Thursday, May 26, 2005

Behind the green door

Not long before the end of the spring semester, before I was ritually shunned by my co-workers, I made a surprising discovery. It was noontime and I was in my office doing paperwork (which usually means reading on the Internet while waiting for the next class to start). A few of the other profs shambled by. “Wanna eat with us?” Sure, why not, I thought. It was only the second or third time in four years that I’d been asked to join a lunch outing.

But instead of shuffling across the street to the cheap Mexican place or to the even cheaper sandwich shop, the group headed downstairs to the first floor of our building, home of the main student cafeteria. I’d never eaten down there – the smells that wafted up to our hallway carried a heavy topnote of old grease, with just a hint to the nostrils of what our grandparents used to call “potted meat.”

The food is served buffet style – “pitch till ya win,” my mom would say – and costs about six bucks. On this day I made a salad at the salad bar and grabbed a bowl of vegetarian chili. I’m sorry, but no matter where you go, school food always looks like school food. There’s that ubiquitous soupy macaroni salad, always a few sweaty saucers holding up thick cubes of green Jell-O.

With my tray, I followed the other profs out a door at the back of the serving lines. They walked past several tables of students and then we came to a green swinging door I’d never seen before. There was a tiny plastic sign on it that said “Faculty.”

On the other side? It was like going through Alice’s looking glass. Bathed in light streaming in from tall windows was a cozy little dining area reserved just for professors. There were crisp white cloths on the tables. Icy pitchers of tea and a silver coffee service sat on a long table to one side. Another table held plates heaped with fresh baked goods, including warm corn muffins, huge sugar cookies, an entire apple pie and a chocolate layer cake. I got a flash of that scene in A Beautiful Mind where the Princetonians in the faculty club place their fountain pens in front of Russell Crowe as a sign of respect. Even here, without the wood paneling or liveried waiters, there was a distinctly clubby feel.

More importantly, there was this smorgasbord of free treats! Just a staircase away from my office! Why hadn’t I been told of this culinary Shangri-la? What other secrets were they keeping from me? Was there another door leading to a lavish spa? Did they have happy hour down here? I imagined other doors opening onto a dimly lit casino or smoky opium den populated by rheumy-eyed Ph.D.’s admitted with a password or secret handshake.

No one had ever told me about the faculty lunchroom. So on this day, spooning up the veggie chili, I felt like I’d been invited to visit a club to which I was not allowed to be a full member. More or less the position of every adjunct, come to think of it.

I had a class to teach, so I had to eat fast and go back upstairs. But on the way out, I stuck two cookies in my purse.


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