This is not the old caf at St. Olaf. But it conjures up the cold, Lutheran ambiance of which I speak. I mean, write.
Recap of this episode: CP, who is normally unable to converse with strangers, mans up, talks to Jeff and invites him to dinner.
Just figuring out Jeff’s name seemed like such an important feat that I hadn’t even thought of what I might do with the information once I acquired it. I was always a fairly shy person and had never, at least in my own memory, manipulated a situation so that I would have a chance to talk to someone in particular. I was used to letting things happen and unfold as they may, which would probably explain the many disastrous events of my life up to that point.
I decided it was time to take control.
A few days later as I was walking toward choir rehearsal I saw him about twenty yards ahead of me. I knew I needed to get his attention and slow him down right then before he reached the choir room, depriving me of a chance to walk with him and chat him up for a few minutes.
“Jeff!” I called out. He stopped and turned around.
“Oh, hey Tom! What’s going on?” I quickened my pace to catch up to him.
“Not a lot.” (Yeah, right Tom.) “So how are classes?”
I was so nervous that I had absolutely no idea what he said in response. I had always been like that; it was so unusual for me just to start talking to someone I barely knew that my self-consciousness overrode anything else about the situation, including the ability to listen to the other person. Most of us shy folk can compensate by developing an ability to recognize the cadences of typical small-talk, and are able to imitate having an actual conversation with all the perquisite give-and-take.
It’s remarkable how many people in life have told me I’m a “good listener.” If they only knew.
I could not have repeated even five minutes later what either of us said to the other. There was just one very important part of the conversation that had to, and did take place: setting the stage so that I could run into him again and casually suggest having a meal together.
Over the next several weeks I took note of the various directions from which he approached the music building before choir practice, which was three afternoons a week, and made sure to be in the general vicinity each day so that I would be in place to chat him up. It worked.
One day, as we were approaching our rehearsal I said “So are you doing anything for dinner after choir? Want to go to the caf afterward?”
He he, the caf. It still makes me laugh today when I think about the caf, as we called the dining room at St. Olaf. Having a companion at meal times was crucial in the caf because it was this large room with two separate entrances, filled with long rectangular tables spaced out in perfect symmetry. It was a cold, glaringly lit stark room with a decorative motif that would be best described as “church basement pot-luck industrial.”
No one ever wanted to sit alone in the caf, especially not at dinner time, because there were no safe corners in which a lone diner could tuck him or herself away to hide. If you went to the caf alone, there you were for the entire student body to see, pathetic and friendless under the glare of the unwaveringly Lutheran interrogation lamps—I mean, white lights.
In other words, asking someone to eat with you was a foolproof way of getting face time with the object of your interest. No one in modern history has ever turned down an invitation to have a dining companion in the St. Olaf caf, at least not until the college upgraded its facilities long after I graduated.
“Yeah Tom, that sounds great! I’ll meet you at the door after choir?”
SCORE!! An actual dinner date!!! I thought. And I even had the rest of choir rehearsal to think up things to say to him!
…..to be continued…….