be inhabited.
“New York is possibly the only place in which most people have already lived, in some sense, in the public imagination, before they ever arrive.” Ling Ma wrote this; I read it while I emptied a can of tomato juice into a quart container to make bloody mary mix and I knew it to be true. I’d come here with some expectation of what it would be. I stole it from 2000s rom-coms about high-power executive women looking for love, hailing taxi cabs in the snow, eating slices of 99 cent pizza on the subway platform. When I posed the question “why New York?” to customers at the bar, business students cited the finance sector (Wall Street, midtown lunch stops at Sweetgreen), gay-looking people cited the art, the music, the community only a city can provide, dancers cited Juilliard, fashion students cited Sex and the City. It went on like this. Nobody comes here knowing who they are.
We come here because we’ve all seen, in some form, that the city is made for the type of person we want to be. The city is this absent agent onto which we project everything. Absent, because, of course, we’re here and we live it, breathe its air, eat at its restaurants, smoke in its parks—but it does not regard us. It doesn’t mold around us. “It’s eight different cities in one,” a customer in a New York Knicks hoodie explained. There are so many options—you have to identify with something. We’re all fighting to get to ourselves. We enter the city looking to be saved. Instead, we find ourselves in empty restaurants, looking for comfort from bartenders.
And at the end of every conversation, I’d get the same look. They’d all had the same expectation—that I’d have some words of wisdom to offer them, I’d have advice to dispense. In these moments, I’d return to myself and realize I had nothing to say. I’d stare at the half-empty bottles in the well to avoid eye contact. The best I had to offer: “This is a hard place to be by yourself.”
But this does not help. This doesn’t leave my customers better off than when they came in. As I spoke to these people, the very ones that seem so settled in New York, I came to recognize that they didn’t actually have what I lacked. They weren’t the external, fulfilled people I previously believed them to be. They couldn’t give me a road map. Rather, they showed me how universal all my woes are, that I was not unique for experiencing them, and thus, was not alone in it.
“New York, make me a part of you,” sang Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac over the Sonos speakers. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a part of something.
Notes on Nostalgia
Walking out of the waiting room.
By Zibia Bardin
Illustration by Phoebe Wagoner
Confusing glass for air the bird met the window pane, dropped into the herb garden and died between the basil and thyme. I was in the kitchen and only heard the noise. I ran out too late. I buried the bird in the marsh. After that, the idea of nostalgia hung on me like humidity. Fervent, sticky.
Nostalgia and absence are isotopes of presence.
The feeling of being present has something to do with dissolving borders in the mind; one no longer meets oneself at the edges of one’s skin but rather in the skin of others—expressions, encounters, vague but heavy moments of contact. Inhabiting the past gives one the feeling that the present does not exist—or that it exists in a feathery, paper-light way. In actuality, the present is more like a bag that you are inside.
The present is also increasingly out of style—the past is all the rage. It’s not cool to have the newest thing anymore. Nineteenth-century nightgowns as mini-dresses, obscure records from the the mid-1920s, CD players, indie-sleaze, World War II—military bags, and 1970s Chuck Taylors (god forbid you wear the newer, slimmer model) constitute the new bohemian aesthetic.
If this mess of cultural recycling represents a nation, nostalgia is its flag. Nostalgia has become a cult, a way of affirming that you’re “anti,” that you believe in punk precepts, or the peace movements of the sixties and seventies.
I myself participate in this recycling, but it’s less to do with what I’m wearing than it is to do with my pessimism. I’m worried about the future. I feel helpless about the climate. I’m disenchanted with the inventions of this era—the iPhone, Instagram, sixth graders who look seventeen, streamable music. All of them seem to share a sinister and slippery quality that evades thorough description with frightening grace. Each is embroiled in systems of industry and technology that are not readily understood by the public, and one understands that that is not by coincidence.
The things we invent are a Rorschach test for the present by design. They tell everyone what they already feel. “Every work of art is the child of its time,” Wassily Kandinsky once said, “often it is the mother of our emotions.” If this is so, ours is a generation orphaned from the now.
