A Pain au Chocolat Peregrination: The Beloved Croissants at Pitt

“Can I get a cold brew with a croissant?” “I’ll have a croissant and—” As I stand in line at the coffee stand in Towers, all I can think about at the moment was how if the two people in front of me each bought two croissants, I will have to choose between getting a cinnamon bun or a double chocolate chunk cookie. My phone suddenly buzzes, my roommate on the other line. “Where are you, I got us croissants.” A variation of a familiar line that started my obsession with the Pitt coffee stand croissants. 

“Here, I got you a pastry,” my roommate said back in the fall semester of this school year. She handed me a croissant in an unlabeled bag. Little did I know my life would change after that first bite. The crispy outer layer of the croissant instantly flaked open to an airy, chewy inside. I was immediately taken aback—this was the best croissant I’ve ever had. 

When my roommate mentioned she had gotten the croissant from the coffee stand in Towers, I was in denial. Polluted with the conventional idea of how mundane dining hall food was, I was not sure if this croissant was truly delicious or that my palette was just inexperienced. I quickly learned that the former was the correct answer. Anytime I stopped by the stand in Towers after my 2 p.m. class, the croissants were gone. So I went earlier, around 11 a.m.— there were two left. I realized that these croissants were in high demand.

These coffee stands can be spotted throughout campus behind different names. They are located in the lobby of Litchfield Towers (Campus Coffee & Tea); the first floor of Victoria Hall (Café Victoria), Chevron Science Center (Bunsen Brewer); and inside the Market to Go in Sutherland (Campus Coffee & Tea) to name the most popular. At first glance, the coffee stands look like the usual ones, serving varieties of coffees, teas, and pastries. Frequent customers know out of the pastry options, there is a hidden gem: the croissants. You can choose from the original croissant or the pain au chocolat, which is equally if not better. One bite, and you will become one of the cult followers. 

 “On Sundays, they sell first out of everything we usually sell, like within an hour and a half” says Kyrie Allshouse, a worker at Campus Coffee & Tea in Towers.

Allshouse is not a student at Pitt but works at the stand most days. She is part of a greater group of baristas who can whip up a coffee to your liking and become a familiar face on campus. Allshouse was working alongside Pitt student, Bri Kidd, when I spoke to them. Kidd is a junior majoring in political science. Both Allshouse and Kidd were delighted to talk about the stand’s croissants; however when asked if they had tried them, Allshouse replied that they were her favorite while Kidd admitted she actually disliked croissants. 

While I was interviewing Allshouse and Kidd, I met Grace Anagnost, a freshman nursing major who had just purchased a croissant. 

“I always get a croissant here, unless sometimes I get a bagel.” Anagnost raved, “But it’s either this [croissant] or the chocolate croissant, I have literally never tried anything else, it’s literally so good.”

Anagnost says that her schedule includes going to the stands at least three times a week for the croissants and if they are sold out in Towers, she makes sure to get one from Victoria Hall where her nursing classes are taken. 

Gail, who chose not to give her last name, a barista at the Victoria Hall stand had more insight about the croissants. I spoke to Gail during one of the slower periods of the stand where she was deep into a romance novel. For Gail, being a barista is busy but rewarding. 

“You get to help the students out. Get your americanos or lattes…they’re always dragging in so you need the cafe.” 

One of her most memorable barista experiences was a student ordering two chocolate croissants and two shots of espresso first thing in the morning during finals week. Gail’s favorite pastry at the stand are the chocolate croissants, she claims that they are addicting. 

Back in the patio of our dorm building, my roommate and I sit outside and bite into the croissants. The flaky outer layer of the croissant makes a mess on our laps but never fails to satisfy. The perfect addition to a regular school day. 

The campus coffee stands are needed. The baristas provide a sense of familiarity and routine when students and faculty are bogged down with deadlines. They become friends that you see on a weekly basis. The stands are part of the greater system that runs the university. Whether you are in upper campus heading to your chemistry lab or a freshman living in lower campus, you now know of this secret. Who knew that it is a crescent shaped pastry.

Symmetry and the Occult: Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” as Counterculture

Ari Aster’s Hereditary was the horror film fans needed after the great horror drought of the early 2000s. As explained in American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium, the horror genre went through its, somewhat insufferable, developmental stage throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. After decades of shameless slasher remakes, predictable jump scares, and Rob Zombie cameos, creatives within the genre decided to free themselves from canonical chains.

The 2018 film Hereditary received an 87/100 on MetaCritic as well as a 7.3/10 on IMDb. Hereditary, like its predecessors, is a movie that uses these new horror techniques that appeal to the subconscious fears of its audience. Similar to films like Rosemary’s Baby, Hereditary was released, and found success, in the midst of a highly contentious societal era in the United States. The techniques that create the film’s suspense are indicative of a society in a fight to regain control. The movie became an instant hit with its nuanced take on the mechanics of occult sacrifice, beheadings, and naked senior citizens, as well as the necessary neo-gore and eerie predicaments that ultimately placed the characters in suspenseful situations that left audience members struggling to decide whether to look away or keep watching.

Hereditary tells the story of the Graham family and a series of misfortunes thrust upon them in the aftermath of their matriarchal grandmother’s death. The Grahams’ daughter, Charlie, is shattered by the passing of her grandmother. Charlie was grandma’s favorite. In an effort to cure Charlie’s aloof state, her mother Annie urges her to attend a party with her older brother Peter. Charlie is reluctant but ultimately decides to go to appease her mother.

At the party, Charlie accidentally eats chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Charlie has a severe peanut allergy and falls into a fit of anaphylaxis. Peter hurries Charlie to the hospital. During their ride, Charlie shoves her head out of the speeding car in a desperate attempt to catch her breath. Simultaneously, Peter swerves to avoid a dead deer in the road, and in doing so sideswipes a telephone pole, decapitating Charlie.

