Blue Notes, November 2020
On the inflatable rat, dining alone, student voter turnout, and the politics of Zoom names.
By Raquel Turner, Hailey Ryan, Sylvie Epstein & Eduardo Espinosa.
DEPT. OF ANIMAL CONTROL Move Over, Roaree
By Raquel Turner
Illustration by Samia Menon
Coated in a light sheen of early morning New York drizzle, its gnarled teeth bared to the gates of College Walk, once stood a 12-foot-tall inflatable rat. From early September to late October, its tense gray body, so out of place among the clean beige columns of 116th and Broadway, sparked curiosity, amusement, and perhaps a bit of disgust in unassuming passersby. Luckily, that’s exactly what it came to do.
The larger-than-life rodent, affectionately known as “Scabby,” was part of an informational picket organized by the New York City and Vicinity Council of Carpenters, a union representing over 20,000 construction industry workers, explains Council Representative Peter Brereton. They hoped to call attention to Columbia’s consistent hiring of Mamais Contracting Corp., as well as its recent contract with Trident General Contracting to construct a new dormitory on 600 West 125th Street. The companies have been beset with major lawsuits in federal courts for wage theft and racial discrimination, respectively.
According to Brereton, the response to the picket has been unusually pleasant.
“I can’t find anybody who supports what Columbia is doing,” he said. “It’s very out of the norm. I mean, normally when we have an informational picket, we have to educate people on what’s going on and people have different opinions.” This time around, the council’s call to action has only been met with support. “About 99 percent of the people who walk by are all for it.”
Refreshingly, passersby who chose to acquaint themselves with Scabby were more than happy to help his cause. Scabby’s pinched face, paired with the hashtag #WhyTheRat, has been making its presence known on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. The council’s persistent efforts to inform have been an overall success. But information, of course, is only half the battle of an informational picket. The council left its post on Broadway on October 25, after Columbia agreed to meet with representatives to discuss their demands.
Though he might not physically be with us any longer, Scabby will long be remembered for his tenacious and terrifying tenure on campus.
DEPT. OF COMFORT ZONES Unaccompanied Diners
By Hailey Ryan
We were approaching our two-year anniversary, so I decided it was time to take our relationship to the next level. It had been a maudlin coupling of late, and I was even thrust across the Hudson for a trying spell this summer, but I knew that my once-torrid affair with New York was worth fighting to rekindle.
I had cried in public and walked past duelling rats enough times to know that New York and I were more than just a fling. But before I could lean in and tie the knot, I knew that I would have to consult an expert first. Like many before me, I commissioned Buzzfeed to seal the deal. I found myself consulting the Holy Grail of checklists: “If You Check Off All of These Things, You Are a True *Insert City*-er.” According to their expertise, the only task separating me from a lifelong relationship with New York was to dine alone at a sit-down restaurant.
Illustration by Maya Weed
This is undoubtedly an easy task for a native urbanite, but suburbia conditioned me to avoid public displays of solitude at all costs. There is a reason that people in the suburbs fetishize their cars: in addition to caravaning us from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac, they are our most trustworthy companions, sparing us the embarrassment of walking alone.
If I was going to do this, I wasn’t going to do it alone. So, as if going to the bathroom at a not-so-crowded party, I solicited a group of people to join me—together, but separately, we would undergo this rite of passage. Partitioned by avenues and blocks, by boroughs and neighborhoods, fellow Blue and White staffers and I reserved tables for one. Our experiences formed a spectrum from ease to existential ache.
Our veteran New Yorker, Dominy Gallo, CC ’23, was so unfazed by the assignment that she elected to dine alone on three separate occasions. To Gallo, an evening at a local French restaurant was less a social experiment than an exercise in reasserting belonging. “I’m a New Yorker, so I feel entitled to be wherever I am,” she said. “I was like: I am here, fight me. The feminist in me said, ‘Mmhmm, you think a man is gonna show up, but he’s not, and I am not mad about it.’”
But Styvie Uribe, CC ’24, had to claim the city for the first time. Ordering soup dumplings from Nussbaum and Wu, she found warmth on a cold evening, defrosting the unfamiliarity of the city with every bite. “I felt very unapologetic for having this entire table to myself. I felt strength within eating alone, by myself, in a city I am not very comfortable in,” she said. The dumplings, reminiscent of her family’s traditional Chinese dinners, made her feel as though she had found home here for the first time, even if only for an evening.
For Maya Weed, CC ’22, the evening was more voyeuristic than exhibitionist, an interlude to the perennial chaos that is young-adulthood. Weed dined at Tartina, where she felt “simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable” in the company of only St. John the Divine. “I’ve never been more conscious of the people walking by,” she said. Nestled in the Autumn hush of 111th Street, Weed described the distortion of seeing familiar scenes as if for the first time. Kelsey Kitzke, BC ’23, had a similarly theatrical experience at Jin Ramen. She spent her dinner oscillating between directing and acting in the scene around her. “I was in the world as much as I wanted to be,” Kitzke said. Liberated from the consciousness that company demands, the city became a never-ending stage, a script to write and rewrite.
