Personal essays about New York City are in no way rare. Perhaps it’s because there is so much to say about our fair city, or because there are so many ways to say it. As Columbians, we have our own unique take on NYC.
Graduating from Columbia is for many a twofold transition. Not only do graduates leave behind College Walk, dorm rooms, and dining halls, but also Central Park, the Highline, and Halal carts. When finishing college means leaving a place as enigmatic as NYC, graduation takes on an entirely new meaning.
We asked four seniors to reflect on their time at Columbia and NYC, and what it means to see that time come to an end.
by Mae Smith
I don’t do well with breakups. My attachment runs deep, tangled with an immense capacity for affection and a desire to create a home for myself. So I’m uneasy as we approach graduation and I near the end of one, possibly two, relationships.
Columbia has been the boyfriend I always wanted and the one I complained about endlessly. He’s taken up all of my time, kept me up at night, challenged me, and frustrated me to the point of exhaustion. My friends from other schools have listened to me bitch, witnessed the dark circles under my eyes, and marveled at the emotional toll taken. But when they dare bad-mouth Columbia, I defend him ardently. “He’s not that bad, really. The pros outweigh the cons. I love him.”
And I do love Columbia. I’ve walked home in various states of fatigue as the sun rose and bathed campus in a warm, pink light that coaxed the buildings to stand just a little bit taller. Those quiet moments were when I fell in love—when it’s just been Columbia and me, alone together.
But the truth is, the wonderful, tumultuous relationship I’ve had with Columbia—from the culture of stress to the theory-based film studies department that drove me crazy—is the first relationship I feel 100 percent ready to end. Maybe because I’ll always keep him with me, maybe because I know I’ll be welcomed back for visits with open arms. Because let’s be honest: We went into this thing knowing there was an expiration date. I’ve been preparing for it for years.
However, because my future is uncertain (read: film major), there is another breakup I may be facing come graduation. Depending on how the next month goes, I may have to break up with New York. And I don’t know how to feel about that.
I grew up in a vacant cubicle in the Financial District, drawing masterpieces on Microsoft Paint or distracting important people from important work. It was different then; the Wall Street of today is not the Wall Street I knew. So many of the people my mom worked with started right out of high school like she had, and rose quickly in the business world without a degree. I spent my summers and weekends as her office’s mascot, always able to coerce an analyst into a piggyback ride or a high-level VP into coloring Disney princess coloring books with me. My mom’s Manhattan family became mine as well, and even after 9/11 ended her career, it was hard not to think of the city as home.
I often visited from the Jersey suburb to which we had moved, and every time I was overtaken with this immediate sense of calm—the feeling of watching the world with headphones in, where the music is loud and the visuals are perfectly in sync. It’s the same feeling I get in the editing room when I’m cutting a montage with music—like watching a symphony underwater, but one so beautiful that you forget you have to breathe.
Columbia was the obvious choice to me because New York wasn’t a choice—it was a given. I was ready to return home.
“You have to put in at least two years in LA,” says everyone I’ve ever spoken to about my career. I’ve been stubbornly fighting this irritating adage since I was 15 and began to pursue filmmaking. I’ve always said that the West Coast industry was less aligned with my aesthetic anyway. New York independent film, much like New York itself, is all about people. Low budget, character-driven narratives and a visual style that serves the performances. This natural, subtle approach to storytelling is just way more “me” than the glamour of Hollywood.
But here’s what I’ve discovered: “Me” needs to be able to eat and pay rent. With zero parental assistance and no option of moving back home, “me” needs to go wherever the damn job happens to be. It’s a desperate realization, like hunger – that acidic burn below the lower rib cage that reminds you that you’re human, and you have to follow the resources.
A year ago, I would have said the chances of me moving to LA after graduation (or ever) stood at about 10 percent. Now, the odds of New York versus Los Angeles are 50/50. A 50 percent chance that in a little over a month, I might have to break up with home. After all, long-distance never works.
The notion of leaving home is a confusing one. Does home stop being home when you leave it? Is it still home if there’s nothing solid to return to? There will be no childhood house, no family left here for me. Moving would leave me unanchored, separating me from the one constant running throughout my entire life.
And here’s the thing: Lately, there’s something strangely appealing about that.
