Determining which subway station is closest to your dorm room is probably the most important thing you’ll ever do at Columbia. You need to know how many blocks, avenues, and blocks per minute-rate your walk takes to go from the cubbyhole you call home to somewhere—anywhere, please—outside of The Bubble.
But the residents of Plimpton Hall know just as well as I do that sometimes things aren’t so clear-cut. Plimptonians need to choose between three subway stations inconveniently located more than two blocks away (which is way too far, by my standards): The 1 train on 116th and Broadway, the 1 train on 125th and Broadway, and the A, B, C, and D trains on 125th and Saint Nicholas Avenue. My expert investigation skills (and a quick search on Google Maps!) reveal that they are all equidistant from the building I called home for a year—that is, 0.4 miles away.
So for Plimptonians struggling to decide, it boils down to the walk, and how scenic you want it to be. If you decide to go up Amsterdam Avenue, to the orange and blue lines, saunter in front of the School of Social Work, and turn the corner of 123rd Street. You’ll graze a 450 million year old rock—a piece of Manhattan schist that lies, completely exposed, beneath P.S. 036. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation describes Manhattan schist as the most prevalent bedrock in the borough and is basically what allows New York City’s famed skyscrapers to soar, to rise, to be.
(You could say that Plimptonians’ subway dilemma leaves them between a schist, a rock, and a hard place!)
As we’re running to catch the express train (that goes from 125th to 59th street without stopping in 13 minutes, I swear), it’s easy to pass in front of this gigantic rock that, at times, glimmers under the sunlight due to the quartz and feldspar interleaved within it. In a city where we’re taught to always look up, the exposed Manhattan schist beneath P.S. 036 is a gentle reminder that there’s always a powerful, albeit crude, foundation grounding every step we take.
There’s something on Amsterdam—more precisely, on top of it—that's worth looking for, if you can get to it. It’s not something you can take home with you. But once you grab hold of it, you can enjoy it for as long as you’d like in one sitting.
I’m talking about the View From Ancel Plaza Looking South At 1 a.m.
Ancel Plaza, for those of you who don't spend as much time reading about building histories on WikiCU as I do, is the formal name for the elevated "bridge" between East Campus and, well, campus.
Looking north, you can see the "valley" form as Morningside Heights becomes Harlem proper and then slopes back up toward Washington Heights. Sometimes you can spot the 1 train peek its head out from underground, stop at the aboveground 125th Street station, and slip back under. Looking south during the day, you can see pretty far downtown.
At night, it’s a constellation of lights, starting with the halal cart on the sidewalk outside the Amsterdam gate, the bright spots to the south getting denser before they dissolve into a single glow: Midtown.
The original Morningside Heights campus was supposed to have a clear view of downtown Manhattan, as a reminder of the city that Columbia belongs to. University President Nicholas Murray Butler, who—shameless plug—built a library named after himself that stood in the way of that view. It probably didn’t matter so much, since Frat Row would have blocked it anyway.
However, a little sliver of that view returned when they built East Campus. Suspended above Amsterdam, with an uninterrupted north-south axis of vision, you can see Amsterdam in its entirety as it runs across the island.
Next time you’re feeling like an insomniac, or walking (stumbling) home from East Campus, stop at Ancel Plaza for a few minutes, and look south.
When I reflect on NSOP, “free time,” a phrase increasingly foreign to my vocabulary, re-emerges. In that first week of September, aside from prescheduled events, my days consisted of long meals with friends, ventures downtown, and leisurely, exploratory walks.
After conquering a 7-mile walk up Broadway from Union Square to Morningside Heights (I put myself through this pain to prove my friend, who said I couldn’t walk the 100+ blocks, wrong), I allowed my shin splints a day of rest, then decided I should pay Amsterdam similar attention.
Early afternoon on Monday, Sept. 5, 2016: I exited College Walk, turned south onto Amsterdam, and began my stroll, head bowed to the sidewalk. One block in, the concrete abruptly changed to cross-hatched brick. I raised my head to find out what could have prompted this material change. Pivoting left, I saw a side gate leading into Columbia’s Morningside campus. Something about it called my attention.
