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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life

Basement Contractors

It’s late Friday night and the Cathedral is a shell of dimly lit halls and locked classrooms. Except for the basement. The corridors echo as the beat of hip-hop music and chatter fill the air. A crowd of 150 or so is in the hallway, awaiting the studio doors to open for Friday Night Improvs, Pittsburgh’s only all-audience participation comedy improv show.

After some friendly shoving through the studio entrance, seats are filled and the assemblage stomps and claps impatiently, as if it were a rock concert. Eric Ellis, emcee and improv regular, takes charge: “OK, I want everybody on this side of the room to say Ben! And everybody on the other side to say Rocks!

What follows is a rhythmic combination of repetitive cheering that’s like a lively stadium crowd. The chant of Ben is for Ben Mayer (CAS ’94, LAW ’97), a lawyer by day and a four-year veteran host of the 11 pm Friday night show. Many in the audience consider him their beloved improv emperor. He emerges from behind a worn-out prop desk and delivers a monologue in David Letterman fashion. Next come the improv games.

For Mayer, the show is about more than laughs. “Improvability gives me the ability to think on my feet,” he says. “It’s also a place to try out being funny.”

To maintain civility, FNI has six simple rules: No booing. Failure is OK. Don’t act in a bubble. Listen. No stereotypes. And Wang Chung, that is—Everybody have fun tonight!

While FNI is a good training session for aspiring actors and comedians, most participants are a mixture of regular working professionals and students.

Ellis keeps the crowd busy. “This game is called cliffhanger. I need a hero, a sidekick, and a super villain.”

Three eager volunteers are chosen, and they race toward center stage.

“Great! And what are the names of our characters?”

The crowd settles on Boneless Chicken Man and Drumstick as the do-good duo and Kernel as the arch nemesis.

“Lastly, I need an environment.”

“The moon,” shouts an audience member.

And so the unscripted adventure unfolds, just as it does every Friday night.

—Ernie Davis Brown

Hear This

Four Pitt graduate students slide into the tight entryway of the club; each pays the $3 cover charge and heads for the bar. Coronas in hand, the girls scoot their way through the crowd to the jukebox along the wall, ducking their heads to avoid the hot pink icicle lights dangling from the ceiling. The women flip through the jukebox’s selections. Aerosmith? Nah. Green Day? Nope. Soundgarden? Nuh-uh. Britney Spears? Well, okay.

One of the students, Erin Scapes, a tall redhead with tortoiseshell glasses, tucks her bottle under her arm so she can talk with her hands. “No rock and roll. Something we can dance to.” The girls laugh at the unspoken explanation for picking “Baby (One More Time).”

Not that it matters much what music is playing. Most people at the Pittsburgh Association for the Deaf’s club can’t hear the thumping beats that emanate from the jukebox’s neon frame. They can, however, feel the vibrations through the carpeted floors, the tabletops, and the pool tables. The louder, the better. And on this Saturday night, one thing’s for certain at this hangout for the Pitt Deaf community—it’s loud.

Scapes is in the School of Education’s Deaf-Ed program. She scrunches her nose and jumps from the decibel level when Spears sings, which is a dead giveaway that Scapes can hear. She signs to her friend, Liz Anazagasti, a Deaf-Ed student who is deaf and hasn’t budged. “Can you feel the music?” Anazagasti places her hand on the pool table. It seems the music’s vibrations surge through her hand, up her arm, and throughout her body. With a burst, she flails her arms and legs to the beat.

You’re crazy! signs Scapes, laughing at her friend’s antics. Anazagasti doesn’t care. Using her body to express herself is part of being deaf. She makes a suggestion to Scapes and her other friends from the Deaf-Ed program, Sarah Walzer, a hearing student, and Monica Restrepo, a hard-of-hearing student.

Let’s shoot a game of pool.

While the Deaf–Ed program prepares students to teach American Sign Language for all kinds of situations, there is no strategy for signing with a pool cue in one hand and blue chalk in the other. Yet, the girls switch between shooting pool and signing with ease.

Anazagasti bends over the table, eyeing the striped ball. Restrepo squats next to a pocket. Shoot it here, she signs.

I know, I know, Anazagasti signs back. She shoos Restrepo away from the table and sinks the ball in the pocket.

—Diana Moffo

Main Course

The Jitterbug. The Mashed Potato. The Hustle. The Macarena. The American Zigzag.

Wait a second. The American Zigzag never had teenagers jutting hips, thrusting pelvises, and shaking arms.

In fact, this combo isn’t popular with the teenage set. You’ll find it in business lunches and cocktail parties, where the rules are cross right, cross left, and hands on lap. No, it’s not the latest dance craze—it’s the silent way to tell your waiter, “I couldn’t eat another bite if I tried.” Place knife on plate at 30-degree angle on the right. Fork the same way on the left.

