College Town

by

12/31/2006

116th St. & Broadway, NY, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

I’m thinking about breaking the law. Not the law of the city and state of New York. The law of the neighborhood.

I live in a college town. The boundaries of this town are roughly between 110th Street and 125th Street on the west side of Manhattan, though the holdings and minor fiefdoms extend well beyond those borders. The college is in fact a university: Columbia University. I grew up in this city, and after fifteen years in other parts of the country and the world, I have returned to the old neighborhood to raise my children.

It is an exquisite doom to be raised in New York City, for though there are other great cities and many, many cheaper places to raise a family, there is really no place quite like this “island off the coast of America,” and at a certain point I found myself driven by an illogical longing to go back home. Becoming a mother was part of it, I kept looking at my daughters and realizing that if I didn’t do something soon they wouldn’t, in fact, be New Yorkers–which didn’t make sense to me on some sort of cellular level. Provincial? Yes, I am, extremely. Someone once said that New York is like a prison where the citizens have become their own jailers, and they keep themselves imprisoned by the illusion that this is the only place to be.

I have scratched my name more than once into the wet pavement of these sidewalks. Initials and hearts when I was a teenager, handprints with my children. I feel free to ignore the law when it comes to marking my city and I have no excuse, really. It’s not art, like graffiti, it’s more like a dog lifting its leg—I can’t help myself and I suppose I grew up thinking that is what wet cement is there for.

There are no corners in my neighborhood without a memory—I feel ownership even after the old bodega has been replaced by the new condo with one of those ubiquitous mega drugstores or banks built in at street level. Like you shouldn’t be able to walk more than two blocks without stopping for cash and a Band-Aid. But we all see our old neighborhoods in layers.

My neighborhood has remained less changed than many, and why? Columbia. As in most college towns, there is a love/hate relationship between the Townies and the Ivory Tower. The university pretty much owns the town, and it pretty much doesn’t care about the Townies. I’m a Townie. Still, Columbia was my playground. My parents never worked there, but when the gates were closed in the sixties I remember holding my mother’s hand and looking at the bed sheets draped out the windows. They were covered with slogans painted in red that dripped like blood. There were cops on horseback, the smell of teargas and a student with a megaphone wearing sunglasses and a light blue button-down shirt with one tail untucked. It looked like fun to me. My father carried a dark green book bag for a while, which I associated with Columbia, though I know the colors are blue and white. Still, the book bag meant Columbia to me, and he wasn’t much older than the students.

I learned how to ride a two-wheeler on the car-free pathways of the campus and when I was a teenager we would smoke cigarettes on the main steps, leaning against that famous bronze sculpture of Truth like she was our big sister who would never tell. All of the Townies hate Columbia, of course, my kids have figured it out already. Whenever an old building is being torn down, or a friend can’t afford the rent on an apartment anymore, the first question is always: Is it a Columbia building?

Usually it is. But I was still jealous of all those people who got to go to the gym, the library, wherever they wanted. They had the ID, I didn’t. I lurked around campus like a Townie.

When the time came to go to college, I was persuaded to apply and actually got accepted. But the last thing I wanted at eighteen was to stay in the old neighborhood. I needed to take my arrogance far enough out into the world to lose it. But I still couldn’t quite say no to Columbia. I deferred admission every fall for five years—until I finally got a letter telling me that I had gotten too old. If I wanted to attend the University I would have to go to the Department of Continuing Education across the street.

Back in the neighborhood, I now live in the building above the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a well known university hang out. The students and professors hang out late, and it anchors the block to light and conversation. I like the fact that despite all of the gentrification there is still a human tide that comes in every fall and goes out every spring. There are people of all ages speaking more languages than I can recognize as they walk down the block, and not everyone is stunning to look at. That’s what it used to be like everywhere in Manhattan.

But I still don’t have the ID. I can’t take my kids to the gym and until recently, I couldn’t get into the library. There is a nice public library right down the block. It’s clean and well lit, modern—but it isn’t quiet. As a writer I am constantly on the lookout for places to work that will actually be quiet. I am one of those writers who doesn’t like to write in restaurants. I am so easily distracted that I hate to hear conversations, lyrics—they are almost always more interesting than staring at the blank screen. But the branch libraries are no longer quiet, and I’ve found this to be true in other parts of the country as well. The librarians don’t even say “Sshh” anymore.

I thought this was really odd until I asked a librarian several years ago why they didn’t ask people to be quiet anymore. She explained patiently (and at regular volume) that the libraries are often used by the public schools now as a learning environment, since the schools are so overcrowded. They can’t tell kids never to ask a question if they are actually in their classroom now can they? Furthermore, the hours of the branch libraries are constantly being reduced due to lack of federal funding, so the neighborhood kids can’t come to the library as often as they used to.

I stopped complaining about the noise.

Meanwhile there is this beautiful building on campus, four blocks north of me, with names like Socrates and Vergil emblazoned across the front. The Butler Library. A place where I was sure one could plug in a laptop and sit in near-absolute silence. I wouldn’t take out any books, I just wanted to be able to write for a few hours every day. I now teach at a college (Bard) and a University (CUNY), but I am fairly new to academia. A colleague laughed when I told her that I was lusting after the Butler Library and assured me that Columbia would allow me to use their library as a courtesy between universities. All I had to do was to show my faculty ID.

She was wrong. I had a college ID, but it wasn’t the ID. I only got as far as the entryway. I was told to go into a small office to the left, and they might give me a day pass. In fact, I was given two options: As faculty at Bard College—they wouldn’t even let CUNY people in–I could pay a fairly hefty sum of money to have access to the library for a year, or I could use the library for five consecutive days for free. Five days per semester, and they had to be five days in a row starting now. As a Townie I balked at paying money to the monolith, and besides, if I had money I would try and rent an office. Fine.

Would I like the card that would get me in for the next five days?

I wanted to say no and go have a cigarette in front of the Truth statue like in the old days. But I said yes. I was already there with my laptop over my shoulder and I desperately needed the time, even if it was only five days.

I walked past the security guards, flashing my temporary card and feeling slightly guilty. Then I walked up the marble staircase into heaven. Butler has reading rooms with outlets everywhere for laptops, which must be silenced, of course. There are six floors of stacks with a table, chair and lamp placed just the right way—in a hidden and silent corner. The largest reading room has floor to ceiling windows that gaze across the quadrangle over manicured lawns (which are fenced, gated and locked up most of the time).

There are also smaller reading rooms with the option of private carrels or simple tables, and when you look up there are rows of books and strange, Grecian-themed friezes on the ceiling: a winged horse with the tail of a serpent. There are upper galleries with cast iron railings, and small circular windows. Everyone there is silently reading or writing, and happily ignoring one another. It is not the main branch of the New York Public Library, there is no library that can approach that one for grandeur. But the Butler Library is still my dream of what a library should be—and best of all, it is only four blocks away.

Today is my last day, and I have gotten a lot done in five days. But now I’m panicking again, and more than that—I’m pissed. They don’t have room for me.

It’s like a mini-city in here and I don’t take up much space. Why can’t the Townies swim in the Club pool? So that’s why I’m thinking of breaking the law. You see, that card they gave me wasn’t laminated, and there’s just enough room on the front to change the date. All I need is a ballpoint pen, and I happen to have a few of those in my bag. It wouldn’t get me in all year, not even close. But I could get twenty-six more days.

Twenty-six days. I pull out the card and check the color of the ink, yes, I just might be able to match that one. I look around to be sure nobody’s looking and I write the highest number I can get away with for this month.

I guess you could call it forgery, and I might just get caught, but what’s the worst that can happen? All they can do is throw me out of the pool.

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