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Buffet Marks Authentic MIT Culture

Brett Altschul

On Saturday, I visited the Infinite Buffet, an attempt to build a better overall MIT community. The free food was supposed to improve students' morale with something out of the ordinary.

The event certainly drew a large segment of the MIT community; the single narrow hall was a morass of bodies. But this was certainly not the event that the organizers had in mind. The decision-makers at MIT seem to envision an MIT community where small groups of students and faculty sit down for a relaxed discussion of physics and philosophy. This event ought to have been a wonderful step in that direction.

To the people on the floor, the true nature of the event was obvious. We stood in the stairwells and the places between the tables scarfing down the food. The talking was limited to questions about whether there was any cous cous left at the other end of the table. I saw Lawrence H. Bacow '72, the former chair of the faculty squirming through the crowds trying to reach the soup.

As I lunched on tasty, fresh-cut roast beef and soft rolls with garlic butter, a group of students nearby began griping about the dreary slowness of the lines and the fact that most of the food was gone by the time they reached the tables. "You know you're going to read in The Tech that it was a success and everyone had a good time," one of them said.

This comment captured an important aspect of the MIT culture, something most students understand and most of our community's so-called "leaders" fail to grasp. Complaining is a central part of the MIT lifestyle.

MIT is a hectic place, and we have all adapted to deal with that fact. We complain about the workload, but we pull through. Everyone gripes about a difficult test, but there's a sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing it. That's the way we do things: complain about how we hate things, then admit that the experience was fairly rewarding.

While we bumped into one-another, eager to reach the next dish before our fellows, we were actually enjoying ourselves. Along the buffet, everyone complained about the twisted and tangled lines that never seem to move, but after the event, people seemed to have had a good time.

I'm sure the organizers and other people with some grand vision of an MIT community will claim that this event was a major step forward, promoting social interaction and faculty-student contact. On the second floor, near Lobby 7, I saw one student pacing back and forth with a tremendous smirk. He seemed symbolic of the attitude that characterizes the people who make choices around here. He was positioned amidst the balcony seating, with long-soiled tablecloths and a handful of people finishing their clam chowder and tabbouleh. The actual event, where people were enjoying themselves, was on the first floor of the Infinite Corridor. The tables were far too few and a few feet too far from where the food was being served.

The other special features of the event seemed equally pointless. The first 500 people to come to the event won free T-shirts. The purpose of this escapes me. Was the goal to reward people who eat promptly at noon, an attempt to create a uniform, campus-wide meal schedule?

Watching from the balcony over Lobby 10, I saw the tarot card readers read the fates of the same people over and over. Unlike the tables of food, the tables of destiny had no long lines before them. I have no idea why we had fortune tellers at the event, but I don't think they added much.

The Infinite Buffet was a nice idea, something I'd like to see again. It was a success, but not in the way some people expected. It did nothing to overthrow the entrenched MIT lifestyle. Rather, it was successful because it fit within the established framework of MIT culture.

The student leaders and administrators need to understand that MIT has a real culture, and this culture is not the one that they see as ideal. Nonetheless, the MIT culture provides a worthwhile mechanism for people to interact.