Shrugging off the Strike at Columbia

by

02/22/2006

116th St. & Broadway, NY, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Alma Mater, the massive, laurel wreath-sporting statue-woman who sits at the heart of the Columbia campus in Morningside Heights, strikes an ambiguous pose: her forearms raised, her palms open to the sky, her face blank. This gesture can be interpreted in all kinds of ways, but, on days like Tuesday, it was a shrug. Many students I talked to shrugged and expressed only a vague comprehension of the transit strike. “We don’t know anything about the world,” said a grad student. Shrugging, a senior faculty member said, “I don’t need public transportation to get here from my apartment yet, but give it a few years.”

Not everyone who works or studies at Columbia lives close by, but the reaction of the administration has also mimicked Alma Mater’s stone-faced shruggery. In a series of e-mail messages, the administration made clear that end-of-semester finals will go on and staff, faculty and students should make it to campus as usual. Morning exams could start an hour late, but none would be rescheduled. Absent staff members would have their absence counted against their vacation days.

In order to facilitate this we-will-not-be-affected approach, Columbia set up a system of shuttle vans to and from various locations. How all this is going, however, has been swallowed up by rumor and confusion. Reports are spreading of Columbians, nervous about failed exams and lost vacation days, shivering on the streets for hours, waiting for vans languishing elsewhere in traffic. Yet legends of perseverance are spreading as well. I heard tell of a staff member in computer support who biked all the way from Park Slope – “but he forgot his long johns” and suffered frostbite in the process.

Despite the pressure at the margins, the dome of intellectual lassitude and care-free youthful exuberance that insulates Columbia remains intact. People are obsessing over finals, but always with school spirit – late Tuesday afternoon, I saw a harried undergrad rushing around a computer lab wearing ribbons in her hair, blue and white, the colors of Columbia. Another undergrad stood on Amsterdam Avenue, laughing and talking with a friend while she waited for the charter bus procured by Columbia to ferry departing students to the airport. I asked her, an Oregon native, whether the transit strike had changed the way she thinks about New York City. She shrugged and said, “No, not really.”

I nodded and shrugged in solidarity, one student to another. Unlike Alma Mater, at least we get to leave Columbia on holidays.

___________________________________________________

Patrick Gallagher is a graduate student at Columbia University and managing editor of mrbellersneighborhood.com.

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