Nina graduated from Columbia this week! She's got one more class to finish up over the summer (Microeconomics), but she got to walk with the rest of her class in the two-day graduation ceremony.
Sunday was Class Day for the School of General Studies -- each school in Columbia's pantheon's got their own day, plus a big joint ceremony at the end. We got up real early, got ourselves into our formal-wear, and summoned an Elegante cab -- the driver of which turned out to be the only cabbie in the city who respects the speed limit on the BQE. We had to make an emergency explanation, in our pidgin Spanish, that we wanted to go to 115th and Broadway in Manhattan, not 115 Broadway (which, as we overheard his dispatcher informing him, is between Cedar St. and Liberty St.). Nonetheless, we got up there more or less on time, and Nina joined the mass of blue-robed General Studies degree candidates and I sat down with Nina's mom and brother and uncle and grandma. There were three tents set up in the southern half of the big campus plaza -- one each on either side of a central tent for the candidates and some VIPs. At the front of the two satellite tents there were these enormous bright LCD screens that played a slide show of photos of and quotes from the candidates.
Nina's mom wondered out loud whether we should have procured flowers. I assured her, without knowing myself that there was a florist within walking distance; and, armed with a twenty, I dashed out the eastern gates to look. Of course, there wasn't anything obvious nearby, and so I started jogging uptown, coffee-filled stomach roiling as I held my tie in place with one hand. Eventually, I found a deli with a built-in flower stall. The place was called The Apple Tree, which is the same name as the fancy deli we used to go to in high school. I had to beg them to unlock the flowers (the guy who trimmed the stems was running late) and got preempted by a middle-aged Asian guy who seemed to be there for the same reason as me, someone's dad, maybe, and who wanted to know the price of every bouquet. But I was ultimately able to buy way too many flowers and trotted back to the ceremony, where I took some antacids and focused on not farting or burping. Or tearing up, because I knew how hard Nina'd worked for this day and how much it meant to her. College is difficult, babies -- no less so when you've gotta pay rent and commute to your classes from way far away. She's hit more than her fair share of obstacles, but she's always gotten back on track. I was -- and am -- deeply proud of her and impressed by what she's done.
Jacques Pépin gave a thoughtful speech in which he talked about the way his degree helped him feel like he was on equal footing with his peers and colleagues. After that, Brian Corman gave the valedictory address. Nina remarked, via text, that one of the anecdotes he told sounded familiar. She wasn't the only person to notice. Yikes. (Although it's still not as lame, I'd argue, as Thomas Friedman telling my graduating class to "dance like there's nobody watching.") But then there was the candidate procession up to the podium to receive their degrees, led by a four-person New Orleans marching jazz band. That was kind of my favorite part -- everyone looked so happy! Dean Awn hugged and posed each candidate for a photo, even the ones that clearly didn't want to be hugged or posed with. I could've watched it forever. But the line of blue robes finished making its way across the stage and was led, again, by the band. Another tent was opened off to one side serving mimosas and cookies and mini-quiches.
After we'd gotten suitably tipsy on the champagne, we hopped into cabs and headed down to 91st St. to meet up with Nina's family and have lunch at Carmine's, a big, fancy, old-fashioned Italian restaurant, where all the food comes family-style -- meaning that there's an absolute shit-ton of each order on every enormous plate. Nina and I were wired and exhausted and sore and not really in any condition to eat, but we managed to put away a reasonable amount of it and bagged up the rest to take home. ...Where we spent the rest of the day dozing and eating leftovers.
Tuesday was Commencement. It was a gray day, rainy and cold. On the way up to Columbia on the subway we stood next to a shabby, unshaven guy in sweatpants and a sweatshirt playing with an Amazon Kindle. He was wearing a baseball cap that said "Swallow, or it's going in your eye." But then he got off the train and Columbians started to board: At Columbus Circle, two girls in light blue robes got on and started talking to a couple of French tourists. "Aren't you late for the ceremony?" the man asked. "They can't start it until we get there!" said one of the girls. That's right, I thought, nudging Nina, who was worried about the timing of our arrival.
Columbia security had the streets barricaded and were doing a remarkable job of sorting graduates and family members. At the side of the barricades there were a bunch of activists handing out fliers protesting Columbia's expansion into Morningside Heights. A woman handed me one as soon as I got out of the subway, and, after figuring out what it was, I crumpled it up and threw it away. "To hell with these guys," I thought. "I'm pro-Columbia today." A few dozen feet down the block, though, I ran into another protester, who just happened to be the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, proprietor of St. Mary's, which houses the attic in which the mellifluous Hotel For Dogs holds its rehearsals. "Hi, Earl" I said, taking a flier. "Oh, uh, hi!" he said, surprised. "Peace be with you!" I kept that one folded neatly in my pocket.
There weren't tents set up this time, although the screens were still set up. Nina's mom and brother and I sat together on wet plastic folding chairs with our umbrellas up, angling them so as to drip the run-off onto the people in front of us. After what seemed like a hundred repetitions of a Pomp-and-Circumstance medley, the commencement ceremony began. It started with an elaborate processional: The deans came out, followed by the trustees, distinguished guests, and some selected faculty members. Finally, the "mace-bearer" appeared (bearing Columbia's silver mace), followed by President Bollinger.
He stepped up to the podium and made some abridged remarks. In reference to the weather, he said, "It's a well-known piece of academic folk wisdom: if it rains on your commencement, you are guaranteed to have a fabulous life." (Ah, that explains my fabulous life!) One by one, the Deans of the individual schools came up to the podium and petitioned the President to bestow upon their students the rights, privileges and responsibilities of Columbia graduates. The petitions were often punny or entendre-laden: E.g., "These students have proven themselves to be exceptional lovers... of the study of human anatomy," pleaded the dean of the medical school. Each school also had their own "props," replicas (often inflatable) of which were distributed throughout the stands: The college of arts and sciences had broadswords; the engineers had big red mallets; the teachers' college apples; the dental school some surprisingly well-articulated giant toothbrushes. Graduates in Nina's school were waving black and white-checked racing flags: The finish line, I think.
After the petitioning was finished, President Bollinger said a few more things, and Jewelnel Davis said a few more things, Nina's mom and Michael and I hustled, accompanied by "New York, New York" and "Empire State of Mind," over to Lewisohn Hall where there were cupcakes and champagne for GS students and their hangers-on. We lingered while Nina gossiped with some fellow graduates and then cabbed it back downtown, where Nina & Co. went out for a celebratory lunch and I went into the office, tipsier than I should've been at that early hour of the wide-open afternoon.