“THE MCBAIN FACADE IS UNSTABLE AND UNSAFE,” the poster read. Then, in bold underline: “SO AM I.”
Dozens of these posters would soon be hung in strategic locations in and around McBain. But for now, I was just another student gingerly picking gum off the underside of my sneaker outside of Lewisohn in late September. Then my phone buzzed.
Like St. Michael appearing to Joan of Arc in a medieval French field, my friend Amy had texted me matter-of-factly that she had chosen me as her champion for the residence hall campaign trail. Like the French army, the rest of the group chat thought this was a swell idea. Like Joan, I cried tears of divine revelation.
Amy was on the warpath, and this time the target was the establishment itself. Here are four things you should know. One: The McBain Hall Council voting form had gone live that morning, but it seemed no one had answered the call to candidacy. Two: Amy constructs her life loosely around a series of long-running bits. They can’t be called pranks, because pranks are rarely so skillfully crafted and sternly absurdist. They’re more like long cons where the penny never drops. Three: You, as a democratically empowered and politically woke McBain-dwelling voter, could write in your choice for any of the empty council positions. And four: I had just successfully pried the gum off the bottom of my shoe with a pointy stick, so I now had room in my schedule to become the face of a political campaign—dare I say, a movement.
“Why me?” I asked Amy later that day over Ferris pasta bowls. She explained casually that I was “the most likely to be into it.” She was right. I am a massive attention whore.
McBain is “definitively the worst dorm on campus.” Like a mangy, three-legged dog limping around after you, glaring balefully, it’s always there. It smells bad. It makes uncomfortable noises at weird hours of the night. Socks disappear at an alarming rate, as does the potty training of putatively mature 20-year-olds.
In the grand tradition of too many modern political campaigns, the #McBougall campaign (a clever portmanteau of “McBain” and “McDougall”) was launched entirely for shits and gigs. In the grand tradition of most of the things that occupy my time, it was a wonderful way to procrastinate for a few days.
“I am proud to be running for every position on the McBain Hall Council,” my official campaign launch page read, beside a picture of my crying face. (What had upset me so? Cracking open a fortune cookie late one Saturday night, only to find a grammatical error printed on the fortune inside.) The campaign would be one for the ages. I would join the ranks of my forefathers—Limberbutt McCubbins, Vermin Supreme, and Deez Nuts.
Resplendent in the color scheme of the American flag, the posters we printed looked like freedom. They promised a bright, shiny future for McBain.
In the face of zero actual opposition, we had chosen our own: the pigeon population. We decided that the stakes were too high to run a clean campaign. We had to play dirty. In short, my platform was that pigeons—all of them, speckled or mottled, black or white, garbage- or vomit-covered—had to be eradicated. More specifically, I would eat them.
“Why pigeons?” someone asked me on day two of the nascent campaign.
“Why not?” I’d been practicing a toothy, shark-like politician’s smile in the mirror at night, between steps seven and eight of the 12-step Korean skin care routine I had recently adopted. (If AOC didn’t have any blemishes, then, by Jove, AJM wouldn’t either.) I turned away and frantically texted Amy, “Why pigeons?”
The memory of man is fallible, especially when it comes to watershed historical moments like this. Amy will tell you that at some point in the past, I had made an offhand joke about eating pigeons. I, however, have no memory of this and disavow all legal liability and potential copyright opportunities regarding avian slogans.
If I had any opponents, I’m sure some of them would have jabbed fingers at me, calling me a crook, a hack, a snake oil salesman in pigeon blood-stained Vans. And for all of my five-day career, I would have answered, “I am. Absolutely. And proud of it, too.” Was this morally bankrupt opportunism, taking advantage of circumstance for no particularly compelling reason? Undoubtedly, but I like to think our misguided zeal had a certain pathological charm. There was no endgame, after all. No “Step Three: PROFIT” waiting for us at the end of our long, hard uphill battle. We were unabashedly taking no prisoners and learning no lessons.
Instead, our newly minted campaign team speculated over greasy food in JJ’s about whether I actually had a shot. If we could get five people to write my name in, we might stand a chance at taking back the establishment. We redoubled our coverage efforts, desperately courting the powerful fuck it, who cares voting bloc.
Another friend created a Facebook event, complete with a photo of me joyously clutching a pineapple. Someone changed their profile picture to one of the posters, and somebody else commented, “This is big.” He was right; it got 32 likes. I was endorsed by the Furnald Hall Sustainability Board (another of Amy’s Very Real Very Serious Projects). I was not, however, endorsed by the Columbia University College Republicans, mainly because we didn’t tell them about the campaign.
