Editor’s Column: Catering to the Colgate Connection

At the 2007 Founders’ Day Convocation, former President of the University Rebecca Chopp boasted of Colgate’s universally pristine reputation and its well-traveled, world-wise alumni. She told students that the next time they visited an airport they should proudly wear a Colgate sweatshirt, and she promised that someone would stop them.

Since then, I have flown several times, and each time I have paraded about the terminal in my maroon-and-white sweatshirt, waiting to be stopped by an excited or nostalgic alumnus.

I have yet to be stopped in an airport, but I have found that Colgate alums often find their successors in far more intimate settings. For me it seems that wherever I go, Colgate follows. It just never finds me in the terminal.

This summer I worked as a waiter in a restaurant on the New Jersey shore. Working as a waiter, friendly and unbroken small talk is of paramount importance. A good conversation can often be the difference between good and bad tips. Frequently engaging in conversation with my more gregarious tables as I did, it was not uncommon for a customer to casually ask where I went to school.

As a result, every so often a Colgate connection would surface. Those were the easy tables. Hearing my response, a smile would creep across the faces of the men and women who were familiar with our school on the hill. Some had family who had gone to Colgate, while others were family of graduates.

Apart from a handful of Cornell graduates, most diners were happy that they had asked, but as hunger set in, the conversation typically ended there. With Colgate in the rearview mirror, it was back to business as usual. They ordered, they ate and they left a good tip.

These Colgate tables were especially refreshing, because they were a noteworthy departure from the norm. While most people who eat at a restaurant are polite and gracious, many are not. There are no garden-variety exceptions to the rule. Instead, I have found that at dinner time, anyone can be irritable, and anything can happen.

This summer, a man threatened that he was going to, “cut me with a rusty butter knife,” because his clams were too small. When asked what he wanted to drink, another man told me slowly and deliberately, “no thanks, I’m loaded,” at a B.Y.O.B. establishment. One nice woman asked me hopelessly “what does ‘Appetizers and Shared Plates’ mean?”

In perhaps my most embarrassing moment, another server at the restaurant sent me over to a bachelorette party to sing to the bride as part of a scavenger hunt. I was the one of two males on staff that night, and they refused to allow their female server to sing to them. Not my finest moment, but they left 30 percent, so could I really argue?

Finally, one night a woman insisted that she could tell the difference between a one and two day old halibut. She was so convinced of the power of her super-human palette that she claimed she would leave the restaurant if the fish had not been delivered that morning. I lied through my teeth. When she was done, she told me only, “that was the best Halibut I ever had.”

Naturally with all of the “hey boss” and “yo buddy” culprits at the restaurant, my Colgate tables came as a welcome break. But even they were not without incident.

On one unseasonably cool summer evening in July, an elderly couple sat at a small table next to a window as they watched the sun slowly set over the bay. In no particular hurry, they leisurely browsed their menus and made their decisions at extremely long last. Sharing a fine bottle of wine, they took their time eating their entrees, and when they had finally finished the man called me to the table.

The two were exceedingly gracious, and they took time to praise the food and the service. Attempting to strike up a conversation, the man then asked me where I went to school.

I could tell that my response took him off guard. He reached for his glass, took a long, slow sip, and then took a deep breath. Now it was his turn to surprise me.

“Ah Colgate,” he said calmly. “Many years ago, I was rejected from Colgate.”

My delayed response was unfortunately the only thing I could think to say before I scurried back to the kitchen to quickly print their check.

“Well sir,” I responded, “the college process truly is a crap shoot.”

Fortunately, other Colgate stories proved more predictable. My favorite came late in August. A table of four women in their mid-40’s came in for dinner and drinks. After I dropped off the appetizers, they stopped me and started a conversation with the typical collegiate icebreaker.

One of the women could hardly contain her excitement as she proudly announced that she was a member of the Class of 1982. I introduced myself and shook hands, and she started asking me questions about school. After telling her a little bit about my experience, I asked her when she had been to campus last.

Suddenly the mood changed. I could sense her disappointment when she told me she had recently been up for her 25th reunion. I carefully asked her what had gone wrong.

“They wouldn’t let me into the Jug,” she curtly replied.

I love this school.