I have just finished reading The Magician, Columbia professor Colm Tóibín’s novel about the life of writer Thomas Mann. At one point, Mann sits in his living room listening to his son playing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132. “To move from the bombast of the symphonies to the unearthly loneliness of this quartet,” Tóibín writes,
must have been a journey that even Beethoven himself could not easily comprehend. It must have come as though some strange, tentative, shivering knowledge emerged suddenly into clarity. Thomas wished he had been able to do this as a writer, find a tone or context that was beyond himself, that was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered above the world of fact, entering into a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again.
This is what I mean when I write of presence.
Whether or not they wanted it, our grandparents had presence. In their lives, it was in everything: in the commute to school, in time spent with others, in the classroom, in airplanes, on sidewalks. James Joyce called it “the ineluctable modality of the visible”; I might add the tangible, the audible—the olfactible, even. In our grandparents’ time, the only real escapes from reality were sleep, death, and drugs. Almost no one can sit through a four-hour opera without their mind wandering—that has always been true. But the mindful methods of distraction our grandparents must have devised are quite different from the mindless escape the internet provides. It is one thing to let one’s eyes glaze over in a theater; it is another to crouch down and check Instagram.
Us children of the 21st century live in an era that increasingly erodes the present by grating it up against the online world. The buzzing has drilled a certain unquenchable thirst into our very brains, relieved only and temporarily by the paranormal worlds we create for ourselves, virtual dreamscapes where nothing is boring and we are perpetually less interesting than our peers.
Online, we never stand awkwardly in doorways or engage in ambivalent conversations or have to sit still for a simply outrageous amount of time. We are trigger-happy with the skip button, accustomed to life on fast-forward.
Our grandparents did not live this way, and thus did not love in this way. There were no phones to numb the ride to school, the walk to class, the awkward social fiascos of middle school and high school and even college events. Life was served with no chaser.
This is not to say that people have always enjoyed the present. In fact, people have always loved to let their imaginations take them elsewhere. No one likes to be on a boat for as long as people had to be on boats in those days. Think about the longest you’ve ever been on a boat, and then think about multiplying the time you spent on that boat by 20. If you were lucky you had someone you knew with you on the boat and maybe even a card game to play. Or consider the operas and concerts that were commonplace in Russia in the 19th century—some of them were five hours long. Five hours of your life.
But people did go to five-hour operas in those days. And they did try to listen, and they did get distracted, and they did then try to listen again. And in the moments when they listened, they would find the world. The bombast of symphonies, the loneliness of a quartet. The glimmer, the thing that hovers, the equilibrium between spirit and substance. Social media can not offer us this, and it never will.
Literally any other activity will. In a way, it's very simple.
The present has not gone anywhere. It is happening as we speak. I write to you from an air mattress in the house of Meaghan Jungels, BC ’25, in Dublin, Ireland on July 30, 2022. It rained this morning but the sun has come out. A loud alarm has been going off for about 10 minutes or so. I could close the window, but I haven’t.
My cat died three days ago. I had had him since the second grade. He has a brother, who is still alive. But it’s not the same. It was a heart embolism, very sudden; there was nothing they could do. I find this part of life so unforgivable, it makes me totally irrational. Both cats started getting old two years ago and I did everything I could to prepare myself. But nothing I did softened the blow of that phone call, which I ultimately received alone.
Nostalgia is a frustrating feeling. It goes nowhere. Some feelings set up shop within you, run a few errands, and then leave. But nostalgia is like light: a wave and a particle. Acute and distended. It makes me have to leave my friends in the middle of dinner to sit in the bathroom with my eyes closed, and it hovers over some of my best days. It makes me look for hiding places.
College can feel like a hiding place. I think about the world from my comfortable nook on 116th Street. I see friends, go to dinners and museums, light and blow out candles, dance, and think about the recommended topics: Plato vs. Aristotle, the merit of poetry, equilibrium and titration points, precision vs. accuracy. The process of strengthening a memory in the brain involves the phosphorylation of AMPA receptors within the cell, making our synapses stronger, faster.
We are, on a very basic level, electric.
The process of forgetting involves the dephosphorylation of AMPA receptors, which is caused by a change in the amount of calcium in the cells in our brains. This dephosphorylation weakens the synapse so that even when the memory is triggered, the cell can’t respond or only responds very weakly.