I feel guilty thinking it, and even guiltier writing it. New York has been my epic love. My afternoons in Washington Square Park; my favorite Italian restaurant in the Village that makes pesto just like my mother; my summer of cheap donuts and steep hills in Inwood; my long, solo train rides to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where my father grew up. These are the moments that make up love, the quiet moments that have allowed me to rejoice and mourn and process every wonderful and terrible plot twist. If there’s a One, New York is it.
But leaving has started to sound OK. Maybe it’s pure survival instinct; there are so many more jobs in my field out there. Or maybe what they say is true—maybe I’m just too young to settle down with The One. It’s a classic Hollywood story: Young Woman Needs to Play the Field Before Being Able to Fully Appreciate What She Had. Alternately, it could be: First Love Prepares Young Woman for True Love—Los Angeles. Or maybe there’s only so long you can watch the world in montage, underwater, before you need a change.
Maybe it’s time to take the headphones out.
By Shivrat Chhabra
It was the end of my junior year, and I was struggling. I had just completed my most difficult semester yet—between my chemical engineering course load and my impromptu decision to take on a biomedical engineering minor that semester, I had squeaked by with barely passing grades despite feeling that I was working harder than I’d ever even thought I could. At the same time, my closest friendships had dissolved one by one, seemingly out of the blue, leaving me blindsided. Listless and confused, I sat idly on my bed in my tiny Wien single, surveying a floor that had gotten so messy that I’d almost forgotten what color it was supposed to be.
Naturally, I called my parents. My mother picked up the phone, and soon, I was bawling. All of the feelings that I had been trying to manage internally came gushing forth: how I felt like a failure, a disappointment to them, myself, and everyone who had ever believed in me; how I felt that I had squandered all of the opportunities I had been given, and how I felt that I no longer deserved them.
My mother, alarmed by my sudden, explosive breakdown, told me that she loved me and that it had nothing to do with what I accomplished or achieved.
Then she handed the phone to my father. “Son, you know this is unacceptable.” I braced myself, waiting for him to confirm all of the things that I was feeling all along. “I know, I know I should have done better, I just don’t know—”
“No. You tried and you failed. That is normal. Only those who cower on their knees their whole lives don’t know what it means to fall. What is unacceptable is that you gave up on yourself. You stopped trying. You stopped being honest with yourself. You were shortsighted, you stopped thinking, and you stopped believing in yourself. How dare you. You know better.”
A full year later, those words still remain imprinted firmly in my memory. They were the words that put my entire experience at Columbia into context.
In the industrial world, the term “forging” refers to a process by which repetitive, localized compressive forces are used to shape and strengthen a metal. When I arrived at Columbia, I was sorely in need of such shaping: High school had been a breeze, and achievement was the norm. I had never had to question my ability, my potential, or my limitations—and had thus never acquired the tools necessary to do so. Columbia would ensure that I developed these tools before long.
I’ve always been of the opinion that an experience must be challenging to be worthwhile, and by that logic, I’ve received the most worthwhile education I could have hoped for. It’s not that life at Columbia is somehow innately harder than life elsewhere. Rather, what makes it difficult is the fact that many of us here share a belief in the idea that if we aren’t running as hard as we can, we aren’t running hard enough. While Columbia encourages this perspective, it is important to understand that the agency to espouse it lies with each of us. This acknowledgement prevents us from becoming victims of the institution (a mental trap that I have, at times, fallen into), and instead makes us active participants in, and beneficiaries of, the process.
That being said, stretching ourselves as far as possible inevitably leads to instances of fray. For some, the process of identifying and correcting this can be gentle: The otherwise relentless expansion can be paused to reinforce the troubled areas, preventing further damage. For others, the process is more explosive: the initial fraying goes unnoticed until the weak spots suddenly buckle under the strain, and the delicate masterpiece we have so carefully spun our lives into is torn asunder. Despite my best efforts at caution, my periods of fracture have always tended towards the explosive.
Arriving my freshman year, I never anticipated the seismic expansion I was to undergo for the next four years. I arrived fearless, unbowed, and ultimately untested: sure of the infinitude of my time, capacity, and potential, but blissfully unaware of the precarious foundations upon which this confidence was based. Then, in two great waves, the hammer blows began.
