Blue Notes, November 2015
Updated: Jul 24
Those of you who do not enjoy making small talk in campus elevators: look around (not at your phone). You will surely come across signs for the Office of Vertical Transportation posted somewhere near the buttons. The name sounds like something in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and the way to get there is equally absurd.
What started out as a quest to put a place to this peculiar name, however, quickly turned into a quest to confirm or deny the existence of a bureaucratic conspiracy theory. Of the four different phone numbers posted in elevators around campus for the supposed “Office of Vertical Transportation,” one is disconnected, one is the Business School, one rings and rings but is never answered, and the last connects to the main Facilities Department. The voice on the other end of this line denied any knowledge of the existence of such an office.
A fictitious OVT is an infringement on our rights as residents of New York City under Chapter 26, Section 18, Article 4 of New York City law. It clearly states that elevator inspection certificates “shall be posted in every car” of every elevator in every building in New York City. Failing that, the records can be kept on file at the building manager’s office. But what if that office does not exist? Do we even have a building manager? Is anything real?
Before I submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the City Buildings Department, I decided to try the posted numbers one more time. The fourth number was finally answered and, when prodded, my interlocutor did in fact acknowledge the existence of the Office of Vertical Transportation. I still had more questions. “It’s in EC!” he swiftly retorted, and immediately hung up the phone.
Exhaustive wandering in East Campus finally led me to the (apparently real) Office of Vertical Transportation, in the corner-most office of the basement floor.
Its singular employee would like to clarify the “most misleading thing” about the mystery office: its name. “We really should be the Office of Vertical and Inclined Transportation,” he tells me, “because we’re responsible for escalators too!”
Everybody knows that Columbia’s lawns are for decorative purposes only, bar a few heady days at the beginning of summer. Afterwards, a militarized system of barriers and inscrutable flags keeps them sequestered from students and their pesky accoutrements.
Enter Dean Cristen Kromm, Dean of Undergraduate Student Life. On the eve of NSOP 2015, an adamant Cromm greeted students leading pre-orientation programs with sermons about the lawns. This year, she insisted, they would remain open more often, and for longer into the year. She was on a quest (mostly for her dogs).
Why the sudden change? For years now, campus lawns have resembled playgrounds in Chernobyl: deserted monuments to the fun that might have been. The feared contamination is not nuclear, but aesthetic. The campus, saith the powers that be, is bejewelled by the sparkling luster of the pristine fields, watered to such an extent that unaware wanderers are doused beneath a monsoon intended to fertilize lawns too precious for traipsing undergrads. The lawns went unmolested, but our enjoyment was— ironically—trampled underfoot.
But now we have arrived at our Promised Land. Upon ascending the Undergraduate Student Life throne over the summer, Kromm went into negotiations with the Facilities Department to talk about lawn accessibility and, at long last, it seems a detente has been reached. The terms: one of the South Field lawns, in addition to either Hamilton or Furnald Lawn, are to be opened every day, except in the case of extreme weather conditions. Such conditions are decided by a legendary sage living within the Grove. (The Facilities representative in question was not available for interview.)
Kromm, eager to see these assurances materialize, urged students to email or call her in the event of a lawn’s undue closure; she would forward each one to Facilities. Email by email, our Dean has promised, we will together wear down their obstinate refusal in the name of justice.
Alas, come the third week of October, the daily open lawn quota will cease to be enforced. Enjoy your final hours with the pristine, pot-holed, Sweetgreen leaf-littered lawns and tenderly revel in each other’s company. Now is the winter of our discontent.
The largest and most accessible of Columbia’s legendary tunnels is found just off the ramp leading into Dodge Gym. A small staircase with light blue railings leads to a subterranean pathway, which bisects campus between Havemeyer and Schermerhorn. Here, deliveries of all kinds—mail, school supplies, athletic gear—are received. But if the tunnel is the university’s pulmonary vein, the Administrative Mailroom is its heart.
Located on the tunnel’s south side, thirty or so feet below the ground floor of Uris, the mailroom is carved out of the tunnel walls like a midcentury Petra. The massive edifice dwarfs the adorably undersized service vehicles parked in front, its light blue facade providing a cheerful contrast to the rest of the tunnel’s Cold War bunker feel. A gently sloping ramp leads into the office, where couriers and mailroom staff bustle about beneath fluorescent lights.
The aggressively white interior is much larger than it appears from the outside. It has to be: Jose Rosa, Director of Operations for Administrative Services, estimates the mailroom handles 5.31 million pieces of inbound mail every year, including 1.56 million pieces of inter-campus mail.
The mailroom is a far cry from the office of your nightmares in that glassy building on the other side of campus. Unlike its undergraduate counterpart, which processes just over a million pieces of mail (but six and a half times as many inbound packages), the Administrative Mailroom delivers directly to academic departments and offices, hence all the little vehicles. These bad boys convey administration-sustaining mail from the university’s toes at 51st Street (Columbia Doctors) to its head at 168th (the Medical Center). If you’re ever wondering what keeps this university healthy and strong, the answer lies beneath your feet.