Everything in the brain is doors and keys: What you remember is a matter of permeability. The cells that make up the memory get tired from disuse, their doors start to fall off their hinges and calcium ions wander in, and, like a band of disgruntled plumbers, get to work on unscrewing the memory. And suddenly you find yourself driving through some old town in upstate New York and your mother leans back from the front seat to ask you if you remember the trip you all took there in the fall of 2012 and you have no choice but to say no, although you can feel the warmly shaped absence of disassembled parts in some back corner of your brain.
Then someone will call and ask me if I have eaten lunch yet, and I’ll meet them somewhere, at Barnard gates or Earl Hall or on the lawn outside Furnald or at the tables in the shade by Milbank, and they’ll say, “Ferris or John Jay?” It is possible that things happen outside of this place but none of us know for sure.
One day we will look up and realize that we have memorized all of the cheesy wall art in the waiting room, that the snow globe we have made of our lives is too cold, and the constancy of the snow will change from quaint to putrid with the subtlety and dexterity of a teenager in a game of spoons, about to play her winning hand. Nostalgia; a waiting room. And we will leave it.
And maybe not at first, but eventually, we will allow ourselves to love impermanent things.
We will anticipate the death of things and love them anyway. We will fall in love with other humans, knowing that they may one day have to say to us, “I do not love you now the way I loved you then.” We will allow things to happen to us. Not always because we want them to, but because we’ve seen the waiting room.
My friends are sitting down to dinner. We may not always be friends in the way we are now. Either way, they are in the room with me, and I can feel them, their presence, their particular gravity, baffling and gorgeous. This is how I get to love them—in the shimmering between breaths, in the places between my skin and theirs: our collective dissolution.
So this is where I leave you. But maybe I’ll see you again, sometime soon, somewhere else. Until then, you can listen to Debussy’s string quartet in G-minor, Op. 10. The third movement is my favorite. It says everything I meant to tell you, but couldn’t say.
Illustration by Lolo Dederer, Watson Frank, Jorja Leona Garcia, Cadence Gonzales, Hart Hallos, Madeleine Hermann, Betel Tadesse
Illustration by Lolo Dederer
After Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My 1980s.”
By Will Lyman
In 2015, over a top-heavy stack of pancakes in New England, I was called hot by a boy I adored. We talked in stale fragments over Snapchat, but the message felt surprisingly alive. It was the type of excitement my eighth-grade self had never felt before; I was startled at my ability to be so moved by so little. I shared the moment with no one, keeping my family—who surrounded me—in the dark as to why I was smiling into my whipped cream and strawberries.
Six years later, in that same New England diner, I ate buttered toast and sipped coffee with a short brunette boy. He had the biggest eyes and looked at me with the awe of discovering a new life. I smiled to myself, again, unable to share the glory with him. He couldn’t know what it meant.
Everybody knows, I wrote on my arm in eighth grade. Thick, gummy, ballpoint letters. Cold nights on the roof. I felt invincible but was often sad. I couldn’t understand why it felt so essential—so apparent—that I would always be this way.
At twenty, I was alone for the first time. I wandered New York with no purpose. I sat, sweaty, in different grass. Everything had changed, but nothing was unfamiliar.
My skin itched when I sat near the air conditioner in my first apartment. For the first few days, it was so empty. So lonely. I ate meals on a wooden TV stand that I found on 102nd St. It served as both a centerpiece and an eyesore for the room, carrying with it some official all-importance. So I sat there and breathed thick, unsettling inhales—breaths that felt like they flushed out something heavy in my chest. I scratched myself all the while, feeling that this justified the deep sense of unease I had always carried with me—some mysterious reality-borne illness.
I contemplated kicking the pigeons on the sidewalk almost every day. They never moved for me, nor did they note my presence in any way. I wanted to destroy their feeling of safety. I imagined them exploding in puffs of feathers on the pavement. I was concerned, mostly, that I was invisible.