In shock, Peter drives back to his home and forces himself to sleep. His parents find Charlie’s body in the backseat of the car the following morning. Annie is debilitated by her daughter’s death, and the family is ripped apart by the tragedy. The Grahams begin to fight with each other as they grapple with the loss of Charlie.

Annie decides to join a grief counseling program where she meets Joan, a friend of Charlie’s grandmother. Joan informs Annie that the only way she’s been able to cope with her own grief is through the use of a medium who communicates with the dead. Annie’s devolution into the realm of the occult begins here. She discovers her mother was heavily involved in occult proceedings and was beheaded in a sacrificial ritual. The events leading up to Annie’s discovery of this truth were all planned by the coven she had become involved with.

At this point, Annie is helpless to alter the course of events established by the coven. By the end of the movie, Annie, Peter, and Mr. Graham are sacrificed by the cult. Following the ritual, Charlie’s spirit is able to possess Peter’s body and take on the role of Paimon, who is the eighth king of Hell. The film concludes with the occult members bowing before a possessed Peter dressed in king’s garb.

Aside from the crazy, convoluted plot, Hereditary uses an abundance of screenplay techniques that enhance the terrifying elements of the story. Aster films scenes with an overt symmetry that serves a few different purposes. Symmetrical shots coax the eye to the center of the screen which makes the eye assume that both halves are the same on either side (read more about symmetry as film technique here). This forces its focus entirely on the center of the shot.

However, the margins are where Aster hides his frights. For example, in Annie’s possession scene, the symmetry of Peter’s room is disrupted by Annie floating in the corner, above Peter’s head, and out of the direct line of sight. Thus, when the viewer notices Annie’s presence, they are startled by both the disruption of the symmetry and by having to draw their eye away from the center where the action usually happens. Furthermore, the symmetry makes the space feel tight. With attention drawn to the center of the screen, the viewer is no longer incentivized to look around the scene, causing the space to feel smaller.

Stanley Kubrik used similar techniques while filming The Shining (more on this can be found here). The size of the space limits the scope of the viewers’ perception, and when their gaze is forced to expand, they are frightened by the horrors tucked away in the corners of the scene. Many of these techniques are similar to the ones used in Rosemary’s Baby and have a similar effect on its audience.

The horror of Hereditary is not what is most obvious to the audience; the horror is in what slips through the viewers’ fingers the first time around, leaving them with an elevated heart rate and the inability to sleep later that evening. The story preys on fears similar to those explored in Rosemary’s Baby though it pushes past the threat of Satanic worship.

Each horrific event was orchestrated by the occult. The coven, headed by Charlie’s grandmother, manufactured every detail that destroyed a seemingly regular family. The characters go through their lives, ignorant to the fabricated circumstances that cling to and influence their very existence. These preconceived events eventually lead to their deaths, and the rebirth of the eighth king of Hell. The story places the characters in positions of hopelessness and helplessness within the greater workings of those around them. This, coupled with Aster’s camera play, leaves the audience feeling just as hopeless as the characters, preying upon the same primal fears Rosemary’s Baby toys with.

Why were audiences so receptive to predatory impotence three years ago? The late 2010s was host to a mass of protests. American society was disheartened by the relentless war in the Middle East, a questionable election, and ongoing police brutality (view a timeline of 2018 here). The result was a society that demanded agency and recovery. Hereditary took away these possibilities.

The events throughout the film were created and executed by an invisible, demonic force that left the characters completely helpless. That sense of helplessness resonated with audiences because their own society was being manipulated by alien forces that ultimately left the public feeling that their destinies were out of their control. As these societal issues persist into the early 2020s, Hereditary will continue to prey on the generational impotence that still plagues American society.

Films like Hereditary continue to challenge America’s social landscape and continue to impact industry-specific norms. They have the unique capability to lead the way into a new area of film analysis that delves into the underlying fears of society. These fears are representative of the most vulnerable aspects of society. Horror films put these vulnerabilities on display for all to see, which normalizes the fears we try to shield from the outside world. This prompts the audience to embrace these vulnerabilities and even celebrate them, breaking down barriers to the core of the human condition which entails an exploration of the individual and its deeper connections to human relationships.

Hereditary images courtesy of A24.

20 Years Removed, How Would Magic Johnson’s Announcement of HIV Looked Today?

On November 7th, 1991, the sports and celebrity world alike came to a standstill when Earvin “Magic” Johnson publicly announced that he had contracted human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV. “The announcement,” as it has come to be known as, was broadcasted internationally and is estimated to have had around 9 million viewers.

The virus at the time was spreading through various parts of the country, and little research had been done to understand how the disease was transmitted and affected those who contracted it. That’s why at the time of the announcement many were shocked to learn that a sports icon such as Magic Johnson could come down with such a mysterious virus.

Today, Johnson continues to lead a healthy life, and has been applauded for his efforts as a spokesperson for the illness. However, there is a bit more to uncover in this event. It is widely rumored within the sports world that Johnson’s announcement came long after his diagnosis.

So, how was Magic and his camp able to keep this under wraps for so long? How would he have fared in today’s climate where social media often reveals information regarding athletes before they have a chance to speak on it? What sort of long-term impact did Magic create by revealing to the world that he had a virus which was taboo to discuss among many? 

In 1991, HIV had begun to run rampant across the globe, with more than 10 million people contracting the virus, according to the CDC.

Within the United States, about one to two million people had reportedly been diagnosed with HIV. There was little information on how the virus was spread. Many outlets claimed that HIV was a “gay man’s” disease, believing it could only be found and contracted by men who engaged in homosexual activity.

