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Commons Room

A Slice of Campus Life

Up for Debate

In the Cathedral of Learning’s English Classroom, an airy chamber decorated with stained-glass windows, graduate student John Rief plucks a cigarette from his corduroy coat.

“Would you feel comfortable with me smoking?” he asks, sauntering in front of the lectern and waggling the cigarette at his audience, a crowd of students, faculty, and locals. A number of eyebrows rise in response, indicating it would be improper—not to mention illegal—to light up in the Tudor-Gothic classroom.

“I think it’s inappropriate because all of you might have a stroke within five minutes,” he jokes, purposely exaggerating the harmful health effects of second-hand smoke. As the audience laughs and pounds their wooden benches to signal approval, a green-vested gentleman shoots up from his seat near the lectern.

“If they want to go to a bar, they can quite easily…,” the gentleman protests in a Scottish accent.

“Yes, let’s deal with this question of choice,” Rief interrupts loudly, figuring his challenger is about to argue that people can choose nonsmoking bars.

Rief, who is studying communication, is a member of the William Pitt Debating Union, a campus organization that convenes public debates and is hosting this event along with Pitt’s communication department. His challenger in the green vest is Fraser Campbell, a representative of the British National Debating Team, which has stopped at Pitt on a tour of 20 U.S. colleges.

The two are engaged in an English-style public debate, which encourages witty jokes and allows opponents to ask questions in mid-argument. Rief contends that Allegheny County—the county where Pitt’s Oakland campus is located—should ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Campbell, a Scot and law student at Oxford University, argues that smoking should be permitted.

As Rief paces and gesticulates, asserting that “choice is a matter of privilege,” the afternoon sun beams through the stained-glass shields of London and Liverpool in the windows. The classroom is particularly suited for this clash of opinion because its design was inspired by the House of Commons’ parliamentary chamber in London, where debate has been a treasured practice for centuries. The arrangement of the oak benches, filled to capacity for this debate, also is reminiscent of a distinct feature of the House chamber: The aisle between the benches is wide enough so that swords can’t reach the opposing side. Fortunately, the only sharp thing in the room today is the wit, which includes barbs from Rief’s debate partner, Carly Woods, also a Pitt graduate student in communication, and Campbell’s cohort, Gavin Illsley, a European debating champion from Scotland.

When Rief finishes his argument, the floor is opened to audience questions, allowing the public to engage in the nationwide discussion about smoking bans by local and state governments. This is the true point of the union’s public debate—to create awareness and understanding of political issues. As Rief slips his cigarette into his pocket, he hopes he made his point, too. —Cara J. Hayden

Panther Idol

It could have been a bar anywhere. A guy is singing—no, make that belting—Styx’s classic “Mr. Roboto,” glasses fogging up, curly brown hair bobbing and weaving en masse along with its owner’s stilted dance moves: And thank you very much, Mr. Roboto/For helping me escape just when I needed to…. The crowd digs his moves, doing “the robot” in their seats, throwing their fists in the air as Roboto-guy gets down.

It could have been a bar anywhere; add the clinking of highball glasses, dimmer lighting, and three or four years on most of the crowd, and, yeah, it could pass. But neighborhood tavern this is not. Roboto-guy and what are now 100 of his closest friends are mostly Pitt freshmen, blowing off steam on the last Saturday before fall classes start, before tests and homework and labs and everything else that spells the first day of class. This is “Karaoke: American Idol, Panther Style” at the William Pitt Union.

Glenda Vargas sits in the third row, stage right. She’s as far away as she can get and still see the action, still laugh with her friends about the students on stage plowing through everything from ’70s rock to ’90s grunge. Vargas, a freshman, found out about the Pitt Program Council event from a booklet sent home to all incoming freshmen; when it came in the mail, she made a point to remember to go. As she and her hometown friend Suci Madjidji watch, a group of students crowds around three microphones for a version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” They’re radically out of tune, a change from the last crooner who took on Radiohead’s anthem “Fake Plastic Trees” so beautifully that many in the crowd lifted their open, backlit cell phones in appreciation.

Soon, Pitt’s campus won’t seem like such a maze of buildings to Vargas. She’ll have an interview at Pitt’s medical center to be a nurse’s aid. She’ll relish her single dorm room in Lothrop Hall and the kitchen down the hall; she’ll go to the Andy Warhol Museum, braving public transportation; and she’ll unlock the mysteries of time management.

But this is the Saturday before classes start—there’s Britney Spears to be sung, cotton candy to be eaten, and raised eyebrows to be exchanged with Madjidji, also a freshman, about the antics on stage. Pretty soon someone will lead the Electric Slide to “I Will Survive,” and the two friends will call it a night, from karaoke at least. Hey, it is Saturday night. —Jennifer Meccariello Layman

Burn, Veggie, Burn

The Pitt sophomore plunks down behind the steering wheel of his gray 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300 SD after tossing his book bag beside a pizza box in the backseat. He flicks two switches on a center console—one lights up yellow, the other blue—and he turns the ignition key. As he rumbles toward the William Pitt Union (WPU), infinitesimal fragments of wonton dumplings float in the fuel tank, as onlookers gawk at the pizza-delivery-style sign on his roof: Veggiemobile! This car runs on free vegetable oil.

Last summer, Pat Lambert converted his Mercedes from a diesel engine to one that runs on vegetable oil as part of a research project supported by the University Honors College and the School of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Experiential Learning. He collects used vegetable oil from the deep fryers of a Chinese restaurant, free of charge. Since the conversion last summer, he hasn’t paid “one red cent” for fuel.

