Saturday, April 22, 2006

Columbia's History Remains Untold

Nearly a month after I ordered The Untold History of Columbia University from Herman’s Rare Books, it arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Unfortunately, the package included a note from Mr. Herman himself. He recently purchased the item from a very reputable collector, he wrote. But before shipping it to me, he took the time to examine the book closely and discovered that a number of pages had been removed from the text. He claims he tried to email me, but never received a response. (A flimsy excuse, I thought, until I checked my order slip and discovered I had mistyped my own email address.) He eventually shipped the book anyway, but should I decide to return it, he will gladly supply a full refund.

Sure enough, as I thumbed through the book, I noticed that several pages had been carefully cut out. Judging from the table of contents, the book was missing a map of the Columbia tunnels and 10 pages of text from a short chapter entitled “Bloomingdale Experiments in Mind Control.” The only new information I could find was a brief mention of a tunnel that linked the asylum’s main building to the home of Dr. Phineas Dunne, one of the institution’s leading physicians. The tunnel, (which I can only imagine is the same one that now ends under an apartment building on the outskirts of the Columbia campus), was used to ferry certain patients back and forth for special “treatments” without arousing the suspicions of their fellow inmates.

A thorough Internet search has revealed nothing about the mysterious Dr. Dunne. He, along with every other lead I’ve tried to follow in this case, has brought me to a dead end. I’m sorry to say that since my last post, the Irregulars have made no progress in our investigations. Luz’s cameras have revealed no visitors to the hidden tunnel. DeeDee has seen no trace of the man we believe is living in the Butler Library stacks. Even Oona and Betty’s visit to the chemical plant in New Jersey was nothing more than a wild goose chase. While Manhattan reeked of Mrs. Butterworth, the scientists across the river were busy perfecting the chemical concoction that makes fast food hamburgers smell like real meat. (Since their visit, Betty has become a vegetarian.)

The only incident I have to report may have nothing to do with the Irregular’s investigations. Since Columbia was overwhelmed by the maple syrup smell more than a week ago, it seems the Anorexic Chef across the street has been unable to stop eating. I personally witnessed her consume two pans of brownies and a stick of butter while she watched an episode of Lost. Yesterday, I came home from class and saw my neighbor passed out on her kitchen floor, covered in cocoa powder. I called an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrived, I was glad to see that one of them shook out her wig and placed it on the gurney beside her. I’ve tried to check up on her, but the hospital refuses to tell me anything other than she’s doing “fine.”

Monday, April 17, 2006

I'll Never Eat Pancakes Again

While I was wasting time watching my neighbors indulge their eating disorders, the maple syrup smell has returned with a vengeance. Two days ago, it rolled in during the middle of the night and engulfed the Upper West Side in a cloud of sickening sweetness. The entire Columbia campus smells like an IHOP, and the students are starting to panic. I’ve seen some wearing World War II-era gas masks, and a number of girls on my hall refuse to leave their rooms until the smell dissipates. (Though to be honest, I’m not sure if the girls in question bothered to attend classes when New York merely reeked of its usual spring bouquet—a blend of urine and exhaust fumes.) So far, however, the odor appears to be relatively harmless. The only effect I’ve noticed is a ravenous hunger and the tendency to eat entire boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts. The Anorexic Chef even scarfed down some of her brownies last night.

The Irregulars can’t afford to entirely drop our investigation of the man in the stacks, but Kiki and I have taken Betty and Oona off the case. They’re now devoting their time to looking into the maple syrup phenomenon. This morning, one of the clients at Oona’s manicure shop was heard speculating that the smell was wafting across the river from a chemical plant in New Jersey. Betty and Oona are going undercover to the plant to see if there’s any truth to the rumor. But I’m beginning to suspect that the source of the smell might be a little more sinister.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Keeping an Eye on the Neighbors

The building across the street from my dorm houses Columbia faculty. I’ve been watching professors totter in and out for two weeks now. Once it’s dark outside, I turn off the lights in my room and enjoy the half-dozen dumb shows that take place every evening behind the building’s windows. I swear it’s better than cable.

When I moved uptown to attend Columbia, my mother purchased a truck load of towels, blankets, and pillow cases—along with enough canned soup to feed the Donner Party. My father, whose sense of humor can border on the bizarre, supplied me with only two things—a chamber pot and a pair of opera glasses. The chamber pot was new, and its intended purpose was self-explanatory. (I’m pleased to say that I haven’t been forced to use it yet, though at times the dorm’s communal bathroom seems like it’s in New Jersey.) But the opera glasses were one of my father’s most prized possessions, and for years, they had been a mystery to me. During the day they sat on a shelf, looking prim and proper in their mother of pearl case. At night, however, whenever my father was suffering from a bout of insomnia, they came out of the china cabinet.

On many occasions when I was a child, I would stumble toward the kitchen for a late-night glass of water and find my father sitting in the dark, his favorite chair turned toward the living room windows and the opera glasses resting in his lap. In the building across the street from ours, I would see an elderly couple arguing in their living room or a teenage girl sneaking out of her apartment while her parents watched police dramas on TV. It took me years to realize that my dad was spying on the neighbors. (It’s not as strange as you think. New York is filled with peeping toms.) He could have used binoculars, he explained to me not long ago, but opera glasses made it seem so much more civilized.

Dad refuses to tell me what more than a decade of surveillance taught him about our downtown neighbors. He claims to think of them as friends, and he says their secrets will always remain safe with him.

Thanks to my father’s opera glasses, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to know the people who live across the street from my dorm. At first I hoped I would see something that might help explain what the man in the stacks was doing in the tunnel underneath their building. Instead, I’ve discovered that El Gordo (as I’ve started to call the rotund man on the fourth floor) likes to order in tacos and watch Mexican professional wrestling in his underwear, while the Anorexic Chef (I think she teaches creative writing) takes off her wig and prances around her kitchen while baking brownies that she never eats. There’s also an old man in a bow tie who spends a great deal of time pacing and talking on the telephone, as well as a handsome Italian professor who chooses to live like a fourteenth century monk.

DeeDee is convinced my surveillance is pointless. She spends every night at Butler Library, waiting for the man in the stacks to return. Kiki is also getting impatient. I can’t possibly keep track of all the apartments in the building, she’s pointed out, and even I am starting to believe that my time would be better spent elsewhere. Luz is installing surveillance equipment in the tunnel beneath the building. Once the cameras are ready, I’ll turn my attention to the videotape. But I’m not looking forward to leaving my new friends behind. Who else is going to call 911 if El Gordo ends up choking on a quesadilla?