Love in Lerner
Can two people meet on the ramps of Lerner Hall and fall in love?
Consider the tale of Sarah Hsiao ’02, who works as a legal
advocate at the Sanctuary for Families’ Center for Battered
Women’s Legal Services, and James HuYoung ’01, who will
be attending the Law School in the fall.
By Sarah Hsiao ’02 with James HuYoung ’01
When we think back upon the ways in which Lerner Hall enhanced
our Columbia experience, a variety of things come to mind. Yes,
in true Columbia fashion, we joined with our classmates in protesting
the impracticality of the ramps and the overly industrial feel of
the steel and glass atrium. The initial setbacks of leaky roofs
and what seemed liked a permanently shattered glass panel only strengthened
our convictions that Lerner was doomed to remain a misfit on the
Morningside campus. Try as we might to resist its ostentatious flare,
however, Lerner began to reveal its softer side, slowly but surely
inching its way into our daily lives.
We soon learned that this ultramodern ant farm of a building, a
rather sharp pitch amidst the more balanced harmony of Columbia’s
neoclassical architecture, was not meant to serve a merely aesthetic
purpose; rather, it was to become a stage upon which were played
some of the poignant events that marked our few years as undergraduates,
a canvas of experiences to which glass and steel would become inextricably
linked. From power naps in chi chi leather chairs and midnight runs
between Butler and Café 212 during midterms, to the marathon
of culture shows in Lerner’s auditorium and senior class mixers
in the party space, our oft-criticized student center succeeded
in leaving us with a breadth of fond memories. But for us, there
are two particular Lerner moments that will remain an indelible
part of our future, no matter how far life may take us from the
familiarity of the Broadway gates.
The first was the moment that we ran into one another on the ramps
while going to get our mail early in the spring semester of my junior
year and James’ senior year. We had been introduced by a mutual
friend at the Bacchanal Busta Rhymes concert three years prior —
James was a first-year at the time, and I was a high school senior
visiting Columbia for Days on Campus. However, we ended up in different
social circles at Columbia and had since that time shared but a
handful of clichéd conversations. This chance meeting on
the ramps could have turned out like all those previous —
a quick “Hey, how’s it going?” followed by a “Gotta
run! See ya later!” — but something caused us to slow
down long enough to share our first meaningful exchange.
After nearly an hour of conversation, we discovered that we shared
a desire to visit Spain, so on a whim, two newfound friends planned
a spring break voyage to Barcelona. A group of our respective friends
was to accompany us, but one by one, they withdrew, whittling our
crew down to two. With our nonrefundable tickets in hand, we decided
to go it alone. In Spain, we shared many an adventure that quickly
bonded our friendship and appreciation for one another — everything
from thwarting potential pick-pocketing gypsies to James’
trial-by-fire operation of a stick-shift as I attempted to navigate
us down the Mediterranean coast reading road signs en español.
To be fair, we got on one another’s nerves quite a bit during
the trip, mostly because each of us was trying to send overt signals
to the other that we were interested in nothing more than friendship.
After all, things have the potential of becoming somewhat complicated
when a boy and a girl spend a week together in Catalan country.
We made it clear from the get-go that we were not each other’s
“type,” but time would tell a different story. A month
after our return from Spain, we began dating, all thanks to that
first conversation we shared on the Lerner ramps.
A year-and-a-half after our first Lerner encounter came our second.
On the afternoon of my Senior Ball, on May 19, 2002, James arranged
for a friend to take me out to get ready for the evening. Meanwhile,
James snuck into my Hogan room and placed a bouquet of flowers,
a graduation balloon, and a stuffed toy bear on my bed to greet
me upon my return. James had attached a note on the bear, wishing
me a happy graduation and instructing me to “take a trip down
memory lane” and meet him at John Jay Hall, my first-year
abode. The note also instructed me to “bring your new friend
(the bear) along for the ride.” Anxious to start getting ready
for the senior dance, I threw the bear into my Labyrinth bag and
Upon arriving at John Jay, however, James was nowhere to be found.
Instead, Maxwell, the security guard, handed me another note from
him telling me to hike over to McBain, my sophomore dorm. Again,
no James, but another note. Next stop, Hartley, my junior year home.
At this point, I was breaking a sweat, not exactly the look I was
going for less than an hour before the ball. Surprise, surprise
— James was not at Hartley. Thankfully, he did not ask me
to trek back to Hogan. The new note read, simply, “CU on the
Ramps,” the now-tired slogan that had been slapped on free
T-shirts to encourage disinterested students to schedule impromptu
get-togethers in the new student center. Somewhat annoyed that James
had chosen this of all moments for his little game of hide and seek,
I was not entirely looking forward to “C”ing him on
the ramps. At long last, I reached my final destination, Lerner
Hall, and there was James, waiting on the very ramp where we had
bumped into each other a year-and-a-half before.
While I wanted to know why he had sent me all over campus when
I was supposed to be getting ready, all James could ask me was what
I had done with the stuffed bear. I pulled out the bear, and he
told me I had to kiss it on the forehead as penance for suffocating
it during the long journey. I gave the bear a quick peck on its
head and once again asked James to provide me with an explanation
for his shenanigans. Oblivious to my pleadings, James instead told
me that my previous kiss had been insincere and that I needed to
kiss the bear harder, like I meant it. Feeling rather uncooperative,
I just kissed the bear louder — not what James was after.
Flustered, James finally gave the defenseless toy a right hook
to the forehead. Lo and behold, a recording of James’ voice
began to play, culminating in a proposal of marriage. At that point,
James got down on one knee, pulled the ring out of his pocket and
asked me again himself. I believe the words, “What?! Are you
serious?! Oh, my gosh!” came out of my mouth first, but a
“Yes!” quickly followed.
After I had a chance to collect myself, I found out that James
had followed me all over campus with a camera, hiding behind parked
cars, walls and bushes, to document the event from beginning to
end (all the while getting rather nervous by the not-so-amused expression
on my face). By now, my annoyance had been transformed to astonishment,
and James and I rode to the ball on cloud nine — fashionably
late, of course.
So despite all the mixed press, those ramps did bring two people
together — in a way that even the least cynical of us might
not have imagined.
Sarah Hsiao ’02 and James HuYoung ’01 will be married
on June 14 in Hsiao’s hometown of Baltimore. “As important
a role as Lerner played in our relationship, we are not planning
to spend our honeymoon on those frosty glass slopes,” says
Hsaio. “Instead, we will be heading back to Spain, this time
as much more than just friends.”