Back in the day—somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, but who can really say?—Columbia University still lived at Park Place, not terribly far from our modern City Hall. Morningside Heights has been Columbia’s home since the turn of the century, but what if we’d never made that initial move? What if…what if Columbia was still just a few blocks from Wall Street? Maybe most importantly, what would this mean for our financial engineering majors? …Would we all be financial engineering majors? Bwog’s hallowed historian Taylor Grasdalen has the answers.
“Who is the financial engineering major?”
The light was ebbing, and the Columbia student could not distinguish the bum’s face. The bum had said it simply, without expression. But from the sunset far at the end of the street, yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at the Columbia student, mocking and still—as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
“Why did you say that?” asked the Columbia student, his voice tense.
The bum leaned against the side of the doorway; a wedge of broken glass behind him reflected the metal yellow of the sky.
“Why does it bother you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t,” snapped the Columbia student.
He reached hastily into his pocket. The bum had stopped him and asked for a dime, then had gone on talking, as if to kill that moment and postpone the problem of the next. Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum’s particular despair.
“Go get your cup of coffee,” he said, handing the dime to the shadow that had no face.
“Thank you, sir,” said the voice, without interest, and the face leaned forward for a moment. The face was wind-browned, cut by lines of weariness and cynical resignation; the eyes were intelligent. The Columbia student walked on, wondering why he always felt it at this time of day, this sense of dread without reason. No, he thought, not dread, there’s nothing to fear: just an immense, diffused apprehension, with no source or object. He had become accustomed to the feeling, but he could find no explanation for it; yet the bum had spoken as if he knew that the Columbia student felt it, as if he thought that one should feel it, and more: as if he knew the reason.
The Columbia student pulled his shoulders straight, in conscientious self discipline. He had to stop this, he thought; he was beginning to imagine things. Had he always felt it? He was twenty-two years old. He tried to think back. No, he hadn’t; but he could not remember when it had started. The feeling came to him suddenly, at random intervals, and now it was coming more often than ever. It’s the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.
The clouds and the shafts of skyscrapers against them were turning brown, like an old painting in oil, the color of a fading masterpiece. Long streaks of grime ran from under the pinnacles down the slender, soot-eaten walls. High on the side of a tower there was a crack in the shape of a motionless lightning, the length of ten stories. A jagged object cut the sky above the roofs; it was half a spire, still holding the glow of the sunset; the gold leaf had long since peeled off the other half. The glow was red and still, like the reflection of a fire: not an active fire, but a dying one which it is too late to stop.
No, thought the Columbia student, there was nothing disturbing in the sight of the city. It looked as it had always looked.
He walked on, reminding himself that he was late in returning to the office. He did not like the task which he had to perform on his return, but it had to be done. So he did not attempt to delay it, but made himself walk faster.
Streets of yore via Shutterstock