Dating was constant and fruitless. I’d meet someone new every month or so, deciding to give them a chance only a few hours before I would, similarly, decide to move on. I’m not sure what I found so fulfilling about it; the drinks were pricey and diluted, the food was often mediocre, and, for the most part, I didn’t enjoy the company. There was something good in there, somewhere. Perhaps it was the process of talking about myself, being listened to, and leaving. An elevator pitch to random, semi-attractive, men: Matthew. Dylan. Trevor. Joseph. Fernando. Thomas.
Nothing pained me more than having to write applications, selling myself in 200 words or less. It’s not that I think myself too powerful and complex to be distilled into that word count. I wasn’t worth ten. Rather, the process tempts me with my worst habit: molding myself to be what someone wants, or what I imagine they want.
Similar demons befell me on these dates. Trevor, for example, spoke highly of his new position, his LinkedIn, his 401(k). When he asked why I didn’t have an internship for the third summer in a row, I became paranoid and lied. I said I worked as a production assistant on soft drink video marketing campaigns. $17/hour. Official. It was good money, having some redemptive quality in the Sprite and Dr. Pepper.
I jumped the turnstiles at 50th St. with a boy named Alex. We kissed on the floor of the subway, dirtying our clothes. We were soaked with rain and cigarette butts and the moment was soaked with glamor. When the train didn’t come, we grabbed Citi Bikes and started off—drunkenly—up the West Side of Manhattan. I crashed into a plastic lane divider, slicing my right hand open, and let Alex see all of me. It was one of many sparkling, infectious nights that summer.
Smiling through beads of sweat over noodle dishes in Soho. The heat is annihilating. Someone at the table next to me drinks a neon green Mountain Dew while I listen to Alex explain his taxonomy of astrological nut milks. According to him, he has an oat sun, an almond moon, and a soy rising. We don’t go on a third date.
Lying on the couch in an older man’s apartment, we discussed inflation and the economy. He pays the same for a rent-controlled four-bedroom that I do for a modern studio. I never got his name, but he kept referring to me by mine. “Your generation is so lucky. You’re all so happy.”
On 23rd St., I walked across an intersection with three empty picture frames I had bought from Goodwill. It was hot in Chelsea and my shirt stuck to my back. I heard a woman call me by another man’s name. I didn’t know her , nor did I want to, but she was certain that it had been me.
Talking closely at a dorm party, I put my hand on the waist of a film boy and he didn’t move away. The song was something electronic, but he didn’t recognize it. I shouted the name in his ear, feeling, at once, superior. In the morning, he woke up and burned his elbow on the heater next to my bed. We laughed about it as he brought me water. He was always so kind.
Trying to find your way into someone’s life is never as easy as you want it. Their world takes on form and shape. They also have a Tuesday afternoon, but something important at five. Everyone has something important at five.
The boy I liked was a fan of live music—he said he would go alone to concerts and return with strange and shapely friends. When we finished, I decided to adopt some of his lease on life. I took myself to movie screenings, raves, festivals; I won tickets in radio raffles. I felt like a true New York insider, but I wasn’t exactly a part of anything.
In the back of a warehouse, I found myself sitting on an oil drum giggling at some guy I didn’t know. He glowed pink in the light. A singer in a rhinestone bodysuit loudly instructed us to “free ourselves from the simulation.” My body vibrated from the vodka Red Bull I’d just chugged.
I was never good at concealing anything. I’m pissy. Brash. Sappy. Blunt. Annoyance reads on my face just as easily as concern or admiration or indifference. There is a bend in my nature towards confession. I used to think it liberated me, made me as easy to read as I wished other people were.
Fake and Gay. Horse Meat Disco. Cakes. Dick Appointment. Human by Orientation. These were the names of parties I went to. In these concrete rooms, muscled men sipped vodka sodas and dosed horse tranquilizers. Noting their habits was not an act of snobbery on my part; most people would tell you I’m entirely unsophisticated. I felt comforted, and somehow understood, by these sweaty circuit gays, oontzing to house beats in their jockstraps.
