Fifteen Minutes: Cooperation Makes it Happen

It's a Friday morning at the Dudley Co-op in the winter of 2000, but it might as well be summer
By Catherina E. Lavers and Nina O. Yuen

It's a Friday morning at the Dudley Co-op in the winter of 2000, but it might as well be summer of '69. Hetty B. Eisenberg '00 sleeps in a common room, curtained by moon-and star beads as a silver wall hanging swirls psychedelically above her. In the room next to her, morning sun streams onto a collection of African drums next to a bathtub full of tropical plants and finger-painted with "Happiness is Now."

Eisenberg sleepily parts the bead curtains and walks out onto Sacramento Street with Adrienne N. Giebel '00 and Mike W. Weller '01. They lift armfuls of organic yogurt from a leaf-painted Nefco truck. This yogurt is for the community of about 35 Harvard students who live outside of the bricks and gates in two wooden houses on Sacramento Street and Mass. Ave. They live without Dorm Crew and without swipe cards, in an isolated and self-sufficient community. Alex C. A. Kaufman '02 says, "if you do the most difficult chores, you'll end up working 4 hours a week at least." They make their bread, mix their juice, clean their toilets, churn their compost, and somehow have time to do their homework.

But Co-opers aren't task-masters. They don't speed through the house with I-have-a-thesis-to-write expressions on their faces. Instead, they smile and give FM a tour of their kitchen.

What the Co-op kitchen lacks in streamlined modern design, it makes up for in raw character. Directly outside, there are four enormous bins of compost named after old tutors. Geibel and Weller walk through their pantry and proudly display the vats of 35 pounds of peanut butter, 15 pounds of tahini, 60 pounds of honey, and the highlight of the tour, the monstrous solid block of raisins.

On one wall, a sign says "Food Not Bombs" alongside a picture of a hand lifting a carrot into the sky. On the door of the walk-in pantry there is a mural of Dr.Seuss' Lorax and magnets of naked people streak across the refrigerator. Surrounded by the Wall of Spices, the Wall of Beans, and the Wall of Tea, Weller points little note cards explaining the medicinal properties of each tea box. "Chaste Berry," for example, will "ease PMS" and "reduce horniness."

The walls that aren't covered in food, spices, or tea are lined in every type of cookbook, from "Man Eating Bugs: the art of eating insects" to "Entertaining in the White House." Because of these cookbooks, Linda S. Cuckovich '01 says she's "never eaten the same meal twice."

At the Co-op, they do not toss reheated premasticated chicken onto their trays with tongs a la Harvard Dining Services, they make their granola from raw ingredients and soak it in organic milk--rice milk, soy milk, oat milk, or even almond milk. On the table-sized chopping block in the kitchen, students gather every day at 3 o'clock and start to slice fresh vegetables, tossing them into what is quite possibly the largest wok in the western world. Today, in the kitchen, Geibel realizes there has been a mistake with the milk delivery, and instead of skim milk, they were given three boxes filled with half a dozen cartons of half-n-half. But she isn't phased by the dairy crisis. "We'll just have to make everyone become vegan," she says and smiles.

That wouldn't be too much of a shift from the already overwhelmingly vegetarian Co-op. Although Weller says someone technically could "buy 55 hot dogs and cook them for dinner," he admits that not many Co-opers would take kindly to finding a pan of bacon fat on the counter. They do, however, allow one type of fish. "Tuna's been our compromise. We had a civil discussion over tuna," Cuckovich explains. But amidst the walls of beans, there is an undercurrent of meat-yearning. On a refrigerator covered in plastic magnet letters, the words "Meat Ball" are raggedly formed. A cry for help? "I miss meat," Cuckovich admits with guilt.

When lunchtime rolls around, Janson Wu '00 hops out of the kitchen asking if anyone wants "vegan macaroni and cheese," holding the box aloft with a charming smile. After close questioning, he admits that his recipe is really "vegan macaroni, soy sauce and nutritional yeast." The response is not enthusiastic. Wu proceeds to go into the kitchen and make macaroni, soy sauce and nutritional yeast for himself. He has been vegan for three weeks. "It's actually more of a whim," he says. He drinks soy/rice/oat/almond milk on blind faith, completely unsure of "exactly how they make any of those 'milks.'" It's not the milk, but the co-op's vegan deserts that are keeping him faithful. "They're just as moist and just as fluffy."

Tonight, the dessert was not fluffy--it was slimy. While sitting behind the beaded curtain chatting and snarffing down tapioca pudding, Co-opers watched their friends trickle through the door as the day ended. Over the sound of Bob Dylan's crooning on the first floor, pots and pans clamored for attention in the kitchen on the other side of the huge dining room. At 6:30, however, the mellow atmosphere vanished as students appeared from out of nowhere, forming a line that circled around the 8-foot, dark wood table laden with bowls of food. The white china dishes and plain glasses so familiar to the Harvard student are a rare occurrences here, otherwise replaced by piles of mismatched bowls, plates, empty yogurt cups and a flatware stand of forks and chopsticks.

Propped on the table, leaning against the banister, stands a white board displaying the day's menu. Tonight's menu? Rosemary beans, rice, cabbage soup, corn bread, and spinach salad. There are two kinds of tapioca pudding--one labeled "vegan w/o eggs" and the other "milk w/eggs." Carrying an eclectic assortment of dishes, students and guests find places along the table in the dining room, a table so long that it seats 35. Glasses and pitchers of water and juice are placed every few feet along its length.