Furthermore, many had strongly speculated that homeless people, who were heavy drug users, were more prone to coming down with the virus. (Research and experimental trials recently conducted have revealed that this is not the case.) Anyone can contract this virus, but this was not common knowledge back in the 80s and 90s.

The mystery and misinformation that surrounded this illness made it an uncomfortable topic to discuss in America at the time. Even President Ronald Reagan downplayed its danger throughout the 1980s.

Enter Magic Johnson. 

Magic was at the prime of his basketball career and celebrity career entering the 1990s. He had just come off of five National Basketball Association (NBA) championships throughout the 80s, being named the most valuable player in three of them. He was also a prominent fixture in the Los Angeles nightlife, appearing at nightclubs and talk shows regularly.

Magic had risen to a standing in society that few athletes before him had ever seen. When appearing in public, Magic was often mobbed by cameras trying to catch a glimpse of the superstar. He attracted plenty of people to him thanks to his charm and soft-spoken demeanor.

Women would write their phone numbers on whatever they could and “ask for an autograph” in order to grab his attention. By all accounts, Magic was extremely fond of women. His lifestyle facilitated this fondness he had for them confessing to numerous occasions of buying women courtside seats to attend his games, inviting them to go home with him after a night full of partying, and even flying them out on his vacations in locations such as Hawaii and the Bahamas.

He’s been referred to as a sex symbol by numerous publications and writings that described the life he lived. His infidelities have long been documented, as he had been together with his partner Earlitha Kelly since 1985. But this didn’t seem to matter to those around Magic, and those who idolized him.

The lifestyle he led allowed many people to envision him as an idol and someone to model himself as it relates to the way in which he carried himself. His public persona began to change when in August of 1991, a woman had written a letter to Magic claiming he had infected her with HIV.

During his famous announcement, Magic announced not only his diagnosis, but his immediate retirement from the National Basketball Association. Many were shocked to hear that a figure like Magic could have fallen to such a virus, but why should we care? He certainly wasn’t the first athlete to contract HIV, and would most certainly was not be the last. It is worth investigating how a situation like this would have played out in today’s landscape. It’s been reported that Magic knew of his diagnoses months before he reported it to the public.

When the 1991 NBA season first went underway, Magic missed multiple games to “illness”. Many spectators of the sport grew more and more curious as to how long Magic would sit courtside in a suit, and the severity of his illness. Little was thought of it at the time, but looking back, how did Magic keep this information within his circle of confidants?

“He certainly wasn’t the first athlete to contract HIV, and would most certainly was not be the last.”

Hakeem Smith

The magnitude of this letter cannot be ignored. This woman known as Jane Doe had knowledge of Magic’s diagnosis about two months prior to his announcement. It was not public information that Magic had contracted the virus which begs the question, how long did Magic know of his diagnosis?

Since the early 2000s the way in which we report on athletes of high status has changed. In today’s world of up to the minute news and ridiculously fast reporting, it is difficult to say that Magic’s diagnosis of HIV would not have hit international news soon after it was brought to his attention.

Public figures such as Magic Johnson in today’s society are at the mercy of reporting and the spread of information that relates to them. Legendary basketball star Kobe Bryant passed away in January of 2020 in a helicopter crash, and before his family could be informed of the accident, pictures of the wreck were posted all over the internet for the globe to see. It is hard to imagine Magic would not have fared the same fate.

Ray Rice, who was an NFL running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was arrested in February of 2014 for a domestic violence incident between him and his then-fiancée, and within days the popular celebrity gossip show TMZ had released a video of him punching his fiancée in the face, knocking her unconscious. If Magic Johnson was a basketball player of the same magnitude in our contemporary period, would he be subject to the same standards of reporting?

Outlets like TMZ, who pride themselves on reporting the latest news first most likely would not have spared Magic, and his diagnosis of HIV would have become public news within days or weeks. Magic would have become a slave to the moment. His status in society would require news reporters to divulge this information to the public due to the magnitude of the story. 

In today’s realm of sports where injury news and legal involvement regarding athletes is at the hands of the public seemingly as fast as it occurs, it’s amazing Magic’s situation was held away from media outlets for as long as it was. In our contemporary period, we have a few examples of athletes who have “fallen,” though not as graciously, from similar heights.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers player, Antonio Brown experienced a situation where his public persona was extremely damaged after a series of off-the-field events threatened his career. Former Heisman Trophy Winner, awarded to the best football player in college football, Johnny Manziel fell victim to the pleasures of celebrity status, missing practice after being drafted to the Cleveland Browns in 2014 to party in Las Vegas.

There may not be a perfect present-day example that captures the feelings and emotions that were accompanied by Magic’s announcement, the way in which his situation unfolded serves as an unrealistic precedent for the athletes that followed him.

Tiger Woods was prodded as a savior within the realm of professional golf, but was held to the torch of the public after details of his “12 mistresses” leaked to the public within days following a car crash he was involved in. Similar to Magic, Tiger was able to recover, but the depths he reached in regards to public scrutiny, Magic never saw. Not only was Magic’s public persona maintained, but the news of his diagnosis of a virus surrounded by such stigma at the time was not released to the public for months. One can suspect his news would have been realized to the public long before he had the chance to if his situation occurred in today’s media. Today, athletes are hardly given the privacy of being allowed to reveal incidents they have been involved with to the public.

Today, Magic has been extremely outspoken on the HIV epidemic, donating large sums of money to research efforts, and making appearances at HIV related events to raise awareness on the seriousness of the virus. But what would have occurred if he played in his prime in 2021? Would he have been subject to Twitter users calling him all sorts of names in the comments as they did for Antonio Brown and Johnny Manziel? Would talk shows slander his name for admittedly being unfaithful and hiding this news from the world as they did Tiger Woods?

