As the subway train to my apartment peeks above the asphalt for one stop before retreating underground, the imposing frame of Columbia University’s newest construction project mocks me. Yes, it’s a building with no ability to conceptualize its own existence, never mind mine. But its very presence on this Earth spites me.
When I moved to my neighborhood almost two years ago, there was no structure there. It was a hole in the ground, foundationless. To have such a swath of uninterrupted visual access to the sky anywhere in Manhattan filled me with hope. Maybe in this vast and dense city, there is small pocket of space (physical or metaphorical) yet unclaimed, I thought. I had essentially come to New York from my hometown, where I’d attended a small, liberal arts college and a small, high school-like high school. It had been a while since I had to chisel out a niche for myself in a new place at all, and it had never been a location of this magnitude.
Now, two years later, the building nears completion, and I’m furious at it. I’ve watched it transform from a crater, to a foundation, to a web of beams and girders (which may be the same thing) to a functional shell of a structure. Soon it will contain offices or dorms or classrooms. It will serve the community. This building is making me look bad.
Again, I realize that a developing property on owned by Columbia University has no animosity towards me. No one associated with it possesses even the vaguest awareness that I am a living breathing human person. Still, its continued success as an edifice is showing me up. In two short years, a dirty hole in the ground has realized its full potential. It has transformed from nothing into everything it could be. Meanwhile, I’m the same schlub I’ve always been. Every train ride past this emerging behemoth reminds me that I haven’t yet achieved my maximal personal and professional levels of growth. I mean, this building just came into existence and it already got into Columbia.
And what have I accomplished in the last two years? I’m the same size I was in 2011 and contain no new office space or state of the art computing equipment. I haven’t written a novel, or a book of short stories, or a single short story. Probably this building hasn’t done those things either, but who knows? It goes to Columbia, meaning it is more credentialed and connected than I am. I bet it’s a legacy. It only got built because the architect who designed it had designed other Ivy League campus centers and libraries. It bet it’s named Hunter and asks where you’re planning to “summer.” This building is a real dick, I bet.
The building’s upper stories obscure the formerly unsullied patch of sky enabled by the vacant lot. It’s a metaphor for my life. You’re not getting any younger, says the top floor of that building. Its presence validates my worst fears. When I look at the brick exterior, I become convinced I’m being passed over for work and friendship in favor of more youthful, attractive people with better educations. My family, I’m sure, compares me unfavorably to the building, noting how healthy and firm its masonry looks. My girlfriend is (without a doubt) on the precipice of leaving me for this building and the untold wonders it may someday contain.
Pretty soon Hunter (the building) will draw a more upscale set of residents to my neighborhood and drive up my rent. I’ll have to move out because this horrible, overachiever is literally ruining my life by effortlessly carrying out its fullest purpose on earth. It’s the student asking the teacher for more homework. It’s the older sibling who set an impossibly high social/familial/academic standard. How can I compete with a building? It’s taller than I am and stronger and has more money. I would make a terrible house and an even worse office park.
I understand on an intellectual level that I am not in competition with Columbia University’s physical property, but I still hate the building. And I can’t do what I normally do when I hate something, which is ignore it until it becomes inescapable and then befriend it out of spite. This building is unbefriendable. It’s indifferent towards me by its very nature. The only way to cope with its maddening success is to internalize one of the most important life and career lessons I’ve ever learned:
Some things (like buildings) aren’t about me at all.