Lambert pulls into the WPU’s driveway, the rooftop sign drawing curious stares from pedestrians. He’s here to raise awareness about using vegetable-oil fuel, a trend that’s gaining momentum nationwide. Lambert first learned about this while Web surfing in high school. During his freshman year, he sought funding to experiment with his own car and to spread the word around Pitt.

Hanging out by the Veggiemobile, Lambert hands flyers to passing students and strikes up conversations with those intrigued by the promise of free fuel. He explains that using veggie fuel has multiple benefits beyond saving money. It reduces dependency on foreign oil, is less harmful to the environment, and recycles cooking oil that normally goes to waste.

The flyers Lambert is distributing encourage people to visit his Web site,, which includes detailed information about how to convert a diesel car into a veggie-powered vehicle. He did it himself with a little help from his father, a helicopter mechanic. Several parts were installed, including a tank and fuel lines, heating instruments to keep the oil from becoming too viscous, a filter to remove remaining bits of food, and a control panel to monitor the fuel’s temperature.

When Lambert leaves the Union, motoring down Bigelow Boulevard on the power of vegetable oil, he can practically smell the success of his efforts. Is that a whiff of Chinese food in the air? —Marin Cogan

The Next Webisode

Tim is frustrated with his new co-worker, Dierdre, at the Affogato coffee shop. She just made a personal call during work hours. He’s pretty sure that’s against the rules. She’s also refusing to review how to make a cappuccino, and he’s upset because he’s unsure about the process. Worse, she doesn’t take him seriously when he confesses his, uh, ineptitude. “First, I burn the foam,” he says, exasperated. “Then there are bubbles, bubbles everywhere!”

Dierdre glowers at Tim, but she can’t hold the look. She breaks down laughing. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she nearly cries. She points at the cameraman. “You were laughing, too!”

Tim and Dierdre are characters in Something to be Desired (STBD), a Web-based sitcom/soap opera shot in the Pittsburgh area. The show, now in its fourth season, boasts opening credits featuring familiar Pitt landmarks and a cast studded with Pitt alumni. The cast also includes current students like junior theater major Ryan Ben, who plays Tim, the baffled barista character who is as clueless about relationships as he is about making cappuccinos. New 10-minute “Webisodes” come out weekly, following the lives of fictional single professionals who work at radio stations, magazines, and coffee shops. The free show attracts thousands of regular viewers across the country and overseas.

Ben came to Pitt to study business but switched to acting after taking a role in a friend’s directing class assignment, where his work was noticed by assistant professor Melanie Dreyer-Lude, head of the theater department’s performance section. Through the department’s list of upcoming auditions, Ben met Justin Kownacki, the creator and director of STBD (, and soon joined the cast. Besides the show’s cutting-edge Web medium, the thrill, says Ben, is the amount of creative input given to the ensemble cast: “Kownacki will write some lines and say ‘This is what I want to get across in this scene,’ but after that, we just get into character and run with it.”

The improvisational feel of STBD makes Ben’s work less about the camera and more about acting, which complements his main devotion—the stage. Last semester, he appeared in Pitt Repertory Theatre’s production of A Toothache, & a Plague, & a Dog. “That feeling you get in your chest just before you go onstage—that’s something that acting for video will never provide,” Ben says.

For now, though, Ben’s back on the set, and it’s clear he has mastered Tim’s mannerisms—along with the ability to send his costar into hysterics. Once again, she collapses in laughter. Take Two... Take Three... —Justin Hopper

Dead or Alive

Freshman Stephen Nathani is cornered. He frantically seeks an escape from the Towers lobby as three zombies wearing orange bandanas stagger toward him, arms grasping blindly, desperate to feed on human brains. Nathani is alone; the human resistance—a militia armed with zombie-bashing Nerf guns—is nowhere to be found. He must save himself. With a heroic cry, he digs deep into his sweatshirt pockets and brandishes fistfuls of … balled socks. He whips the socks at the zombies with an adeptness born of the will to survive, beaning them one by one. Nathani grins victoriously. The living and the living dead alike share a laugh. The zombies are friendly students again.

On this night, icy raindrops knife sideways in gusty winds, and the battle of humans vs. zombies rages on. It’s an elaborate game of tag staged by the Obscure Movie Group, a student organization that screens weekly movies ranging from esoteric foreign masterpieces to campy, low-budget horror films. Zombie flicks are among the favorites, thanks in part to director George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a cult classic filmed in western Pennsylvania. Club officers Shanna Murphy, a sophomore theater arts major, and Matt Carrick, a sophomore film studies major, brought the game to campus as part of National Zombie Day activities on college campuses across the country.

Nathani is one of 200 students, mostly undergraduates, signed up to play. He’s wearing an orange bandana around his arm—the mark of a human—while his friends sport orange bandanas on their heads, indicating their undead status. The game began three days ago, and the zombies must tag a human at least once every 48 hours to keep from starving to death. Humans are only safe in their dorm rooms, bathrooms, campus eateries, academic buildings, and workplaces. Those the zombies manage to tag become zombies themselves, expanding the brain-hungry horde. Humans can temporarily disable the zombies with Nerf guns, smacking them with foam noodles, or by hurling Nathani’s weapon of choice. The game ends when every human succumbs to the living dead or every zombie starves.

Now, Nathani has 15 minutes to chat with his friends. But when the time is up, he again will be on the run until the zombie threat is neutralized. Or until he runs out of balled socks. —Marin Cogan




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