Blue Notes, March 2020
Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Barber Shop Wars
An unknowing passerby might mistake the name of the Universal Barber Shop, which opened in November on Broadway between 111th and 112th, as a reference to the nearby academic institution, but alas, ‘tis merely to connote the salon’s aspirationally unisex clientele.
The owner, who goes by Ruben, used to work at Columbia Barber Shop, a mainstay just ten blocks uptown. Pregnant with the desire to have my hair lacerated by such a dissenter, I waltzed down Broadway and entered the belly of the revolutionary beast. At the threshold, I met a stern man with a receding hairline. “Are you taking walk-ins today?” I asked. He murmured something that didn’t quite sound dissuading, so I hesitantly sat down.
While Ruben struggled to fit a speckled cape over my puffy collar, I observed the slick black and white decor, the pristine mirrors complementing his arsenal of silver snippers on a nearby counter. “Two on the top and sides,” I requested, launching our adventure. I clutched my coat close to my body in an effort to shield myself from further interactions with the man about to shear my scalp with oscillating knives.
Yet it was imperative that I get something out of him. “Is this a new shop?” I spat out. He muttered again, then asked me where I usually go—assessing his competition, no doubt, perhaps pining for a scoop on the employers he ditched. “It varies,” I told him, which translates to: “I used to go to this cheap place by St. John the Divine, but they screwed up my hair so badly the second time, I thought I’d try your place, dear Ruben, for Columbia’s foremost publication, certainly not against my will.”
Luckily, I was in good hands. Ruben’s skill was undeniable; his razor was a paintbrush, and I his increasingly submissive canvas. His art was a dialectic of practiced grace and terrifying aggression—but if you don’t fear for your life at least once during a haircut, you probably have a shitty barber.
When the deed was done, I took out my debit card, only to realize that Ruben only accepts cash. Trying desperately not to sully our rapport, I dashed to Duane Reade, withdrew $40, and ran back to Universal, where Ruben was already serving another customer.
“Have a good day!” I managed. No response—just a severed grey lock falling wistfully to the floor.
Meeting Nicholas Roerich
A nondescript townhouse, a stone’s throw from Absolute Bagels and adjacent to a banking executive’s marble mansion on 107th near Riverside Drive, houses the country’s largest collection of work by Nicholas Roerich, the Russian-born artist known for his paintings of the Himalayas.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across Roerich while on the hunt for a new phone screensaver. He was intriguing—a writer, philosopher, activist, and painter—so I added his namesake museum to my “Why Columbia” application supplement. A year and a half in, I still hadn’t been.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
On a recent Friday afternoon, I convinced my friend Theo to tag along. Our walk to the museum verged on biblical. Tape roped off a team of firemen standing around a sinkhole leading to a burst water pipe on 112th. Heavy streams threatened to overflow onto the sidewalk. The wind pushed hard against us. We hastily devoured our Ham Del sandwiches, zipped up our coats, and pressed onward.
The front door of the townhouse looked heavy. It was. In the foyer, an old couple chatted about an upcoming concert while a young one mingled around a few shelves that the museum has converted into a gift shop. A portrait of a bearded Roerich hung on the wall. Theo remarked that all men of 19th-century Russia look the same. A friendly-looking Russian man stationed behind a table with a donation box didn’t seem to understand our questions, but nodded us up a flight of stairs. He didn’t look like the man on the wall.
Upstairs, most of the paintings hung askew, like family portraits above a mantelpiece. I was struck by the bright blues and deep oranges that Roerich used to capture the Himalayas. Hazy suns set over his expansive purple skies. Travelers drag tired mules up steep mountains. Auras surround deities. On one wall, figures draped in patterned cloths—costumes for The Rite of Spring— dance around one another. Theo hummed the ballet’s opening tune, and it felt like we were living in the Core pamphlet Columbia sent us in the mail
On our way out, we found the friendly man from downstairs setting up rows of folding chairs in front of a grand piano. I wanted to ask him what for, but I got the sense that he would be happier without the disturbance.
I look at the photos on my phone once in a while. I’m still taken by the colors, by the strange juxtaposition of the Manhattan townhouse against the mystical paintings, by the way the museum disappears into the city around it. I wonder how I convinced myself that venturing past Westside was a Herculean task. I imagine how much of the city I must be missing. Oh well, I think. See you soon, 107th.
Dos Toros, Both Alike in Delectability
When my suitemate Bella informed me in August that a branch of her favorite Mexican restaurant was opening near campus, I expected to join her for festive sit-down meals involving mocktails and lavish platos fuertes. It’s safe to say that Dos Toros, the chain restaurant with just six main menu items—from which one can, at the very least, fashion creative combinations—was not what I had pictured.
