Not too long ago, Sharon Wade – one of the Bon Appetit employees that we all know and love – agreed to meet me in Usdan for an interview. She greeted me with kind blue eyes and a genuine smile. I knew she had been here a very long time and I wanted to pick her brain about her experiences at Wesleyan. She had warned me in advance, the week before at work, about how she’s prone to going on and on and reassured me that I shouldn’t be afraid to cut her off if necessary. As we got into the flow of the interview, which was not very difficult with Sharon’s enthusiasm, I certainly knew what she meant, but by no means was I going to stop her. Sharon sat with me in Usdan for approximately an hour, during which she told me about what she’s learned during her time at Wesleyan, expressed both her loves and her qualms with campus issues, and shared some wonderful anecdotes about students. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.
How long have you been working at Wesleyan?
Probably… around 29 years. A long time – flown by, just like that. It has flown by!
Has it been at Weshop the whole time?
No, this is my second time at Weshop. Because we can move all around. We just have to bid on jobs, awarded by seniority, throughout the campus. We’ve all done probably most everything. I’ve been a cook. For overtime, I did tons of utility. That took me around the world… I’ve done register at the old campus center, I’ve done it [at Usdan], I’ve done at Weshop, so everybody has really moved around, which is a great part of the job because [you can say,] ‘you know what, I think I’ll do that.’ As long as you’re qualified and you’re the most senior person signing – and everybody signs – you get to the job.
Have you been here the longest?
Oh, no. There’s people who have been here – some have died some have retired, so the ones that are left – Billy King has been here the longest, my god, I mean the man has been here – it’s got to be almost 40 years! He’s been here for a long time. Mike Mezzeni, he’s gotta be almost 50, he’s been here since a teenager just outta high school. So people have come to these jobs; they don’t leave them. They stay and they stay and it’s a great atmosphere. It’s a great atmosphere because it’s not boring like an office you sit there and, you know, oh the same little cubicle… we move around, we know each other. It was probably more fun when it was the campus center and MoCon.
MoCon was the building over by the tennis courts that they took down– that was a great building. That was a big mistake – huge round building with windows, it was glass on top. Great, sweeping, like [Usdan] is nothing, it was grander than that. Brides loved getting married at MoCon because you could make such an entrance. And all the freshman would go, it was kinda [like Usdan], the freshman would come here for the meals, the athletes come because you get a lot to eat and that’s how MoCon was. And then the campus center was the Albritton building (ed. note: Albritton’s building used to be the Davenport Student Center). Every floor [of Davenport] was a different something. [Davenport] was supposed to be offices and classrooms or whatever, and [MoCon] became the campus center to eat. So I mean, [Davenport] had everything… it was just on a small scale. That was the most fun building and that’s where I worked the most… Oh we had a great time. You would have loved it. Demonstrations galore… oh my god… so much went on. And [Usdan] is rather – it’s very tame. I mean it wasn’t trouble, but it was just always somebody – oh! – they were always marching, they had a band that marched with everybody and pots and pans and noise and chalking.Were these protest demonstrations?
Yeah, and for anything and everything. They would go sit in the president’s office, and he was a great president because he knew to pick his fights. It was before Bennett, the one be- Chace! Yeah, how long are you gonna sit in the president’s office and starve and be in your dirty, same clothes? They’re only gonna be there a couple of days, so he let them sit in his office… he wasn’t a pushover but he knew where to place his fights. And he liked the students, he was really down to earth and not phony… he just liked where he was and it showed.
Would you say, in comparison to how it was, that now –
There’s nothing now. I don’t think it’s just this school, because Yale used to have tons of protests also and they don’t anymore ‘cause they’d be all in the papers and on TV and stuff. Everyone had to be politically correct. And that’s how all the campuses have become… probably throughout the country. It’s become very tamped down and politically correct. Like, do you see anybody chalking? Years ago if they said ‘don’t chalk’ they would’ve woken up to sidewalks full. Graffiti all over. It irritated the hell out of me because every sidewalk would’ve been full. You weren’t gonna see kids getting really into big trouble. Now they would get into big trouble ‘cause they’d make an example out of them. They [now want] the older money, which all the schools do, because that’s where the money is. Well those are very conservative people… it’s more appealing to donors. From a business point of view, you know it probably figures, but from our point of view – ugh. Some day it’ll turn the tide but it’ll be a while… It was a lot of fun.
It was entertaining?
We did contracts, because we can’t do them on the campus… because they don’t want the students demonstrating for us. Well, they would do it anyway! They would set up tables and get people to sign for us. They had a band that would walk around – like this band that went all over the place with everybody. They even came to – the union hall where we were doing their contracts, banged on the door, the door opened and they marched around and around and around the hall… Even Aramark said, ‘these kids really like you people.’ They laughed and laughed and laughed.
