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THE COMMONS ROOM

THE WAITING GAME
Its the first day of the new semester, and students in their scarves and warm jackets jam the waiting room of the College of Arts and Sciences Advising Center. Pens in hand, they pore over the published list of courses, drawing circles around the classes they want to take. At their feet, loose pages of the course listings lie strewn across the floor.

These students have come here in the hope that they have found the right place -- the right place to get their questions answered, the right place to get their schedules straightened out. One young woman in a brown coat has mistakenly signed up for the wrong course. She is sixth or seventh in line, and she confesses to the woman behind her that she's thinking of giving up and going home. "I could always come back later," she says, though she knows that this would mean missing the first few sessions of the course she wants to take. She concocts a fib: "I could just tell the professor I didn't notice the problem at first." But in the end she stays in line to clear things up.

Staffing the main desk are two young women. They seldom smile, but they lean forward attentively to hear and answer question after question. For the most part, they are able to tell the students,Yes, you can sign up for an appointment with your advisor. Yes, this is where you hand in the permission slip to get into a closed class.

Yet, inevitably, they must also redirect the students who have come to the wrong place. A blond woman in a green jacket asks for a closed-class permission slip. "We don't give out blank ones," explains the brown-haired woman behind the counter. "You have to get it from your professor, or have them write us a note, and we'll fill one out."

The student indulges in a moment of eye rolling, but then says, "So I get the note and then come back here," making sure she has memorized the instructions.

The woman behind the counter says, "That's right." In the meantime, the other woman working the desk is taking a phone call. "No," she calmly tells the person on the other end of the line, "you'll have to come in yourself to register. If we did it for you over the phone, we'd have to do it for everyone, and there is no way."

Despite the crowds and the questions and the inevitable confusion of a day like today, the women behind the desk have managed to keep their good humor. And despite all the waiting and all the necessary shuttling back and forth between University buildings, the students are in more or less good spirits, too.

But then there's the couple who are just leaving -- a woman in a wool jacket whose sleeves come down over her hands and a man with longish hair and an upturned nose. This man, it seems, has learned that the problem with his schedule cannot be dealt with here. As he heads out the door, he puts on a scowl and, venting his irritation, he booms at his friend, "You dragged me all the way over here."

He speaks so roughly that you'd expect the woman to flinch or to tremble or to shout back in anger. Instead, the woman laughs. He glowers at her, and she giggles. She has caught some edge of playfulness behind the anger in his voice. She giggles because she is confident that her friend still has reserves of patience left, because she knows that, despite the long lines and the frustration and the course listings strewn everywhere, soon, very soon, all the day's difficulties will somehow be resolved.

The man knows this, too, although he's not quite ready to admit it. "Hey," he protests. He tries to sound angry, but he can't keep a smile off his face as he demands to know, "Why are you laughing at me?"
-Laura Shefler


LOOKING OUT OUR BACK DOOR
Last January, while sitting in the Commons Room watching the Raduga Children's Dance Group, we thought of the late comedian Andy Kaufman. Though best known for his role as Latka on the television series Taxi, Kaufman was a stand-up comedian and master of surprise. He'd bound on stage (or just as likely into the audience) and begin...well, begin whatever came to mind. He once sang every verse of the drinking song "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." He challenged audience members to wrestling matches. Another time he played host for an impromptu game show -- except that he spoke in another language, a language of his own making. His character grew angry when the "contestants" seemed perplexed. After awhile, they somehow did understand his peculiar Latka lingua, and then happily played along.

There is something both entertaining and confusing about such spontaneous performance. And nowhere was this more evident than in the performance of the Raduga Children's Dance Group in the Commons Room. There the audience discovered what Kaufman had found: The journey through surprised trepidation often leads to delight. The performance was really a live thank-you card from the Russian city of St. Petersburg. One of their own, nine-year-old Konstantine Kouzmine, had been seriously injured in a brutal attack near his mother's apartment. The assailant, using a hook-like weapon, nearly disemboweled Konstantine, leaving him without a functioning intestine. The boy's divorced father, living in the States, sent out urgent appeals for help, including calls to Pittsburgh. Konstantine was flown to Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, which, thanks to its extensive experience with organ transplantation, was one of the few places equipped to deal with such severe internal trauma. Jorge Reyes, assistant professor of surgery at Pitt's School of Medicine, conducted the life-saving operation. Once Konstantine regains his strength, doctors hope to place him on the waiting list for a lower intestinal transplant.

Word of Konstantine's story touched people on both sides of the globe. He became something of an adopted hero in Pittsburgh as well as in his native Russia. But as the Raduga dance company first began their performance, it seemed as if few people would be able to accept the thanks. Only a few dozen spectators sat in the chairs arranged in a semi-circle in the large room that serves as the hub of the Nationality Rooms. (Being early January, the rooms were still bedecked in holiday finery.) Several of the audience members were native Russians; others simply wanted to be part of this celebration.

The ten Raduga members -- five boys, five girls -- ranged in age from seven to 12. Unlike Kaufman's act, their choreography was polished and well rehearsed, and surprisingly worldly. In addition to classic Russian dances done in native garb, the children also did a Western number in cowboy get-up to Creedence Clearwater Revival's '70s hit, "Lookin' Out My Back Door."

Parts of the hour-plus performance were almost painfully cute -- the littlest dancers dressed as matryoshka dolls, taller dancers cavorting as snowflakes. The dancers changed costumes at a dizzying rate: girls dressed as princesses; boys in Cossack uniforms doing the traditional hopak kick dance. The tape player warbled off-key in this acoustically challenged space, but the children's enthusiasm overcame the flaws.

Over time, another kind of performance art -- more Kaufmanesque -- began. Students trekking through the Cathedral -- heads down and bodies purposeful on this, the first day of spring term classes -- stopped short on their journey. They had come upon the unexpected, a costumed dance troupe pantomiming the coming of winter. The students hesitated, taken aback by this speed bump in their daily travels. (One undergrad, spying a friend across the way, pointed to the dancers and mouthed to his buddy, What the hell is going on?) At first annoyed by this delay, each then became torn by indecision: to find an escape route and maybe beat the long lines at the bookstore or registrar's office, or to stay and watch?

Most stayed, at least for a moment, though some much longer. They even waited through a ten-minute intermission as the troupe re-dressed for a final number. By the end, the flux of students had encircled the staging area, some standing on tables and chairs to see, others watching from the balconies on the second and third floors. When the dance was over, the applause from the now 80 or so audience members was loud and sustained. The clapping echoed, circling around the stone walls and floor and through each decorated room, filling the entire space with recognition and appreciation, no matter what the nationality.
-Mark Collins


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