Letter from the Editor, NSOP 2022
By Claire Shang
Of this summer’s happenings, the closing of Max Caffè was far from the most important. But eulogizing a place has endless appeal. The personal implications are potent and ambiguous: The cafe is gone, and so too is the iteration of myself that frequented it.
It sat on 122nd and Amsterdam for 19 years. Before the pandemic, it closed at midnight. It served paninis and crostini and even empanadas, which I ordered once and received stale. The coffee was reliably good. One of my first line edits as editor-in-chief was correcting “Max Café” to the substantially different “Max Caffè.” In the bathroom sat a Buddha, and outside, on its massive couches, sat every Columbia humanities grad student. It was the type of place that made you feel like a person who has places of their own.
In freshman year, I was poll working down the block. On lunch break I drifted inside and, in a lapse of literacy, ordered a sandwich with prosciutto. Earlier in the year I had gone vegetarian. When people asked why, it was hard to articulate—the environment was part of it, as was a need to make a decision and be able to stick by it. Now, presented with the sandwich, I felt a tremor of horror. Looking around helplessly, I realized that the zero other customers and the waitress who had not looked up when I entered simply did not care what I did. So, I extricated the meat, folding it onto itself at the edge of my plate. The sandwich had lost its most important ingredient, which nobody had stopped me from enjoying except for myself, and because of this, it was delicious—even if it was soggy and a bit empty.
Some small mystery felt resolved. I understood that college would be a process of making decisions, defending the defensible ones and dealing with the others, until an identity coalesced. And I understood better my own inexplicable vegetarianism. Arbitrary constraints—when chosen voluntarily, not structurally imposed—force you to pay attention. When it manifests as picking flecks of meat from a pasta dish, this attention can seem irrational. Sometimes it’s more productive, the way an arbitrary attachment to Max Caffè can lead to more clearly seeing the invasion of chain businesses in this neighborhood.
A campus magazine is predicated on arbitrary constraints: word counts, page counts, deadlines. It is the product of paying close attention and an invitation to do so, too. Our front cover, by Hart Hallos, leads us into a dorm room, and our back cover, by Kat Chen, closes the door on it. Come and sit with us in the room that is the magazine.
This fall, we are considering the possibility of representation and visibility—and the ubiquity of invisibilities, misrepresentations—against the omnipresent backdrop of the institution. Our Blue Notes navigate the early days of college: Anna Patchefsky looks for ways to commune while Will Lyman reflects on a past attempt to disappear. In our Features, Grace Adee and Muni Suleiman speak to organizers across academia to make visible the impacts of last year’s strike. Victor Omojola finds that the Pulitzer Prize in Music, especially after Kendrick Lamar’s 2018 win, is a battleground for debates about inclusion and intellectual recognition. Andrea Contreras, on the other hand, turns her gaze forward: How might Columbia change in recognition of the Dobbs ruling and student demands for abortion services?
Our Essays confront the highly visible. Margaret Connor dives into the pervasive ads for online gambling. On our website, Kat Chen describes how Google Search shapes the reality we see and Iris Chen writes of the limited possibilities YA shows offer their captive audiences. Even our humor piece deals in the problematic of representation: Hart Hallos and Phoebe Wagoner wonder “is it cake?” There, the stakes are life or death.
Word count urges me to conclude. Max Caffè taught me that sensemaking emerges from unlikely sources: a soggy sandwich; an arbitrary attachment to a defunct cafe; an article in a campus magazine you pick up only by chance. You never know what will be important to you until it happens.