The 9 3/4 of Sharples: The Free Zone

There is a place in Sharples that is hidden in plain sight: the free zone. Unknown to many and all too familiar to some, it is a unique place. Every time I enter the dining hall with my friends, I repeat the same phrase: “See you at the end of the line!” Then I go down the stairs, search for my OneCard in my pocket, sneak out of the line and disappear into the wall…

I have now entered a small room with yellowing white walls. There is a fridge and freezer, a toaster, a waffle iron, and a microwave. No gluten in sight. This is definitely a coeliac’s dream. I peek at the door and get a feeling of Panopticon: I can see everyone from that glass window on the door, and yet the room is barely noticeable to outsiders. I must turn to face the task at hand: getting my food.

I quickly read the menu that sits on top of the fridge. A clock started ticking inside me. I know a need to be speedy, as I don’t want to form a line of people waiting outside. Yet these four walls sweep Sharples’ chaotic noise away. The feeling of fleeting time loses its grip. One forgets that the hands of the clock are still pushing the universe forward. One enters a grey area between speeding and freezing time. My eyes make their way to the food that lies before me.

During breakfast there are usually no trays. The options are either on the snack shelf or in the fridge and freezer. Important questions come to mind. Bread or bagel? Is the cereal looking at me? How about the oatmeal? Should I sacrifice my time for making waffles? After posing such profound inquiries, a rush of electricity rattles my neurons and I finally grab something. Usually, it is bread.

Lunch has the most traffic. Rush hour is typically between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. Sometimes one must stand outside and patiently wait for the other person to exit. Honking is not allowed! Once you get in, you need to pull all the stops and accelerate your decision making process. During dinner, one can be a bit more relaxed. I don’t recommend, however, just standing there staring at the ceiling, either.

One must be smart with the food one grabs. Satiation is important, but so is cooperation. It is a balance that sometimes is hard to maintain. My philosophy is food socialism: grab a bit for me and make sure I leave some for everyone else who will come. Especially with dinner, since I don’t want the last person to come to have only three ravioli. I know firsthand about that pain.

There are a few constants in the free zone. The rice sits there every day. There is always grilled chicken wrapped in plastic, patiently waiting to be picked up from the fridge. Tofu appears in one option every time. Asparagus and baby carrots frequently let their presence be known. The snack shelves usually get emptied out during the course of the week. But every few days, all of a sudden it gets refilled, and one feels like one is playing a seductive game with all the possibilities. Sometimes there are desserts in the fridge, in the freezer, or in the counter. With such a sight, a current of joy runs through your hungry eyes.

Gluten eaters now have a glimpse into this magical, secret, and adrenaline-filled world. Will Sharples ever be the same for you? 

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