Gone are the great public events of the last days---Halloween, the Marathon, the election, the World Series. The great crowds they drew have dissipated. The prosy days of mundanity return.
For a glimpse of ordinary public life, go watch college students eat. I ordered a salad and a yoghurt in a cafeteria of a private urban university. How well the students eat, I marveled. The utensils may be plastic, but the gastronomy veers towards the sumptuousness of an upscale supermarket.
The student body is multicultural. There are cuisines from a rich variety of traditions: a kosher room; a vegetarian salad bar; a refrigerator shelf of sushi; a Latin inflected sandwich counter. The student body believes in individual choice. Stand before the racks of potato chips. One of the several brands offers four flavors: backyard bar-be-que; jalapeno; honey dijon; sweet onion. The student body supports wellness and healthy food, the vitamin waters and chicken noodle soup and fresh fruit.
But the student body also wants its treats. Waiting to be picked up by the cash registers are cup cakes, ice cream treats,and hand-made gourmet lollipops.
If a student's sleep habits are irregular, one food counter offers an All Day Breakfast, including breakfast burritos and French toast stuffed with bananas, cream, and carmelized orange, offered with the counter-programming of fresh fruit.
The students mingle easily amidst this plenty. They talk, sometimes exuberantly. If they are eating alone, they have their cell phones. They dress casually, many of them in hoodies. They are sweet, smart, and well-mannered. I have never seen one speak rudely to the servers of the food or to the man wiping off the trays the students bus to the large garbage bins. I fear that the servers and cleaning men might have had different experiences from mine.
The students have worries and anxieties---about their identities, relationships, families, and classes. They or their families may be under great financial strain and in debt. This food costs money. Some of the students struggle with paralyzing insecurities and agonizing depressions. They carry medications in the pockets of their jeans or in their backpacks. The student dining room is no instant paradise.
However, far grubbier public dining rooms exist, some of them in far less affluent colleges. If we believed in decent public spaces for students---the "next generation" and "the future" in conventional public rhetoric---all student dining halls would be places of plenty and mild comfort and ease.
But if we were to have a secret ballot, how many of us would check "yes" to the statement, "America believes in decent public spaces for all students. Really, it does, really."