In short, we can conclude this to be the case. His name — his aura — was too large to keep something like this under wraps. Privacy is not something that seems to be as protected as it was in his time. Today, doctors have been paid off to release secret information regarding their athlete patients so that news outlets can be the first ones to report on the story.

Magic’s “fall” from grace seemed to be a bit more of a stumble that he swiftly recovered from in 1991, but had this occurred in 2021, his fall from grace may have seen him land on his face. 

Impotence in Mundanity: “Rosemary’s Baby”

Horror is a genre of film that is inherently disobedient. It is a visceral rejection of societal norms, of dominant culture, and of the very evils it depicts on screen. Great horror films, then, are ones that use societal fears in a way that alters the construction of the whole genre. The adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was one such film.

Upon its release in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby was an instant hit. In his review, Roger Ebert described it as “a creepy film and a crawly film, and a film filled with things that go bump in the night,” and concluded that “it is very good.”

Since then, the film has accrued a 96% on Metacritic, which demonstrates the occult-based film’s ability to eerily transcend the fad-trap of popular culture. Rosemary’s Baby was able to outlive such fads by being… scary. But why did audiences react so viscerally to a story about an average American couple? What was the underlying societal expectation that Rosemary’s Baby toyed with?

1968 was notably a year filled with unprecedented social change. Civil Rights rallies swept across the United States, the American public was outraged by the Vietnam War, and hippie movements refused to adhere to established norms. Rosemary’s Baby was considered terrifying because it challenged these norms and the spaces where the American people felt most secure. In a society torn by hatred and mistrust, Rosemary’s Baby was a violent reminder to the audience that not even their homes were safe.

Horror films are meant to act like funhouse mirrors that force the audience to watch a contorted and often horrific reflection of themselves. Directors use techniques that purposefully go against the status quo in order to evoke a sense of fear from the audience. This genre is, necessarily, a symbol of nonconformity since it refuses to adhere to the standards of the film industry as a whole.

The great horror films — ones that set the bar for remakes and tropes — are the ones that truly terrify and entertain an audience. Of course, the audiences’ fears are intimately intertwined with their understanding of the world around them. The production and appreciation of horror films must feed off of a society where there is much to fear.

Why did audiences react so viscerally to a story about an average American couple?

Mackenzie DeVita

Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece, from the writing to the production. It tells the story of a young 60s couple, Guy and Rosemary (Ro), that move into their dream apartment in New York City. Guy is a mediocre actor, who works doggedly to break through in his long-shot acting career. Ro is comparatively domestic. She strives to make a happy family with Guy.

After settling into their new apartment, they are befriended by their older neighbors, Minnie and Roman, who are mourning the death of their adopted daughter. As the couples grow closer in friendship, Guy and Ro’s relationship becomes increasingly tumultuous. Guy becomes distant and irritable in the rare moments he’s with Rosemary. Ro, however, is obsessed with having a child, thus creating an ever-expanding divide between the two as they pull the strands of their relationship apart.

As Ro and Guy navigate their respective desires, the couple decides to continue their efforts to conceive. On “baby night,” Ro falls ill after eating a dessert gifted to her by her neighbor Minnie. In the midst of the resulting fever-induced nightmare, Ro dreams that she is impregnated by a horned, clawed, and hooved monster. Soon thereafter, Ro learns that she is pregnant. While she is elated, her pregnancy quickly becomes exceptionally brutal.

She endures abnormal pain, begins to lose weight, and craves raw meat. Both her husband and physician dismiss her concerns about the pains and illnesses she experiences, writing the symptoms off as hysteria. With a tip from a friend, Ro learns of witchcraft and occult practices that are eerily similar to what she is experiencing with her husband, pregnancy, and unusual neighbors.

Ro is convinced that her husband has offered their future child as a sacrifice in exchange for success with his acting career. Ro’s panic forces her into having labor induced by her physician. When she awakens, she discovers a company of elderly people watching her child. Then Ro first meets the newborn and she is horrified — her child is a monstrosity. The company explains that Satan chose her to consummate with in order to produce a child that is “stronger than stronger.” The cult then, without using witchcraft, convinces Ro to raise the child; sullenly Rosemary complies.

The movie’s plot is simple and real, a rejection of contemporary horror conventions like grandiose castles in far-away places, rare mutations that turn men to flesh-hungry wolves, and giant women that roam the streets of New York. As Jon Towlson writes in his book, Subversive Horror Cinema, the mundanity of the screenplay stirs terror in the audience.

Rather than distancing the viewer from the terror, as castles and werewolves and giants do, the movie encapsulates the banal experiences of average American life during the late 60s. As a result of this, the audience experiences heightened intimacy with the characters and events. The entirety of the movie takes place inside the couple’s apartment, with limited scenes depicting the outside world. The effect of this setting is twofold. Firstly, it limits the scope of information available to the audience. Consequently, the audience is forced to become intimate with the main characters, and grow hopeful along with Rosemary as she progresses with her pregnancy.

The movie establishes this intimacy between viewer and character, and then rips hope from their clutches as Ro’s pregnancy worsens. Secondly, the limited scope of the audiences’ perception exaggerates the inherent impotence of Rosemary’s situation. Since the audience doesn’t see much more than Ro’s face for the majority of the movie, it feels as though there is nowhere for the viewer to escape to other than Rosemary’s tragedy.

The movie preys on primal fear in its exploitation of the places where we are meant to feel most comfortable: our homes; with our significant others; or with doctors, neighbors, or friends. The movie thus transforms the typical into the terrible, and makes the audience want to escape from their own lives in order to not end up like Rosemary.

