SLC Phenomenon: Midnight Breakfast
Or, how 28 years of Sarah Lawrence students move from Solitude to Community in one glorious— and gloriously free—meal.
by Erin Mallay ’04
You are completely submerged. You haven’t come up for air in ages. You have been staring at the same page for—what? Ten minutes? Two hours? Your friends all think that you hate them. You realize that you can never eat Chinese takeout again. There’s even a funny smell coming from some undisclosed location somewhere in your room.
And then all of a sudden, you remember. The phone rings, someone instant-messages you, or there’s a knock on your door: “Are you going to Midnight Breakfast?”
There is never any excuse not to go to Midnight Breakfast; no matter what you are doing, at this point, taking a break is a good idea. So you answer “Oh, yeah,” and you throw on flip flops, sandals, sneakers, a sweater, nothing too heavy because it’s mid-May, (or you wrap yourself in a coat because it’s mid-December) and walk outside.
“I haven’t been outside in ages,” you think to yourself. At least not without feeling a pang of guilt every time you think how lovely it is outside because there is something you should be doing inside, some article you should be reading, some paper you’re supposed to be writing, or at least researching, something, something.
So you walk outside and for the first time you notice the air: the cool, crisp air of midnight. It is calmer, quieter, softer than any other air, and you let go of the guilt for just a little while. Simultaneously, there is a mass exodus from the dorms and everyone is walking to the same place. It’s like when the munchkins come out in Oz after the house falls on the witch, and it seems like everyone should be singing, in sync, a Midnight Breakfast theme song:
Doobeedoobeedoo, what am I going to do?
My brain stopped working
Deadlines still lurking
I need to get out of my room!
You get to Bates and you don’t have to swipe your card; you don’t have to pay; you just walk in and there are tables and tables of free, hot breakfast food—which, as we all know, is the best kind of food. The president of the College is handing you a basket of useless free stuff—which, as we all know, is the best kind of stuff. You keep walking and find that you have somehow fallen into a line of sorts. You suddenly remember that there will be nowhere to sit, but the line is moving and there are mini-bagels to hoard. It never really occurs to you to ask a question: Where did all this food come from? You don’t wonder about a benevolent phantom that conjures up a feast magically on a whim. The food is simply there because it’s Midnight Breakfast.
You think that it couldn’t be any stranger; mini bagels piled on your plate and talking to that kid from your seminar and then you turn around—and there’s a big chair. A really big chair. You wonder where the chair came from: Where would one keep a chair that big during the year? Is it Campus Facilities’ chair? They probably would know how and where to hide it during the rest of the year. If it is, it’s awfully nice of them to let everyone use it to take novelty pictures in it.
Perhaps you vaguely recall as a child that Lily Tomlin sketch. You know the one, just think back: Lily Tomlin sitting on a big couch pretending to be a little girl. Maybe it makes you think of Sesame Street on crack and then you decide you haven’t been getting enough sleep. But there’s free coffee here, too.
You turn around, looking for something, and you notice all of these people; you met them once or twice before, or maybe they’re your very close friends. Suddenly you realize that you’re completely surrounded by people, more people in Bates than you can remember ever seeing in one place. And for some reason, you want to talk to them.
Now imagine that everyone in the entire school is having the exact same sensation.
Somehow you manage to balance as much food as you can fit on one plate without letting the syrup and the ketchup touch, a glass of orange juice, soda and a cup of coffee, and then look for anywhere to sit. Your eyes search over the sea of the bug-eyed, the tired and the second-winders taking up seats table tops, floors, absorbing and trading mini bagels and French toast and playing with things from their door prize gift bags, looking for an open square foot anywhere. You don’t mind balancing your plate on your knee while you eat, and it looks like no one else does either; a table and chair proper don’t really affect just how good tons of breakfast food tastes.
As I eat the Midnight Breakfast, I am struck by a twinge of concern. Am I really sharing a tradition with a community of Sarah Lawrence students? Is this possible? Can my dedication to my super-individuality possibly be overcome? Just for an hour, less even, can my defenses against the risks of communal activities be put on hold, one midnight between the last Monday and the last Tuesday of the semester?
Somehow this can happen, I can do this, because I never have an excuse not to go to Midnight Breakfast.
OK, we cheated a little. Erin Mallay ’04 is not yet an alumna, but Midnight Breakfast is most definitely an SLC phenomenon. Mallay will be spending part of her senior year at the University of Tasmania, where she plans to study art and eat breakfast at a conventional time.
How Did It Start?
The biannual Midnight Breakfast first happened in May, 1981, when Flik International (the College’s contracted food service company) and Student Affairs thought it would be a nice idea to serve the student body a free meal during the height of conference work—and Flik offered it as gift. Rudy Flik, the company’s founder, now retired, remembers the origins of the event: “The history of Midnight Breakfast began as a way to break the monotony of the normal food service, to gather the campus community, but also as a thank you to the students.” It followed earlier events like Breakfast in Bed, when food services would bring breakfast to the dorm rooms of students through a raffle or as a congratulatory gesture, but quickly became much more meaningful, Flik says, reciprocating programs like those in which students taught English to some of his employees. “I have never seen a group of students who were so human, who treated the staff so well,” Flik comments fondly. “Sarah Lawrence is a special place.”
Today, Flik International plans for an attendance of 600 to 700 people in December and again in May, making this event—by far—the most popular gathering on campus (after Commencement).