Practicing the American Zigzag is not what Eron Jaber counted on when he signed up for the annual etiquette seminar, sponsored by the Pitt Program Council. The organization holds the event to teach college students—some of whom will be interviewing for jobs over lunch—the rights and wrongs of table manners.

Jaber, a fifth-year pharmacy student at Pitt-Johnstown, wants to become a gentleman, if just for one night, and then share what’s he learned about soup slurping and napkin folding with his fraternity brothers at Sigma Phi Epsilon. He looks uncomfortable in a buttoned-down shirt and khaki pants, like a fidgety boy in church. He’s pulling at his collar, glancing around to make sure no one has caught his faux pas—straightening clothing while eating.

Corene B. Ashley didn’t notice. The seminar instructor has eyed something worse. Something inexcusable. Something brash and unmannerly. A crumpled McDonald’s cup is set on the crisp linen tablecloths, next to crystal wine goblets and fan-folded napkins. The lid is torn to shreds, and the end of the straw obviously has been chewed upon. The girl who brought the cup to the seminar is nervous, her eyes shifting from the cup to Ashley to the cup again. With grace and reserve, Ashley clears her throat, looks away, and says in her honey-dipped voice, “We’ve come a long way baby, as they say, but be a lady for a night!”

Sandwiched among the five courses of vegetable soup, Caesar salad, herbed stuffed chicken breast, mixed vegetables, and chocolate mousse, Ashley has a confession. The queen of etiquette knows better than to wear dark lipstick at a fancy dinner—it ruins cloth napkins. And yet, hand on hip, she yells, “I like my red lipstick, and I like it heavy!” Take that, Miss Manners.


Truth Unsealed

An alumna called Pitt Magazine recently to ask about the University seal. We thought a mammal with flippers was flopping around Litchfield Towers, but quickly surmised that she was curious about the emblem affixed to all official University documents.

Our research team learned the seal is a variation on the coat of arms of William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham, who served as British prime minister in the 18th century. During the French and Indian War, British soldiers seized Fort Duquesne and renamed it in Pitt’s honor. When the nearby settlement called Pittsburgh became a city in 1816, it adopted Pitt’s coat of arms. The three dots are gold coins, which denote the Pitt family’s participation in the Crusades; the castle wall signifies the new city; and the checkerboard is blue and white, with the first color representing Pitt’s status as an earl and the second representing purity, innocence, and gentleness in medieval heraldry.

Pitt’s predecessor, Western University of Pennsylvania, adopted the seal in 1908, adding the Latin motto “Veritas et Virtus” (“Truth and Virtue”). In 1937, the seal was shelved only to reemerge as the Pitt logo in 1974, and has stayed with us ever since, though the design has been refined throughout the years.


Trash Talk

Save the trash!

That’s all Lisa Heller was thinking when Pitt began clearing the old furniture from the Litchfield Towers student residence halls at school year’s end.

The communications graduate student immediately contacted friends who might want to help rescue the abandoned furniture, so it could be included in an upcoming one-day sale. She found a room at the nearby Jewish Community Center to serve as an orphanage. Then, she organized a convoy of vans, trucks, and SUVs to swoop down on Forbes Avenue. With Pitt’s okay, her troops salvaged an array of dorm chairs, desks, dressers, and other goodies that were left for dead in the Dumpster bins.

Heller got the idea for Dump and Run in 1994—as an undergraduate at Syracuse University—where after searching a Dumpster for a lost ring, she found a plethora of perfectly usable trash. The organization has expanded to serve universities across the nation. Originally, the treasures came solely from students donating their leftovers. Now, Dump and Run gladly accepts university surplus, too, such as dormitory furniture.

Between the students and Pitt, Heller and company made quite a haul. For the sale, there was something for everyone—from bundles of Christmas lights to trick handcuffs. In the furniture department there were coffee tables, computer stands, and groovy couches in orange, plaid, or large lime-green and lemon-yellow flowers. For the health and beauty conscious there was a home electrolysis system that guaranteed “total perfection,” an opened packet of disposable razors, used peach-scented conditioner, and a primitive exercise machine. Those interested in preventive medicine could purchase a voodoo doll that wards off afflictions such as warts, flabby muscles, corns, and gout. The food aisle included Ramen noodles—a staple in every college diet. A rare find in the shoe section was a pair of embroidered cowboy boots—one navy blue, the other spray-painted gold. Someone even gave away a collection of signs advertising Copenhagen black bourbon flavored chewing tobacco.

Dump and Run doesn’t just give new meaning to garbage recycling. It generates cash for nonprofits. In its first year at Pitt, Dump and Run grossed more than $1,500, splitting it with three groups that helped: the University’s LINCS (Learning Integrated with Needed Construction and Service), which is raising money to send students to Peru to build a schoolhouse; Pittsburgh’s Intercultural House, which promotes understanding of different cultures; and the Way Station welfare-to-work program in Columbiana, Ohio.