Now distracted from my walk, I noticed twin pillars standing starkly beside the gates’ ends, distinguishing it from ordinary fence. The cold, heavy stone structures were warmed by thin layers of moss, the green echoing surrounding shrubs. The gate’s metal bars, painted jet black, gestured powerfully toward the sky. Sporadic patches of deep orange rust curled gently around the gate’s corners. They disrupted its strict symmetry, softening and humanizing its iron barrier.
“Class of 1906,” I read. An inscription, emblematic of Columbia’s past, is carefully written out of blacksmithed metal atop the gate’s structure. My gaze moved toward duplicate lamps, framed by descending loops of metal flowers. Their skeletons are adorned by violently pointy spikes and panes of cracked glass. Burned-out lightbulbs from decades past sit peacefully inside their transparent, slightly cloudy cocoons.
I was invited through the gate, welcomed by a set of 10 steps. Their tempered incline beckoned me forward. I stepped up and up again, body and mind guided by my feet, hand sliding along the oxidized, green copper railing.
I use this entrance often now. Less busy than those on College Walk, the side gate entrance reminds me, every so often, to disconnect myself from the campus rush. In taking time to look at seemingly ordinary things, I find beauty and inspiration in small subtleties.
When I first saw her, she was with another. The two of them sat across the table from me, wrapped snugly together, holding one another close.
I look back at that moment now and wonder if it was love at first sight. Sometimes I like to tell myself it was, to give our story a touch of magic. But, of course, it really wasn’t. Elizabeth—or as preferred, Betsy—has a modest appearance. Nothing in the way she holds herself lets you know that she is a sandwich that will change your life.
I bought a Besty at HamDel soon after, on the recommendation of the person I saw her with. Three bites in, I had to stop. I looked down at the Betsy in my hands, chicken cutlet and avocado peering out of the bread. She was perfect, everything about her.
Betsy and I have only gotten closer over time here. She is there for me on bad days, on horrid allnighters gone wrong, on treat days. This Betsy is already advancing God’s Kingdom.
Five days a week, you can find me walking to the International Affairs Building for class. I exit the campus gates at Amsterdam and 116th Street, usually anxious about Contemporary Islamic Civilization, where my professor likes to single me out for questioning in front of the entire lecture hall, and conscious of the grumbling stomach that I always forget to feed. And each day, as I reach the sidewalk that runs beneath the overpass, my mind is immediately flooded with memories.
Last year, before I applied to the School of General Studies, I needed to take an admission exam because my SAT scores were from more than eight years ago. (Yes, I am that old.) The night before the exam, I paged through a little book of affirmations that my husband had given me to calm my nerves, and because I have OCD—like legit OCD, not the casual “OMG I totally wash my hands like 50 times a day” OCD—I ruminated about the impending exam obsessively. Please God, I prayed, please keep me clear-headed and focused tomorrow.
The next morning, as I stood on that corner across from Campus Walk, I was suddenly overcome with a sense of peace and the certain feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I knew that I would score well on the exam because I truly believed that becoming a Columbia student was written in the stars for me. And as it turns out, I was right.
Today, the 12-foot-square concrete slab of earth at Amsterdam and 116th serves as a sort of holy ground for me. And on most days, if I’m not too distracted by my thoughts or my worries, I try and take a moment to reflect on where my life has taken me after such a brief passage of time.
Buttons aren’t coveted. They are constantly dangling on a few threads, coming off of clothes, getting lost in the bowels of purses and drawers and pockets. They are a nuisance.
Not for you.
You floated from the garment bag that man was carrying, the navy blue one with the hanger that dug into his fingers. You classed up the wet Amsterdam sidewalk coated in pennies, wads of gum, and cigarette butts.
You attracted me.
Your navy blue satin body is stiff, yet soft. One inch wide and one inch tall, your small frame reveals your limitations.
Though small, you are detailed. Your accessory—a gold, cursive “Brooks Brothers” nameplate—proudly reveals your maker. A replica of that famous sheep floating blissfully validates your roots. Long, taut, gold threads sprout out your sides and humanize your frame—the long strings hang like outstretched arms that taunt, tempt, and tantalize me. They promise safekeeping and containment.
