By Kelsey Kitzke
I first met Joey Recker, CC ’23, in the Barnard anthropology class The Politics of Care, where we spent a semester discussing what it means to care for individuals and collectives within systems often designed for the opposite. In that time, I listened to him share consistently interesting and nuanced reflections on his experiences working as an EMT on Columbia’s EMS corps. “I feel like, a lot of times, I’m doing fieldwork in my head, for a paper that I’m never going to write.” (His complete thoughts on EMT work, he assures me, would make for an entirely separate piece—or an entire anthropological project.) But a mutual friend on CUEMS tells me he does the job because he is a deeply invested patient advocate—his patient notes are often many times longer than they need to be.
Recker began EMS work after spending his Covid gap year working as a medical scribe. He saw CUEMS, specifically, as a way to translate knowledge of a particular environment, Columbia, into a mechanism for community care. As a pre-med student, he wants to go into the underserved field of family medicine where primary care providers build strong and long-lasting relationships with their patients—care on a very different timeline compared to the fast-paced nature of EMS work.
But perhaps the most interesting way Recker talks about care and community is through music: making it, performing it, and listening to it. When he arrived at Columbia as a first-year, he found the right people to start making music with; in the spring of 2019, they recorded an album. As a first-year, Recker also began his involvement in SNOCK after he started attending shows, then performing in them. He remembers deciding to join after playing a show and just sticking around until the night ended: “I was having so much fun and I just helped everyone pack up … and then we went out to a bar together afterward to hang out. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the shit that I had been doing all throughout high school and it's happening here.’”
Recker spent his high school years enmeshed in the DIY punk scene in his hometown of Omaha. He talks about weekends spent getting beat up in mosh pits in friends’ basements, a collective of people unified around leftist ideas about white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. At the same time, Recker spent his weekdays as a boarding student at an all-boys Catholic school within a monastery. As a school run by Benedictines, a religious order marked by communal living and ascetic compromise, Recker describes the school in very different terms from the punk scene—“traditional,” “conservative,” and “strict”—yet he expressed similar appreciation for the ways the school created “a true sense of community.” Every Monday night, students would voluntarily gather for Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” an evening of meditation on a scripture verse, prayer, and structured silence. “After it would happen, there would always be just, like, a real love.”
As a queer person, Recker reflects on how the kinds of masculinity produced in an all-boys boarding school environment can be both intensely homosocial while being pointedly homophobic; a complex mix of unifying and alienating. Communal showering became a case study in what Recker describes as “a ritualized queer sexuality” that was simultaneously harmful to queer people at the school. Yet, he emphasizes the genuine love that existed there: “It’s not a totalizing story of misery.”
This sharp contrast in the content of his adolescent social rituals—weekdays in a rigid Catholic schooling environment; weekends at scrappy punk shows—led him toward studying anthropology when he arrived at Columbia. “What the hell is going on here?” he asks himself while reflecting on each experience. The mechanisms of social cohesion, rituals, behaviors, and belief systems were all so different, but both ending in some ultimate form of togetherness.
Having also been raised Catholic and now finding strange comfort in rituals I once found inane, I spent this year’s Lent bookmarked with Mass alongside Recker. Ash Wednesday was at Corpus Christi on 121st, which he found stuffy and stiff. He recommends the Jazz Mass at Ascension on 107th instead, which is where we found ourselves with a gaggle of other Catholic-raised anthropology majors for Palm Sunday. Alongside a bassist, we receive palms, attempt to fold them into crosses (Recker’s a pro), listen to the homily, receive communion, sing a bit, pray a bit. It is lively to the extent that a Catholic mass can be, but it is warm and inviting. That’s how it should be, I remember him saying, there should be kids running around the aisles.
To run into Recker on campus is to be greeted by a very tall guy with piercings, bleached hair in two braids, and the most sincere smile on his face; and then to watch him greet five others in the exact same way. As someone with a noted affinity for Midwesterns who’ve found themselves on the East Coast, Recker has a Midwestern charm that is marked by an almost radical friendliness—a devotion to treating everyone like a potential lifelong buddy. It is easy to see how that translates into his approach to every space he’s in.
But maybe the thing that impresses me most about Recker is also the simplest: He is always down to linger, for coffee, for lunch, for a chat, long or short—the slow process of social connection in which Recker excels. The undervalued art of just hanging out.
As we talk, I tell him about my particular post-grad headspace and we talk about the ways to go about creating community after college and where to do so. “If I’m going to be in New York, I want to actually be in New York,” he says in reference to avoiding the post-grad Columbia bubble and learning how to be in community somewhere, afresh. “I just want to be around people and have enough money to live.” He speaks excitedly about music as a path there, returning to a familiar space of community-building that he says he plans to make a part of his life for the rest of his life.
After graduation, and in the interim between now and medical school, Recker plans to work at a farmer’s market while continuing as an EMT in the city. That is, in addition to making music as the bassist in his newly-formed hardcore punk band: Suzuki Methyd. He describes the necessity of live music as a kind of communal emotional release: People need to experience joy, pain, anger, and love alongside other people. With Recker, it’s not the grand gestures that make an individual a part of a collective, but the small and continuous acts of care that matter. Showing up, doling out smiles, asking people how they are, meaning it, repeat.