I had dinner with a muscular boy who said he studied business. I stumbled through the evening, trying to navigate his strange demeanor. The boy kept touching me, grabbing my waist and telling me I was beautiful, but the praises were interrupted. He had asked me to bring ingredients to cook something, to “surprise him.” I showed up late with three lemons I grabbed from my fridge, which hung in a Duane Reade bag. I also brought a jar of Trader Joe’s arrabiata sauce I bought ten minutes earlier for $3.29. The boy looked so disappointed.
The same business boy texted me months later, begging me to come over to his apartment at three a.m. on a Thursday. I resisted, remembering just how irksome his presence had been, but finally agreed when he offered to call me a car. He complained about it the entire time, feeling that he had “spent so much” on me. The car was $13.
His apartment had floor-to-ceiling windows. I stood naked in front of them and looked out on the Hudson, seeing little boats drive by in the night. It was the nicest apartment I had ever seen. Standing in it, I felt like a Bond villain in their introductory scene, clutching a warm glass of bourbon, looking down on people and places.
I had a bad habit of breakups during frigid, solitary Januarys. They always confirmed my worst fears: that no matter where I went, I’d be cold. I’d be alone. I didn’t know how to understand myself anymore—victim, overbearer, enviable, unchosen. I grew more curious about what everyone saw when they looked at me, the ugly they recognized but wouldn’t speak of.
Two nights ago, I convinced myself I had been reaching out to my friends more than they had been to me. It was an awful spiral of delusion, thinking myself to be secretly repulsive. I responded by not speaking to them for two days, although they had done nothing wrong. I thought it would bring about some massive reset, some newfound respect for my company.
A snowfall covered the city in brightness. I spent the day sledding with an uptown boy who rode bikes and sketched bugs. I needed him. At that point, he had already decided on someone else. I didn’t know that, but it was still nice to live in the fantasy of feeling wanted. I made us watery hot chocolate and we ate orange chicken on my roommate’s floor. My fortune cookie told me: “soon you will get the recognition you deserve.”
After kissing my uptown boy on a rooftop, we ate green tea mochi and watched a horror movie about girls going missing. The mochi was warm and chewy from the small fridge beside his bed. The ice cream was a nice alternative to his lips, which felt dispassionate and cold.
We ate at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. He didn’t like to call them dates. At the end of our meal, after we had spent far too much money and drank too heavy of pours, we took pictures of each other holding a stolen cup in the lobby of my apartment. It was a copper mug, and his chipped nail polish stood out against the orange shine. I held the mug and smiled for the camera, feeling eviscerated by him. I called him a cab uptown and he told me the driver had given him some good advice. I still wonder what it was.
I hit twenty-one and I was alone again. I drew hearts on his face at Valentine’s Day parties and we sat—not touching—on the sagging couch in my apartment. We talked about our favorite records. I wondered why he didn’t love me.
Everything was about him. I missed him so much and he was right there. We shared my coconut chapstick on a bridge in Central Park.
I wonder if other people felt the way I did. Surely it wasn’t normal to be so burned by everything—to feel a sort of total emotion, a full spirit. To cope by nibbling at small plates in tapas lounges and raiding happy hour menus.
At my lowest point, when the winter seemed never ending, I went home. I spent a dizzying ten days in Minnesota, driving around in the frigid weather and reflecting on what had broken me down. The air was colder than in the city, but it felt so much more like home. I held my dog. I finally let my parents see me cry.
Months passed. I didn’t see him. I told myself that eventually I would get better. The pain would stop being mine, would belong to some other version of myself, far removed. I needed to change, to become new, before I did it again.
I considered donating sperm when summer came, some fertile sense in the air. It would’ve just been more money to buy vodka and fruit, but I decided it wasn’t worth it. Something disturbed me about the possibility of children running around with half my DNA, fucking things up. I would’ve never been able to look at a child without thinking of the slim chance they were my own. My ego didn’t need that.
I held several picnics in Sheep’s Meadow throughout my first summer. Sweet berries from sticky tupperware, lukewarm water out of a Nalgene. The picnic basket was a FreshDirect bag, a smattering of brand names interfering with our food. The boy hadn’t forgiven me. I came to understand that it was easier to enjoy myself when some war raged on in the background. It gave weight to the present, made it feel vivid, indulgent, and precious. I ignored the boy, and my rage about it all, choosing instead to sip wine from waxy reception cups and lie drunkenly in the grass.