The year this film was released, was “a year of turmoil and change.” The United States was torn apart by frustrations with the federal government and the war in Vietnam. The nation was in the midst of one of the greatest developments for racial equality with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Protests and a multitude of counterculture movements were erupting across America.

The horror of Rosemary’s Baby and its positive reception from audiences are linked with the American people’s demand for control over their own lives. The film refuses to lull the audience into a sense of security. Instead, the film depicts characters in a hopeless situation that the audience is forced to experience along with them, mimicking the very hopelessness they can’t escape from in their daily lives. The horror of impotence is forced upon the audience in their everyday lives during a time when their agency was being constantly threatened.

Rosemary’s Baby challenged its audience with fear of their neighbors, friends, doctors, husbands, and even their own children. It emphasized the terror of everyday life; the terror in the ignorance that is promulgated by the mundane. Rosemary’s Baby emphasized that the grotesque can and will rip average families apart.

Rosemary’s Baby pictures courtesy Paramount Pictures, 1968.

The World’s Greatest Threat: Repeating History

Same story, but we’re the different characters.

It’s 542, and Procopius of Caesarea, a historian for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, finds himself in the heart of one of the most powerful empires in the world.

This city, Constantinople, is seen as a crown jewel of religion, commerce, and culture. It is a cross roads between north and south, east and west; a continuation of Rome, the city that took the world. Armies will march upon its walls over twenty times and fail over twenty times. A mother will assassinate her own son and then rise to the throne as the first empress of the Byzantines. Chariot racing will be the catalyst to a riot that breaks out in the streets of the city, leading to the execution of over thirty thousand citizens in less than a week. Yet none of those moments even come close to bringing Constantinople to its knees like what Procopius was about to witness.

It’s 542, and the eastern half of the Roman Empire is about to collapse.

Procopius is roaming the narrow streets of Constantinople dressed in the finest threads of silk from China. While many would take notice of him on any normal day, today is anything but. No artisans in the streets, selling their wares. No fishermen along the docks, tempting a passerby with their catch. Silence has descended upon the city. A silence so quiet it reminds him of the cool nights in Dara, where in every direction there was nothing but sand and the tents of Belisarius’s soldiers. Procopius does not even have to close his eyes to remember that peace that passed over the men as if they had saved their voices for the roaring that would come in the following days.

Procopius of Caesarea

That was not Constantinople though. When this curse first arrived, all Hell had broken loose and reports of supernatural apparitions disguised as human beings running amok in the streets and invading people’s dreams were not uncommon.

From his chambers in the Great Palace, Procopius could view all the chaos that unfolded down below. How people pounded on the doors of their neighbors, calling for them to be let in. He had heard reports that they all turned on one another because they believed those that knocked were demons. But now? Nothing.

Constantinople had fallen silent.

The Hagia Sophia came into Procopius’ view. In all this mess, the pristine spires of the church stood tall, towering over the city in all its glory. It made the Great Palace look small though it was three times its size. Nothing could dwarf the grandeur of God.

His eyes lingered on the sight above, for he had no worry about what laid in front him because there was nothing. The only people he saw now were those piled in with heaps of bodies. When he did see someone alive, it was only to carry out their dead who had been slung over their shoulders in white cloth, and even then, they resembled those they carried.

He thought by now his nose would be accustomed to such a stench. Truly, he thought by now that this curse would be gone. Yet, as it seemed, God had abandoned the Roman Empire.

What caused all of that turmoil and torture? What made people see apparitions and have visions of creatures standing over them? The answer is simple: disease. Specifically, Yersinia pestis, or, as it’s more commonly referred to: The Justinian Plague.

Many of you may think, “Thank goodness we are no longer living in the time of that Procopius guy.” I agree with you. It’s very nice to have the developments of modern medicine and a better understanding of how to protect ourselves from disease. It is also nice that the disease we face now is not as deadly as the one that Procopius had to live through. Yet, people take that as justification that we can continue on with our lives because COVID-19 is a milder disease. They point to the recovery rate and say “99 percent of people who get it survive.” Yes, COVID-19 has a high survival rate (although, not 99 percent). However, that’s not what health and government officials are terrified about the most. That’s not what should worry you the most. The disease itself is, of course, something that no one wants to spread because we have seen first-hand what it does to patients and our fellow citizens; yet, what truly scares governments, the CDC, the WHO, the NHS, and all other types of organizations, is the collapse of society that Procopius witnessed.

We cannot verify with absolutely certainty the number of people who died, but Procopius ventured that it was about 20 percent of the population in Constantinople between 541 and 543. Not infected, but died. Almost a quarter of the people gone in one of the most powerful and populated cities in the world at this time.

Blue mosque (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul (Constantinople).

As a whole, though, historians believe that half of the world population in the sixth century was killed. The highest estimates put it at 50 million. So, I want to let all of you who are abiding by the rules set out by governments and health orgs know that you’re doing the right thing. More than the right thing. You’re being a hero in ways that one would not think possible. For there is certainly a loud group of people who just want everything to be open and for us to carry on with our lives. With that being said, let’s look at some numbers and see how similar our world could be to that of Procopius of Caesarea’s should we abandon reason.

According to Bandolier, an independent journal comprised of Oxford scientists, they state that the risk of dying from the bubonic plague can reach up to 70 percent when untreated. Let’s say 70 percent, since there were no treatments in medieval times. That means that if 50 million died, roughly 71 million became infected. It’s important to understand that this was a world with little knowledge about how to treat such a disease. They understood keeping their distance, but as Procopius mentioned, people were around bodies all the time because of the sheer number of deceased.

Now, I won’t use the mortality rate because COVID-19 is not nearly as fatal. However, I will use the infection rate of 71 percent, since COVID-19 is highly contagious and the world that some want us to live in is one that mirrors that of Procopius’. Such as people who carry on with their daily lives, stop wearing masks, or don’t socially distance. Now I’ll lower the infection rate to 60 percent because we wash ourselves more regularly than the people of the Middle Ages.

