May 26, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Popping In to Say Farewell

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My fun fact is that I’m a popcorn person. Since I started working at the Campus Activities Resource Center (formerly the Willard Straight Hall Resource Center) in my sophomore year, I’ve ensured that everyone around me knows my primary campus involvement. I’ve been told that “popcorn person” isn’t a personality trait, but I’m here to say otherwise.

In my four years at Cornell, I’ve been swept up in various things. I became consumed with extracurricular activities, fulfilling major and minor requirements and preparing for post-graduation. The popcorn stand became my sanctuary. As I stepped behind our spice-dusted counter and oil-caked popper, I shed my identity as leader of ‘x’ organization or proponent of ‘x’ ideas in classes. I became a popcorn person — a tabula rasa of sorts. For the most part, the people who came to get their weekly, daily or sometimes hourly batch of free popcorn did not care what roles I filled once I took off my greasy WSH shirt. While this may sound dehumanizing, I found it liberating.

At the Resource Center, I had some of the most meaningful interactions during my time at Cornell. One shift, I asked someone how their day was going (a classic popcorn person greeting), and she responded that she was struggling because her dad was in the hospital. I let her know that I would be thinking of her and her family, and she left after a few minutes. Weeks later, she returned and was surprised when I asked about updates on her dad. She and I didn’t know each other’s names, yet we extended compassion to one another over a bag of popcorn.

The popcorn stand has quite a few regulars to our establishment. My favorites were a pair of toddlers. Every Tuesday opening shift of my junior year, I would mix them a bag of cinnamon sugar popcorn, which they would inevitably drop on the ground. The best day with them was when I found leftover balloons from an event, and the toddlers and I spent an hour hitting the balloons. Their mom recognized me over time, and though she and I were unable to exchange words across our language barrier, there was a mutual understanding of how much her girls brightened my week.

Most of my interactions at the popcorn stand weren’t that intense. Sometimes, it was quick banter with students (shout out to all of the chemical engineers who emerge from Olin Hall for their regular nutritional yeast orders), and other times, it was poking fun at a visitor’s reluctance to try a new spice combination. Regardless of the depth or length of these interactions, they all had some sort of value to me. They taught me to really mean it when I ask how someone is doing. They showed me the impact of remembering people’s names. They reminded me that regardless of what was happening in my life outside of popcorn, making someone smile by giving them free snacks would always make me feel better.

When I envision my favorite moment at Cornell, it’s in the Resource Center. In the background, Pandora is playing music from 2009 because the popcorn people refuse to advance to Spotify with the rest of the world. One of my coworkers is asking if we have enough butter, since we seem to run out in minutes. Another one of my coworkers who isn’t technically on shift is directing a prospective student around the building while also scrambling to complete their lab assignment. There’s a line of students, staff, faculty and townies out the entrance. And in the chaos of spices floating in the air, oil splattering me in the face and a wasp that somehow got in from outside, I am at home.

Maya Cutforth ’20 graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the summer.