Hiding in Plain Sight
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Frantic first-years stow contraband on the eve of dormitory raids.
By Sam Needleman
Among the residents of John Jay Hall who spent Tuesday evening preparing hastily for the following day’s room inspections, perhaps the most disconcerted was Karish, a betta fish who normally enjoys a lovely view of 114th Street from his perch in an eleventh-floor single.
His owner, a first-year in the College, appeared desperate as she described her plans to stow him in a drawer between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the following day, when inspections were scheduled to take place throughout the dormitory. Pet fish are allowed in Columbia residence halls, but Karish’s tank is larger than the half-gallon limit; the only solution would be to hide him or smuggle him out.
Karish’s owner chose the former option, citing an email from Columbia Housing, Residential Life, and Fire Safety last week that assured undergraduates that “staff will not be opening drawers, closets, or anything that is closed.”
Down the hall, a petless student weighed her options. Her Housing-approved mini-fridge, she thought aloud, would be the ideal place to store bottles of wine, vodka, and an unknown Greek liqueur that, for now, sat prominently on the windowsill. Taking a cue from a crafty friend on the fourteenth floor, she planned to shroud various prohibited items in piles of clothing—even her inflatable chair, which consumed no small portion of the room’s square footage.
Up and down the corridor, students described their preparations in hushed tones, with a mixture of amusement and angst. Many feared imminent goodbyes to the best of their illicit possessions: electric kettles, heat blankets, bread knives, lava lamps. These fire-prone items appeared to be the sort of contraband about which Housing was most concerned; the authorities’ emails seemed to imply that even a cunning Columbia first-year would have trouble starting a fire with a bottle of Svedka.
Indeed, it wasn’t the thought of losing her Bacardi, stashed in a large Amazon box under her bed, that sparked grave concern among one nervous resident; it was the notion that her waffle-maker may have to go. “No, scratch that! They can have it,” she said, as long as they let her keep the scented candles.
That student’s neighbors made no secret of their favored forbidden fruits, the two ubiquitous indulgences of the college freshman: alcohol and caffeine. A wine lover concealed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, gifted gratis from the oceanside hotel at which he took his Thanksgiving hiatus, with care. He disassembled his Keurig with matched precision, stowing its parts in separate pieces of furniture, not unlike a hedge-funder diversifying his assets.
In the great Columbia tradition of institutional critique, multiple students complained about misplaced priorities. “Why don’t you focus on the Carman kids putting their Juuls in the microwave?” asked one disheveled resident, who had taken great pains to bury her extension cords in a spare suitcase.
Another, who took a quick break from drafting an essay about postcolonial masculinity in Africa and noshing on homemade chocolate peanut-butter cookies to secure his quarters, expressed frustration at the overbearing nature of it all. “We are mature enough to know when we should and shouldn’t have things,” he said.
Across the hall, his floormate agreed, but opted for the pathway of denial. Asked about how he might conceal his microfridge—disallowed, as it was not rented directly from the University—he paused, then shrugged. “My plan is for them to just ignore it.”