It took Amy all of four hours to weave together a scarily effective website (“Welcome to our Twisted World”), complete with a candidate profile (“AJ McDougall has never been convicted of a crime or joined an a capella group”) and an “Our Team” page (“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a tight group of nine to win an uncontested hall council election”). It is a digitized shrine to insanity.
We blew up in the way that only your phone after you haven’t responded to two of your mother’s texts can. Friends and people I sort of knew pulled me aside to tell me how “funny” they thought the whole thing was. “With your support, we shall move mountains,” I replied, saintlike. A few people told me that they would canvas for me, smirking, but all I heard was, “We, the humble students of McBain Hall, worship you as our rightful ascendant queen.” I graciously accepted their offers.
At night, visions of me fulfilling my campaign promises danced in my head. Me leading a crowd of devout McBain followers to a better life, my jaw unhinged like a snake for maximum pigeon consumption. But during the day, chewing over my campaign promises and a plate of mozzarella sticks, I thought I’d never win. I didn’t think people were ready for the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of a McDougall administration. So I tried to sit back and enjoy the ride.
And yet, when the polls closed and the email rolled into my inbox (the titillating “Congratulations!” in the header followed by the real mood-killer “Action Item Required!”) I wasn’t surprised. Call it the flippant overconfidence of an econ major whose father “knows some dudes.” It turned out we had gotten four or five people to write my name in—which was crucial since I and most of my campaign team had plum forgotten to vote. We had proven that democracy can win, that the people can make themselves heard. Sort of. And I had won. Sort of.
I didn’t end up taking the position. To protect the feelings of whoever was McBain’s sloppy seconds for the position I was offered, I won’t go into details here. But I had campaigned to be McBain’s entire Hall Council, by gum—and since I hadn’t been offered the half dozen other positions as well, I declined, on principle.
But there was a period of about 10 minutes after getting the email when I thought—hey, maybe I should... accept this? What fresh hell was this line of thought? Somewhere along the way, I had lost sight of why I had run in the first place (fame and glory) and become intoxicated with the heady rush of campaigning. Did I now actually want to make a difference on campus? Surely not.
Still, it felt nice to be wanted, even if the adults in charge hadn’t caught wind of my promise to divest McBain of its resident ratbird population. But I like to think it was also Columbia, insidiously whispering in my ear, telling me to take on yet another obligation. What would be the harm? You can handle it. You kicked your feet and up and did nothing for at least a couple of hours last week. It’ll be good for your resume. Think of the networking opportunities. This could be the pipeline to Goldman Sachs you’ve been waiting for.
My radical misunderstanding of exactly how much power and exposure Hall Council involves aside, these thoughts were sobering. I had automatically turned to the practical—was this bit another shallow barrel I could scrape for an opportunity?
This instinct to exploit has lingered. Columbia students have it—it’s what got a lot of us here in the first place. It may be too late for some of us. For everybody else, there might still be time to pull an Ebenezer Scrooge. Fling open the shutters and ask the boy passing below what day it is. Go strip naked and run through the quad. Feel the wind whistling through your glossy hair as your sprint away from Public Safety.
Amy seemed content to let the four hours she spent website-building fall to the wayside, but I will render them productive, goddammit, by linking it here, again. I won’t let sleeping dogs lie. Nor will I let sleeping pigeons go uneaten. I’ve been struck by the urge, recently, not to let the memory of the campaign die. That’s why I pitched this essay. Maybe I’m just an aging diva, perpetually descending the McBain staircase in a spangly headwrap, reliving her glory days.
Or maybe, the urge I stifled in getting the email has come back again. Let nothing be just for fun. Make it productive lest it’s “wasted.” Everything has to Mean Something. We have to Get Something Out Of It. No, Fun Does Not Count. I Can’t Stop Capitalizing Words. Send Help.
I recently dropped in on one of the McBain Hall Council meetings, to see what I was missing. All the positions are filled, even though none of these out-of-the-woodwork candidates had the courage to face me openly during my campaign. Shockingly, they seem to be doing just fine without me. Disappointingly, not a single one of them has eaten any pigeons. But that’s politics for you. If you need me, I’ll be running naked across College Walk.
Enjoy leafing through our ninth issue!