“We start seeing a world that is similar to that of Procopius’.

Adel Mansour

Currently, the estimated population of the world is 7.8 billion people. Sixty percent of that then is 4.68 billion. If 99 percent recover, that is 46.8 million people that will have died from COVID-19 alone. That’s almost 20 times the number of recorded infections at the writing of this piece. However, death doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Those numbers are people. They are farmers, doctors, government officials, parents, teachers, children; the list goes on.

Putting aside the familial trauma, what happens when the number of hospital beds start running out and those from other causes start dying? What happens when infected farmers that we rely on for food can’t tend to their farms? What happens when the doctors who were supposed to be treating all those patients can’t anymore because they fall ill to COVID? Suddenly, that number of 46.8 million starts multiplying exponentially when the people we relied on to keep our world afloat start dying. We start seeing a world that is similar to that of Procopius’. One where “if one succeed[ed] in meeting a man going out, he was carrying out one of the dead. And work of every description ceased… in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot.” So yes, the recovery rate for COVID-19 is quite high, but only because there is a vast majority of people taking it seriously.

We must understand that our world is fragile, and it doesn’t take much for it to unravel at the seams. For if we threw caution to the wind, not only would the infection rate skyrocket, but our way of life crumble into ruin like that of the Great Palace in Istanbul (Constantinople).

So, to all the essential workers, to those of you who have been socially distant, wearing masks, and sacrificing memories of your college years or time with your loved ones: thank you. You have not only saved yourself from illness, but people all across the globe from ever experiencing, as Procopius put it, “the whole human race… being annihilated.”

A Walk Through India

The train stopped in the Southern part of India’s capital, Saket. I arrived after coming from a long day of adventures, meeting and exploring all of New Delhi. As I walked outside the train station, I found myself on the opposite side of the busiest street I had ever known. The chaos of India never seemed to bother me. In fact, I liked it, but right now, I was feeling a little concerned. Reluctant to cross traffic, I scanned all around me for the safest option to get across the street. I had already concluded that my best bet was to walk with a large crowd — traffic would have to stop for all of us. So, I scanned for eager eyes looking to get across the street too. India does not have any traffic laws, so I was not excited to be walking so vulnerably into so much traffic. However, I soon spotted an overpass down the street and started my way towards the bridge of hope.

New Delhi is filled with many people. In fact, India is one of the most populated countries in the world, and it was obvious. However, that night seemed to be a little more crowded, as if the city had reached its capacity. A group of teenage boys, ranging from ages 14 to 16 years old, were walking alongside the road — just as I was. Their navy-blue slacks, baby blue button-up shirts, and backpacks suggested they were coming from school. They spoke Hindi way too fast for me to understand, but I appreciated their jovial spirits anyway. I noticed them because I always notice people, but I also noticed that they were noticing me. Well, if I think about it, I am clearly the only black woman amongst a nation of Indians — despite the fact that some Indians are darker than me, it was still apparent that I was not Indian. Maybe my undertone gave me away. I thought, Could it be my mannerisms — the way my eyes wonder with curiosity? Do I look as if


It happened. The grand finale of being black — the inevitable level of disparagement attached to every black person’s life. The group of immature teenagers publicly belittled me — the only black woman in sight. Their limited minds decided to succumb to ignorant humor, and here I was, flustered with feelings of hurt, embarrassment, anger, and a few more emotions that I could not identify at the moment.

Heat filled my body faster than fire could spread, and I blurted out, “Actually, I am a very educated woman!” in the most American accent that I could produce. It was all I had. They laughed and joked and patted each other on the back as if they had just accomplished something good.

I felt everyone’s eyes on me. I walked swiftly — as if I could escape the attention. I walked as fast as I could because I felt my emotions crawling out of me. My tears wanted to fall, my cries wanted to be heard, and most of all, my hysteria wanted to be felt. Why don’t I just run? I thought. Not only would I attract more attention to myself, but that will also give the boys the amusement of watching me run from their words. Plus, running would cause my boobs to bounce, and the last thing I wanted right then was to be sexually objectified. 

For the first time in three months, I wanted the comfort of my friends and family. Not only was everyone I valued across the world, but the time difference meant that they were also sound asleep. My emotions ran high, and I needed a form of expression, so I walked as quickly as my thin sandals would allow. I finally arrived at my hostel, opened my journal, and I wrote:

The first time I was reduced to my vagina was November 17th, 2016. I was coming back from the club with Gianni, who was a multiracial man from France. We met on the hostel’s rooftop one morning when he saw me having breakfast alone. On the night of the 17th, it was about 1:30am, and our rickshaw dropped us off on the main street that led to our hostel. Because the government recently discontinued 500 rupee bills, everyone is always out of cash, and therefore, always at the ATMs. This, of course, caused the ATMs to constantly run out of money. Having said that, whenever you see an ATM, try that bitch. Anyway, back to the story: so, Gianni and I saw an ATM, and he decided to try and withdraw some cash. 

We walked past a group of Indian men, who seemed to be talking and peacefully enjoying each other’s company. One man was wearing a navy blue sweatsuit; he was about 5’10 with deeply curly hair. He seemed to be trying to get my attention. Gianni and I walked into the glass box of the ATM — all ATMs were in a glass box to avoid pickpocketing — and I said, “this man in the navy blue sweatsuit is staring at me, and he keeps gesturing me to come out to talk to him.” Gianni replied so calmly and casually, “he probably thinks you’re a prostitute,” without turning his back from me or using an influx in his voice. My eyes silently bulged out of my head behind him. 

“Whatttttt? Why would he assume that I am a prostitute?”

