Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Letter from Columbia University, New York, by Sam Martin

Columbia University is a campus of symmetry. Two libraries draw the axis upon which the university sits. To the south, there is the Nicholas Murray Butler Library, or simply Butler, a square building housing history, literature and philosophy texts, among others. On top of a façade of columns are the names of philosophers, chiselled into the rock: it starts with Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles, and goes all the way up to Milton, Voltaire, and Goethe. In front of the library sit two fields, and in the corner of each field, a flag pole. A red flag indicates the field is out of bounds. A white flag indicates it is open for use.

Over a road and up forty or fifty steps is the second library. The Low Memorial Library has a column façade, too, but behind and above it sits a dome, which, despite the fact that it was designed as an homage to Rome’s Pantheon, reminds me a little of a yamaka, what with its flatness and position towards the back of the building.

In June and July of each year, when, every night, you can feel the heat of the day escaping the city streets like steam out of a manhole, (drifting, washing over you), Columbia hosts a series of summer programs. I was here for six weeks, to learn how to be a publisher, and to spend a little time in the world.

Our class of one hundred lived in five floors of dorm rooms. There was one man to every four women. Most of the men ended up on the tenth floor, together, but I was down on the seventh, sharing the men’s bathroom with a couple of New Yorkers, a Californian, a Texan, and a boy from Iowa who didn’t look a day over twelve. Every morning when I came into the bathroom to shower, he was there, standing over the sink shaving, with this startled look in his eyes like he couldn’t quite believe he was doing it. He wore his fringe down and straight across his forehead, about a half an inch above these big, startled eyes.

So the girls outnumbered the guys, and it was intimidating, at least for the first few days. At lunch on day one the men formed a posse at one of the tables, like boys grouping together for a game of Cowboys and Indians. We talked about basketball. I like sport, but I don’t really like basketball: as a man of five foot seven inches (on a generous day), I have never really embraced the sport of tall timber. So I kept up with the conversation without really engaging in it, instead spending the time wondering if I would be stuck talking basketball for the next six weeks.

Like all these courses, it took a week or so for people to settle into groups, to work out who was a friend, and who wasn’t really anything. In the meantime, I took long walks around the neighbourhood. Columbia is in the north west of Manhattan, in the suburb of Morningside Heights. It is bordered by 114th Street to the south and 120th Street to the north, and occupies the space between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.

On my first weekend in the city, I walked to Central Park, not knowing that a few projects stood along my chosen route. New York City Housing Authority provides public housing for low to moderate income residents. You can tell a project in Harlem because it’s boxy and brown, and usually made up of multiple identical buildings. It’s often ringed by a black metal fence and a vibe that’s ever so slightly off. Not a bad vibe, necessarily: just a quietness. The sound of the city reduces to a low hum as you walk past the front gate. There’s often a plastic bag flying in the air, a la American Beauty.

It was to be my last weekend of solitude. It is difficult to stay friendless when you’re spending twelve hours a day with like-minded people, even more difficult to stay alone. I fell for someone, as I inevitably would, around the beginning of the third week, when everyone was starting to get familiar. I had met her once before, on the second day, when we went as groups of three to talk to an expert about our resumés. She was in my group, on account of her surname being next to mine. She introduced herself as we waited outside, and we practised shaking hands. I thought her handshake was pretty good, and told her so. In the session, the expert asked me what I thought of the girl’s one-paragraph biography we’d had to write for class.

“It’s not bad,” I said, “but this second sentence is a little convoluted. Plus, I’d be worried that the bit here about how you ‘feel most at home walking the beaches of Cape Cod’ sounds a bit too much like you’re angling for a date. You know. Long walks on the beach and all that. It’s a bit of a cliché.” Three weeks later, in her dorm room, as we lay on her narrow single bed with just the sound of the air-conditioner blasting into the hot summer night, she told me she had left that meeting thinking I was an arrogant wanker, although, being American, she didn’t say wanker, she said “douche”, which I think has more punch to it anyway. I told her I had said it to sound and feel important, because that was usually how I told myself to behave.

The next morning, we sat in front of the Low Library, about halfway up the stairs. Our heads rang, and felt warm and prickly. I was eating a bacon, egg and cheese bagel. She was eating an egg-white and bacon sandwich on rye, and was leaving in an hour to take the train back to Cape Cod for the Fourth of July.

“Looking forward to that feel of the sand between your toes, I bet,” I said.

“You know, only one kind of person stays in New York on The Fourth.”

“Who’s that?”

“Losers with no friends or family.”

“But I’m an Australian.”

“It’s still no excuse.”

I swallowed the last bite of my sandwich, and rubbed my greasy fingers on the sandstone step beside me. It was cool, still early. The sun remained hidden for now behind the buildings in the east. I looked over at her. She sat wearing a pair of sunglasses I’d found on the dancefloor the night before. They were reflective aviators, and they sat halfway down her long, thin nose. Her skin was tan and taut. She didn’t look at me, just looked straight out. Then she spoke. “I’ll be busy this weekend, with my feet on the beach and everything,” she said, still looking straight ahead. “So I probably won’t be thinking about you at all.” She kept looking straight ahead. After staring at her for a few seconds, at her eyes behind the sunglasses, I turned and pulled myself away, followed her gaze down the stairs, down the path between the two fields of green, and up the columns to the names of old men.