Cooper Chronicles: I.3

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

one of the things that i think will take a lot more getting used to in this city is the elevators.  at home, when i was going somewhere, i had to factor in traffic problems as well as distance.  now, whether i’m going downstairs to the dorm lobby or up to the seventh floor of the Foundation building for my drawing class, i have to tack on about ten minutes of elevator-waiting time.  elevators are sneaky.  they pretend to be going up and then grind to a halt and begin descending.  meanwhile, the passengers are frantically pushing buttons and cursing and pounding on the doors.  i’m not sure, but whenever that happens i think i can hear a very faint snicker emanating from the floor. 

when you’re waiting for one, you can watch its progress by the digital counter on the wall above.  14 … 12 … 11 … 10 … 10 … 10 … 10 … 10.  “what’s going ON?” you wonder.  your fingers drum impatiently as you imagine someone in the elevator, blocking the door while they finish up an involved conversation with a passerby in the hall.  this can cause another interesting phenomenon: Elevator Rage.  it could be your best friend in there — but when he/she is the cause of an imagined delay, they had better scurry off in a rush, or else face your righteous wrath.

the other day another man and i were the lone witnesses of a very sketchy occurrence: both of us boarded the elevator at the fifth floor of the cooper main office building.  i was currently the victim of a run-around by the administration in my quest for AP english credit, and had just been told to go to the third floor. i pushed the “3”; he pushed the “1”.  we began to descend.  this elevator is perhaps the slowest in the western hemisphere to begin with; coupled with this languor is its habit of stopping at every floor on the way down.  thus, i was prepared for a long ride.  however, it surprised me (as they often do) by going all the way to the basement floor, ignoring both of our requests, and stopped there.  the doors opened to reveal a typical basement-type atmosphere: buckets and mops lying around on the dirty concrete floor.  the other passenger and i looked at each other and smiled nervously.  after about 90 seconds of absolute silence, a dirty, hairy arm emerged from around the door, reached in and pushed “10”, and withdrew.  the doors closed and we began to ascend.  we looked at each other and burst into laughter. 

New York life has given me so many experiences like that one — random, strange occurrences that some would find annoying and some hilarious.  in my opinion, the most important thing is to retain your sense of humor.  if you can laugh, you’ll get by just fine.

but — on to the story.  last week, after writing, my roommates and i went grocery shopping (maybe the novelty will wear off after awhile, but the three of us love to go together and buy our own food) and then hosted an impromptu dinner party in our apartment.  it happens often; people conveniently stop in when they smell food, and we don’t mind sharing.  (especially because that means it’s *their* turn next.)  i had just made a huge batch of tabouli.  we had salad, too, and fresh bread.  pretty soon we had attracted a few hungry boys.  pete repaid us a few days later with ravioli and  — wonder of wonders! — totally made-from-scratch tomato sauce.  it was heavenly.

monday was our third or fourth “orientation day,” and by this time it was getting old.  we had “AIDS 101” in the morning, a three-hour, extremely frank and uncensored lecture/discussion about HIV, its causes and results.  it was a little frightening, but i guess that was the point.  then they scattered us into groups all over the Village for a free lunch at one of the local restaurants.  that’s one thing we all love about cooper; besides free tuition, they offer free food — lots of it.  we get pizza parties, pancake breakfasts, and, that day, a wonderful seafood lunch at a classy italian joint a few blocks from the school.  then it was back to the safety stuff — we were separated by gender to watch a video on date rape, followed by a discussion.  with all the pains they had taken to segregate us, i was surprised that the discussion was being led by an all-male student panel — i wondered if the guys had *girls* leading them.  typical administrative goof-up, i guess.  when the forums let out at around 5, we were all feeling sufficiently “blah” to get a movie.  there’s a great TV lounge on the fifth floor of the dorm, and we piled into chairs and couches to watch “the zero effect,” a hilarious movie with bill pullman and ben stiller.  two thumbs up, if any of you care. 