“Because you’re a Black woman in India. A lot of women from Nigeria come here for prostitution. So, because you’re Black, they assume that you are here selling your body. Plus, I could pass for an Indian man. They are probably assuming that I am one of your clients and that we are trying to get money so that I could pay you and send you on your way.” I think that Gianni was saying all of this in the most nonchalant tone ever is what startled me the most because all of this was very jarring to me. 

“But India is such a conservative country! How could prostitution be acceptable in such a conservative country? They literally do not have any strip clubs, but prostitution is legal here!?”

“Well, it’s about the public display of sexual immorality that’s bad — not necessarily being sexually immoral. A strip club is public, but having sex with a prostitute can be done privately. So, prostitution isn’t legal in America?” (Still extremely nonchalant).

“Absolutely not” I blurted out.

Once we left the glass box of the ATM, the man in the blue sweatsuit approached us. He was very assertive in his stance, and he immediately began talking at us. I wasn’t sure if Gianni understood what he was saying, but before I knew it, he was grabbing my arm. I began resisting and yelling at him in Hindi to let me go. We began arguing when Gianni calmly said, “She’s not a prostitute; she’s with me.” And just like that, the man walked away. I was flabbergasted. For one, I was shocked at the level of entitlement this man thought he could have over me. I was even more in shock that the man did not hear or value anything I was expressing. The yelling and fighting I was doing did not derail him from his agenda to take me home or wherever he planned. He only heard Gianni. I thought about all the social constructs of being a woman, being Black, and being a Black woman that Gianni was exempt from, even though we shared the same Haitian blood and left the womb of a black woman. I thought about how his gender and his skin tone exempted him from a world of racism, sexism, and colorism.

The second time I was reduced to my sexual body parts was on November 23rd, 2016. I was walking home from the metro like I did any other day. Since I began my internship, I was always exhausted. Today I sat in on a live six-hour open-heart surgery at the hospital, which is why I was coming home two hours later than I normally had. I walked past groups of men playing card games, getting haircuts, selling what they could, and hanging with their friends. It was just like any other typical day. When I passed a group of men talking, one man was trying to get my attention. He pulled out money, no more than 500 rupees, which was about $7 at the time, and waved it in my face. I don’t know of any Indian men willing to freely give money away to a black woman or to anyone for that matter. Indians are notoriously cheap. So, I understood his gesture. I gave him the middle finger and continued to walk home. I could hear his friends laughing at his failed attempt; I’m sure many of them doubted him anyway because most of them saw me walk past almost every day. I didn’t care so much this time. I was too tired to care. But I found it interesting how even though I wore a backpack as big as me, he still assumed I was a prostitute. Even though I always dressed in a kurtii that covered my body, my skin still defined me as a sexual being and nothing more. 

Though I have encountered this ignorance before, nothing could have prepared me for the level of humiliation I experienced today. Not only did it strip me of my pride, but it broke my heart to see the youth corrupted. These teenage boys have already learned to racially profile people and to outwardly diminish another human being. I have never experienced racial profiling so blatantly in my life. I lost a little hope in humanity tonight.

The next day I began my morning routine like I did any other day: get dressed, pack my backpack, and head up to the rooftop for breakfast. I was in deep thought all morning about post-operative arrhythmias in the heart, which I was working on during my internship. As I walked down the street towards the metro, I noticed the scents of okra and chapati that I must have gone nose-blind to. Saket was a little more vibrant and alive that morning. 

I saw the man with the navy-blue sweatsuit. His curly hair looked as if he never slept on a pillow — still shiny and curly without one frizz in sight. Though he had on the same exact outfit from the night before, he looked different. Maybe it was the changed demeanor he carried around his wife and three children. He had two daughters and a son; none of his children seemed to be over the age of ten, but they wore backpacks, so they must be enrolled in school. His wife, a short and curvy lady, seemed to be a devoted Hindu. You could tell she was religious by her henna, bindi, and coordinated bangles. He gave all four of them kisses on the forehead as they crossed the street and waved goodbye. She scurried through the pedestrian traffic with lunchboxes occupying her hands. At that exact moment, we made eye contact. He stared without blinking, showing undertones of shock, eagerness, and curiosity. I thought about the duality of a man, how he could be a staple of security, love, and protection to his family and have the complete opposite effect on me just twelve hours earlier. I shook my head in disgust and disappeared down the metro steps. 

Monica Lewinsky Jokes: Not So Funny Anymore

In January 1998, America was shaken by the affair between sitting president Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. News about the affair was everywhere, from news channels to the tabloids, making it nearly impossible to avoid learning about the affair.

Unfortunately for Monica, the late 1990s America was not a welcoming place for strong, independent women who own their sexuality, and she was summarily slut-shamed by the entire country. The scandal provided an abundance of content for comedy writers to exaggerate the details to a greater degree than the news had done by making harsh attacks on Monica.

Looking back on the scandal from a 2021 perspective, it’s shocking to see the hatred and abuse Lewinsky had to endure, and especially at the hands of the popular comedy sketch show, Saturday Night Live.

Played by actress Molly Shannon, Monica Lewinsky was portrayed as a ditzy, inappropriate, and overly sexual woman. Shannon’s portrayal of Monica was so appalling, it appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of “20 Most Savage SNL Political Impersonations.” Looking at SNL comedy sketches from the late 90s in 2021, it is clear Monica’s public perception would not be the same today in regard to the blatant attacks on Monica as a person, the attacks on other women around the scandal, and the lack of attacks on Bill Clinton.

When the news first broke, SNL was quick to grab hold of the scandal and create a caricature of Monica that was not far off from the real public perception of her. Just weeks into the scandal, SNL aired their first skit portraying Monica alongside Linda Tripp, a close confidant played by John Goodman, during their meeting at the Ritz Carlton Hotel where Tripp was wired by the FBI.