Half a year later, in the wake of the opening of our very own Dos Toros on Broadway between 113th and 114th, I checked back in with Bella to see how she was feeling, and her wise words seemed to reflect the general sentiments of her peers: “I guess what I’m thinking now is that I’m so happy because Chipotle is just way too far to walk to when you want a burrito.” When prompted to devise a question for Dos Toros founder Leo Kramer, she eagerly inquired, “Will we ever get free burritos?”
When I sat down with Kramer and his brother and business partner, Oliver Kramer, I began by divulging a worry of mine: as a member of the Magazine’s literary staff, I had been suddenly thrust into culinary reportage and felt out of my comfort zone. Poems are more in my domain. The Kramers were intrigued, and throughout the conversation, they riffed about California-style Mexican food in a purposefully poetic manner. “Burritos fuel you when you are trying to change the world,” Oliver said at one point. At another, Leo: “A burrito is a microcosm of the college experience.” Despite their encouragement, I resisted the urge to write a supplementary burrito-inspired poem.
Having grown up near the University of California, Berkeley, the Kramers believe that Morningside Heights is the New York equivalent of their college town. The opening at Columbia feels “like a homecoming” to them. Though the brothers had this idea years ago, they have been waiting for the perfect location. They understand that, like Bella, many New Yorkers are “hyperlocal.” As Leo put it, “If you work on 51st street in Midtown, you’re not going past 53rd.” We have the vacancy at 113th to thank for our newly accessible, hyperlocal burritos and tacos.
Illustration by Brooke McCormick
The Kramers revealed one piece of bad news for Bella and other guac-loving Lions. Beyond the John Jay/Dos Toros collab event that occurred in early February and the $5 burritos offered during the first week of business, Columbians can expect to pay full price. On a more uplifting note, if the Kramers hone their technological skills, we may soon be able to use Flex at the restaurant. Until then, the burritos from the Diana Center Sono Station appear to be our best and most affordable bet. To those inclined to eat offcampus: heed the recommendations of Bella, Oliver, and Leo, the three paramount connoisseurs in this writer’s eyes: steak burrito, carnitas burrito, Impossible Nachos, respectively. Shell out if you dare.
On a recent Saturday evening, I threw a party in my 150-square-foot McBain double for a group of roughly 195 Columbia students with nothing in common save a Listserv membership. For those unfortunate readers who were left out of the event of the season, allow me to explain.
The Latin American and Iberian Cultures Department’s undergraduate Listserv, known among their privileged membership as LAICUndergrads, is an email list to which many Columbia students pursuing Spanish and Portuguese studies subscribe, and to which countless others, including yours truly, have been involuntarily added. We regularly receive department updates, announcements for new courses that fulfill major requirements, and advertisements for other Columbia Listserv regulars like roundtables and webinars. I regarded the emails as minor annoyances, but, like most students who unwittingly wind up on Listservs for organizations that do not in any way pertain to their lives, I was too lazy to figure out how to remove myself.
My fellow LAICUndergrads members seemed to have adopted the same apathetic ethos—that is, until one Sunday in February, when a particularly fed-up Listserv member spoke his mind to the general audience:
Illustration by Brooke McCormick
“Hello, I would like to have my email, firstname.lastname@example.org, removed from this mailing list. I may have been placed on it by mistake. Thanks!”
I’m able to use quotation marks here because said member incidentally replied all, blessing hundreds of students and faculty members with his request.
Almost immediately after, another followed: “Good morning, I would like my email, xxx@ columbia.edu, removed as well. Thank you.”
Within the next few hours, the email chain grew with hundreds of replies. Messages poured in from students seizing the opportunity to escape from the list, while others merely threw gasoline on the fire to contribute to the exponential joke. The torrent of pleading, trolling, and commentary was punctuated only by the occasional email threat from a Listserv moderator demanding an end to the madness: “PLEASE STOP,” one wrote. The responses became more and more absurd, and the chain devolved into something like a manic Twitter feed: “Actually can you guys send me more emails?” “Who wants to go to JJ’s rn?” “Anyone down for a LAICUndergrads party this weekend??”
That last message was mine. I then had no choice but to make “The LAICUndergrads Rager” a Facebook event. Naturally, I used the Listserv to promote the party. Much to my surprise, by the end of the week, those 200 students marked themselves “going,” cementing their loyalty to their haphazard Internet club and asserting their unity in the face of dissent.
As the week neared its end, the LAIC Rager was at the forefront of my mind. “Wait, is it actually happening?” a handful of people asked, but truthfully, I didn’t know. It was my party, but not my joke—since the beginning, it was our joke, and it thus felt like the collective’s job to deliver the punchline.
On Saturday, as 10:00 p.m. drew closer, I swept the crumbs from my McBain floors for the first time ever, put on a nice tasteful top that my roommate and I both agreed said “I’m throwing a Listserv party,” and even wrote “LAIC Rager” on the little whiteboard on my door. Exactly no one arrived.