By Sophie Poole
‘Bechdeltest’ is a word Gustie Owens, BC ’22, wants to use in a future crossword puzzle. (The Bechdel test evaluates sexism in media using three criteria. If a film, television series, or novel has (1) at least two named women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man, then it passes. If you are just now becoming aware of this test, you likely don’t attend Barnard College. This is all to say that if you were to overhear my conversation with Gustie, we may or may not have gabbed about boys, momentarily flunking the Bechdel test and surely failing our Barnard forebears. But after clearing the air—i.e., our shared interest in men who attended a certain all-boys school across the pond, the name of which is often a crossword answer—I can assure you we proceeded in typical feminist fashion.)
Gustie keeps an ever-expanding list in her Notes app entitled “Words I want to use in a crossword puzzle.” This is part of her work as an inaugural Diverse Crossword Constructor Fellow for The New York Times, which began in April. The fellowship provides mentorship for individuals from groups underrepresented in the puzzle-making world in the hopes of publishing “work that reflects a diverse range of cultural reference points, language usage and communities.” She came in hot with an idea for a themed puzzle: communist ballroom dances. Made-up portmanteaus for this puzzle included ‘tanguevera,’ ‘polkarlmarx,’ ‘stalindyhop,’ and ‘foxtrotsky.’ Times Digital Puzzles Editor Sam Ezersky, her direct mentor, and the four other editors have since rejected this theme, but Gustie still likes the idea and I do, too.
At the end of the three-month unpaid fellowship, Gustie will submit a puzzle that may be published in the Times. She will also receive a free T-shirt. This sounds fairly reasonable to me. But the announcement of this program inspired ire from geriatric subscribers. “When they announced [the fellowship] a bunch of people commented angrily, like, ‘What are they gonna do? Put the word ‘selfie’ in crosswords?’” Gustie told me. Unfortunately for the older cruciverbalists, ‘selfie’ is only the tip of the iceberg. Other items on Gustie’s word-wishlist, sure to challenge anyone over the age of 22: oomf, McLovin, bestie, onlyfans, bigpharma, Uggboots, redflag, darkweb, starchart, hotbox (es?) (ed?), and smize. Even I, admittedly, had to Google ‘oomf.’
Another term Gustie made up is ‘shenan,’ short for shenanigan. It is a word thrown around quite frequently at The Columbia Federalist’s general body meetings in Lerner 569. She leads the satirical newspaper alongside co-Feditor-in-Chief Nikhil Mehta, SEAS ’22. (This is not the first partnership between one of the three Mehta siblings and Gustie, who all attended Horace Mann School before Columbia. Nikhil’s twin sister Radhika, or Rads, CC ’22, and Gustie were leads on the Butler Banner Project in their sophomore year.) After hearing shenan a few dozen times, I asked for a definition. Gustie uses the word with such frequency that it has lost all meaning, she explains. A classic case of semantic satiation. Nevertheless, when pressed, she defines the term quite nicely: A shenan “can range from a slightly elevated ‘bit’ to a really elaborate event that is kind of absurd.” How to use it in a sentence, you ask? Say you’re at a Fed meeting and you’re pitching goofy ideas for a campus event. Someone might say, “What if, as a shenan, we all just hang out?” It’s a catch-all term for any kind of hangout—be it spontaneous or studied.
But hanging out is easier said than done at Columbia. Gustie, a self-proclaimed lover of “organized fun,” believes that there are, quite simply, not enough places to hang out in these parts. So, instead of asking a couple friends to simply slurp down frozen margs on a Tuesday evening, she began to host weekly trivia nights—first on the roof of her apartment building, then at The Heights Bar & Grill. “I accidentally take things too seriously, very quickly,” she said, sipping her peppermint tea. Gustie cannot help but scale up: Joking about hosting a casual trivia night at her apartment rapidly transformed into a weekly partnership with a local bar for Taco Tuesdays, when her close friends and distant acquaintances commune for a weekly trivia bowl. I gathered that the growth of her ‘shenans’ escapes even her, that their exponential expansion is unintentional but inevitable. With Nurasyl Shokeyev, CC ’22, she regularly organizes comedy shows featuring her funny friends. In February, I stood in a queue of students, which snaked from Riverside Drive to Broadway, all waiting to enjoy a couple hours of stand-up comedy from folding chairs underneath the Vampire Weekend chandelier.
As a first-year, I knew Gustie’s name before I knew Gustie. I knew her because she was seemingly attending every campus event promoted on Facebook. I consistently spotted her name on the ‘Going’ list for SNOCK, Postcrypt Art Gallery, and ColumbiaVotes events—perhaps because she is the only Gustie I know. Short for Augusta and inspired by her grandmother Goldie, though some call her Gus, Goost, or Guts. And yet it was more than her name. Gustie stood out for her quiet confidence in social and academic spaces, her genuinely funny online presence, and how she always seemed at home at Barnard and Columbia. In part, this ease was bestowed to her as a native Upper West Sider. Gustie grew up in the 80s between Riverside and Central Park—riding the 1, reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and then wandering through the Met, grocery shopping at Zabar’s, and living in rental apartments.
An urban studies major with a concentration in anthropology, her thesis work—a case study of the relationship between small landlords and tenants in New York during the pandemic and of recent laws like the Good Cause Eviction Bill—dedicates itself to the fraught relationship between New Yorkers and their living spaces. After graduation, she hopes to visit a friend who works at a refugee camp in Greece and travel to Mexico or Spain to brush up on her Spanish. But then she plans to return. Unlike most of us, she feels no urge to dash off to Williamsburg or the Lower East Side. Gustie’s not quite done with this neighborhood, and she probably never will be. It’s home. She just received her lease renewal this month for her Morningside Heights pied-à-terre. (Yes, she dejectedly sighs, like many other New Yorkers, her rent has significantly increased from last year’s pandemic rates.)
This October, Gustie began frequenting open studio hours at Mugi Pottery, on Amsterdam Avenue between 108th and 109th Street, a few times a week. She sent me photographs of a ceramic pitcher she made. It was her first attempt at silkscreen printing on clay, and she reproduced a 1952 Schlitz beer advertisement in which a husband comforts his teary, incompetent housewife with the words, “Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer.” I texted Gustie, “Freaking out about how incredible the pitcher is.” She responded, “LOL I fired it wrong so it can’t hold water.” Next text: “So I need to get fake flowers or smth.” She recalled a Mugi employee’s comment on her ceramic work: “You don’t let your skill level get in the way of your creativity,” they said. “Someone else in the studio was kind of shocked because to her that seemed so rude, but I literally loved that statement,” Gustie explained. She prides herself on not being a perfectionist. Sometimes Gustie will fill her pitcher with fake flowers instead of cold beer. That’s how it will be, and that is good.