I talked incessantly at anyone who would listen. A lot of it was about the uptown boy, about whom I could tell my friends were tired of hearing. Part of me was giddy at the reality of face-to-face interaction, and another had too many things to say. When nobody was willing to let me dump on them, I made a conscious effort to ask questions, to lean in, to show that I cared about what they had to say. It startled me how little I actually did.
At some point in the Summer of Love—when the streets were swelling with young people in Modcloth dresses drinking espresso martinis—I stopped wanting to have sex. Although, I hadn’t been doing any of it to particularly exhaust me. The desire disappeared inside itself. For enjoyment I drank ice water and chewed mint gum.
The fall came and we ran into each other at a coffee shop on 148th. I should’ve known, going uptown, but it had been the only place I could find that offered a student discount. Unsure of the directionality, I began talking to him again. The conversations reminded me of his ambivalence, of his temperament to be searching for a meaning yet to come to him, happiness in a city he is yet to visit. Maybe downtown. I no longer adored him, no longer felt pulled to his approval. Instead, I sat with a great deal of confusion. I tried to show him that I was a changed person because I went on a run the week before and now wore gold jewelry.
I found that it was easier the second time: recovering. I was less wedded to the idea that this feeling—of loss, of tetheredness—was unique to one person. They all struck the same chord.
The meaning had been laundered over the years, dulled by thought. I paid taxes. I felt disgusted. Every morning I cooked myself breakfast and cleaned the same pan, mind heavy with the worry that I wasn’t a good person. I did shameful things. I had the audacity to think they didn’t diminish me. There was no middle ground.
Boys cycled through. I recovered, but I was something entirely new. They would stroke my face, call me baby, and tell me I was beautiful.
Measure for Measure
By Aliza Abusch-Magder
Illustrations by Emma Chen
Blue Heron Community Garden
Waited by the flowers, stared at blue acid skies until a butterfly landed. Bombarded her with pictures, stared through the screen at her enlarged, papery wings. Marveled, “just a creature.” I have over-ripened; the summer of my heart riding a roller coaster has come to its halting cessation. I am queasy, relieved, thrilled, nauseatingly alive. I sit in a garden that I haven’t seen since May, happy to report that she is well. She has bloomed. From barely parting buds to fruit: the flesh and film of deep-red tomato, luminous plump royal of eggplant, me in a fuller form, hair sheered, ever-wide hips. The sun has been blaring like horns from traffic on the road that runs parallel to the garden’s rows. Summer has bloomed, blossomed, and now bubbled over its peak. The sun has been blaring and tomato’s red heated to pale orange, the flowers crisp at their edges, the tan dulled on my skin. Seeds sown in spring have been harvested, cornucopian excess soon to rot; the chives have flowered; the eggplant became matte, brown, a gauzy gash in its side. I stew in forgiveness that I cannot speak. My gratitude swells and springs dense to my surface, nourished by friends, lovers, adventure, laughter. A potent life from which concision emerges in a state of deep content. To be here, to have arrived at this moment. Summer’s fruit has shifted towards over-ripeness. My bubbling bright heart. The butterfly I bombarded. Bouquet of scorched flowers and bloomed chives. In the moments when I land, delivered by the churn of life into stillness, I sing to myself: I love you like burning blue acid skies, you are a creature, your seasons cycle brightly, vitally.
By Aliza Abusch-Magder
I am rotten apple and I know this because carpool moms begrudged me, loved me and never liked me. I texted flip-phone boys, too fast, shin guards stank, chewy bar bits, thighs splayed on the sedan’s leather seats, sang along to the radio. All the messy they thanked god their girl wasn’t. Carpool moms prayed to bento box lunches, hand-held vacuum, tearing up when appropriate, goals scored, teachers gifted, goodie bags with bows. My mom is an Ima, and she blessed me every night, told me that God is messy and that I am a part of her. How confusing to be a rotten apple raised in the cornucopia of the divine.
On the (un)masking of nascent histories.
By Benjamine Mo
Illustration by Alexandra Lopez-Carretero
“God Save the Queen?”
