Opinion: Longing for late night Cooler culture

Mia Miller/The Occidental

This summer, the question of “What are you most excited for?” was a common conversation starter. The first answer always referred to the mundane, passive moments that we had no possibility of experiencing in the past year and a half. Campus life was never just about the responsibilities we undertake, but instead how we existed here together.

Where we sat, how we watched the sunset, the opportunities for fleeting hellos and where we ate.

The way my friends talked about the dining halls stuck with me. Of course we missed the pasta bar, the vegan banana muffins and the mozzarella sticks; but, what we really missed were the memories and traditions we’d built. Rating the Cooler’s chocolate chip cookies every night after dinner, sitting at the square patio tables for the best people-watching vantage point, sharing a 10 p.m. tea at the Coffee Cart when our papers finally wore us down — it didn’t really matter what I was eating, because I was eating with the people I love.

When the emails came in over the summer announcing the closing of the Green Bean and the limited hours of the dining halls, there was a general sense of understanding, coupled with an air of hope. We knew everything wasn’t going to go back to being the same right away. Due to restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, I understood that the administration wouldn’t have the ability to have everything open all the time.

But in the past two weeks, despite our understanding and patience, I’ve watched my classmates’ longing grow. Our exceptional food and meal culture is touted to prospective students on tours and highlighted across our social media, yet in the current reality, we’re limited. Due to retirement, resignation and employees who did not return after being furloughed last year, campus dining has been short staffed recently. As a result, the Cooler has had limited late-night hours, meaning students with late-night classes, athletes and even those who may not be as good at tracking their time sometimes have to resign themselves to a microwavable dinner. Even living off-campus and having access to my own food, I find myself affected. Studying late in the library one night, I found myself at 8:05 p.m. staring at the empty vending machine alongside other hungry, incredulous students.

Even outside of designated meal times, food should be accessible. My first year, nearly every Friday and Saturday night closed with my friends and I sharing a large order of fries, overenthusiastically making new friends as we sprawled across a square of Cooler couches. Now we find ourselves at midnight, tired of the idea of dancing any longer yet questioning why the night still feels unfulfilled. We put ourselves to bed, hearts unsatisfied.

My experience and emotions aren’t unique. The morning after we received the email informing us that the Cooler would be extending its hours earlier, I overheard frustrated conversations between everyone from first years on the Marketplace patio to professors talking to their students before class. The constant buzz of a college campus relies on gathering spaces, places that provide an avenue for conversation and a way to bond — often done over food. Given the average sleep schedule of my peers, these places are most appreciated in the wee hours of the night.

Understanding the need for a safe place to go in the evenings to make memories and new friends, the college should prioritize bringing back late-night hours, even if just for a few nights a week. In the future, they should consult students and emphasize our needs when making decisions that affect us on an everyday basis, and students should not sit back and expect the college to read their minds. Performing our due diligence, having conversations with dining staff, attending meetings or just filling out the surveys in our email inboxes will initiate conversations. Regardless of how familiar one may be with the dining system, sharing our input allows the college to understand the health, safety and social impact of its decisions. Additionally, both the college and the Oxy community must prioritize treating the dining staff, including our student workers, as respected members of the community. This includes being kind to the staff as we move through the lines in the Cooler, and the college ensuring their needs as employees are being met.

For now, I’ll take making friends in the MP lines and learning how to make the perfect coffee from their percolators, but I hope to soon be in the Cooler sharing a late-night pile of onion rings with my friends, watching the night come to a familiar close.