September 15, 2022

BERNSTEIN | Bring Back the Willard Straight Popcorn

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They say you die twice, right? Once when your heart stops beating, and once when you’re remembered for the last time. With each passing year, the memories of Willard Straight popcorn fade away into a second death.

Everything felt so easy. You walk into Cornell’s glorious student union and are smacked in the face with the boisterous conversation of tabling club members handing out free stickers and the whir of students running late to class or rushing to lunch at Okenshields or Straight from the Market. Your attention is carefully but confidently guided to the smells emanating from the room on your right, the Campus Activities Resource Center. The liquid gold butter. The sweet cinnamon snickerdoodle. The savory garlic. And of course, nutritional yeast. You almost begin to float, like you’re Mickey Mouse being guided by smell alone to a pie sitting on a window sill.

Before the pandemic, the Resource Center existed to support student groups and provide information to students with questions. If you needed help booking club meetings or if you needed directions, Willard Straight was the place to go. And for decades, they gave out free popcorn with a variety of toppings and flavors.

Willard Straight Hall, perhaps best known today as the on-campus hub for COVID testing, reminds people more of the smell of hand sanitizer than of popcorn.

Piece by piece, Cornell has come back from the COVID pandemic. We’re taking fully in-person classes without mask mandates, and even Willard Straight itself is showing shades of its old self. Cornell Cinema is back with showings, there are often meetings for clubs and student groups and the library that once hosted COVID testing is once again populated with chairs and study areas.

Shadows of the pandemic, however, haunt Willard Straight. The library’s shelves are still empty, and its walls are still missing their art. The Campus Activities Resource Center sits with empty bulletin boards and an empty table where a popcorn machine used to be. With most resources available online, it’s become somewhat obsolete.

Meanwhile, popcorn distribution was paused to limit traffic near the COVID testing site, and to keep food consumption primarily in eating areas.

Now, the only undergraduate students that remember grabbing a free bag of popcorn on their way to class or in the middle of their library grind-session are the seniors, and if nothing is done, the memories of popcorn on Cornell’s campus will disappear for good.

It is high time to make the change. Bring the popcorn back to Willard Straight.

Few things brighten the day as much as a good snack. It uplifts our spirits and refreshes our attitudes. Joy is inflated and stress is subsided; something so simple as a bag of popcorn is enough to give the students who walk the sidewalks of campus an undoubtedly necessary pep in their step.

Yet it was never just the snack that made the days of the students in Willard Straight. It was also the brief conversation with a stranger, either someone waiting in line alongside you, or the person serving you your popcorn, fit with toppings galore. There was a kindness and unity felt through the shared experience of bonding over free popcorn. Students long for this sort of camaraderie and simple pleasure.

Traffic near the COVID testing site isn’t a problem anymore, as Willard Straight’s testing hub has moved from the library to the art gallery. Popcorn distribution out of the nook where the Resource Center was once located won’t interfere anymore.

Even if campus activities resources are better found online, the space it occupied could still be used. There is still value in being able to ask someone a question in person, and receive help from a kind stranger, or perhaps a new friend.

Maybe this article is all rooted in my nostalgic senior existentialism, begging for a return to the Cornell I briefly knew before all of our worlds were turned upside down — or maybe it’s that I just really like popcorn. Yet maybe it’s a plea to give others the experience that I remember cherishing, and to let the memories of a Willard Straight I once knew live on a little bit longer.

Whatever the case, let the message ring true: free popcorn should once again be offered out of Willard Straight Hall, flavors and all. For the sweetness of a snack and the charm of a conversation; for the sake of the students and for the sake of the memories.

Daniel Bernstein is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Feel the Bern runs alternate Thursdays this semester.