As soon as the cook is seated, the room erupts into applause. "People here love to clap," laughs Rebecca Reider '00, as the evening's master chef is lauded. The food is delicious, but few ever miss the opportunity for fresh bread. During the meal, people trail into the kitchen to cut off a chunk from one of the six loaves lying on the counter, fresh from the oven--a long way from the Wonderbread in Harvard's dining halls.

As people finish their meals, they bring their dishes into the kitchen, scraping their food into a compost bucket. Dishes pile up on the counter, waiting to be cleaned by a dutiful Co-oper. Leftovers will be eaten for lunch on Saturday, or incorporated into Saturday dinner. Wu mentions that on any given night, 7 to 15 guests eat at the co-op, and are invited to come again, and bring friends.

The superb food is only one of the many reasons why Harvard students choose the Co-op over sanctioned housing. The work itself drew Dan B. Visel '00, who felt thoroughly uncomfortable having strangers cook for him and clean his bathrooms--"it was like having servants and I wasn't into that mentality." Reider, who moved to the Co-op this autumn, wasn't into that mentality either. She describes house life as "living in this box next to many other people in boxes and eating processed food." She says she came to the Co-op because she "just got tired of institutional living."

Most residents agree that they live in the Co-op to escape Harvard at the end of the day. "[Harvard] feels like a day job," explains Reider. A former Quincy resident, Weller complains about the pervasiveness of Harvard in the square. "Here, you're in the real world. You walk by an elementary school at recess and little kids bump into your knees." One student, who recently returned to Harvard after taking 9 years off, explains that the reason he chose to live in the Co-op was because of his cats. Unlike any other Harvard house, the house at 1705 Mass. Ave. allows pets.

Another significant factor to living in the Co-op is the price. Residents pay $1100 a semester in term-billed room fees, and $550 for food that goes directly into the Co-op account. The end amount? Approximately $2000 less a semester than students in Houses pay.

The Unofficial Guide reports that the Co-op is "Often thought of as a den of militant lesbian separatists and drugged-out long-haired Red subversives." FM asked Co-op residents what they thought about the Co-op's portrayal as a radical hippie house. A significant percentage of the Co-op's residents are gay or lesbian, and while the words in the Unofficial Guide do not hold, Derika Weddington '00 suggests that if the description "would scare you away from here, then you probably don't belong here." One student protests that a biased reporter wrote the diatribe after a "bad Co-op experience." "We kind of have a mythical quality" explains Wu. "I never even considered the Co-op for a long time because someone told me it was a really dirty place."

"We are not a hippie commune. People here shop at the Gap, for Christ's sake," objects Weddington to suggestions that most Co-opers are very leftist. The Gap? But what about the big poster on the wall protesting Gap sweatshop use? At the top of one flight of stairs is a mural, known as the "Tribute to Karl Marx." Surrounding a photo of the socialist and a rising red Communist star, the words "Workers of the World Unite" are written in a plethora of languages. The dining room is decorated with half a dozen Communist posters in vivid reds and oranges. "Not everyone here is politically active but they are opinionated. They are not necessarily vegetarian, but they will sit and talk about its merits" says Kaufman.

Giebel says she likes the Co-op because of the loving atmosphere, where "everyone's always hugging and kissing." After dinner, 20 people pile onto a few couches to watch The Simpsons together, while giving each other back massages. The movie "With Honors" was based on the true story of a homeless man named Damon Paine who was allowed to live at the Co-op for years due to the easy-going attitude of its residents. Even during primal scream, when naked bodies blur by in the yard, Co-opers take it slow in the warmth of Lamont. While they pretend to study, they take off their clothes, piece by piece. Other readers often think the stripping is spontaneous and join in. "You really get a good look," says Kaufman. "It's much more about being naked and less about freezing to death."

At the Co-op, hair more frequently flows long, shoes tend to be clogs, jeans are fringed at the bottom, bras are less common than in they are in the square. Some even knit their own clothes from knitting company's samples. But remnants of the Co-op's hippie days extend beyond fashion and decor. Above the door reads, "The Center for High-Energy Metaphysics." According to Co-op legend, the sign was added in the mid 70's after a drug bust. Entrepreneurial Co-opers had a marijuana farm on the roof of "05," the smaller Co-op house on Mass Ave. The plants grew so tall that pedestrians on the street could spot them, as could police. After the raid, they adapted the name of the physics lab on Oxford Street, establishing a new acronym, HEMP.

Long after the dinner dishes are cleared and the Co-op dining room empties, Wu sits on the long wooden table. "I'm nervous," he confesses. Tonight, he has to make fresh bread. If his bread is too dry, it will be eaten in silence. If his bread is good, the message board will be covered with "Mmmmm good bread," and clapping will resound at the dinner table.

Wu has only made bread a few times before so he decides on a simple recipe: old order Amish bread. But amidst the mixing of the beginning ingredients, he gets overly-excited and runs to the Wall of Spices. And then to the cabinet of oil. "Taste, taste!" he sings as the old order Amish start getting fatty and spicy. He scoops the basic ingredients from industrial-sized garbage bins of flour and sugar. A bowl of yeast and water sits still underneath him. "Bubble, bubble..." he croons. "If it doesn't bubble, that means I killed it," he explains. When a light foam develops, he mixes and kneads, and waits for it to rise. It's already 11:30 at night. The kitchen is silent, filled with the smell of rising bread, ready for another Co-op morning.