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THE COMMONS ROOM

DINNER AT EDDIE'S
My assignment to report on dinner hour at a student cafeteria--was not, perhaps, the most glamorous of my career. Still it offered some intriguing prospects, particularly a shot at a free meal. And so it was, one rainy aut umn evening, that I hung out at Eddie's.

Eddie's is a new dining hall--or "food court"--adjoining the Litchfield Tower dorms and fronting Forbes Avenue. Though it is wildly improbable that Pitt's 12th chancellor, the magisterial Edward Litchfield, was ever referred to as "Eddie"--even as a child -- a dining hall bearing that name is now part of his extraordinary legacy.

And not an insignificant part. In the past few years Pitt has ratcheted up the level of amenities at this urban university. Students now ride aboard a far-flung fleet of campus buses; reside in modernized dorms; play and work out at the new Cost Sports Ce nter; and eat and relax in new dining halls, such as Eddie's.

I decide not to tackle Eddie's alone, preferring to see the eatery through student eyes. I inveigle three unsuspecting freshmen to join me. Eric and Phil, five weeks into the college experience, are already good friends. Ling was recommended by her Englis h composition instructor, a friend of mine.

We rendezvous on a Tuesday night in the Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning. My troops are earnest and polite, but a little jittery about what I have in mind, curious why a 40-something stranger armed with pencil and notebook is desirous of chronicl ing dinner.

But off we go into an evening of gusty winds and a flirtation of rain in the air. Tentatively, we attempt a sense of connection. Eric, it soon surfaces -- thanks to good buddy Phil -- is homesick, missing his girlfriend back in eastern Pennsylvania, commu nicating by phone at least once a day. Ling commiserates, sort of. Her move to Pitt also distanced her from a romantic interest. Then she adds brightly, "But now I've found someone new."

We arrive at Eddie's, a merry din of commotion and laughter. The scope of the dining room is illusionary, made hard to fathom by strategic lighting, jazzy artwork, little

pockets of space all packed with people. There are no 90-degree angles. It is all curves and flow. My companions are still puzzled by what I have in mind. Frankly so am I. Should I call this off? No, I decide: Let's just go with the flow.

Eddie's is a formidable food court indeed, with a variety of cuisine to satisfy every fundamental student taste: pasta, burgers, deli sandwiches and salads, fresh baked goods, sweet desserts. (I refrain from regaling my companions with dining hall lore fr om my day, when partaking of the evening repast meant standing in an all-male line that moved at torpid pace within a Bastille-like commons where our plates were inexorably ladled with gruel--meat or vegetarian no one knew.)

Our gang breaks rank to select our fare, re-gathering a few minutes later at a round table near a good-sized window. My choice is baked scrod, and I am curious to see what my guests have favored from the impressive panoply of Eddie victuals. Phil settles on--a Whopper and fries. Okay. Eric's selection--a Whopper and fries. Okay. Ling, thankfully, a serving of linguini.

As we dig into our chow, the students talk frankly of courses and professors. Phil and Ling each see an MBA in their futures. They swap notes and bemoan a killer class in microeconomics. Dark-haired, convivial, self-deprecatory in her humor, Ling confesse s to having slept through a recent lecture. " I hate when that happens," rejoins Phil, who is ruddy complexioned and happy-go-lucky. Eric, tall and trim, softly smiles. He intends to major in pharmacy.

Eddie's is buzzing now, the decibel level rising. (The dining hall is open every day until 11 p.m., closed on Saturdays.) My guests talk freely among themselves.

None of the three are nonchalant about money. Tuition costs are covered by arrays of loans, scholarships, jobs. All are serious about their education, but do not seem driven toward 4.0 perfection. "Sure, I'll strive for As," says Phil, "but I'll just do t he best I can." Adds Eric, "I'll need a 2.75 to be admitted to pharmacy." Ling hits the books four hours a day, a longer study block than the males at the table admit to. But she is her own toughest critic. Recently she wrote an essay on John Berger's "Wa ys of Seeing." Her instructor has highly praised the essay, but she is less taken with it: "It was a real struggle. I don't think I'm much of a writer."

Phil has pledged to a fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa, while Eric will remain an independent. "I don't drink" is his explanation. "You don't have to," Phil readily replies. "Nobody forces you." He is quick to dispel rumors of hazing: "The worst thing they mad e me do was clean the house." Greek and non-Greek, Eric and Phil intend to stay fast friends through their college years.

Life in the dorms in the 1990s, I learn, is heavy on electricity. Eric's room in Litchfield Towers is crammed with microwave, refrigerator, cable TV, radio, CD player, and something called SEGA 2. Only the latter item raises eyebrows. "You have SEGA 2!" s ays Ling in an envious shout. Then Ling reveals she possesses a cellular phone. Her dinner mates exclaim in unison: "You have cellular!"

