// literary & arts //
An Inquiry into Intimacy:
Columbia's Postcrypt and its Quarrel with the Conventional
In the age of social media, I wonder: do we share information with others out of generosity or out of selfishness? I ponder this as my finger hovers over the “send” button on my iPhone. I look at the message I’ve just written to my group chat: “Come to Postcrypt, this place is amazing!” But then I delete the message, voiding the invitation, and return my eyes to the stage.
A red light flickers across the singer’s face as her voice fills the small but packed chamber. The space feels just right. It is packed to the brim, but it doesn’t feel crowded, rather, cozy and intimate. It’s safe yet clandestine—perhaps even a touch spooky.
The singer’s belted cadences remind me of Amy Winehouse, but she also has a sound all her own. She is just one of the many artists who perform at Columbia’s Postcrypt Coffeehouse every Friday and Saturday night. Postcrypt is a subterranean room in the basement of St. Paul’s Chapel which lies at the heart of Columbia’s campus.
Postcrypt was established in 1964 by Reverend John Cannon, a campus chaplain at the time. Beyond simply imagining the concept, he helped clean out and redecorate the dusty storage room in the basement of the chapel. The venue’s name alludes to a favorite work of his, Soren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Postscript, with the spelling changed to “crypt” to reflect the location of the coffeehouse. This dark and otherwise infrequently visited space adds a surreptitious quality to the concert-going experience, offering a feeling of being involved in something illicit, like a fin-de-siècle speakeasy.
Columbia’s coffeehouse boasts live acoustic music from professional, amateur, and student artists, which range from instrumental medleys, indie covers, and original songs to folk, blues, and acapella. Aside from music, performers recite poetry, stage comedy skits, and tell stories. The only rule is that all performances must be strictly acoustic, eliminating the distraction of microphones and other amplification. This enables concertgoers to feel as if they are in direct communication with the artists, establishing a personal and intimate connection with them. The singers often stray from their music, sharing their own stories and personalities. These breaks from the set enable the artists to flaunt their idiosyncrasies, making the artists relatable and approachable. Often, after performing, the concertgoers are able to converse with the artists.
Lina, a Senior in Barnard College and the Bookings Manager of Postcrypt, told me that the staff must limit the venue to its 30-person capacity, and when the space gets too cramped, latecomers are gently but firmly escorted out. The capacity limit enhances the ambiance, making the performance unusually personal. Whispers and breathing patterns of the audience echo throughout the space, and jerky chair movements are pronounced. Lina describes how artists frequently tell her that they don’t expect to feel as vulnerable as they do on stage, and describe their performances as “uncomfortable, yet cathartic.” Given the small, narrow space, and no amplification, the artists are reliant upon their voices and the audience can make direct eye contact with them as they perform. During a set, the intimacy is palpable, and, as Lina so precisely puts it, the room is “pitch silent.”
I hesitate even to share this experience. Maybe I should keep this campus gem private and unknown, so as not to spoil its seductive anonymity. And yet, I want to share it with my friends so they too can share in the delight I feel when I am there. Hence, my conundrum: through social media, we live in an age where nothing is private anymore. A novice social media user might only have the compulsory package: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. But there are numerous other platforms at the disposal of more seasoned users. Endless streams of information get sent out into the cybersphere about the most mundane aspects of our lives, as if people actually care about the cilantro on our avocado toasts or non-filtered sunsets. And yet, there are people with Twitter followings in the millions, each follower hanging on to every little tweet. It’s no wonder I despair nothing is private, nothing is saved. Won’t Postcrypt lose its precious mystique if it starts trending online, or worse, becomes trendy?
Lina explains that although Postcrypt is certainly not a secret, it is not all that popular. She posits that this is no doubt part of its appeal to those who visit. She herself only discovered it by stumbling upon its booth at the Club Fair. Most people learn about Postcrypt by word of mouth, she says, even though its events do get shared it via social media. And though Postcrypt has a Facebook page, Lina admits that it is “rather hard to find on Facebook.” When one searches for Postcrypt, a public page pops up before the real personal page. It is fitting that this underground acoustic collaborative, which is hard to find on campus, is also hard to find online.
I never sent that text message to my friends. It didn’t feel right to expose Postcrypt so crudely. Of course, I plan to take my friends there to experience it, but I want them to discover it in person, with no prior expectations. A text message or snapchat cannot do Postcrypt justice. Too often our generation relies on screen images, rather than sensory experiences. Postcrypt deserves more. I am wary about some of the technological changes taking place today, and a part of me is nostalgic for the days when information wasn’t so easily accessible and instantaneous. With the advent of sites like Yelp, where nearly every place is reviewed and rated, it is virtually impossible to stumble upon private, anonymous spaces anymore. Perhaps this expresses an innate romantic or Thoreauvian sensibility, but I think that once Postcrypt—or anything— becomes too public, it necessarily changes its vibe. I want my friends to enjoy Postcrypt as I do. But alas, I know that when I bring them with me, they won’t be able to encounter it in the same way as I first did, in blissful anonymity.
//DANI LEFKOWITZ is a Freshman in Barnard College. She can be reached at email@example.com. Photo courtesy of flickr user Sergio Alvarez. More info at www.blogs.cuit.columbia.edu/postcrypt.