Freshman Orientation

by Paul Hond
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Illustration by John Roman

The moment that Edwin Justiniano heard the sounds in the flower bed alongside Butler Library, he flew into action: he set down the old computer he’d just unloaded from a cart on the brick walkway between Butler and Lerner Hall, hurried to the outdoor bulletin board a few feet away, and took out his phone.

Taped to the board was a flier with a phone number at the bottom. The flier told of a young family who, seeking safe passage, was threatened by drains and grates and cars. “The entire family will start making its way to water by foot,” it read. “Given our distance from a suitable body of water . . .” It was signed “Jennifer (wildlife rehabilitator).”

Justiniano knew the bulletin board well: as a Columbia groundskeeper, it was his job to prune it every day of its clutter. But there was one flier he’d made sure to leave up. He dialed the number.

It was seven thirty on a muggy July morning, and Justiniano, fifty-two, was working on Clean + Go Green, Columbia’s biannual recycling program (the other event is in December). The program, run by Facilities and the offices of Environmental Stewardship and Environmental Health and Safety, invites the community to drop off unwanted computers, furniture, electronics, and books at collection stations around campus.

The green shrubs rustled. A fuzzy little black-and-yellow bird waddled out onto the low stone ledge. Another followed. And another.

“Hello?” came a woman’s voice.

And another. And another.

“Jennifer?” Justiniano said, as Columbia’s duck population increased by a significant factor. “They’re leaving the nest!” Jennifer Chong ’98CC, a Butler Library help-desk consultant, was at home in Queens, eating breakfast. She knew from experience that the situation called for a trained hand. She rushed to the subway.

The ducklings, meanwhile, had toddled from the undergrowth onto the bordering stone ledge. Ana Goncalves, a Facilities cleaner, arrived with a flat piece of cardboard to keep the chicks — there were eight of them now, small and bumblebee-colored, moving around on the ledge like wind-up toys — from hopping off. One particularly bold duckling, rebuffed again and again by the cardboard, kept heading resolutely for the precipice. “She was the bad apple,” Justiniano said later. “She wanted to jump down and split.” Goncalves had a similar impression. “He was crazy — anything to get out of that place!”

Susan Hamson, University archivist and housemate to three cats, had been following the duck saga for days — she’d checked on the mother the night before — and had brought her freshly bleached pet carrier that morning. Hamson observed the antics of the renegade chick and saw a need for discipline. She picked the duckling up — so soft, so light! — and deposited it into the carrier. But the mother, whom Justiniano had seen for weeks hanging around campus fountains, stuck to her nest: one egg had failed to hatch, and she wasn’t ready to leave it.

To complicate matters, a crowd had formed. People on their way to recycling stations or taking campus tours stopped to have a look. While Goncalves tried to corral the ducklings into two boxes, Justiniano attempted to lure the mother duck from her nest by placing a chick close by. The mother peeped out, withdrew, peeped out some more, withdrew. Finally, she emerged, fretted her wings, lifted up in a ponderous arc, and landed on South Lawn. The chicks scattered again and, perhaps intending to follow Goncalves, leapt off the low wall and onto a brick surface less soft and wet than instinct might have led them to expect.

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