Some things never seem to change--generation after generation, late night in the dorms. On her all-woman floor, Ling reports, "We all like to sit around and talk." Phil smiles: "Most of the guys watch ESPN."

I probe musical tastes. Phil astounds me by answering: "I like Rush."

"Rush Limbaugh," I gasp, trying to imagine the pundit's singing voice. Well, of course, it turns out that Rush is a rock group--heavy metal fused with pop. Eric is partial to '60s oldies, "such as Chicago, the early Chicago," while Ling has a penchant for "Chinese music and slow songs."

When it comes to TV, no stunning surprises: for Eric it's Seinfeld; Ling, Beverly Hills 90210; Phil, Beavis and Butthead.

Each of my dining companions winces in turn when asked to comment on President Clinton. They all lean toward Republican conservatism, but at bottom admit to being "turned off by politics."

Phil is a Roman Catholic: "I try to go to Mass regularly, but sometimes it's hard." Ling: "My parents are Buddhists, but right now I don't practice a faith." Eric: "I'm Lutheran, but I haven't gone to church since school started."

No one seems particularly anxious about, well, anything. Venturing the streets of Oakland at night? "We always stay in groups," they jointly respond. As for any future insecurities, Phil says, "I'll just work hard and have a good time." Eric is con centrating on his pharmacy studies--and his girlfriend, whom he hopes to marry someday. Ling is finding a base of operations in Pitt's Asian-American community and hopes to study abroad and to build a career in international business. Here in pleasant Edd ie's, not a care in the world, at least not this rainy Tuesday evening.

Our meal long over, the students prepare for leave-taking. Phil, to study a bit before a soccer game at the Cost Center. Ling, up to Trees Hall for a swim. Eric, back to his dorm room and a biology text-book--and unquestionably a late night phone call.

As a last-second question, I ask my guests to name someone they admire, someone they might consider a hero. Neither Eric nor Phil has a ready answer to what is admittedly a difficult on-the-spot question in the middle of a boisterous dining hall. But Ling answers without hesitancy. She says, with gentleness and pride, "My dad." And then she tells us why. When Ling was very little her family was living, in difficulty, in South Vietnam. "My dad was determined to get us out." They exited the country as part of a ragged convoy carrying "boat people." The journey was perilous. "I don't remember the trip very well, but I know that many people died, and that the boat we were on was the only one to reach America. Yes, my dad is my hero."

Eric and Phil and I listen intently. And then it seems there is nothing left to say. My companions depart, but I stay a while at the round table in Eddie's, musing. I have good feelings about these kids. I hope, as much as possible, that anxiety stays a s tranger. I wish for them that, as they make their way along life's unpredictable, sometimes dangerous currents, they will always find safe eddies.
-Tommy Ehrbar


LESSON WRITTEN
IN STONE
Walking on Bayard Avenue near the new Ryan Catholic Newman Center, we noticed two priests. It's not surprising to find clergy outside; the center is meant as a drop-in gathering place for students from Pitt, Carnegie Mello n, and Chatham. But these priests stood almost like sentries, their arms crossed as they watched passing pedestrians.

"Standing guard?" we asked, smiling.

"Actually, yes," one of the priests responded. He pointed to several spots in the cement sidewalk that had recently been covered with newer concrete patches. "A couple of fraternity guys put their Greek initials here, so we had to fix it."

Then the man in the collar rolled his eyes heavenward and laughed, no doubt thinking how tempting the new cement must have seemed to the overly eager pledges. "It wasn't much of a surprise to us," he said. It was clear, we thought, as we continued on our way: Students are okay in the abstract. But not in the concrete.
-Mark Collins


THAT WHICH
ENDURES
M other is not for sale: she can be had for love: and postage." So reads the pronouncement that appears in each issue of Mother , a literary journal published by Pitt students during 1963 and 1964. A harbing er of the idealistic irreverence that would soon pervade campus life, Mother's motto embodies two of the best traits of the 1960s: boldness and generosity. Over the phone from his home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the publication's editor, Ronald C aplan (Education '64), remembers this motto and laughs. "Maybe it's a little bolder than we knew," he says.

Mother was established by a group of student writers influenced by the Black Mountain school of poetry, which included Edward Dorn, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley--poets whom Caplan remembers for the way they used everyday languag e in their works. Many of the poems in Mother dealt with themes such as sexuality, mental illness, social alienation, and Buddhist spirituality--themes common in the poetry of that era, yet daring subjects for college students in Pittsburgh.

"You felt you were underground," says Caplan, describing the experience of publishing Mother , "and you felt that this was right. It felt wonderful, and I think we were very full of ourselves. We thought that Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac--and af terwards Dorn and Olson--were talking right to us. Or at least I did," he adds, taking care with the facts. "The others may or may not have."