Throughout the sketch, Monica makes various remarks that make her appear ditzy, such as when she talks about the last time she saw Bill Clinton at the White House screening of Titanic saying, “God that was so big and so long. I couldn’t believe it took two full hours for it to finally go down. I mean, I was really enjoying the whole thing, but it really surprised me when it bent in the middle.”

Even though the sketch has set it up as if she is talking about Titanic, given the scandal, it’s easy to see the parallels to sex and fellatio. This makes it so that she comes off as naïve, as what she is saying sounds sexual, even though she does not mean it in that way.

In a similar vein, Monica is wearing a dress with a white top and black skirt and tells Tripp that it is her “lucky dress.” When she takes off her jacket, there is a clear yellow stain that looks like a semen stain. Monica appears erotic, not realizing she has the stain, and once again, over sexual. While this was a caricature of Monica, it still highlighted the main ideas of how she was perceived as over sexualized, naïve, and ditzy. Reviewing this skit in 2021, the blatant attacks on Monica Lewinsky as a person — being portrayed as over sexualized, ditzy, and naïve — would not be accepted, and her sexuality would be an element of empowerment.

While SNL blatantly attacked Monica as a person, they did not stop there. The SNL sketches also attacked other women associated with the scandal and brought them down with her. Linda Tripp was the other major female player involved in the scandal and faced quite a bit of backlash because of it. Tripp’s role in the scandal was devious; she taped Monica Lewinsky, who was supposed to be her close friend.

On SNL, Tripp was portrayed by John Goodman, which in itself was quite a statement to have her played by a man, creating a caricature of her features that were criticized my the media as being too manly. This choice reveals how Tripp’s dedication and motivation to see her role in the scandal was an atypical attribute for women at the time. In another sketch from 1999, NBC interviewer Jamie Gangel, played by Ana Gasteyer, tells Tripp she has a worse approval rating than Saddam Hussein.

Tripp was not the only woman brought under attack alongside Monica Lewinsky. Although not directly involved in the scandal, Barbara Walters and Hillary Clinton were also brought into the sphere of the scandal through Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky, and Hillary Clinton being President Bill Clinton’s wife.

One particular 1999 sketch begins by showing real footage of Monica Lewinsky describing phone sex during her interview with Barbara Walters. Barbara Walters, played by Cheri Oteri, is re-watching this particular clip, intrigued in trying phone sex herself. As Walters goes through her address book, she makes comments about how many of the men she had already slept with, making her seem over-sexual in that she is always sleeping with men and looking to have sex.

Walters’ motivation and dedication to finding a phone sex partner is part of the joke of the scene, as she hits dead end after dead end, she says, “I’ve got to find someone as lonely and horny as I.”

It is then that she calls Hillary Clinton, portrayed by Gasteyer, who readily agrees. This once again reveals their over-sexual behaviors, and not in a good way. Looking at this skit from the perspective of 2021, it is surprising to see other women being dragged down with Monica Lewinsky just for being motivated, dedicated, and, once again, sexual.

As Monica Lewinsky and the women associated with the scandal were sexualized and attacked, Bill Clinton appeared to be sexy, innocent, and normal by the SNL sketches that he appeared in.

About a month after the first skit depicting Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, a skit aired with Bill Clinton, portrayed by Darrell Hammond, reading off the Paula Jones deposition as though it was a romance novel. Clinton proclaims that, “I have read this thing cover to cover, and, folks, it’s good stuff. I mean, it is hotter than hell, and the best part is it’s all about me.”

A women in the late 90s would not be able to get away with a like Bill’s, even in the form of a comedy sketch. However, with men having all of the power in America in the 1990s, it was okay for President Clinton to be portrayed in this sexual manner. After reading an additional passage, he says, “And I actually did all that. I mean, I didn’t, but…”

While Monica Lewinsky was called a “whore” and slut-shamed by the entire country when she had an affair with one man, President Clinton was not put under the same scrutiny for the handful of sexual assault allegations brought up against him from various women. During a time when the phrase “boys would be boys” was an accepted reason for his behavior. Men were allowed to be sexual beings, while women were not allowed to own their sexuality.

In a sketch that aired in 1999 following the impeachment trial, Clinton, says he is upset since he is no longer featured in the papers. He even refers to himself as a “superstar” when he was constantly in the papers. Of course, this is a caricature of the actual situation, but the root of the matter is still there: the public had no issue with the way that Bill Clinton faced very few repercussions for his inappropriate actions. Today, men are being held accountable for inappropriate sexual advances and comments, which is unlike the culture in the late 90s. Through these sketches, it is shocking from a 2021 perspective that Bill Clinton was portrayed as sexy, innocent, and normal, and certainly not something he would have been able to get away with in 2021.

Depicting Monica Lewinsky as an over sexual, naive, and ditzy woman, turning Barbara Walters, Hillary Clinton, and Linda Tripp into sexual, deviant, and motivated women, while leaving Bill Clinton as a sexy, innocent, and normal man on SNL are not forms of portrayal that would be accepted in 2021.

Thankfully, society as a whole has been able to progress past the point of nationwide slut-shaming and has even welcomed conversations regarding sex and sexuality. However, SNL and society have done little to right the wrongs of the past by revisiting the public perception of Monica Lewinsky, who, in 2021, spends her time working as an anti-bullying activist and contributes to Vanity Fair. Today, Monica Lewinsky teaches us in 2021 about the importance of lifting women up and pushing for gender-based equality.

Understanding that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal took place just over 20 years ago puts into perspective how much positive change has taken place in society in such a short amount of time, but also how much further society has to go.

Image courtesy of YouTube.