on the side: flavors

choosing not to choose at andrews commons

It’s the waiting that gets to me. Four nozzles, but there might as well be one-and-a-half, the way the stream shrivels for every newcomer putting a cup in. Not long ago someone on Brown Confessions did a test—it takes two minutes to fill a small cup of water at Andrews Commons. Two minutes. In the arctic, a girl would freeze if she took half that time to take a piss.

Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola touchscreen soda fountain offers seven flavors of Hi-C at the bending of a finger. That’s what the students want, I guess, decided some higher-up Planning Committee—that, and white stools, and wall-to-wall photo spreads of our campus on a fine autumn morning.

On leaving Andrews Commons, people pass, between inner and outer white doors, a corkboard advertising events in the community. As a freshman, I used to stop and look at these posters, imagining the fun and nice people I would have met had I gone to everything. I wished I could. That same Catholic ardor, in those first weeks, made me read every day’s Morning Mail from top to bottom. I even marked all the events in my Google Calendar.

How did I ever manage that kind of devotion to Morning Mail? But I must have, and every fall at the Activities Fair, I think I do detect, under the high struts of the OMAC, a low-pitched buzzing noise not quite drowned out by the roar of voices, the noise—you hear it sometimes in a Chinese buffet—of eager people reeling from the dazzling display of options, uncertain but wanting, greedily, to choose everything. To not, in fact, choose: to try it all.

But trying to do it all, like posing as the hotshot you were in high school, seems to be one of those freshman habits that are first permissible and recommended, and then merely permissible, and soon enough strictly just not recommended. For one year, maybe two, a freshman can whiz around, rolling in the surf, as long as she keeps mindful that eventually, each will come out choosing—a concentration, a club or two, a few legitimate passions, a “friend group.”

And so I’ve chosen. It seems my own metabolism for the new and the various has slowed a good bit after freshman year. I no longer barge into club meetings on a whim. I rarely attend shows I’ve not been invited to. The candied-out tables at J. Walter Wilson don’t tempt me. And I only drink water—nothing else—at Andrews Commons. This last one because, despite the water machine’s criminal slowness, I am more put off by having to weigh my options between Coke, Diet Coke, Diet Vanilla Coke, Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke, and all the rest of the adjectives in the 100-plus flavor machine. I am sick of weighing all the options, all the time.

Somewhere on the walk between “Brown 250+” banners and 100-plus flavor machines was the spot where I began to feel the bluster of the giant plus sign. Implicit in these signs is the message that bigger amounts to better amounts to best—the best for you, the best you, ever! Brown offers more options to its undergrads today than ever before. We have more events, more student groups, more courses and people and opportunities. And this, you understand, is exciting news.

I go to Brown, but I don’t take full advantage of my opportunities. My proud and loving parents don’t know this, but most days, I don’t even try. I like easy choices. To cross, or not to cross? Points or Bear Bucks? Come or go? These questions I like for their quickness and necessity. Yes or no? I choose, and I commit.

But with harder questions—that is to say, anything long-term—I delay and deny and dawdle and equivocate. I don’t know many people my age who could blame me. Most of my friends, for instance, don’t know what they’re doing Thursday morning until after 2 a.m. on Wednesday night. Making plans with people, try as I might, feels barely more serious than tipping hats, seeing as a text can be sent right up into the last five minutes pleading a swift cancellation. This suits me fine. Nobody I know sincerely longs for the telegram days, when some gal would wire some guy to pick her up at the station three weeks from this Thursday, knowing that, even if he thought she had a horrible laugh and bad teeth, the message would be a call of duty to rush to the station with a big dopey straw hat and a homecoming smile.

Here is a new century—it advances, it creates, and it values, at least on some surfaces, every person’s freedom of choice. But I wonder if, at some point in the next few decades, the pile-up of excess options and the need for rapid decision-making will leave people feeling stranded. Whatever I choose, the fear goes, there probably was a better option. The more options I’m provided with, the more urgent that fear seems. How many times a day can I choose what’s best for me? How many times should I have to?

As a high-schooler, I once waited tables at a Chinese place with eight flavors of ice cream on the dessert menu. The ice cream was kept in huge solid blocks in a deep freeze cooler. Whenever a guest ordered the stuff, a waiter would open the cooler and, with a blunted kitchen knife, hack some ice cream off the stone-hard block. He’d pile all the broken chips into a bowl. And then he’d serve it. Some flavors were so rarely ordered we hacked away at the one block for two or three years. You can guess more or less how that tasted.

Eventually, the boss scrapped the entire dessert menu. It vanished overnight. The ice cream in the cooler was replaced with cold beer. After that, whenever a guest asked for dessert, I would go into the back and slice up a fresh orange. I’d set the slices in a circle and serve them up on a white plate. Some guests I think were surprised to get it, but most people ate the orange without complaint.