A Place in Time, a Time and Place

McCabe Library’s Popular Reading Room is not really that popular.

Most Swatties don’t give this place much thought. They come in, get their 10 p.m. coffee and snacks, and leave the way they came in. And that’s okay. We can’t be expected to fully take in every place we come across in our daily routine; we can’t be expected to wallow in the minutiae of everywhere.

But if any place is worth wallowing in, it’s this one.

A student browses the comic books on offer.

I discovered the room shortly after my freshman orientation. My new almost-friend-group discovered it too, and it became our “spot.” For a few weeks, we’d spend   almost every night studying here, crowding the four nondescript armchairs with distracting conversation. Very little homework was done, but as time went on it became clear that we were doing a more important kind of work. We were, playfully but deliberately, laying the foundations of our social life.

Though the room is pretty out in the open and visible, we saw it as a hideaway. In what we thought was a clever pun, we called it the McCave.

In those weeks, four years seemed like an infinity, every class seemed takable, every book seemed readable, every conversation seemed havable, every person – befriendable.

Naturally, it didn’t last. The infinite superposition of choice and possibility started to collapse into a definite past and a limited present. The jaded cynicism of upperclassmen, once easily dismissed, found its way into my thoughts and words. Nowadays, it seems like the idealism of freshman fall has almost entirely escaped to sometime else, to someplace other than the present.

I say almost entirely, because if time is a place, then freshman fall is the McCave. And re-entering it, in a certain sense, means reliving.

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And though I might feel this more strongly than others, I claim that anyone, friend or foe, freshman or senior, can partake in this reliving. Whether or not your have any McCave memories, there are still things that this place can make you remember.

Yes, there is something unrepeatable about freshman fall, when it’s not awkward to say ‘hi!’ to strangers or start up a conversation in Sharples. That magical, unconditional openness to one another all but goes away. But in the McCave, though not always and certainly not uniquely, that magic still exists.

At 10 p.m., when the free coffee-and-snack bar opens for business and people from all floors, majors, and politics stream into the McCave, the sense of we-are-all-in-this-together is palpable as nowhere and nowhen else. Orientation friends are run into, comic books are browsed through, and academics are momentarily thrown aside in a collective experience like no other at Swarthmore.

Three hours later, the crowds have left, the coffee has dwindled, and the lights seem to have dimmed. Two friends walk in to get a drink, talking away. The only other person in the room, a newspaper-reading stranger, overhears their conversation. The stranger, feeling a sudden, strange compulsion, interjects. The friends look up, astonished for a moment; then one of them smiles. For a moment, the three are lanyard-wearing freshmen again, guarded but curious, fresh off the airport shuttle, wandering together into the unknown.

Featured image: Students line up for 10 p.m. coffee and snacks.

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