the next morning it was up at 6 AM to get ready for the annual “desk run.”  (please excuse any malevolent feelings that may be unwittingly exuded on this subject — i assure you, i am attempting to keep them under control.)  the desk run *sucks*.  it is perhaps the most primitive and uncivilized way to distribute materials i have ever encountered.  i’ve heard about it before, but i always thought they were joking.  here’s how it works: first through fourth year architecture students are given workspaces in a giant studio on the third floor of the foundation building.  at the beginning of each year, kids sleep outside the building to get closest to the doors.  when they open, a few at a time are allowed to scramble up the stairs, dash into the studio and fight to the death for the desk, stool and space of their choice.  it can get downright ugly; “this is when you make your enemies,” one veteran cautioned us.  this year they improved things by the smallest fraction; numbers were distributed by a lottery system so that staying outside all night wouldn’t improve one’s chances to get a better number.  still, when we arrived at 7, we were near the end of the line.

we got our numbers and then had to wait until 8 for the doors to open.  none of us were quite willing to take the risk of going back to the dorms for an hour (so infused were we with their desk-run propaganda).  so we stayed outside, talking as if we were indifferent to the feeling of intense, fearful anticipation that was thick all around us.  finally, we were allowed, in groups of five, to run upstairs.  we survived, somehow.  my number was 13, and i got the space i had wanted originally, although cramped a little by the ferocious second-year students.  after i was settled, i sat on my desk with my feet on the stool to protect my space as the rest of the students pushed and strained and plotted for spaces all around me.  soon some fourth-year students came up to me, introduced themselves and congratulated me for making it through what they called “the toughest experience all year.”  we chatted for awhile; they told me not to believe anything i’ve heard, but to learn for myself how hard the work is and how hard i’ll need to push myself to excel. it’s an individual thing, they said.  (one guy said that for his first week, he stayed overnight in the studio every night; not because he had to, but because other people were and he thought he was *supposed* to!)  i think it was the best advice i’ve had so far.

the afternoon brought our first “real” class to date: computer applications and descriptive geometry.  if the first day was any clue, it will be every bit as boring as it sounds.  the teacher’s soporific bass voice droned on and on in a monotone that sounded more like a lullaby than a lecture.  more than once i remember wondering what it meant if you were fighting the urge to doze off in your first college class ever.  we were told to purchase a textbook, about the size of a small Bible, for 96.00.   my friends and i cut it down to 14, though, when we discovered that photocopying isn’t illegal if it’s for educational purposes. 

next was “literary forms and expressions,” which turned out to be an exact reproduction of the english class i took last year.  i worked superhard in that class and aced the AP so that i could avoid exactly this sort of occurrence, so with fire in my eyes i strode to the main office to straighten the problem out.  (cooper doesn’t always give credit for AP classes; in fact, it’s rather rare.)   after two hours of going from office to office and building to building, i was informed that the administration had not decided on a policy “this year,” and i would have to come back in a week.  on the bright side, though, next week we get to watch the kenneth branagh version of “much ado about nothing.”  (this revelation prompted a suppressed squeal from my side of the room.)

i had two more classes the next day — the first, drawing, was led by a suspiciously bohemian art teacher who made us draw peapods for two hours.  then she read us a column about how peas are not the least bit alike (her personal vendetta against the “two peas in a pod” expression) and, as a homework assignment, gave us another drawing.  (i’m trying very hard to be open-minded in this area, because i know i need the instruction.  i’ve never taken freehand drawing before, and it will prove invaluable to me as an architecture student, i know.  so, for now anyway, i’m swallowing it.)  she also gave us a list of art supplies to buy — i dragged my artist roommate with me to untangle the mysteries of HB, B3 and B6 drawing pencils, kneaded erasers and vine-versus-compressed charcoal.  another wonderful thing about this city — student discounts abound.  i got 10% off of everything at the art store, which is only a 10- or 15-minute walk from here. 

the second class was shop tech.  the shop at cooper union in one reason my dad was delighted with the school, and also, i think, why he’s considering enrolling there himself.  it’s a handyman’s paradise; a huge kiln, piles and piles of lumber, band saws and jigsaws and instruments that look too scary even to approach at this point.  we all filed in and stood, a crowd of about 50 of us.  it took me about 15 minutes to realize there was a teacher in the front, and 15 more to realize he was talking.  by then, he was done and we were filing out.  i was a little confused; i later learned he was just giving the “welcome to class — i’ll see you next week” talk.  actually, all of our classes so far have let out early — often by an hour or more.  no complaining here. 

