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Where everybody knows your order

By Gina Gotthilf

Section: Features

April 11, 2008

If you consider your last date at Usdan the opposite of romance, think again. Jane Bellan Flood, 61, met her husband Mike Flood during a coffee break for Usdan employees and custodians. “My co-worker told Mike, ‘Jane’s looking for a single, honest, godly man. Do you fit that description?’ And Mike said ‘Well, I’m single.’ We clicked and… [have] been married for 13 years,” says Jane, who has worked at Usdan for the past 18 years.

Jane is just one of a group of enthusiastic employees who have worked at Usdan for over a decade, and one of five employees who started working on campus before most current students could even babble the word “Brandeis.” Yet, though most of us have now learned to babble, no student can speak of the romance, mystery, comedy and horror that have taken place in the university’s cafeteria as well as these veteran workers can.

Positioned from behind the counters that have separated customers from employees for over five times the years necessary for an undergraduate diploma, these workers have compiled stories and experiences far more nourishing than any of the diverse meal options they might be serving.

Yet in approaching each station shyly and uttering no more than the few words necessary to obtain lunch, very few students recognize the people behind the aprons or care to hear what they might say beyond “for here, or to go?” Regardless of whether or not you decide to eat at Usdan, a peak into these characters’ minds can provide any customer with far more to go than can be placed in a cheap, white container.

Got the blues? Welcome to Usdan Café, second-home to the “Three Amigos” (as employee Gordon Ward named his veteran group of co-workers) who have turned their monotonous decade-long routines into a private comedy. Step up to the grill and meet Gordon, who has worked at Usdan for the past 11 years, feeds ducks on his free time, and met his wife via a pen pal program. Cross over to the pizza counter and greet 17-year-veteran Carlos Cardona, the well-known mustached Italian who hides his amicable disposition behind silence and sarcasm. “Every day is funny here,” he said, pointing to his most ancient co-worker Maria Umina as she blended a smoothie amidst a contagious laugh attack. “Just listen to her cackle.”

Maria, veteran of 22 years at Brandeis, listens to students with such attention that she has memorized most of her customers’ favorite concoctions of “three fruits and a liquid.”

“I remember everyone’s smoothies,” she said. Along with many of the experienced workers at Usdan, Maria attributes her decision to stay at Usdan to the pleasure she finds in working with students. “I always want to work here,” she said, when provided with a theoretical choice of doing anything she would like to with the rest of her life. “I like seeing the kids, I want to always see the kids.”

Despite her appreciation for students, Maria regularly spends her short lunch breaks sitting by herself. “Unless,” she said, “I see a student with a burnt piece of toast. I don’t like that. I say ‘hey, you paid for that, go get yourself a new piece of toast.’”

On a few occasions, a student spontaneously joins her at the table, like Aaron Voldman ’09. “I sat with her a few months ago, and we had the most interesting conversation.”

Through taking the time to speak with Maria, one immediately notices her unfailing optimism, as well as an appreciation for her job that no student-worker at Usdan could come to understand.

For more optimism – albeit of a different sort – step downstairs to the Boulevard and order a wrap from Marie Martin, the 61 year-old rosy-cheeked Canadian from New Brunswick who regularly frequents casinos. Marie compiles students’ and faculty members’ sandwiches before they’re even through with small talk. “My kids come every day,” says Marie with humble pride.

Meanwhile, her neighbor and colleague Janet Lyons (veteran of 20 years) effectively avoids small talk by turning every request for Java City coffee into a full-fledged conversation. “The freshmen named me Java Jan [this year], I get a different name every year,” she boasts.

And if you’ve ever paid for lunch, you must have come across Julie Richard, the grand veteran who has worked on campus for 30 years. “My brother’s mother, who had been working here for 20 years when I started,” she remembers, “told me ‘Julie, don’t forget to sign up for your retirement!’ I laughed. ‘I’m not gonna be here that long!’ I replied.”

Finally, as you make your way outside to stick that bagel in the toaster and notice that its huge mass has disappeared, turn to the staff for further appreciation of the mystery and humor at Usdan.

“Someone put a croissant in there and there was a big fire! The cook got scared. That’s why our toaster is gone,” says Jane. In an afterthought, she blurts, “I’ve seen it happen before – the toaster on fire. Usually I just turn it off and… hope for the best! If you take out the fire-extinguisher, there’s no more toaster.”

But despite the festive atmosphere these workers describe, students who have worked at Usdan part-time know how difficult the routine can be. For example, though Maria claims that her job is “very easy,” she remembers several difficult episodes involving co-workers in the past.

She recounted, for example, an instance in which one co-worker, an amnesiac, shoved her arm into the flames at the grill in order to reach the counter. Whereas the average person would have likely reacted with anger, Maria saw the situation from a very different angle. “I felt so sorry for her,” she explains, “she shouldn’t have been working under those conditions.”

Moreover, while the majority of experienced Usdan employees discuss their careers here at Brandeis with eager pride, for Tao Wang, the friendly Chinese man who makes burritos and fajitas in lower Usdan, the past 10 years working at Usdan have been a very solitary struggle.

In Chinese, he explains that his English is not very good and therefore he never gets to enjoy any interaction with students. His loneliness is worsened by the fact that Chinese students prefer to order their dishes in English, and therefore never converse with him.

Finally, perhaps you’ve never heard of the tragic murder of Carlita, a beautiful Usdan employee who was killed in front of the cafeteria in broad daylight 15 years ago as her co-workers and students had lunch. “Her husband shot her, and then shot himself,” Julie recounts with horror.

In a country with stereotypes of hair-netted lunch ladies with pans of mystery-meat, these Usdan employees make for quite the exception. What a shame to merely search for edibles at the cafeteria when so much character and experience are waiting to be shared.

“Some students are very impatient,” said Jane, despite counting herself among the die-hard fan of the ‘kids.’ “Patience is a very good thing to have, especially with people,” she says, and advises that “when someone walks into your life, no matter who it is, you should pull them into your heart.”

The next time you walk into Usdan, think of Jane’s advice: “Don’t forget about the community,” she says, “and about people who aren’t as fortunate as you.” Maria’s message for Brandeis students jibes with Jane’s. “You picked the best place to be in the world, and don’t waste it. Your parents are paying a pretty penny for it,” she says, nagging her finger mockingly.

As for the secret ingredient to her smoothies, Maria insists “it’s just a little touch of love.”

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