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WHITE KNUCKLES | The Signs You Don’t Read

Courtesy of Cornell Dining

This is an open letter, one that will never reach the addressee, the type of letter  that mostly benefits the author and maybe open some isolated, outcasted pairs of eyes. One of those that are not meant to be read, but meant to be written and spoken to strangers with familiar faces about familiar situations, one of those often charged with aggressive passivity, when maybe all they do is delineate a relationship between two people where names are not needed, where intimacy is beyond the point and from which no friendship will spring.

I start and end with who I am, and in virtue of this identity of subject and writer I sketch the outline of who you are. To begin with, this is where I am from: a multitude of places, but – for the sake of this letter’s focus – from the self-sustaining micro-universe of a crowded dining hall. My face, I know you will not know, but maybe the colors will sound familiar – red speckled with a golden name tag, black over my hair.

I am the person who did not serve you today if you were on your phone while I was ready to take your order, but I am the same raised hand and ready answer that you do not dare ignore or disrespect in a classroom. I am the voice with an accent that makes you laugh when, raised, asks sternly to get out of the way of heavy containers, hot pans and loaded carts on slippery floors. With the same voice, I told stories and found a home in the same place where you forgot to bus your own dishes and step on the plateful of flavorful colors and hours of work you nonchalantly dropped. I am the hands that taped a sign that says “closed,” but that you move to the side and ignore, because you value your convenience more than my time, and in the surfaces I clean you see a prompt fulfillment of your thirst and hunger, the work done by someone else so that you can work on other things. I am the pair of eyes shadowed by a visor, to which you asked, demandingly, to be served more food – the eyes that horrify at seeing the poultice you are still chewing in your mouth and that you seem proud of exhibiting, in an arrogant reinforcement of the belief you seem to hold: that the sneeze guards between us serve as social barriers, as walls between worlds of opportunities. When you spill corn or beans you giggle, and I am the defeated grumble and the sanitized rag. You call me by my first name, galvanized by the advantage my name tag gives you: just like a label, you could read it. But nobody really does.

One of the latest, most seducing trends we have known recently is “f*** saying no.” I am not referring to knowledgeable and documented dissent, or critical thinking and claim of individualism and uniqueness, or even to courageous and unsettling anarchy. What I witness almost every day, when I step out of my everyday clothes and academic environment, and even keeping my lipstick on while becoming a faceless uniform, is the fascination of saying no out of sense of superiority and entitlement: no to your responsibility to clean up after yourselves, to your duty to gratitude and kindness, to your contribution as part of what is around you. Next time you step into a dining hall, simply try to think that all those rules – those unwritten as well as those printed on the signs you never see – apply even to you. Meet the eyes behind the sneeze guards thinking about the stories behind them, the heat of the ovens and the hours of work, the constant refilling of jars and the scraping of batter residues. Do not have respect solely because we could be in the same class as you – do what, among people, is an imperative and try to be kind; try to think that we do not only exist for the span of your meal.

After all, it almost looks like I know more than you – even if I work in a dining hall.

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