There was something charming, even comforting, about our shared evenings. I found novelty going on a date with myself, embracing the conversation between the hum of my inner dialogue and the buzz of the street in a way I never had before. Now, I’m proud to say, New York and I are unapologetically happy together. And there’s an empty chair across from me to prove it.
DEPT. OF CIVICS Columbia Votes…Right?
By Sylvie Epstein
A mere two days after the utter chaos that was this year’s first presidential debate, I logged onto a Zoom call with about a dozen new faces and found myself excited about politics for the first time in quite a while. The rectangles on my screen framed students and administrators from across the University. Presidents of undergraduate clubs, a graduate student at SIPA and another at Teachers’ College, and several representatives from the Office of University Life convened on a call for a single purpose: to make civic engagement easier for all Columbians. The motley crew called themselves the CU Engage Committee.
When my summer employer tasked me with reaching out to the Office of University Life to ask about voter registration plans and offer support, I expected that Columbia wouldn’t need my help. I thought I might even end up embarrassed for having asked at all. I knew about Columbia Votes and Voting Week, two organizations working hard to register Lions and turn us out to the polls. I also knew that Columbians have a rich history of political engagement and activism, from the protests against the Vietnam War and the construction of a segregated gym in Morningside Park in 1968 to this year’s divestment referendum. Just a couple of years ago, one of our own made national headlines by carrying a mattress around to protest campus rape culture. So I assumed they had it covered.
When that outreach led to an invitation to join CU Engage, I was quite surprised. I had no idea that the committee was a collaborative effort, open to any community member interested in joining and passionate about civic involvement.
Illustration by Ashley Chung
I was even more impressed by my teammates and their thoughtful, holistic approach to election engagement. I was floored to learn that Tricia Shimamura, a current candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s District 5, is also Columbia’s Director of Government Relations. She and University Life’s Ixchel Rosal, along with the rest of their team, produced emails sent to every eligible voter in the University system detailing how to vote in their home state. They also took the simple but powerful step of opening the University website with a large graphic about voting with directions to key election-related resources. As I write this, these administrators are planning two sets of post-election events, one for each potential outcome, to help members of the Columbia community process and reflect.
My attitude adjustment after joining this first CU Engage Zoom call might seem abrupt to the point of absurdity. Disillusioned and hopeless as I’ve grown these past few years, it turned out that all I needed was to hear from people who enter the political sphere daily with conscientious optimism. The call felt like the lovechild of a warm hug and an energy drink.
DEPT. OF EPITHETS What’s in a Name?
By Eduardo Espinosa
It is 8:00 a.m. on the East Coast. I turn on my laptop and trace thin fingers around lazy morning curls, distracted by the raindrops that hug my window as I wait for Zoom to connect. As a collection of unfamiliar names appears on my screen, my eyes, heavy with the weight of morning, pick out my likeness from among my classmates. There I am, with a name to match—but it’s not mine. Instead, it’s the name that was given to me by a friend some time after I came to America—someone who, in a moment of genuine affection, gifted me an anglicized nickname. I never went back.
An outsider in this country with no history, no extended family, few and uncertain friends, and an accent discernable from New York to San Francisco, I welcomed a name that would help me feel a little less alien. In that pivotal moment, desperate to blend in, I sacrificed my Cuban identity. I became Eddy to professors, friends, strangers, romantic interests—it made no difference. Eager to escape the isolating individuality of otherness, I had long sought the feeling of cultural inclusion an American identity promised.
Illustration by Samia Menon
The desire to be part of a collective only swelled when college began. Impostor syndrome creeping in, I struggled to reconcile my cultural identity with this persona non grata Eddy. The watershed moment came one morning early in the spring, shortly after Zoom usurped the pedagogical throne from dusty Hamilton classrooms. I realized that the professors with whom it felt so important to build relationships didn’t even know my real name. My closest friends would likely have to rack their brains to remember. To everyone around me, I was entirely Eddy. Even in my own mind, slowly, passively, I had become Eddy without even realizing it. I pushed the thought away at the time—frankly, leaving New York for the Florida heat was enough. Not the time for an identity crisis.
Now, struggling to focus on the Coleridge we should be reading, I feel more attached to my American name and the anonymity it brings, even though I find I need it less and less every day—that once strong pressure to assimilate is now a ghost in slow retreat.
As my professor stutters on a particularly tricky verse, I remember our first interaction. During introductions, they mispronounced my name, so I corrected them with a smile. “Do you have a preferred name?” was the immediate question. I typed my four-letter epithet into the Zoom chat as the next student spoke, where it remains now, hovering beneath my image.