The Fountain Pen: “It’s Water and I Need It.”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This is the first installment of “The Fountain Pen,” a column dedicated to documenting and exploring our campus’s water fountains and the people who use them.

I hadn’t seen many water fountains before I came to Swarthmore. And in my ignorance, it seemed natural that they should all look the same, all spew the same water at the same speed, at the same temperature, and in the same direction.

Swarthmore changed that.

Every morning, on my way to class, I walk by my hall’s water fountain. As I approach it, I slow down, weighing my options: can I afford a 10-second water-fountain detour? Is the water too cold for the weather? Whatever my choice, it will have repercussions throughout the morning and the rest of the day. My point is this: water fountains matter.

At Swarthmore, it dawned on me that water fountains were more than just water dispensers: each had its personality, and each made and told its own stories. Their placement was crucial, the resource they dispensed indispensable. Just by virtue of satiating our most basic need, every water fountain accrued tremendous social capital, and it is this that compelled me to write about them. Just as we shape our water fountains, so our water fountains shape us.

When asked to name her favorite water fountain, Lupita Barrientos ’17 had to think a little, and then answered: the water dispenser next to the Popular Reading Room in McCabe, where she works.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 11.56.34 PM
The water dispenser in question.

Why? “It’s in a convenient location, and it has both hot and cold water,” she explained.

There was, of course, more to be said.

“In some of the metal fountains it tastes a little bit like metal, […] but the water from the dispenser [has] no metal aftertaste,” she said.

Lupita likes her fountains “metalless,” which is exactly what the dispenser is. In fact, it’s made of plastic.

Then there’s another quality of this fountain that Lupita stressed early on in our conversation: the water fountain’s “strong,” “trickling” stream evokes a person peeing.

After our interview, I went to sample the water. As soon as I pressed the button, the machine sprung into action, producing — as if by apparition — a powerful stream that, indeed, evoked urine. The sound of the flowing water hitting first the cup’s bottom and then the accumulating reservoir already in the cup had a disquieting urgency to it, as if pressuring me into releasing my finger and withdrawing. And yet, something stopped me: the sound had the kind of arresting electricity that only cold water can produce. In tension with one another, these opposing inclinations played out a delicate tug-of-war at the point of contact between my finger and the dispenser’s curved red button. Finally, as the water approached the brim of the cup, the balance tipped in favor of a swift withdrawal, and I pulled back my finger.

The stream stopped as quickly as it started, its last drops swinging around as if trying to turn back to their source, though ultimately succumbing to gravity. I took my first sip right as I stepped away from the dispenser.

The first thing I noticed was the aftertaste. It was the kind that diffuses throughout one’s mouth, yet has an inward pressure that makes it impossible to ignore. It was cold, though not too much so. It left a sour taste, but in a good way. It evoked, if anything, the groggy moistness you feel when you have just left a swimming pool and stepped into the winter chill with the traces of a chlorine taste in your mouth. But here in McCabe, a place that is quite the opposite of a swimming pool, I didn’t really mind.

It’s important to understand that for Lupita, the dispenser’s positive qualities aren’t just the side perks of drinking from it. They’re her reason for going there in the first place.

“[It] is actually farther away than one that’s just around the corner, but I do walk over there,” she explained.

It seems that the water fountain has, more than any other element of campus infrastructure, an inexplicable, irresistible pull. It is one that I have felt on many late nights in the library, Parrish, or even my dorm. Lupita feels it when she needs a break.

And here’s where the peeing comparison shows up in an interesting way: the trip to the water fountain, ostensibly the opposite of the trip to the bathroom, has a similar role to play.

“Sometimes, people go to the bathroom when they want a break, not necessarily because they have to go to the bathroom. And that’s what I do, kind of walk over there, get some water, and come back, refreshed,” Lupita said.

So is there more to the refreshment than just the physical experience of cold water? Lupita seems to think so.

“Sometimes I have a four-hour shift here and just the walk over there is stimulating,” she said. “[The water] is like a reward for walking all the way over there, going out of my way to get to this delicious water, and eventually get to taste it, and it’s pretty great, pretty gratifying.”

For her, the trip to the water fountain, then, is a kind of conditioned pattern with the water set up as a reward.

Maybe the walk there, the button-push, the drink, the walk back, remind us of all the times we really have felt thirsty, when water seemed to us like happiness embodied. Even when we’re hydrated, the trip to the water fountain reminds us of the relief of quenching real thirst. And thus, we may sometimes take the walk unthirsty when really we seek to quench other, less physical thirsts.

Finally, you might think that a trip we all take so often, one that is so powerful, would become a shared social experience. But not so for Lupita.

“You wait until it’s your turn, you don’t talk to anyone, and you avoid putting your butt in the face of the person behind you,” she said.

And does she drink faster if there’s someone waiting in line?

“No, I’m gonna do whatever I want, because it’s water and I need it.”

Images courtesy of Eduard Saakashvili ’17/The Daily Gazette

Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard is a film and media studies major from Tbilisi, Georgia. He abandoned The Daily Gazette during sophomore year to focus on his career in club fencing. Big mistake.


  1. This column is amazing. Can you do a piece on water fountains that are not well calibrated–ones that eject water into the faces of naive users? Does that still happen with some of the science center ones? You could interview people right after they have been humiliated by something that they were hoping would be a refreshing break from science.

    Thank you for tackling this very important topic.

  2. Incredible column.

    Have you investigated the right-hand water fountain in the basement of the Physics/Astronomy wing? When you press the button it produces a weak burble – who would dare put his or her mouth so close to the crusty, pale-green buildup on the mouth of the fountain? But any expert user knows to release the button, count to three, and press again. It then ejects an arc of (lukewarm) water so powerful that it finishes in the bowl of the left-hand fountain.

  3. I love this. I think longingly of the “Good Water fountain” in the lobby of the fieldhouse, recently lost to unknown malfunctions, it now sits there unusable, sad, a cold, cutting loss of a longtime refreshing friend. Perhaps you can take you journalism to action and defend water fountains.

  4. The water fountain on the second floor of Mertz is my personal favorite. It was my freshman year hall and my roommate and I loved that thing so much that she constructed a beautifully intricate construction paper sign to place on the side of the fountain, labeling it “Oasis,” after its brand name engraved on the side. That water was crisp, cold, and refreshing every time.

  5. I remember as a freshman filling my water bottle up from the water dispensor in cornell library. An upperclassman joked, “You have to pay for that!” which made me abruptly stop. lol

  6. Because Beardsley is visited by a smaller portion of Swarthmore’s student body, the water fountain there is used less often and I believe it to be one of the best fountains on campus. It has a quirk: you have to hold the button and let the water flow for 3 seconds before drinking. Otherwise while drinking you will experience a slightly uncomfortable temperature change. I highly suggest this fountain.

  7. can we talk about that awkward tilt you have to do to fill up your water bottle in sharps?? then it trails down the side and you spill it on the metal trayshelf and then i’m walking up the hill to class and thinking about all the times i fucked up in life

  8. Thank you for this important column, Saakashvili.

    Now that I’ve graduated, I feel prepared to share one of my deepest Swat secrets – maybe a feature of yours at some point?

    If you ever need to cool down the inside of your mouth A.S.A.P., please do check out the Parrish 1st Floor West Wing water fountain (across from Career Services). The sensor has a personality of its own, and you probably won’t be able to drink as much as you’d like to, but that HOH definitely wins the award for most relieving. The water, in fact, is kept so cold that the machine actually heats the hallway-space around it to achieve the feat. I fear for the day when it’s replaced with a more efficient fountain, but will always revel in my memories of its power.

    – Little Book, ’13

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