Well after 12 a.m. on an early Friday morning, most students at East Campus are convinced it’s still Thursday night. They loiter around the lobby, an enclosed island in the open-air complex of flats, suites, and townhouses. In addition to the 721 sophomores, juniors, seniors, and grad students who make their homes there, numerous campus organizations and clubs party in EC, drawing in hordes of nonresidents.
“Is this the most social dorm?” two Barnard freshmen ask skeptically. Dressed casually, in shorts and flats, they sit next to their large purses on a bench outside of the lobby. They both hail from New York City and find Columbia to be a “big slowdown” socially. Waiting for an older friend to sign them in, they say they have no plans tonight, but will probably end up at Campo.
Students constantly filter in and out of the lobby, opening, closing, and holding the doors. The lobby windows are open and powerful gusts of wind delay students momentarily as they head to their weekend night destinations. A girl carting around a Dirt Devil brushes past a large group of Jewish students returning from the Simchat Torah celebration in Lerner. Tired athletes return home carrying full backpacks. Students run into people they know or sort of know. They make small talk, but not for long. Everyone’s in a rush, and the cool winds make the weather less than ideal for loitering.
One of the most impatient visitors to East Campus at this time of night is the CrackDel delivery guy. He has been sitting on that same bench for 10 minutes—he looks out of place, much older than college-age. Next to him sit two black plastic bags filled with individual, ice-cold Coors Light cans. Finally, two students greet and pay him. They ordered the beers for a bonding night with their club. These two are especially eager to start the bonding because “EC is the place to be until 1:30, ’cause then the RAs come to break stuff up” they say.
Evan, a senior who lives in EC, was on the receiving end of such an encounter on this night. “It’s unfortunate, but it happens,” he says, and continues to sign his friends into the dorm. He socializes a bit with the security guard, speaking Spanish with him, and then disappears back into the maze of EC.
There are thirteen graduate hall directors (GHDs) at Columbia, one for every residence hall and frat row. The GHDS are older have more power—RAs call them when they need reinforcement with student problems. Tonight, the GHD on duty has been spending a lot of time at EC because a group of students refused to cut short their noisy gathering. Two public safety officers and a sergeant arrive and they meet in the lobby. One officer says, “They’re probably gonna break up by the time we get there.”
“Fine with me,” the GHD says. A student wanders in carrying a Heineken. He puts the beer on the windowsill of the lobby, next to scattered newspapers, takeout menus, and flyers for club events. Looking out the window, he mysteriously sighs to no one in particular, “What the hell…” There is no one outside the window.
“I just want to get out of work,” the GHD says.
“I know me too,” agrees one of the officers. A plaque on the front of the security desk reads: “If you have any security concerns—complaints, suggestions, or compliments, call 24 hours, 7 days a week 4-2796.” The security guard at the front desk of EC works a shift from midnight to 8 a.m., five days a week. He and the other public safety officers agree that EC and Carman are the toughest to work. The freshmen in Carman may not be able to wander in and out with open beer bottles, but they manage to maintain active social lives. Three Columbia Area Volunteer Ambulance workers make their way out of EC’s lobby tonight, unaccompanied by any students—for the moment, at least.
Around 1:15 a.m., lines of impatient students begin forming. A boy in a fraternity shirt, gym shorts, and boat shoes makes his way through the lobby. He looks at his cell phone, makes a call—no one answers. He goes back in. Five minutes later, he returns, looking anxiously at his phone again. He goes back in. A group of non-Columbia students wait for their friend from high school to sign them into EC. They hang out at Columbia often. One of them takes a seat in the lone chair in the lobby. He gazes intently at his digital camera’s photo browser. He looks up occasionally with large, bloodshot eyes. Finally the group gets the go-ahead and enters EC.
At 2 a.m., the waves of people entering and leaving EC slow down. The only man-made noise at this hour comes from the security guard’s radio, which is tuned to a Christian station. A few students stroll in, carrying bags of late-night snacks from various delis and grocery stores. The wind howls and blasts through the trees, making eerie noises. The security guard says, “There’s a possible tornado in Jersey… so Lord have mercy on us all.”