The source of the first wave was a simple case of academic and extracurricular overstretch. I had too much on my plate, and admitting that would mean recognizing limitations I was afraid to acknowledge and wasn’t ready to handle. The source of the second wave was the slow, albeit now-obvious, realization that my friends—whom I loved and trusted and relied on for support—were themselves caught up in the same stress culture as I was, and were thus unable to consistently lend that support. On a rational level, it was clear that this had nothing to do with how much they wanted to help, but rather with their own stability and well-being. Translating this understanding to true acceptance was difficult: All I could really feel was my support network shrinking around me.
Le Chatelier’s principle states that when stress is imposed on a system, the system will shift its equilibrium to counteract the stress. Retreat, at least early on, was the simplest and most immediate method of minimizing the stress. Since I couldn’t accept that I was overwhelmed, I could go through the motions, and tell myself that “I was trying.” If I detached myself from results, at least it would hurt less if I failed. Since I couldn’t accept my friends’ needs, I could instead hold them at arm’s length and avoid revealing too much of myself. This method naturally backfired: Because I stopped really trying, I ended up failing more intensely and more frequently than ever before, and because I insisted on shutting out the people I loved, I ended up hurting them and myself more severely than I previously thought possible. It was a positive feedback loop—one that quickly spiraled into insanity.
What I needed was a fundamental realignment— a chemical reaction of sorts—that would overhaul how I approached and understood both myself and my surroundings. And that brings me back to the conversation I had with my father, the catalyst for my dramatic change in perspective. As I let what he said percolate through my being, I began to see how foolish I had been. Of course, the only true failure was surrender; the challenges would come and go, and I would always be strong enough to deal with them. However, I could not get through such challenges alone. After all, I needed my father to drive home the notion that the problems I was facing only seemed insurmountable because my perspective was not broad enough. If I kept trying to internalize every situation I faced, not only would the pressure build until I burst again, but I would always be limited to the small range of viewpoints I could synthesize myself. No matter how terrifying the prospect seemed, I actually needed to reach out to others and trust them with the embarrassing, imperfect pieces of myself that I had kept hidden. Only in allowing vulnerability to show in the short term could I strengthen myself in the long term.
Hammer blow by hammer blow, Columbia has forged me into the person I am now. She has taught me to believe in myself even when I falter; to be honest with myself, particularly when the truth is difficult to face; and, most importantly, to trust others and ask for their help. Having worked harder than I ever thought possible, having faced my weakest moments and somehow emerged from them stronger, I will take with me, no matter where I go, a fundamental belief in myself, in my ability, and in my resilience. I arrived with lofty goals and ideas, and because of the missteps I made and the subsequent lessons learned, I leave now with the confidence that I can achieve those goals, that I can actualize those ideas, that I am not bound by the past, that the only limits on my future are those that I impose on myself. And that feeling, that confidence, that gloriously empowering conviction, is worth all the hammer blows in the world.
By Ayushi Roy
Yet today I consider myself the luckiest woman on the face of this earth. I stole that from Lou Gehrig’s famed speech at Yankee Stadium because I secretly brand myself a New Yorker. What you probably don’t know is that I shouldn’t even go here. I will never forget that Saturday morning, in the second week of May 2010, when I was taken off the waitlist to Columbia University. These four years have been a supernal gift, an honor unanticipated. To pass it forward, I hereby present you an over-Elmered bundle of crumpled wrapping paper. I refuse to reflect and accept the past tense of my undergraduate years, so I’m sorry the wrapping is a bit soiled from sweaty palms clutching tightly to Morningside memories. In fact, my denial about graduation roars so loudly that I kept the writing of this essay to the literal 11th hour. And as usual, as is a custom, these personal stories always have me in the lead role. This story is no exception. The only difference is that this story hasn’t been written by me. It’s a story by you.
116th Street—Columbia University, 1 train
“Did you just give me a speech or ask me a question? God, you’re so clearly a Columbian.” The unabashed speaker called him out in the middle of a 100-person audience. But the well-constructed five-minute question was a badge of honor for my friend.
Four years earlier at one of those joint tour/information sessions, then-Dean of Student Affairs Kevin Shollenberger couldn’t quite answer the admission-concerned parents’ questions: “What kind of student is Columbia looking for?” But in a later offhand remark, Ke$ho joked that “Columbians like to argue,” and it became my dad’s favorite epithet for me. A ’68 alum re-characterized it over drinks in Dublin House last week: “It wasn’t insidious, we just asked the right questions. It’s about a development in perspective.” It’s the analysis of something in terms of what it is not.
