I am halfway finished with my cup of tea before I notice the message on my mug. In blue marker, all caps, words spiraling downward, someone has written “You know you’re not a freshman when you miss the old Murray-Dodge.” My first instinct is to run to the kitchen to read all the other messages I missed, but to my surprise I find that all the other mugs are bare and white. I hadn’t overlooked anything, except the fact that I, too, miss the old Murray-Dodge.
A quick confession: last year I was obsessed with Murray-Dodge. As a freshman, nothing seemed more novel than endless free cookies and tea. And not just any cookies, either: melting-hot, partially-raw, soak-through-the-paper-towel confections. Cookies in flavors like cinnamon-craisin, or butterscotch-espresso bean. But after trying to spread the word about my newly “discovered” den, it didn’t take me long to realize that not everyone shared my feelings. Whenever I’d ask my friends to come with me, their answers would be less than enthusiastic. “You mean that hipster place?” one of my friends said. Another declared even more boldly, “I hate that place. Look around. The people are the worst.” And though it may not be a stretch to label a basement cookie-joint with splatter-paint and Latin on the walls “hipster”, it never occurred to me that Murray-Dodge favored a specific social type. I mean, there are few things less universally agreed upon than the joys of a free cookie. Even though the logic never sat with me, my enthusiasm for midnight binges dwindled nonetheless.
If Murray-Dodge ever exuded a “hipster feel” in the past, I can say with certainty that that has been erased. The place has undergone a major overhaul. The inside is no longer so dim, thanks to a series of new light fixtures on the ceilings and Christmas-lights hugging the pipes overhead. The seating situation has changed—the slightly moldy sofas of the past have been replaced with fresh couches and chairs. But perhaps the most apparent change is in the kitchen: the walls are all white, the fridge chrome, and instead of the old, grandmother-oven of the past, appliances seem uprooted from a high-school cafeteria. This is the newest of additions. For the first few weeks of the year, Murray-Dodge had no oven at all and resorted to plating Frist cookies, augmenting the already clinical feel. But even with the oven back, the old grunge is gone. It’s as if the former basement-café now aims to say “I’m just a café that happens to be in a basement.”
Not everybody shares my (and the anonymous mug-writer’s) feelings—many are thrilled with the new vibe. As I sit and type, bands of friends straggle into the cookie-den with looks of pleasant surprise, pointing to the lighting and saying “I can see things,” or tapping the ceiling and proclaiming “this is lower” (it is not) before approaching the game-shelf and deciding whether the night calls for Jenga or Apples to Apples. But for all those pleased by Murray-Dodge’s new aesthetic, prepare to be disappointed.
When I asked a veteran worker what he thought of the café’s new image, I didn’t get an opinion, but dissuasion. “If you’re going to write an article on the old and new Murray-Dodge, wait another six weeks,” he said. “As for the changes, they’re not over yet.” He proceeded to tell me that the old white mugs are temporary, and the iconic painted ones are somewhere in storage. The tables and chairs aren’t permanent, either. Something will replace them, he said, though whether that something would be new or old, tables or couches, wooden or plastic, he didn’t know. And if all goes as planned, he promises white walls will once again meet paint. An ongoing argument with the university is causing the holdup.
So, given that Murray-Dodge is still in transition, why write the article now? Why not take his advice wait six weeks? Part of the answer is that I already waited one. Last week, while the oven was still MIA, I visited Murray-Dodge with the intention of tracking the missing oven’s effect on the social scene. I walked in certain that without fresh cookies, the numbers of Murray-Dodge attendees would plunge. After all, there would be no incentive to go. But instead of finding the dead, cheerless, dungeon-like basement I imagined, I found that Murray-Dodge was more or less just as populated as before. Even more concerning was the way students bit and broke the cold cookies, seemingly unaware of their inferiority to those of the past. Convinced that I was missing something, and that there must be some sort of tangible disappointment, I counted the numbers of people doing homework versus playing games, and I tracked the frequency of laughter, hopelessly comparing my findings to vague memories of last year’s café. I even asked a worker if there was a shift in morale, which she denied. Unwilling to let the facts rest, I approached a quiet studier, to ask what lured her to Murray-Dodge in the wake of store-bought cookies. But the answer I got only confirmed that I was wrong: “What? The oven’s gone? I didn’t even notice.” I left the café thinking maybe my last year’s friends were right. Maybe people didn’t go to Murray-Dodge for the cookies. Maybe it was a den of hipsterdom the whole time.
Now I return to find things changed yet also the same—the oven is back, the mint chip cookies are fresh and experimental as ever, and the walls and mugs are still oppressively white. As expected, the crowd remained the same. Numbers hadn’t decreased, but neither had the new “mainstream-friendly” interior drawn a noticeably wider crowd. So now I was back to my original question: what it is that brings students to Murray-Dodge. If not the cookies, is it the comfortable seating? The undying urge to play Taboo in small groups? The inexplicable hip instinct to seek subterranean hideouts? Something must draw the crowd together—that’s the way everything else on campus works. Clubs are the foundational unit of social activity, and without them students would have no reason to meet. All the a cappella groups and dance troupes and theater companies are walking, singing, jazz-handed proof of the reign of the extracurricular. It doesn’t matter what you do: from USG to LGBT to beekeeping to Chinese theater, there’s always some common vested interest around which campus groups form. It doesn’t follow that the purported Murray-Dodge “crowd” would be the one exception.
Here’s one explanation. Maybe it was about the cookies the whole time, not just in Murray-Dodge but in all campus groups across the board. Maybe the real reason any group gets together is the food. If you think about it, it doesn’t seem that far off. Last week I got an email luring me to a genocide seminar with free cannoli. On Thursday night, PFA gathered with Papa John’s, and the Society of Women’s Engineering roped in members with cupcakes numbering in the hundreds. Maybe the Murray-Dodge crowd is just one step ahead of the rest of us, a club for those who realized they can get their fill without the added effort. But here’s another explanation, and here’s where the other half of the answer comes in. While I could wait six weeks to see how the next new couch or splash of paint will roll over with the hipster crowd, I could also say with confidence now that no one’s really paying attention. Not to the wear on the couches, not to the freshness of the cookies, and not to the supposed need to identify a commonality before sitting and enjoying conversation. I’m tempted to say that Murray-Dodge is the counter-argument to the overwhelming activity-crazed mentality on campus, but even that would be going too far. It’s not a counter-argument at all. Rather, it merely ignores club syndrome, even if it means going literally underground. There’s no purpose to people sitting around and talking over cookies, no statement to be made or mission to be achieved. Murray-Dodge is just enjoyment, or homework, or eating your stress away, or awkward nights of Pictionary— Murray-Dodge is not about anything.