What Fordham Campus Dining can teach us about maintaining perspective in the midst of the Pandemic
by Noah Kotlarek
It’s 13:00 at the feeding center. Before the meltdown, the center’s windows allowed in sunlight. Now, the windows are walls. We each line up six feet apart on our designated floor positions. Like newly manufactured widgets under inspection for defects, we are summoned towards the checkpoint. The feeding officer motions for me. I tap my proximity card onto the reader, “Welcome A160038**,” she vocalizes. “Brave new world,” I remark. “Mhm,” she murmurs from under her mask. Robotically, she administers an isopropyl alcohol solution onto my hands. Mercilessly, the hydroxyl groups “shred apart” the phospholipid bilayers of my resident microbes—my hands rendered devoid of life. Having executed this brutal scorched earth policy, I follow the red arrows into the main chamber. It is different here; the new quietness and impersonality is discomforting. Once my selection of hermetically sealed rations has been made, I’m efficiently directed out of the center. The whole process takes no more than three minutes. It’s painless, but nothing more. In and out, we’re processed, allotted rations, then expelled.
This is the Fordham cafeteria in September 2020. For the time being, it’s no longer the social mecca of the past. You are not permitted to sit inside and are encouraged to get your food then evacuate. Nutriments and utensils are distributed in virally-impenetrable wrappers; beverages in bottles; and sandwiches, fruits, and salads in plastic boxes. To me, these changes are saddening but understandable. In this unusual time, it’s easy to go through the motions mechanically, whether that be in the cafeteria or in conversation. It’s easy to go drudgingly through the cafeteria melancholy and detached. “What a shame,” you may think, observing the empty cafeteria and wondering how long we have before we’re sent back. Similarly, in conversation with a casual acquaintance, too often the exchange goes, “How many of your classes are online?” and concludes with some iteration of “well, that sucks,” and perhaps an empty and eventually unrealized “see you around.”
Though we cannot remedy all pains created by the pandemic, neither the cafeteria experience nor our conversations must be this dismal. In fact, the cafeteria serves as a metaphor for our unideal lives during the pandemic. More importantly, the way in which we approach this new cafeteria can teach us about the ways in which we interact with our broader brave new world.
The first lesson that the cafeteria can teach us about is attitude, or how we approach the world. As described earlier, it’s easy to only look at the negatives when getting food from the Caf—the limited options and lack of people. But the experience is what you make it. You can choose to go in and out uneventfully, or you can choose to interact with the cafeteria workers. Believe me, they can be a source of brightness in your day. Their aprons now all display their names in big bright red letters. Use these names and joke around with the workers, ask them how they are and about their days. The cafeteria workers have recently been especially amiable, so now is your opportunity to befriend them.
The second lesson that the cafeteria can teach us is about perspective. We must be grateful; the situation could be worse. The food really isn’t that bad (it’s actually pretty good), and the new and diversified fruit bowls are a special treat. Plus, you can now legally hoard food for later use. Load up on the duty-free single serve Rice Krispies and corn flakes. Need to furnish your kitchen cupboards? Have some extra disposable forks. Finally, while the weather is still somewhat clement, take advantage of the mandatory outdoor dining. My personal favorite spot is the stairs parallel to the scaffolding you must walk under to enter McGinley. Sit here alone or with a friend as you eat. The people watching is second to none, and there’s a good chance someone you know will pass. This, like interacting with the cafeteria workers, is uplifting.
On a shallower note, the cafeteria is a great place to practice your hand-eye coordination and balancing abilities. Upon entering the Caf, you’ll receive a box that you’ll never use and then three to four flimsy plastic plates, one for each serving of food. By the end of your food acquisitions, you’ll be balancing boxes, cups, plates, and bottles in your hands, on your forearms, and for the particularly advanced—your head. But that’s only half the battle. Now open two sets of doors and descend a staircase. If you end up spilling food in the process, keep moving. Such “spills” are simply testament to the abundance of the Marketplace and the flourishing of our society. Moreover, these “spills” keep people employed. If there is no “mess” to clean up, then there is no job in “mess-cleaning.” So support the economy and go to the Caf! Lastly, spilling your food may reduce your chance of developing (morbid) obesity as you will be consuming less food. In these challenging times, it is crucial to remember that we are not only in a viral pandemic but also an obesity pandemic.
Time may change us, but we cannot change time. All we can do is continue studying, keep eating from the cafeteria, try to be responsible citizens, and proceed with life.