34th Street—Herald Square, N/Q/R train
Cubicle-dwellers and visiting tourists alike were inadvertently hit by the crossfire. By the time I returned from my 10-minute coffee break, yellow tape cautioned the entrance to the Empire State Building and the future normalcy of two families. He was a 58-year-old former designer with a gun. He didn’t make it. Neither did his coworker.
My freshman-year floormate once told me to never let go of those I love, because what if they get hit by a truck or a drunk driver. Nonsensical, but what isn’t. Life isn’t the Hallmark card I presented him at our one-year anniversary. But when you have a roommate who remembers to pester you about interview details, knowing all too well that you wouldn’t discuss yourself unsolicited, yet simultaneously understanding that your not sharing muffled tears with anyone but your pillow in the bunk above her doesn’t mean you don’t care, it’s something big. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and question the very frameworks they taught you, and they’re still foolish enough to patiently continue speaking their love to your voicemail more than to your own voice, it’s a blessing. When you have a grandmother who spends days in the hospital for an undiagnosable pain, balancing grief you can’t understand, but uses the sterile time to learn iMessage just so she can text you “Good night sweet dreams,” it’s the finest.
23rd Street, A/C/E train
I couldn’t tell if they were just really tight or having sex on the greenway bench but either way it was a lot. So was the adjacent view of the night skyline from Chelsea Piers. And this was the first-ever real date of my life. Time was moving so fast, I had seen changes in my body and mind flash before my eyes. Change and growth aren’t always equivalent, but stagnation scares me most, he said. Still, memories sometimes grow in my throat like the wild Indian mint leaves in my backyard, crowding over cognition and making me choke. Maybe it’s this air, where I can’t see more than two feet ahead of myself on the morning walk to work. New York, you’re much too polluted. Yet somehow everyone seems to be producing without stopping to breathe. Somehow, the grunge is part of the appeal. Somehow there is a drive to struggle today and tomorrow, to grow like flowers in cracked concrete.
Christopher Street—Sheridan Square, 1 train
Ten Things I Hate About You and Bollywood’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hain were the introductory syllabus on love. By the time Titanic came around, I could laugh at Leonardo DiCaprio clinging onto the ice chunks in the middle of Director’s Choice Ocean. Call me heartless, or maybe just afflicted with premature cynicism. I had no problem fitting into the stereotypically disenchanted Columbian “tango” with romance. More like an awkward grind, actually. But during deconstructed depictions of gender roles in rom-coms with housemates at the Intercultural Resource Center, in came my knight in shining armor. OK, fine, but he did have this ridiculous handmade box with 10 little notes, each a clue in an intricate hour-long treasure hunt ending on Commerce Street. The treasure was dinner. And I thought our species had evolved long past the point of hunting for dinner. I guess I won’t ever have all the answers, but I’ve answered yes every day since.
Somewhere on the godforsaken G train
Three chapters of the Odyssey, the quiz the next day, and too much wasted time deluding myself that coffee shops and caffeine correlate with productivity. So I read on the subway, boarding and exiting trains every place I heard live music. I calculated an average of three pages a stop. Using the pulse of people to keep my own mind alert. Growing with movement. Finding calm, individuality, and gleaning understanding from chaos. In the process of painting details, I’m forgetting the wonder, awe, and disorientation I felt. Everything was a first. If Instagram was a thing back then, every second might have been documented in a futile attempt to clasp the vibrancy of the 7 million people who board the New York City subway every day. The people kept me going then, and those I’ve been humbled to meet keep me going now. Rats scurry, but people do too. Each adding a little piece of their personal narrative to the big picture, akin to the mosaics that adorn subway-station walls. We have dinosaurs on 81st, a “Masstransiscope” on the Q train by DeKalb, the beaver of Astor Place, and a bilingual welcome at Canal Street.
The people I’ve met here—both within and beyond the Columbia gates—have molded my personal narrative in ways and into blessings unimaginable. With every dance, every song, and every stolen moment they have authored these past four years. This is Graduation Central Station, transfer is available to New World, Risk, Commitment, and Wanderlust. Stand clear of the closing doors, please.