What’s your favorite thing about Wesleyan in terms of the environment?
It’s real social and as I get older, everybody gets older, but the students stay the same age and they graduate and then we have more young people, so they’re always in the same age group no matter what the year, you know? But we get older and it’s interesting. It’s so social. That’s why people never leave here. How do you replace a job like that? – I could stand there all day, just standing at that register and talk to people from all over the world. Every singly day. And everybody likes to tell their story about their country. So it’s like I travel every day! Vicariously. Where can I find that in a job?
I can retire if I wanted to and I thought, ugh. I did all the legwork and all the numbers and all the paperwork and I thought, you know what, I’m not gonna retire. I don’t want to retire! I mean, I’ll do volunteer jobs but I don’t have anything out there that’s really saying ‘yes, that’s what I wanna do’ and I’ll have the time to do it. And until I have that feeling I’m gonna stay working. [Working here] I get up in the morning and I know I’ll have an interesting day, even when I say ‘oh this so boring and long’ when there are no customers.
People stay at this job for ever and ever and ever. There’s just people with years here… and for the same reasons. [There are] always young people so you’re always thinking younger than if you were sitting with people your age. The conversations are a whole lot different. So you’re always young and there’s this whole computer world that I don’t know a damn thing about but I listen to people talk and I watch them and all that stuff. You wouldn’t find that with people my own age.
As we walked in we bumped into a guy who came over and gave you a hug. Would you say that you develop nice relationships with students?
Yeah we really do. The hardest part for me, probably in the beginning, was every year you have to say goodbye to people that you might never see again. You’d get to know their lives and the families and we’d just have a good time and then they would be gone. And I would say we would miss them more than they would miss us, which is totally normal – they’re headed out into the big world which is new and exciting and they’ve gotta make their way when we’re here and this is kind of where we’ll be. So we would tend to think more about them… Then as the years went by you do get to understand that. You are gonna have to say goodbye every year to a class and it’s not easier, but I think it makes for better parents because you learn to let your kids go.
I’d say, ‘yes just go out there it’s a great world and take your self as far as your money can get you and just do stuff, take a chance ‘cause it’ll be wonderful’. Well, whether you apply that to your own kids at home then… well okay if I’m saying this to the kids I’m working with… they’re the same kids! You can let go easier and let them go off into the world and not get like– ‘oh my god they didn’t get married they’re living with somebody,’ it’s like, so what? You know? It puts a lot of stuff in perspective to your own families. It’s an interesting thing to know and… it just renews itself forever and ever cause it’s always the same aged group… I’ve learned far more from working here than I could ever have thought to impart to anybody. I’ve just learned from the students lots and lots of stuff about life.
What would be the number one thing that you’ve learned?
I’ve learned to take more chances in life… I don’t take the big chances students take now ‘cause they’ve got to relocate to places… the world is just a neighborhood and they’re going off to these great and wonderful places. But it’s scary, they don’t know anybody… [they’re probably saying,] ‘yeah you’re sitting here saying jump, you’re not jumping! I’m jumping!’ And I’ve learned that because sometimes students will come back and they’ll visit and you’ll see what they’ve done and where they’ve been. Many times they’ll have settled down and have started a family, but before that, oh, they were here, there, and everywhere. So you learn… [to not] take life so seriously. There’s time for fun… and you’ve gotta take a chance and have that confidence in yourself because you’ll always make it. People always make it… For the most part, people, they’re pretty safe and they make good decisions about themselves… I’ve learned that people have to go forward… and you should go forward and not stagnate.
Were there any particularly nice cases where someone came back to visit?
One fellow I do remember – I was at Weshop – and Dave, I knew from, that was like 25 [years ago], maybe even a little more, and my oldest daughter was sick with cancer. We went to Yale, to Sloan Kettering. She was near death – Sloan saved her with an operation and then it took two years to do the whole cycle to where she was okay, that they felt she’d made it through. But she was young, she was only 19. And so [Dave] was one of the kids, he was at school and at that point we used to have student managers. I had five of them. We were on the second floor of the campus center and we had the deli. We had the ice cream shop which was probably double [that] and it was all squeezed behind a beautiful oak bar and I had a register and I had to make some kind of strawberry drinks because that was the only place they could put the blender… and that was our place.[Dave] was one of the student managers. I’d have to go to Sloan and stay there for weeks at a time ‘cause she was operated on and these students – and the union would go absolutely ballistic now, but, then I guess they weren’t paying attention to the second floor — they would come in every night. One of them would be the lead every night and because it was so social up there, two or three more would come in and then they’d start working and work while I had to be away. And so [Dave] was one of them [that came back to visit] and he came in and he stood in front of the register and he said “hi.” Like, Dave, oh my god… he’s got a magnet school in New York City and his wife and child were visiting her relatives in another place in CT and he said “I just had to come back here and see what Wesleyan was like.” He hadn’t been back in years and years. He looked exactly the same and that was such an “ah” moment and will I ever see him again, who knows?… Just walked in like he was a customer and stood in front of me. So when stuff like that happens it’s really nice. And that I remember the most because it was just like time had totally gone by… like we were right back to years ago.
