Where do we gather?
On the warm days when the sun is out, we cover Low Steps like a blanket. People linger there just after or just before class, drying out the winter in the sun. It is loud, happy—there, a dog bounds after a tennis ball. Maybe the fountains are on, and as you look at people walking slower today in the April light on the checkered floor of Low Plaza—which, in case you didn’t know, has the same design as the floor in Raphael’s School of Athens—you think to yourself that this feels lovely and European, like maybe an Italian piazza.
And, in a sense, you wouldn’t be wrong. Like the piazza, Low Plaza is the place “we congregate to celebrate or to protest.” We were received here during NSOP. We will graduate here. Plus, Low Plaza and its honorary extension, the Sundial, are the loci of our activism. Where else could a few hundred students have gathered on a disastrous Tuesday night two Novembers ago to shout, “Fuck Trump” loudly into the open air? Low is “the most potent symbol” of our campus, just as Italian piazzas are symbols of Italy. The pudgy former library and Alma are inextricable from the space that is Columbia’s.
But for all its symbolic power, Low is much too cold for too much of the year to be the “hearth of [our] daily life”—our true Italian piazza. No, that, that “primary destination for all people,” in all times, is elsewhere: it’s ButCaf.
The piazza is a place of “constant teeming yet composed activity,” our great unifier. It is ButCaf where, regardless of the hour, bodies move in and out, some for work, most to pretend to work. There is food—pastries and lattes, Red Bull and AWAKE bars; there is chatter; there is the vague sense of a collective.
You may not be a ButCaf person. It is too loud to work, the tables are small, and there are too few outlets. But you come here also to stop at the fountains of flowing burnt Blue Java—to take a sip. You walk through the seating area, looking to see if there’s someone you know there: a friend in a booth, someone also passing through for caffeination. It is the first Butler pitstop and the place you to return to, hour by hour, during midterms and finals.
There are those of us who are there to pick up coffee before our 8:40s, or for a productive afternoon of work, and there are those of us who get there at 1:49 a.m. so we can buy coffee before Blue Java closes. But all of us—with our undone homework and readings and club meetings—all of us gather there.