By Cameron Lee, Special to SantaCruzWire.com
SANTA CRUZ (July 2010) - Keep in mind that there are two different kinds of people at UC Santa Cruz: Vegans, and Everyone Else. The dining halls are under the impression that Everyone Else can eat Vegan food, which usually isn't the case. There's nothing like groggily wandering into the dining hall at eight in the morning and accidentally piling your plate with powdered eggs and seitan sausage, instead of the real deal. Apparently Vegans like eating chemicals more than animals. The dining halls do have non-Vegan food as well, but then the dining halls are also under the impression that Salt is an excellent substitute for Nutrition.
You can usually judge how good a visit to the dining hall is going to be before you even step inside by how hard the people who work there try to keep you out. About every third swipe of the ID card used to buy your food causes the cash register to freak out and sulk for five to ten minutes. Meanwhile the poor student working the machine randomly pushes buttons until one of the senior workers shows up and soothes the machine into submission. "Cash Register Whisperers" is what I've taken to calling them. My favorite theory is that they have a secret button in the back that they push whenever the food is more mediocre than usual, to discourage students from even getting inside.
If you manage to get past this first line of defense, you'll probably wish you hadn't. My friend once told me he had witnessed workers unloading large packages of food at the back of the dining hall, with labels declaring "For Orphanages, Prisons, and Schools" in big friendly letters. I now feel sorrier that ever for orphans, and will lead a crime-free life to avoid eating any more of this strange substitute food.
Once you've piled your plate with prison food, it's time to pick a drink. Fill your glass with a choice of strawberry-banana-mango juice, mango-guava juice, banana-cherry juice, pomegranate-lychee-zucchini juice, carbonated caffeine, or water. Then root around in the silverware until you find a clean fork.
On warm summer days, the exterior doors are left open to admit a breeze. The open doors also let in birds, who immediately roost in the ceiling and chirp at all of the folks dining below. Constantly. Do birds even need to breathe?
If the day isn't warm, the doors are kept shut. Yet the patio outside is still a tempting place to sit, so every now and then some enterprising young person will try to open the door to get outside, despite the multitude of bright red signs saying "STOP: Opening this door will trigger an alarm!". The piercing shriek of the alarm is common enough that most people can ignore it completely, other than applauding the culprit who tried to open the door in the first place. The alarm is slightly less irritating than the birds.
To keep myself sane, I write happy notes on the napkins. "Have a nice day!" or perhaps "This napkin is here to help you!" Then I put them back into the center of the pile for someone else to find.
I'm probably making it sound like the dining halls are one of the milder Circles of Hell, but the truth is they're not so bad. At least they give you a choice between "Potatoes and Meat" and "Rice and Meat" most days of the week. And the floors are mostly clean.
Probably the biggest fault I can find with the dining halls is the fact that they throw out any extra food. Have those grilled cheese sandwiches been out for more than an hour? Toss 'em! All those vegetables under the heat lamp? Toss 'em! There's no move at all to recycle the uneaten food at the end of the day, whether it's donating it, composting it, or maybe saving it for the next day (honestly nobody would notice). But for a campus that claims to be Green and Environmentally Friendly, the dining halls waste a lot of food. The raccoons probably get to it eventually, but that doesn't really count.
Yet there is something glorious even in this wasteful abundance. For someone like myself who has the metabolism of a hummingbird, and the appetite of a bear, a place that is constantly stocked with food is something like heaven. A heaven that is difficult to enter, over-salted, and filled with the sound of chirping birds.
Cameron Lee is a third year Film Major at UCSC. Cameron has traveled around his whole life, and he still thinks Santa Cruz is one of the strangest places he has ever been. He likes hiking, traveling, movies, reading, and exploring the Santa Cruz area, on campus and off.