If I’ve learned one thing from my experience at the Spectator, it’s this: The grand majority of people at Columbia (and everywhere else) don’t give a shit about anyone’s experience at Spec.
So I’ll be brief about that part (thank me later). I had a lovely time at The Eye, Spectator’s weekly magazine, first as editor of the cover story and then as editor in chief. I made wonderful friends—the true kind—ones I’ll keep, and nourish, for as long as I can. Anyone involved in a team creative project experiences a high-voltage round-up of emotions: I laughed and cried, ate and slept, kissed and told, mourned and rejoiced.
Those memories are mine to keep.
The Eye did define my college experience, and there’s something a little wrong with that. Spectator is an independent group of students with no official tie to the University. Had I not found this group, I likely would have become lost here, without a support group, without close friends.
Actually, I know I would have—another thing I’ve learned is that Columbia largely doesn’t care about the well-being of its undergraduates. This is not a place for those who want a close-knit community where they can learn without the added stress of wondering how they’re going to have enough money to eat dinner AND pay for a MetroCard to get to their internship. Columbia throws its undergrads into the thick of the city with a tenuous support network at best—for better or worse.
For me, it was exactly what I needed.
After being in a small town for a year at Middlebury College, I was convinced that I was one of those for whom college is not the best four years of her life. I was very depressed, and my kind of depression was the kind where I thought everyone around me was watching, and judging. Every person in the dining hall who smiled at me actually pitied me. Of course, we all know that’s never the case: Everyone is too concerned with themselves to watch others. I didn’t know that then. I was too deep inside of it.
I needed to be alone, and Columbia gave that to me wholesale. My favorite memories of my time at Columbia are the ones I spent by myself, getting to know and love this city, and—as the story has always gone since Joan Didion said goodbye to all that—myself.
The rest of the world interprets the signature trait of New Yorkers—to focus only on the task at hand, not stopping to acknowledge others—as cold. But this signature trait allows people who live here a brand of freedom that you can’t get anywhere else.
I can walk down 23rd Street slowly, looking up at the buildings like a tourist; or with a Skrillex wig; or with a low-cut shirt and a coy smile; or all in black and with the hardened gait of someone who knows her shit. I can do all of that here, and of course, people won’t judge me—that’s the city’s trademark. The even better part? People won’t notice me at all. I can try it all on, with no consequence whatsoever. I don’t have to participate.
I can’t write in public or read in public, but I like watching. Witnessing the simultaneity of the human experience without participating. Many times in the past few years, I would choose a destination—Sunset Park for banh mi, Brighton Beach for babushkas, the Cloisters for old people and silence—and spend a day by myself, watching people.
The city happens around me. Someone is having an orgasm and someone is crying and someone is dying and someone is being born and someone is experiencing the pinnacle of human joy, all within a very limited radius from where I stand.
This penetrated through my depression, somehow. I guess my thinking was: if everything around you is moving, well, you can’t just lie there.
So now I walk and watch.
I’m not sure who I want to be yet, so it helps to watch it all happen. To learn about what kind of person I want to be by listening to the city. That’s what makes me feel at home. Never lonely.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in English and comparative literature. She was a Spectrum daily editor, lead story editor for The Eye for the 134th volume, and editor in chief for The Eye on the 135th managing board.