Shortly before spring break, waiting in the chronically long line for noon-hour lunch at Paresky, I found myself glancing at a sign on one of the napkin dispensers. “Are you looking to… Make new friends? Meet new people?” the flyer read. “Then grab a blue cup!” The blue cups, which, I would soon discover come in both drinking glass and mug varieties, were a kind of secret symbol. If selected, these receptacles would act as an open invitation to passersby – friends, acquaintances and strangers alike – to come share a meal.
Jerry Byers, associate operations manager at the Paresky Student Center, said that the idea for the “blue cup program” originally came from a student. “I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Byers said, and he soon ordered the blue cups from the dining halls’ usual kitchen supplier, Kittredge Equipment Company.
On the day that I first heard about the blue cups, I already had plans to eat with a friend, and aside from making a remark about how cute the idea was, I forgot about the entire thing in the next few weeks. I admit, I sometimes grabbed a blue cup because the blue mugs were (a) pretty, (b) larger than the black cups and (c) more environmentally-friendly than the paper cups. But I never made the choice with the conscious intent of meeting new people or eating with strangers.
Last Saturday morning, however, I entered Whitmans’ Dining Hall intending to use a blue cup for its intended purpose. At around 9:15 a.m., I made myself a bowl of yogurt, poured some green tea in a blue mug and sat down at a table by myself in the main dining area. I quickly became embarrassed. The blue cup had seemed to morph before my eyes from a symbol of my friendliness to a symbol of my desperation. The dining hall was hardly full, and I wasn’t the only one sitting alone. But all the other solo diners were either on their computers or sitting at the side bar – and not one of them was drinking out of a blue cup. Every time I heard footsteps, I braced myself – it wasn’t that I was scared to sit with someone I didn’t know, but I was terrified of feeling as though someone had taken pity on me, obligated by the signal of my blue cup. I picked it up and drank out of it, trying to be surreptitious.
I felt an overwhelming desire to put up a symbol to counteract the cup I now saw as a metaphor for desperation – such as a sign, perhaps. In the end, I succumbed to the temptation to grab a course packet out of my bag and began my assigned reading for English, figuring that I would still look friendly, just slightly absorbed. No one responded to the signal of the blue cup. Libby Dvir ’16 did say hi to me, but as Dvir has said hi to me at other times when I was not holding a blue cup, I can’t count this as part of the program’s success.
The Dining Services people that I talked to seemed to corroborate the idea that the blue cups have not yet been properly put to use. A member of the staff in Driscoll, who did not wish to be identified, said that she hasn’t seen many people using the cups – possibly because most of them are at the top level, rather than the bottom one, where most people get their drinks. At Paresky, the program is slightly more robust. “I know the kids are using the cups,” Byers said. “I’m not sure if they are using them the way the program intends, but I like to think so.” He does not like the notion, he said, of kids at the College feeling as though they have no recourse but to eat alone, and hopes that the idea is helping to “build a better community here at Williams.”
Even though the blue cups inspired more embarrassment than openness in me and may have repelled College students not willing to risk looking desperate, the program is in an undeniably well-intentioned new implementation that reminds us branching out is not only possible, but socially permissible.