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Opinion

The End of Spontaneity

4.10.20

Students studying in the Barker Café

The way it was…a scene at the Barker Café

Photograph by Lauren Fadiman


The way it was…a scene at the Barker Café

Photograph by Lauren Fadiman

Despite its well-constructed façade of serenity—the muted light streaming through yellow curtains, the low-fi music playing in the background—the Barker Center café is no place to actually accomplish pressing tasks. This is common knowledge among those who frequent it. Rather, Barker is a place to “get work done” in the loosest sense, i.e., spend five or 10 minutes reading before, inevitably, a friend enters—and an hour of conversation ensues over the pages of a forgotten text. Best, I think, to learn this young at Harvard, or else risk never knowing—by the time class begins—how the book ends.

Writing this at home in Shelton, Connecticut—where I have been for almost a month now, since Harvard evacuated all undergraduates because of the COVID-19 pandemic—I feel more acutely aware than ever of what has been lost in being separated from these places. Like many students, I lament the sudden loss of control over my own life. But I lament the loss of all that I couldn’t control on campus, too: the loss of spontaneity that is so inherently a part of life at college—that is, in fact, one of its few constants. With it comes the assurance that even if you don’t see someone you care about one day, you’re bound to bump into her the next day, or the day after that.  

Barker is a frequent site of such reunions, whether one has gone in search of them or not. And so during our freshman year, my friend Eva and I would instead frequent the former Petsi Pies on Putnam Avenue, now a Darwin’s Ltd., where we recognized few fellow Harvard students and could manage hours-long feats of work without interruption. Until, of course, with time, the crowd of upperclassmen who also worked there became recognizable, then familiar, and then friendly with us—as their senior theses evolved from sacks of books into discrete Google Docs, and the winter became spring. Soon Petsi Pies became a place where we would go to talk about writing, but never quite manage to write anything.

Before the pandemic forced all of Cambridge into silence, no cafés in the Square were safe from the possibility of distraction—of an inevitable collision with friends. That is their greatest appeal. Even in the cafés up toward Porter Square, and farther afield in Somerville—Simon’s Coffee Shop, Forge Baking Company—Eva and I were bound to bump into our housemates from the Dudley Co-op. But that isn’t an experience limited to cafés: it is true of all the unofficial nexuses of campus life, ranging from the sidewalks that traverse Harvard Square, to the Garment District in Kendall Square where I went to buy a Halloween costume last year, to the line where I waited to catch a Greyhound south to New York last summer.  

Endless sites for interaction stretch far beyond the walls of Emerson Hall and Eliot House—and along with all those collisions, a sense of synchronicity between lives. All of the places that matter to me in Cambridge matter to other students, too, and have mattered to hundreds and even thousands of them through the years. And to collide spontaneously with someone in such a place is to have had the same idea as she did, on the same day, about how to pass a few hours, or where to get a good coffee. It is to never be alone.  

Under self-isolation and social-distancing policies, these are difficult circumstances to replicate. For a time—in that very first week after the evacuation, perhaps—the smartphone app Houseparty had a major resurgence. Each time you open it, a notification is sent to all your friends on the app that you are “in the house.” Should they then open the app, and click on your name, all of you find yourselves in an instantaneous video call. And your other friends can randomly join the call, if they so choose—as if you had just bumped into them on the street.  

For a while—47 hours or so—it seemed as though Houseparty would carry us through the entire pandemic. But after 48 hours, it lost its sheen. Houseparty is no springtime on Mount Auburn Street, no 70-degree day along the Charles River. 

The app can offer only a false spontaneity, one that is contingent on the conscious opening of an app, the release of a notification like a smoke signal announcing loneliness. And in addition to being false, it is spontaneity stripped of its most joyful moments. Nothing like spotting a former co-leader from the First-Year Outdoor Program outside the Smith Campus Center, shouting “Co!” ​​from 20 feet away, embracing in the cold of January—an experience that always brings back to me the humid, thrumming August when we first met. Nothing like colliding with another friend drunkenly at a party, letting him pick me up and spin me around so that we’re both laughing with surprise and childish glee. 

And so Houseparty has been supplanted by the old standby, FaceTime, with its necessarily high levels of intention. Calls are planned days in advance, negotiated across time zones, tucked in between classes and mandatory family dinners. The intention is not a bad thing; simply different. It pulls close friends closer—Eva and I, for example, have spoken almost every other day—but inevitably widens the chasm between acquaintances. There are so many people I would happily bump into, but with whom a call is just out of reach. Instead, social networks are inevitably trimmed to their most skeletal structures. And on top of that sacrifice comes another: because neither Houseparty nor FaceTime can replicate embodied experience, anyway. In the first beats of silence after a call ends, I feel overcome with loneliness. There is no lingering good-bye, no warmth that sits on your skin even as you walk away: all those taken-for-granted pleasures of in-person human contact that I never appreciated enough before now. 

In the end, there prevails an overwhelming sense of stagnation: life frozen in amber, which emanates the familiar yellow light of the Barker Center but none of the accompanying possibility. Chance encounters, flexibility, the very stuff of life at Harvard, are impossible for the time being. Instead, we draw close, closer, to those we already know and love. When Eva and I run out of things to say on FaceTime, we stay on the call in silence for hours. Nighttime descends on my little house in Connecticut. The next day, I rise and repeat.

Perhaps, in an uncertain time like this one, predictability provides a comfort all its own.

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