Someday We Will All Have Jubilation
By Allen Johnson
This winter has been too long, so long I thought I’d hold a grudge against spring. But now that I’m finally able to run in the park again all I can feel is thankful. I have never understood why the pathetic fallacy is a fallacy.
Sometimes I wish Central Park had been broken into smaller parcels of land and distributed liberally—a green block here and a green block there—about the rest of Manhattan. Then we might all have jubilation in the likes of those looking down from Central Park West apartments, even if it were a smaller jubilation, a jubilation tailored to the size of a city block. And yet having in Central Park that paved, unbroken six-mile-ish loop for runners and bikers is nice too. I like that. City living could have produced its own peculiar forms of green space— narrow green thoroughfares and parks that would sit on the sky overhead like pendulous floating worlds— but instead, early New York went for the central slab so big it could replicate the wild.
Do you know how small this island is? When you think about it, it is crazy how small. It is a small island. It is an island!
A loop, however, is endless. It is a flubbed promise of infinite space. On an island this size it says that in the midst of scarcity there is more than enough. It says we can import all the styles of living we want from mainland and countryside— wide open spaces, broad fields, ponds, and gravel roads!—and make them work for us here. It says that the kind of life you’d want to live if New York hadn’t compelled you to put that life down and answer its weird furtive come-hither call, that life you would otherwise have lived, you can live here too. The unbroken circle says that in New York opportunity costs are illusions. It is a promise of everything: the whole world: here. Come.
Paul Goodman—the kinda-crazed, kinda-lucid mid-century anarcho-communitarian—wanted to get rid of all the cars in New York. He wanted to replace the city streets with greenways and bike paths. Kind of like if street fairs were every day. Like if the whole grid were in the mold of those little reclaimed parts of Broadway near Columbus Circle and Times Square and the Flatiron, those Bloomberg asphalt flats painted neon green where people (tourists?) sit on flimsy, stylish-looking chairs at flimsy, stylish-looking tables and don’t seem burdened by the world so much. Goodman also wanted to obsolesce labor, so that people only had to work one year in seven and could spend the rest of their time seated, I suppose, on green asphalt (where better?), living perpetually the promise of everything. He dreamed that all it took to have it all was a little housekeeping. Rearrangements were possible. The world could become anything.
I don’t think about Paul Goodman when I am running through Central Park. I think about how is it possible that going in one direction, the loop seems to be equal parts uphill and down, but if I run the other way round it seems unilaterally downward-sloping. How is that possible, is what I think. Is that possible? I think about, wow, my feet are sore! Sometimes I get blisters and can’t run through the park until they heal and I get mad at the whole world. I should only get blisters one year in seven.
I don’t think we can have it all, which is to say I don’t think the dream of New York can come true. More likely, we live our lives here portion-wedged, staring out of too-small windows at the sides of too-old buildings, or looking down at a dirty street between two avenues where once in a while an old man will scream HALLELUJAH or a white girl will scream AAAAAAAAAH and in neither case will we know why or what to do about it. If we are very lucky, we might stare out at a tree whose leaves are just now beginning to bud and feel our small share of jubilation. Most of the time when we stare out from high-rises it will be down at blank roofs, but once in a while we will see people come out and dance on them and drink potions, fall in love and fall madly—with one another, with the night, with New York, New York, New York! And us in our rooms smiling faintly, aglow with a mix of envy and longing wondering how to get a better view of all this life abounding.
It is possible Goodman was on to something, that the arrangements we live through in New York do not give us everything we asked for or even everything the city offered in order to woo us here in the first place. Oh well! There is still so much beauty, and in the middle of this little broken island of exploding gassy tenements and flooded undergrounds there is a loop that goes round itself forever—an extended promise that is true and isn’t. You know, sometimes uphill and downhill are just expressions of how excited we are to be running. On a day the sun is out and spring is floating and the path extends in front of me 50 meters clear and dreamy before the bend I am certain it is all downhill and if I am blistered or bruised I cannot feel it and I do not mind.
If our jubilation is so small or far-off that more often than not we fail to find it at all, then we must change the arrangements we live through: We know that otherwise we will just encounter them again, and again, in the coming years. And yet, somehow—miraculously it seems to me—we can also learn to live around the more intractable problems; we become inured to the terrible winters and celebrate more joyously the first golden week of spring. Old pains recede into memory. Life ages well. Someday we will all have jubilation.