Blue Notes, December 2014

Columbia’s mascot was almost a goat called Matilda. Around the turn of the twentieth century, she lived in Morningside Heights and students used her for pranks. Upon her demise, Matilda was stuffed and displayed in a pharmacy on 118th street. What happened to her after the store closed has been lost to history, but one relic of the animal survives.

The children’s book Matilda, published in 1956, by Le Grand (the nom de plume of Le Grand Henderson) hasn’t been checked out from Teacher’s College Library since the 1960s. It tells a story that Le Grand says is passed down by the descendants of Matilda’s original owner.

Le Grand’s Matilda is a cute little goat owned by the heavily mustachioed Patrick Riley, a man of modest means who lives around 120th street. One day after fishing, Riley and Matilda bump into the Columbia University football team, which is losing because of its sleepy fullback.

As the football team is scrunched over, Matilda gets a “pinkish greenish feeling,” runs up to the fullback, and butts him in the behind with her horns, causing the fullback to dart away and score a touchdown. If only we could be so lucky.

While Patrick Riley is apologetic, the coach realizes he can use the fear of Matilda to motivate the fullback. This strategy works, but Matilda is sometimes naughty. She eats many things, from a football to some English examinations, and gets lost right before the big game. At the last minute, Riley finds Matilda, and she comes back in time to give the fullback the incentive to score four touchdowns and clinch the victory.

After the win, Columbia’s president makes Matilda “an honorary student of Columbia University, with the right to eat all the old examination papers.”

That’s the story of how a goat became Columbia’s first animal student and first female student, although the book doesn’t make that explicit. Still, the message for our losing football team is clear: a goat horn in the ass will get you boys moving.

Joseph Milholland 

We all have a favorite dining hall, admit it. Since powdered eggs taste the same regardless of location, I prefer Ferris for the music.

Fellow lovers of disparate musical genres understand the pleasure that accompanies listening to Tears For Fears, Steel Pulse, and Little River Band, before getting to the end of the Ferris pasta line. Those who can stomach Fergie and Taylor Swift— well, John Jay’s doors are wide open. Except for Fridays and Saturdays.

After enough rides on Ferris’ wild music-rollercoaster, I resolved to find and praise the rogue DJ.

While swiping into Ferris, hearing “Safety Dance” play over the sound system, I asked the lady at the door if she had any idea who chooses the music, or at least what playlist they use.

She answered, “I don’t want to talk to you about this.”

My jaw dropped. Why so forceful? “I don’t want to talk to you” I’ve heard before. But “about this”?

My mind instantly jumped to conspiracy.

Do they use some kind of cultish selection process to determine the music for a given day? Does it involve monkish hoods? Do they use olive oil? Does it involve a giant onopoly board? Goat blood?

These were just theories. I needed facts.

So, I emailed Ferris’ dining manager about their music selection process and he immediately referred me to the director of Columbia Dining, who told me that the music is played off of a “shuffled playlist.”

Come on.

Don’t tell me that six consecutive mid-eighties reggae tunes followed by three glam rock hits constitutes one shuffled playlist.

So be advised, if you cannot appreciate Ferris’ seemingly disjointed music selection, their cryptic message, don’t worry: the Illuminati are not here to destroy us, but to teach us.

Joe Rabinovitsj 

On the last day of October, I walked into Camille’s to the tune of “Sexy Back” blaring through the sangria-drenched, candlelit, near-empty restaurant on Halloween night. I’d come for a weekly poetry reading, organized by Frances Pritchett, Professor Emerita of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies here at Columbia, and ghazal lover extraordinaire. At ten minutes late, I was the first to arrive, which, as Pritchett told me, was unsurprising. You know South Asians, she said. True to form, people trickled in by twos and threes until, an hour later, the table was full.

With her interwoven shawls and short white hair, Pritchett is almost precisely what you’d expect of a career academic. In the respite before everyone arrived, Pritchett tried to teach me to pronounce “ghazal” properly. The word, an ancient Arabic term dating back to the sixth century, refers to a form of poetry involving a repeated rhyme structure, typically devoted to expressions of love and pain. Discussing vocal nuances in different languages, she said, “On my first trip to Kolkata, everyone kept telling me to visit the Kolkata Jew. I couldn’t figure out what was so distinctive about this one Jew—surely they weren’t that rare. Eventually I realized they were saying ‘zoo.’ My first introduction to the sound system.”

Known as a mushaira, the gathering occurs every Friday at 6 in Camille’s, which Pritchett told me has effectively become her office. The mushaira is small and intimate, with around seven to eight attendees. Both students and non-students alike read aloud ghazals, usually written by the poet Ghalib, interpreting each line individually. It is a collaborative approach, with plenty of discussion. Pritchett’s every word is given pause, and her brief asides are practically worshipped.

She insists it’s not a cult of personality, but everyone around seemed infatuated with her presence. Though she’s recently retired, Pritchett has hardly been lazing about. She divides her time between campus politics – she’s a member of the Columbia USenate board – and updating her website, which hosts an astonishingly prolific collection of ghazal analysis. True to her professorial roots, she guided the discussion with a heavy hand, aided by her abundant knowledge. “The truth is,” she says, “you just know whatever you pay attention to.” With her considerable knowledge base and talent for pithy remarks, there isn’t much that escapes her notice.

Tatini Mal

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