By Leah Overstreet
Please? Just for a little longer?
I know, I know, this isn’t the first time I’ve asked you to hold off on sending her. Renovating the entire ninth circle takes more preparation than you might think!! Each time the deadline has rolled around, I’ve just needed a bit more time. Fires aren’t hot enough, blades aren’t sharp enough, Cerberus is too well fed. It needs to be perfect. She has had a torture chamber with her name on it since her first genocide.
Delaying her last breath all this time has meant that she’s had more time to ruin more lives. Each week that passed came along with newly conquered lands, new slurs from her mouth, and new cultures destroyed. It’s truly impressive work. And so I need to make my evils all the more unbearable to be worthy of her glorious transgressions. It’s taken a while.
Now, morale is low. The demons have lost their spark and I must admit, even I have moved on. Our lusts have taken on a new direction. I’ve been getting visitors who want more from me than just pain—they’ve come in ready to make a heaven of hell. The muscled bodies that had once only been useful in the torture chamber suddenly looked so different in under the gleam of hellfire …
So yes, we might have gotten a little distracted, and Belphegor did get a little worked up after a particularly blood orgy, trashing the place. The Elizabethan wing is in shambles.
Maybe I’ve “given up.” Maybe I’ve “lost my touch.” Or maybe I’m just tired of throwing myself into something that I knew she would never truly appreciate. Her majesty doesn’t get it. Our relationship has always been so one-sided: Me, obsessed with being good enough for her, and her, delusionally thinking she’d get into heaven (imagine!!). She’s never wanted me. Not like how I want her. So what I really think it is is that I’ve realized there’s a life beyond Lizzie. That maybe it could be good for me. That it’s healthy.
That being said, I must finish what I’ve started. Please, bring her back to purgatory for a bit while I sort some things out. Right now, she’s just sort of wandering around getting into trouble. She’s bossing everyone around and feeding Cerberus treats. She’s trying to put ME out of a job. AND IT’S WORKING. To no one’s surprise she is twice the devil I am and she’s damn good at it. Please, God, I can’t afford to be unemployed right now. I just need more time to gather the tools to eternally damn Liz before she gets a promotion from Queen of Bad Teeth and Love Island to Queen of The Underworld.
Can’t you help an old friend out?
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
By Kelsey Kitzke
Listen. I know the last time we talked I said that I could keep her a little longer, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry (the humans keep complaining about “inequality,” “injustice,” and the prospect of the “total annihilation of humanity,” which, like, who did that? Was it you?). The point is, I really need you to take some initiative here. I want to help you out, but the bitch was inching her way up to 97 years on this earth and I’m tired. Saving people hasn’t been my forte since Noah got in over his head with the petting-zoo-cruise idea. The plagues are always much more my thing. I like the attention! You know how it is …
I’ve been hearing it nonstop for the past seventy years. God, save the Queen! God, save the Queen! For God’s sake—for My sake—I needed it to stop. I know you wanted to make it special for your first time together, but she started to think that she was running shit around here. She put a collar around cupid and led him around like a corgi. She kept ringing little bells. I told her, Lizzy, no! Those bells control the stars. How is Ashley going to know if things will work out between her and Tyler if the planets aren’t in order? She also kept staring at my son with an expression of mild horror before asking where he’s originally from. I tried to explain to her that when I proposed the divine right of kings, I only meant the divine right of kings to wear a cute crown once in a while. I said ‘A queen should slay,’ as in ‘slay an extravagant outfit on a plushy chair,’ not ‘slay entire civilizations’ … She didn’t seem to get it. So I sent her down to you. Now she’s your headache.
Now I’ve got to deal with all the fucked up shit done in my name. Despite my recent reputation, I’m responsible for rainbows, puppies, and the sound of a child’s laughter on a bright spring day. The truth is, I do many good things that get overshadowed by my association with her. What has she done, besides a litany of scandals? And doesn’t that sound like a perfect thing for you to deal with?
Come on. You’re the queen of this kind of shit—remember when Thatcher died? Those were good times, right? You’re going to do a great job. I believe in you. Have some faith in yourself.
Your humble savior,