The Writing on the Wall
Investigating the Hungarian Pastry Shop’s bathroom graffiti.
By Tarini Krishna
By the time I usually arrive at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, there is a line trailing out the door, but, during peak hours, it will curve around the block. As I round the corner from 111th Street onto Amsterdam Avenue, the decorated façade of the café appears. A painting below the front window displays a yellow wing encroaching on the sun while green angels fly above and children reach upwards for the blue sky. I pass the time by people-watching until the barista waves me inside.
Every Columbia and Barnard alumnus I’ve met has an opinion on Hungarian. The coffee is bad. It was their favorite hangout place during undergrad. They were chased out of the store because they didn’t know what an éclair was called. It was where they wrote their best papers, absentmindedly nibbling on rainbow cookies late into the evening.
I can count on one hand the number of times I went to Hungarian during my first year. Three out of my four visits were quests to satiate an almost primal craving for Dobos torte, and with each trek, I found myself dizzied by the beehive of writers penning the next great American novel in their Moleskine notebooks. Pastry in hand, I would slink back out into the sun, away from their dimly lit focus. This year, however, I lived three blocks away from Hungarian, and it became my ritual spot for a latte and a croissant. I relished the quiet that made for a perfect reading atmosphere and began to feel at home, though I missed when the tables used to elbow each other.
On a recent Thursday morning, as I sat in the back of the café poring over the pages of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, I realized I needed to wash the butter from my fingers before my copy started to resemble a mechanic’s grease rag. I flicked on the bathroom light and my startled eyes met a lavatorial Athenian Agora.
In thick black marker and letters that were at least four inches tall above the toilet: “FREE HONG KONG.” Peppered across the walls: “BLM,” “Free Palestine,” “ACAB.” A giant cross passionately painted in red on the middle of the left wall above the phrase, “Jesus Rocks.” An eager climate activist had scattered Greenpeace stickers across the bathroom walls alongside calls to ban fracking. Philosophical meanderings (“We must [not] imagine Sisyphus happy”), aphorisms about love (“If you have to wait and see, they’re not interested”), inner religious turmoil (“God is good, even if I shake my fist at him”), and political discourse are contoured around elaborate, borderline abstract, doodles.
As a Barnard student, it’s embarrassingly easy to forget that Hungarian is more than an academic acropolis for Columbia University students and professors. Neighborhood residents, writers, students, and travelers passing through the area all converge on these bathroom walls in a tangled web of anonymous oeuvres.
An impassioned dialectic about the merits of communism appears scrawled on nearly every surface, reflecting the heated debates I’ve overheard across many of the café tables. On the left wall, someone has chillingly scratched, “The only good commie is a dead commie —someone who lived under communism,” mimicking the genocidal phrase attributed to General Sheridan about Native Americans in Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. In response: “surely opposed by many”; “communism is love” (in a heart); “fascist.” Another response appears to have been censored by the same zealous hand responsible for “Jesus Rocks.”
I followed one germane conversation flow across all four of the bathroom’s walls. “Keep NYC interesting—stop gentrification.” “Then move out.” “Impeach Serene Jones.” “Stop the Tower @ Union Theological.”(In 2015, Union Theological Seminary students protested President Jones’s decision to sell the institution’s air rights to a luxury condominium developer. Many individuals in the UTS community cited concerns that the decision would exacerbate gentrification in the local area.)
When I sit outside Hungarian on a slanted metal table most afternoons, I can see the glass-walled Enclave apartment building peeking over the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, like a rampant climbing vine. Hungarian seems, somehow, to stubbornly resist the minimalist aesthetics of encroaching gentrification. Save for the new credit card machines ruthlessly demanded by the pandemic, Hungarian maintains its antique charm. These bathroom walls are a palimpsest. They are a living, breathing local history of Morningside Heights. What compels these patrons to wander into the bathroom, pen in hand, eager to scrawl their thoughts across the walls?
I imagine a self-doubting, aspiring writer, anxiously scribbling the thoughts most weighing on their mind. Book deal or no, someone will inevitably stumble upon their words, etched opposite the toilet at eye level. I imagine a disgruntled Barnard woman escaping to the bathroom during an insufferable Hinge date with a pseudo-intellectual. She reaches into her canvas tote for a pen to write the brilliant rebuttal she wishes she had thought of at the table.
Perhaps Hungarian’s contagious energy to create transforms even its bathroom into a canvas. Patrons can ponder over and respond to the pastiche of anonymous words left for them to explore. Arguments conclude (and open, and transpire) across these walls. Words of protest that don’t color within the lines of political niceties, too shocking for sit-down speech. Notes to lovers and to God remain to be adjudicated. And so much left unsaid.