Dozens of students and city customers rummaged through the inventory. One woman set down her finds on a nearby table and ran her hands over the doors of an orphaned dorm cabinet. The wood had a few nicks. It didn’t seem to bother her. She needed a cabinet.

—Marie Skoczylas

In This Corner

In the movies, it’s comical when two people with opposite personalities share an apartment. Think about Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple.” In real life, it’s not so funny when your new roommate hangs his socks on the lamp.

About 90 percent of the 3,000 new students at the Oakland campus this fall live in one of Pitt’s 11 residence halls, which have a limited number of single rooms. By now, those with roommates know all about people who clip their toenails in the kitchen or hang wet underwear on the towel rack. When a roommate’s habits cross from quirky to annoying, students turn to resident assistants for help. More than 100 students, all sophomores or older, work as RAs in exchange for free room and board. Becoming an RA requires surviving a competitive and intensive selection process and completing several weeks of training. Besides mediating disputes, they organize social programs and serve as the local representative of the University for other students on their floor.

Eve Slanovich (EDU ’02), an RA for five semesters, says different schedules are a common source of friction between roomies, especially “if you have a party person with someone who’s there for studying.” Keeping the bathroom clean is another “big source of contention,” she says. For RAs, she says, resolving such problems is often as simple as getting roomies to sit down and talk; sometimes, they don’t realize they’re driving other students crazy.

Occasionally, there are serious issues to report. Roommates are sometimes the first ones to notice when someone has a substance abuse problem. Slanovich has talked with victims of sexual assault. In such cases, a full-time Pitt staff member takes over.

While life with a new roommate may start out rough, most students find it rewarding in the long run. Slanovich, who grew up in rural Blairsville, Pennsylvania, says that if she hadn’t lived in the residence halls, she would never have spent so much time with students from different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

— Jason Togyer

Food for Thought

At the University's first Hunger Banquet, Christine McLaurin draws a slip of paper, losing her identity. The freshman—with dual majors in business management and Spanish—becomes Enrique, a 40-year-old Guatemalan refugee who lives with 130 other families in a refugee camp.

Brushing away a dust bunny, McLaurin takes her place on the William Pitt Assembly Room floor with other less-fortunate students. She finds hosts of the event, the nonprofit organization Bread for the World, has paid much attention to detail. “This is a little too realistic,” she says while sitting amid trash.

Students selected to represent the upper class have no such discomfort. Seated at tables beautifully set with china and decorated with fresh flowers, they feast on a delicious multi-course meal that includes wedding soup, salad, baked ziti, warm bread, and freshly-baked cookies. Those in the middle class sit on less comfortable chairs and settle for pizza.

McLaurin is far less fortunate. She has to quell her hunger with a bowl of rice that is passed throughout the lower class. Cups of water—tinted green to portray contamination—circulate among the population assembled on the floor.

“All we get is rice and water?” exclaims one student as she scoops rice from the bowl with a serving spoon, and then has to eat with her hands. Disgusted with the green-tinted water handed to her, McLaurin persuades a friend seated with the middle class to share her Mountain Dew. Others in the lower class beg for food from the upper-class section. Some share; others ignore the pleas.

Many students comment about the harsh reality the banquet projected dur-ing the discussion that follows, regarding the inequality of food distribution across the world. “I'm just a poor student, but do I really know what poor is?” one student seated on the floor asks rhetorically. McLaurin leaves the banquet in search of a real meal. Enrique, wouldn't be so lucky. The Guatemalan refugee would go to bed hungry.

—Janet Frank Atkinson

Answering Service

The caller wants to know the date of Britney Spears’ birthday. It’s Melanie Wolfe’s job to find out. Fast. She does, though the answer doesn’t make the caller happy. “He was upset that he missed it,” Wolfe says with a flick of her brown ponytail. Adjusting her headset, she turns back to the computer, and answers a question about the 61C bus route.

“Telefact, Melanie speaking. Can I help you? Can you hang on one second? Greg. Greg. Greg! Do you know what radio station the Pitt game is on?”

“I don’t know? I think it’s on 96.9. I’ll check. Yes, it is,” answers Greg Osisek, partnering with Wolfe inside the dorm-room-size Telefact headquarters. The location is top secret to thwart walk-in queries.

To answer students’ nonstop questions, the two juniors use the Internet, telephone books, and shelves of reference books. Telefact operators are committed to answering every question, even if it takes some digging and a return call.

Telefact, funded by the Student Government Board, logged only 35 calls on its first day of operation in August 1990. Pitt News criticized the service, predicting a quick death. It didn’t happen. Telefact now logs some 120,000 calls annually.

By the 9:00 pm closing time, Osisek—a political science major—and Wolfe, majoring in economics/interdisciplinary studies, are tired, ready to go home. But the phone rings. One last call. “Telefact. Melanie speaking.”

—April Artz

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