The personal rewards from Mother were "important and very lasting," Caplan insists. "It gave us a way to connect with poets all over the world." Writers from as far away as India subscribed. Mother printed works from Pittsburghers as well as from poets in other cities, including several, such as Larry Eigner, Aram Saroyan, and Diane Wakoski, who were well known or on their way to prominence.

The way to subscribe to Mother was to send Caplan five stamps worth five cents each, good for five issues of the publication, which was typewritten and mimeographed. (In a 1964 yearbook photo, Caplan, dressed in a dark, rugged sweater, poses with h is arm wrapped around a bulky mimeograph machine.) Even at this modest price, Mother was lenient with subscribers who fell behind. "There are no more stamps in the till under your name (haven't been for some time, actually)" cautions a renewal lett er from Caplan, preserved in Hillman Library's Special Collections department. "And in some cases, issue six just happened to get to you."

If Caplan didn't mind contributing a five-cent stamp here and there to keep Mother in the mail, he also had a sense that there were larger contributions he could make to the world. Caplan, who at one time thought he would become a high school Engli sh teacher, left Pitt partway through a graduate degree to join VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). He worked with them in California, but found the organization too restricting. Moved by the work and vision of Cesar Chavez he became a union organiz er, joining the United Farm Workers in Delano, California. "That was the year I earned five dollars," he recalls cheerfully. "It meant that the car wasn't paid for, so you hitch-hiked. You slept on the floor and you ate a lot of fishheads and rice. "

But it wasn't until several years later that Caplan found his central calling--as an editor, it turned out, after all. After several years of moving from place to place, from California to Detroit, and back to San Francisco, he eventually ended up on Cap e Breton Island, the northeastern section of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Captivated by the beauty of the landscape and the kindness of the residents who welcomed him, Caplan started Cape Breton's Magazine in 1972 as a way of staying on th e island.

This magazine, "Devoted to the History, Natural History and Future of Cape Breton Island," features "visits" with Cape Bretoners with a wide range of interests. In one recent issue, for instance, 89 year-old Alfred MacKay reminisces about a lifetime of ha rd work spent fishing, farming, and cutting timber. Cayle Chernin, an award-winning video producer, describes her visit to Russia to meet her recently discovered relatives. Joe Neil MacNeil translates a Gaelic story called "Domhnall Clibisteach" ("Awkward Donald"). The story appears in both the English and the original Gaelic. (Caplan also prints stories in Acadian French and Micmac, an Algonquian language spoken all along Canada's eastern coast.) The same issue also includes a historical account. assembl ed in part from newspaper articles, of an 1893 shipwreck, as well as a first-person narration, written in 1936, of a physician's 64-mile trek through the snowy Cape Breton Highlands to help a feverish child.

Caplan edits the transcripts of the oral histories with affectionate restraint, leaving in the "you knows" and the sentences that change direction midway through. The articles meander and backtrack and leap from subject to subject, and yet, in doing so, t hey get straight to the hearts of people's lives. Over and over in these stories, people quietly reveal the things that matter most to them. Cayle Chernin recalls times when her great-uncle in Russia would look at her across the room and simply say out lo ud the name of her grandfather, his long-lost brother. Clara Buffet of Glace Bay remembers her friend Hilda Wright, the founder of the Citizens Service League. Buffet says that Wright, an Anglican social worker, tried all her life for permission to give r eligious services but was forbidden to do so, again and again, because she was a woman. Though not herself a believing Christian, Buffet understands how badly her friend wanted to be able to conduct services. Recounting the story of how Wright, dying of c ancer, finally received permission to give communion, Clara Buffet weeps.

The magazine boasts a generous number of photographs. Some are historical pictures of people (Cayle Chernin's great-uncle Boris, the young Alfred McKay), places (a log house belonging to a Cape Breton family that had migrated to the Canadian Midwest), and the occasional cow or horse. Other photographs are warm portraits taken by Caplan himself.

Caplan publishes three issues per year--printed in black and white on spacious newsprint pages -- and regularly sells more than 6,000 copies. A recent profile of Caplan in Canadian Geographic magazine quotes one woman who says Cape Breton's Maga zine gets passed around at her husband's steel plant. The article notes the woman's surprise upon learning that the magazine's editor wasn't a Cape Breton native and suggests that the islanders have accepted Caplan and his magazine as their own.

And yet Caplan sees a connection between his work today and his experiences at Pitt, publishing Mother's vital, youthful poetry. Caplan's emotional courage and generosity--traits that outlasted the '60s--inform every story in Cape Breton's Magaz ine. Although his life has taken many unexpected turns, Caplan says, "It's funny, but looking back, my route seems so ordinary and straightforward. I've been fortunate enough to be able to make a life from the things I cared about: the human voice a nd the human experience."
-Laura Shefler


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