Dining Hall Friend-Finding

I steal another glance at my phone. Nothing. My attention returns to homework. It’s been getting more difficult to concentrate. I hear a low buzz and my eyes dart back. There’s no change. It was only the leaves in the wind. I’ll just put it in my pocket. Then I can feel if it rings.

Another ten minutes pass and I haven’t finished another paragraph. I must have missed the vibration—that’s happened before. I slide my phone out of my pocket. Still nothing. Were they all in class? Asleep? Could they be at the gym? I can wait no longer. I have an appointment later this afternoon. I pause before grabbing my backpack. I’m briefly tempted to skip the meal, but realize that I can’t be distracted by the afternoon’s appointment. I have no choice.

I’ll be entering the dining hall blind.

I’ve already lived the next twenty minutes more times than I care to admit. Every Princeton student has. It’s a ubiquitous, but unspoken social ritual. Students play this game on campuses across America. The game is dining hall friend-finding.

It begins with a warm-up lap around the dining hall. Casually you observe the room, searching for familiar faces. You enter the servery alone. It’s safe there. Any observers assume that the “friends” he was supposed to “meet” are also getting their food. The food line offers a second chance. If you are lucky, you’ll meet a familiar face. To buy time, you often choose the longest line—regardless of what food it leads to.

Plate full, you begin a second lap around the dining hall. The stakes are higher in this round. No more servery as a safety net—you need to put your plate on a table. In order to allay suspicion, you must appear sociable. You know almost everyone in the dining hall. You’re just trying to decide with whom to sit. This is a delicate deception. You build your facade with waves and “hellos.” You occasionally target distant acquaintances, but often aim greetings at no one at all. There is no margin of error. If a classmate spots the charade, you will surely be the target of hushed snickers.

Now you’re in a waiting game. Simply making laps around the dining hall isn’t an option (the “wandering freshman” is one of the most desperate sights on a college campus). You need to be inconspicuous. You need diversions. You find any excuse to leave the main hall and stall eating. The “missing spoon” is a time-tested favorite. Curiously, only spoons at the farthest end of the servery will do. Other ploys: “more ketchup,” “accidently got Diet,” and “emergency cup of coffee.”

There is one fail-safe. Princetonians may be social, but they’re also studious. A solitary, diligent diner can be a perfect cover. This route takes careful planning, however. There is a fine line between busy and antisocial. A mere book won’t do. Nobody goes to a noisy dining hall to read. You need a laptop. A multi-tasker is hardly an oddity—there’s one or two at every meal. And they’re believable. A writer madly keeping his train of thought through a meal? A student frantically typing up an email for a deadline? I’ve seen both before. Some may even have been real. Despite its value, the mealtime study is a last resort. The laptop is a double-edged sword. It may justify one’s solitude, but it also deters any possible seatmates. It’s an admission of defeat, something a Princetonian does not handle well.

“Have a good day.”

I snap out of my daze. A woman is smiling at me. It takes a moment for me to recognize the pleasant lady who swipes our cards at lunch.

“Thank you,” I respond, still a little disoriented.

I continue into the dining hall. The scene is all too familiar. My eyes trace the path for my first, casual lap. I don’t even bother to look for a friendly face.

My phone vibrates. I’m shaken form my stupor and cautiously check the screen.

Hey just saw you walk in, we’re in the corner.

Relief washes over me. I’ve never read such beautiful words.

Sharing the Power Outlet

I walk into the classroom. Besides the eager community auditor in the corner, it’s entirely empty. I had awoken early with one thing in mind. There are only a handful of power outlets in this classroom. Of these outlets, only one is front and center – the optimum learning zone.

I want that power outlet.

It’s a matter of necessity. My laptop, like so many Apple products, has become temperamental in its second year. I can’t trust the battery to last more than three hours. I have a long day ahead of me. I need that outlet. I pitch camp at the electrical oasis. The outlet nurtures my laptop as I open notes from the previous lecture. I slip into a pleasant daydream. Sometimes life’s smallest victories are the sweetest.

Then the door opens.