When I succumb to the strings’ luring and pull, the sides of you charge toward the center and kiss one another. Your mouth clamps down so quickly and with such precision, it is as if you have transformed into a guillotine on the back of a neck instead of a soft, supple safe space in which to keep that strangers’ extra buttons.
In 1993, a disgruntled tour guide at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to an article that referred to the cathedral as the world’s “second largest,” behind St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. He argues that St. Peter’s is not a cathedral because it doesn’t house a cathedral, a bishop’s ceremonial chair. Hence, St. John’s the Divine is the largest cathedral in the world.
I can corroborate insofar as St. John’s the Divine is a visibly big building. Staggeringly big. When I visited the cathedral for a class, a tour guide (not the one who wrote to the Times) told us that it was meant to reach upward to God. I don’t know if I felt like I was getting closer to God when we had to take the stairs to the top, but I got the idea.
The hulking, pointy marvel of Gothic revival architecture sits on 112th Street and Amsterdam,
near St. Luke’s Hospital. That building is also big, but it mostly looks like brownish grey boxes stacked on top of each other—it’s pretty disagreeable, as far as neighbors go.
A good thing about St. John the Divine’s location, though, is the way it lines up with the grid system. If you walk down 112th Street towards Amsterdam, the cathedral rises up right in front of you, between the rows of apartment buildings.
I don’t look up very often, especially in Manhattan, because I don’t want to look like a tourist. The most New York way to act is to look down and walk quickly, because you’ve seen it all already and you have somewhere to be. But I like to walk home down 112th Street to look up at the cathedral. It’s beautiful, and the sidewalk is disgusting, anyway.
The table is nestled humbly in the corner of Amsterdam Avenue’s most beloved pastry shop, the eatery that welcomes any passerby with cash and a sweet tooth. This table props itself up, day after day, welcoming New Yorkers and visitors who visit the pastry shop to indulge in two of America’s greatest addictions: caffeine and sugar.
Though this plane of wood, propped up by its rickety limbs, is tucked away in a dimly lit corner, it has seen more of the world than you would think. You can see the evidence in its scruffed up edges, and the wear from years of hot and tasty indulgences. This table, in a little corner of this great world, brings people and their lives together, and it is here where I brought my new life back to my old one.
I remember a chilly, serene Friday night in late October during my first semester at college. It was family weekend, and I paraded my parents and my brother across campus like I owned the place, showing off my new home that was so different from the quiet suburb I had abandoned two months before. Now, I needed to take them to a place where we could drink hot chocolate, play cards, and laugh like we used to.
The four of us sat, for hours, around this worn down piece of furniture, hugged by the walls of this unfamiliar place. It was a common center of gravity holding us together. For just a moment, this place, with a few rounds of euchre and steaming hot chocolate, was my center. I sought comfort in this little corner of this big world. For a moment, my new life fell away, and this gathering place, with my family, was all I wanted to know.
Quiet battles rage within the Hungarian Pastry Shop’s muraled walls every Tuesday night. Black and white stones chase each other across 19-by-19 boards. Commonly referred to as the chess of the east, Go is an ancient Chinese board game that finds a home here once a week. Unaffiliated with Columbia, the Go club draws members from across Manhattan. This is the first night I’ve found the time to attend.
On this particular night, the players are all on edge, checking their phones between moves. While they fight over a board, a record-breaking 71.43 million Americans are watching a wholly different kind of fight, live.
My opponent and I are still unaware of the panic mounting around us and back home. I am beginning to realize that he is not as strong as I thought he was. He fails to claim the points I offer him on the board. When it’s time to count, it’s an absolute blowout.
Embarrassed by what was supposed to be a teaching game, I try to cover up my win by launching directly into the post-game review. Midway through explaining a knight’s approach, I notice that a watery film has formed around my opponent’s eyes.
He tells me how he’s been to classes, how he’s been playing online every day, that when he comes up against someone stronger than him, it makes him feel trapped. Like they’re playing the game on a level that he’ll never get to, looking down on him from a mountain peak that he can’t even find a foothold to climb up. I tell him that it’s all about practice. Ramming your head against the wall until you knock it down.
And throughout America, people are starting to find that they have watery films forming around their irises too.
Map by Rébecca Ausseil
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