What are your thoughts on all the recent outrage and discussions about the Sun Service workers?
Oh, this has been a problem forever and ever with the custodians, for as long as I can remember… The students always took the part of the custodians, and they would always take our part too. They were so good. [Then,] the students got them started on a union… They’ve always had to work hard but there was more of them. They were gonna give them English lessons… but they weren’t allowed by the companies to learn on their work time. They would have to come back from wherever they lived – and some of them live a distance because it’s affordable. You could live in New Britain – how the hell are you gonna come back from New Britain to here for an English lesson at night? Who knows, they might have another job they have to do to make ends meet. So the students fought for them and they got their English classes held during the day. And that was a really big win for them and the students were more than willing… One of the students would bring up her student [to the Vegan restaurant on the third floor of Albritton]… and she was teaching her vegetables, so she would go along our salad bar and all that, so when she went shopping, you know, she could identify what she was buying but if she had to ask for something she would kind of know what to ask for. I mean, they just did great stuff for them.
Now, this company is horrible. This company is – and they’re just totally exploiting these people… And with no qualms, this company doesn’t have one damn qualm about treating them like that, like they’re doing them a favor… And what is gonna happen to them? Wesleyan’s gotta say something to them. Wait a minute, we hired you with certain standards and you’re not keeping ‘em so you know what, we don’t need you ‘cause there are many companies in back of them that would bid on the job, many. And why isn’t Wesleyan keeping an eye on this company they hired… you’re allowing to treat these people like this? What’s going on here? And I think they’re just turning a blind eye is what it seems. And [the custodians are] not strong enough to fight back… they’re frightened of losing their job. What do they do if they lose a job? Where are they gonna go for a job?… And that company, it just exploits them… it knows it. You don’t do what they do, I mean, you give somebody three buildings to clean everyday – are you out of your mind!? Bathrooms and kitchens and people getting sick all over the place and they have to clean all that up?
I had one student and he came in… and he would bring in anything he had left on his card, he would bring in the cleaning ladies from his building and let them have a shopping spree. And, oh my god, they’d be crying and he’d say, ‘you didn’t spend enough money you have to go back, I still have points left and they’re for you. You have to go back and shop more.’ Oh my gosh they wouldn’t believe it, they would have bags and bags and bags of stuff and he said, ‘it’s the smallest thing I can do to honor them.’ He said, ‘I know what they do every day and I know what they clean up everyday, the messes. I’ve seen it all and they don’t complain. So this is the smallest thing that I could do.’
So Wesleyan is known for being pretty weird and we like it that way. What are some of the strangest things that you’ve seen either around campus or in Weshop?
Oh god, we’ve had nude people all the time, running in and oh god putting all their parts on the counter and all that, like oh, please… we’re all parents you think we haven’t seen anything? Get outta here! *Laughs* They’d do funny things like that. Years ago, probably it was Grateful Dead being here and stuff. They came before I was here. And the Grateful Dead came here… they were like an up-and-coming Spring Fling type thing, so everybody comes cheap and then two years from then they could be well known but you got ‘em and it was cheap.
There are so many things that happened in thirty years. It was just every day new things are rolling out. You didn’t have to worry about the day before ‘cause new stuff would keep rolling out. It’s just so interesting. And then we had our own little people that we worked with, the actual food service workers, who were characters on their own… it’s just amazing. People could probably sit here and reminisce and say don’t you remember this and don’t you remember that. There was so much stuff. It’s a unique place to work.
People look down on us because they think, eh, food service. They think we probably didn’t graduate from high school and [we] must be making minimum wage… And I always think,’you think what you want but I’ve probably had a much more interesting life than you people have ever. I’ve travelled the world on their money on over time and stuff and it’s like, you look down at me all you want but I’ve had a great time.’ I would say it’s been just a great place to be. So I’m not leaving it even though I could retire… I’m not leaving it, not yet I’m not ready.
It is a good school. I wish they were a little looser; I wish everybody could’ve gone back twenty years and been there and experienced it… I think [food service workers] are always with the students so we’re in the best place because [the administration is] isolated. You know you wanna be all by yourself in the ivory tower, that’s okay, you’re happy there, but we’re happy to be with the students.