I don’t need to glance from the screen. I’ve already caught the whiff of another stag. I return to my work. This is nothing to worry about—I’d left my backpack occupying the other seat. I check my Google Calendar. There will be a lot of work this week. But for this moment, I’m content. Yet something isn’t right. I have a nagging feeling that I’m forgetting something. Did I have my wallet? Yes. Had I checked my email that morning? Of course.

Then horror hits me. I catch my backpack in the corner of my eye. On the ground. I had failed to mark my territory. A rookie mistake. I motion to put my backpack on the neighboring seat, but my adversary has already caught my error. He makes a beeline for the opening. Filling the seat now would be rude. Even in the most vicious competition, I can’t break social decorum. That’s what makes me different from him. My rival takes the seat next to me. My messiness has cost me a clean victory. Now it’s a war of attrition.

At this point, I owe the audience an explanation. It’s not sharing the outlet that’s the problem. There’s plenty of power for the two of us. We’re alone in this room. And there’s another outlet a few yards away. True, the center outlet is the most valuable real estate. But I earned it. I came here first.

Now another alpha male comes and squats at my outlet. Out of several dozen other seats, he chooses the seat next to my outlet. And I don’t even know the guy. Strangers don’t sit next to each other. Not in empty movie theaters, not in empty busses, not in empty classrooms. Not when there are other options. It’s just weird. It’s a denial of all the progress humanity has made. Did our forefathers build these spacious wonders so we could huddle like cavemen in a storm? I think not.

But it’s more than that. I have friends in this class. Where are they supposed to sit? This is their class too, but now they’ll need to choose between my company and a power outlet. I was looking out for my own. I was saving room for my pack at the best watering hole. I’m being selfless, really.

And what if my friends misunderstand? What if they think this jerk is my friend? My comrades will feel alienated, if not betrayed. But there’s not much I can do. It’s a contest of endurance. The unease will eventually force one of us out.

Through the window, I see students approaching the building. If I don’t act quickly, all the outlets will be taken. My friends will need their outlet. I need to claim new territory, while it still exists.

But this isn’t giving in. This isn’t a loss. It’s a more nuanced kind of victory. It’s a victory the beast next to me can’t understand. I make the painful decision. I walk away the bigger man.

One-hour Passing Periods and Frist Center Hoover-Towns

Sometimes, a schedule lines up perfectly. Lectures start late in the morning. Classes lump together in two-hour periods. Labs are few and far between. Precepts casually dot the afternoons. In these ideal schedules, a student can expect some nice breaks. From ten-minute rests to the two-hour spans. Some students can even organize a free afternoon. These breaks are beautiful. But these aren’t the breaks I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the one-hour passing period.

One hour isn’t enough time to do much of anything. But it’s too long to justify doing nothing. Many students can’t return to their beds to nap. The round trip to the dorms can swallow half an hour alone. Going to the library can be even more unrealistic. During peak study-hours, hunting down a quiet nook can be a lengthy task.

The weight of this crisis rests squarely on the nucleus of day-to-day life: Frist Campus Center. On any given weekday, bystanders may observe the Hoover-town set up in its halls. They will see the city set up in front of Café Viv, and the suburb next to Witherspoon’s. They will pass the colony founded around the C-Store, perpetually hypnotized by the latest ESPN coverage. They may even journey through the freshman ghetto in the Gallery, waiting for the next late meal.

None of these students stay at their camps for long. They pitch tent and work—or perhaps nap—for that free hour. They don’t get much work done, but the session hopefully puts a dent in their weekly tasks.

Few students need to stake their own territory. Even most freshman can find a familiar face. Most people settle at a friend’s camp, taking the spot as their own when the original owner leaves. But the student won’t be alone for long. Another classmate will soon take the vacant seat. The result is the perpetual hive of marginally-efficient workers. It’s a weak imitation of a library’s industrial efficiency. But it’s still more rigorous than a dormitory common room. Caught in the middle of work and relaxation, Frist is Princeton University’s limbo.

And it’s all thanks to that dreaded one-hour passing period.

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