The buzzer calls the end of the matchup, but that was never necessary. The game could have been over at minute 14. The Columbia men’s basketball team has just lost its 11th consecutive game (there would be two more losses in the future) and I am accidentally spilling my nonalcoholic beer on the lacquered hardwood of the Jonathan D. Schiller Court of Levien Gymnasium in the Dodge Fitness Center. The imitation brew is all over my skirt, which had been an impractical garment for sitting on the seats of the press box to begin with. The rub between my tights and the vinyl is uncomfortable, not painful, but it is a distraction throughout the game. The sticky nature of the beer makes the situation even less sexy.
That’s the thing about nonalcoholic beer. It makes you believe that you are at a major league sporting event but without all the fun of the beer, so you’re left with just the stale taste that plagues all beers. However, at each game, I get my free nonalcoholic stout, take my seat—three chairs from the end—and am gleefully miserable with my can as I watch the game.
I haven’t sat through a game at Levien in months, which is the same amount of time since I’ve read yet another article on the Lions’ lack of offensive depth—a weekly task I looked forward to, despite the monotony of the results. I bask in the memory of the fleeting stadium. The feeling of being able to capture a game, a moment, has made the sweet sound of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” my anthem every Friday and Saturday because Columbia Athletics will play it at the end of every match, win or lose.
It has been almost a year since I took over as the Sports Editor at Spectator, and in many ways, it feels like I have been in an endless loop of Levien weekends. “New York, New York” always sounds like home, whether played at Spec Sports sideline birthday parties or in the warmth of a Friday night game. I experience a Grinch-like heart growth every time I walk into Levien’s doors from the Northwest Corner Building, which washes away the never-ending stress of being a college student. That feeling is the culmination of a week of waiting for the utter thrill and the strange fascination that is Columbia basketball.
But now, I am not at Levien Gymnasium. Instead, I am sitting at my desk in my bedroom at 5:06 p.m. on a Wednesday. Sinatra’s croon floods my ears, even though I’m far from the loudspeakers in the gym. Instead of the song playing in the gym after a game that has inevitably been lost, the source is now a blaring truck passing by my window, with the driver celebrating New York pride as the cars roll down Fourth Avenue daily.
In “New York, New York,” Sinatra sings, “I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.” I want the same. I might still be in the city that never sleeps, but no one roams the streets, day or night. When night falls, the lights of New York die down completely.
The sun goes down by 5 p.m. and I am still at the desk that transforms into my sister’s murphy bed. Every so often, I see people coming down my street, walking their dogs and going to the grocery store. This is not the bursting-at-the-seams evacuation from Levien after every game; this is a mass exodus from the city where Levien resides.
And my weekends suck. I sit at my desk and I stare at my computer. I wait for the “New York, New York” truck to come, and then I wait for it to come again—but it never does. I seek out the thrill of the song, and then I realize that nothing is the same.
Flashes of white appear across my window, a welcome escape from the ever-present gray of the concrete below. Sometimes I believe it’s the truck, but the distant sounds turn into sirens and I realize that it’s an ambulance.
“New York, New York” is no longer a song to celebrate Spectator Sports trips across 120th Street, but is instead a reminder of the people infected with COVID-19 who are being rushed to the hospital each day. The era of live-tweeting from the sidelines and sharing a can of nonalcoholic piss water has gone, at least for me.
When I return to Levien, I will no longer be Sports Editor at Spectator—I may no longer even be a Columbia student. The fans packed in the bleachers and skirted sports editors squished onto vinyl chairs have no return date. “New York, New York” played at the conclusion of every basketball game; “New York, New York” plays at 5:06 p.m. every day as the cars drive down Fourth Avenue.
And for the first time in what feels like an infinite stretch of time, I can’t tell you when “New York, New York” will feel the same again—or whether it ever will. But the particular vibe of that song is a feeling I search for every day during this wretched pandemic. I am a Sports Editor without sports, a contradiction in a world that is difficult, frustrating, and devoid of that joyful “New York, New York” sensation.
I might be the only person on the face of the earth who wants nothing more than to be spilling beer onto my box score while watching Columbia basketball, and I am okay with that. Columbia basketball means trips to Hoagie Haven in Princeton, missing the Dinky home (three times), and sneaking food up the bleachers to my roommate.
Despite the calm rumble of a Dinky ride or the indescribable, ambrosiatic taste of Hoagie Haven Sanchez Sauce, basketball in New Jersey could never compare to the predictable but ever-riveting experience of Levien Gymnasium because Levien and “New York, New York” are about more than just basketball, or even just sports journalism.
Levien is Spectator Sports—it’s where I took two sets of trainees for their first assignments, where we ate chocolate cake to the dismay of everyone around us, and where I never actually did the reporting, but stayed solely to harass my staff. Levien was where no one cared about my opinions on basketball—I mean, no one cares about my mediocre basketball takes anywhere—and yet it was also where I felt the most in tune with the journalism my staff produced every week. Since leaving Levien for the last time, my life has lost much of the rhythm that carried me through the week; I have lost my senses—both literally and figuratively—which has made monotony boring in a way that I never knew it could be.
I have not been able to smell for nine months due to a February case of COVID-19 that the emergency room swore was the flu. The garbage on Fifth Avenue and I have ended our nineteen-year-long battle, but warm and creamy mac and cheese has not been the same—and still, I can remember the smell of cleaning supplies, the chlorine by the pool on the way to the restroom, that gymnasium aroma of wax, sweat, and sheer enthrallment. When faces begin to age and fade and team rosters are overhauled, it’s those scents that will linger in my memories, the screech of the buzzer, and the last blow of a tuba when performing “Happy Birthday.”
Perhaps I will never go to another Columbia basketball game, and in some regard, I don’t think I will ever need to. Perhaps “New York, New York” and its continuous “dun dun dundedums” will carry me over as the college experience memory that I will tell until everyone I know can tell it themselves.
And that is “New York, New York.” It’s a cheap choice—for the coronavirus truck driving down my street and for Columbia Athletics. It’s catchy, almost intoxicatingly so. Everyone knows the lyrics, so why not play it? Is there a better song to represent New York and the infinite possibilities that sit between the FDR Drive and West Side Highway, between Brooklyn and the Bronx? I’ll be damned if there isn’t. “Mr. Brightside,” perhaps? The theme song from The Brady Bunch? “Carolina in My Mind”? All valid choices, bolder choices than something like “New York, New York.”
However, it is that predictability that defines my college experience, that defines each Columbia men’s basketball game, that defines this Godforsaken pandemic. You know what will become tomorrow because it is the same as yesterday, and the day before, then and a month ago. The Lions will lose, the truck will drive by, and I will sit alone in my room. These realities are a far cry from the message of the song.
One day I will leave the “little town blues” of my periwinkle walls behind and “make a brand new start of it.” One day tomorrow will be different than today, and maybe I will once again take a swill of that sexy, sexy, oh-so-sexy nonalcoholic beer that I will pay nothing for, and I will hate every single sip of it.
But that’s a future that’s far away and out of my hands. It’s up to you, New York, New York.
Enjoy leafing through our seventh issue!