that night, we engaged in a very heated (unplanned)”discussion” of “The Simpsons vs. South Park.”  i escaped to 14A after two hours of argument. (they’re a bunch of really fun guys that remind me of my buddies back home — we hang out so much that they’ve taken to calling me their “fifth roommate.”)  when i arrived back, my roommate raquel had suddenly contracted a pretty serious UTI, and we had to rush her to the pharmacy for emergency medication.  it was scary, but she recovered partially right away, and went home the next night to see her doctor.  the plus side of this was that we learned where the 24-hour pharmacy is, just in case.

on thursday, we had our first encounter with the “real” architecture classes.  architectonics (the study of space, structure and visual composition) is the tough one.  actually, i was encouraged even before i went in: my friend eliot told me that the person who made the final decision on our home tests was professor peter eisenman, no less.  (all of you non-architects — well, that would be all of you. :) eisenman is one of the “new york 5,” a group of elite architects from the city.  though never licensed himself, he is highly respected in the field. we haven’t met him yet.  he’s the one who has, according to rumor: drawn on projects; ripped projects up; burned projects; told first year students that there’s too many of them and he’ll have to fail at least 5 by the end of the semester; and been in a porn film.  students here swear by that last one, however ridiculous it sounds.)  

when we were all assembled, the four professors introduced themselves.  the main one, who called himself “the godfather of the architecture program,” was raimund abraham.  he’s the typical small-in-stature, big-in-personality guy, with a thick unidentifiable accent.  he told us that in his 35 years of teaching he had never taught a class before labor day, and he wasn’t going to start now.  (we all liked him immediately.)  we were told to come into the next room in groups of 3 to introduce ourselves: they asked us our names, where we were from and for a story about ourselves.  i told them about how i was in “the sound of music” last spring.  the punchline, for those of you who don’t know: my romantic lead was too shy to kiss me on the lips until closing night, and when he finally did it shocked me so much i started to fall over.  i had to draw on all my impromptu work to make the fall look intentional.  they were all laughing except abraham, who got the joke about two minutes later and cracked up, interrupting one of the other teachers.  “ha, ha,” he guffawed, “there will be no sound of music for you this year!” 

apparently, the fact that i would have no free time at all from now on was pretty funny.

after that kind of pressure, we again needed to dip into the selection at Kim’s Videos for some relief.  we got “the man who knew too little,” a lot like the Pink Panther movies but not quite as funny.  then, at exactly the right time (1 AM) we popped in Mystery Science Theater 3000 and laughed ourselves silly.  friday was a holiday, so we could sleep in; we went uptown to the Met (i was with a bunch of guys and two other girls, so we spent much of the time in Arms & Armor.  inevitable, i suppose), explored a little, and ended up at a quaint Vietnamese restaurant on 5th Avenue.  that night a bunch of us went out and played pool — one thing you don’t have to be good at to enjoy.  i’m living proof.  :)  then somebody had the bright idea of watching “shaft.”  it was possibly the most pointless movie i’ve ever seen — well, check that.  i didn’t actually *see* it after the first five minutes.  i was fast asleep, along with most of the other crew.

yesterday i spent a leisurely afternoon on a picnic in central park with my new friends, rod and julie dreher (“rod the reporter,” for all of you Frederica fans).  we visited, ate, napped and read under the trees in strawberry fields.  among other things, we witnessed the swiftness of the NYPD in finding lost children; watched a man ride his bike around with a radio on full blast playing opera music, and discovered (by accident) a man enjoying the summer breeze, reclining and reading a book, naked as a jaybird.  every once in awhile, you are reminded of where you are.  :) 

ast night my friend dave took me on a tour of the village in our quest to find a starbucks that would honor our free-coffee coupons.  he told me the story of the nearby restaurant that was erected in a mostly-residential neighborhood by cooper alumni, whose profits benefit the institution: it’s become a hot spot for celebrities and is bringing unwanted commercialism to the area.  on the side of the building, one New Yorker has voiced his thoughts as many of them do, in big black letters: LOOK WHAT COOPER UNION HAS DONE TO OUR COMMUNITY!!

this morning, for the first time, my alarm clock failed me, but i was at church ten minutes after the service started.  more kisses, more handshakes.  one lady came up to me, very sweetly, took my arm and began speaking to me very earnestly in another language.  “i’m sorry?” i volunteered sheepishly.  “mmmm.”  she shook her head angrily, dropped my arm and stalked off.  i guess, with my dark hair and head scarf, i looked a little too ethnic for my own good.  i continue to be impressed and very thankful for this church that is so physically and spiritually close to home.