Re: Union

Monday, September 10, 2018 - 3:04pm

The point here is that on this day in late April 2018, the front doors to the Union didn’t open.

The point here is that on this day in late April 2018, the front doors to the Union didn’t open. Buy this photo
Design by Roseanne Chao

In late April, I walked up the stairs to the Michigan Union, as I’d done many times before. It was a warm day — warmer still with the winter semester finally over and the summer near. I’d walked up those stairs in every possible state: wet, hot, cold, disheveled, elated, disappointed, happy, tired, content, angry, heartbroken. Most of the time, though, I was just hungry. And on this late April day, I was hungry for an Au Bon Pain sandwich. For two years, I ordered the same thing, the Turkey Avocado, but out of fear of becoming a regular, I’d go long stretches avoiding the place when I felt myself becoming too predictable.   

But most of the time, each day at noon, there I was, like clockwork running up and down the Union stairs, stuffing my Turkey Avocado into my backpack, already late for my discussion. A text from my friend in class would read, “Dude you still coming? I have a seat.”

This whole operation of having my lunch in class would have gone a lot more smoothly if I was a quiet eater. But I have a habit of getting food everywhere, crinkling paper bags too loudly, chewing at the quietest times in lecture. My friend, the “still coming?” friend, would look at me with a mix of humor and humiliation. I could never figure out which was stronger. Nonetheless, I persevered, for lunchtime is lunchtime, and who am I to disrupt it?

Eventually, I learned to stop taking classes at noon.

The point here is that on this day in late April 2018, the front doors to the Union didn’t open. I tried them a few more times. In the moment, I tried to think of a single time in my three years at the University of Michigan when the Union doors wouldn’t open. I couldn’t think of one. I’d opened those doors from nine to five and every hour before and after. But indeed, this time they were locked, and it took me a minute to remember, oh, that’s right, the Re:Union.

The Re:Union is the name of the massive renovation project the University is undertaking to overhaul the Michigan Union. It will take two years and $85 million, and aims, according to the website, to “restore and reactivate the Michigan Union while maintaining its historic fabric and reasserting its role as a vibrant social hub and locus of inclusivity, innovation, activism and involvement.”

That’s quite a mouthful. A lot of moving parts there. Still, I don’t think one student who has walked through the Union would disagree with the premise, that the place needed an overhaul. It took me three years to realize there was a piano hall, just to the left of the front entrance, where I’d walked by a hundred times before. It took me just as long to find all the damn printers.

The first floor always felt strangely empty. The second was easily forgotten. On Yom Kippur, I’d ascend the steps to the conference hall upstairs, where they occasionally held services, and rediscover that not only did the second floor exist, but that it had a pool table and bathrooms and — during Yom Kippur — a lot of well-dressed Jews.

The Union was secretive in that way — filled with unexplored hallways and dead ends and rooms and rumors of access to the roof. There was the Tap Room without a tap, a Mediterranean restaurant that sold Mexican food, a Barnes & Noble that never seemed to have your books and that never seemed to be open when you needed it (and most egregiously, somehow always ran out of Blue Books the morning of your midterm).

There were couches that looked like someone dropped them off from a yard sale and couldn’t figure out where to fit them; food shops that sold exam packets; sober dances ripped straight out of high school; phone booths I did interviews in for jobs I didn’t get; a tech store with overpriced headphones I purchased four times a year; a Wendy’s open late but never late enough; small rooms for club meetings I’d attend two or three times before asking to be removed from the email list. This was part of its allure — the confoundedness of the building.

My first Welcome Week, a few kids I’d met at orientation decided to explore it. One of them suggested that we could get to the roof via a hidden stairwell. He said there might even be a pool up there. His older brother had found it, he swore. It was just a matter of finding the door.

We went up the fluorescent staircase by the north entrance, a little drunk, a little stupid, making more noise than those upstairs offices deserved. Quickly lost, we started aimlessly wandering around, reading literature about programs we didn’t know the University had and administrative titles that seemed hopelessly bureaucratic. I did, in fact, find a door to the roof, and a window too, but both were locked, and after some half-hearted attempts at picking the bolts, we gave up and descended the stairs.

We never found the pool, and I lost touch with those kids afterward. I never had much faith that that it was up there (though the Union did, in fairness, actually once have a pool). The pool-on-the-roof is such a classic ploy leveled against freshmen by their older siblings that it would have been unfathomable to believe it. I looked for a pool on the roof as a high school freshman too, and that didn’t exist either. But sometimes it’s liberating to believe in something because you’re expected to. You never really know when the pool might be real. I’m just saying it doesn’t hurt to check.

That wasn’t the last time I’d get lost in the halls of the Union. It was absurdly inaccessible, extremely difficult to navigate — as bewildering for a freshman as life smacking you dead in the face. Hallways didn’t go where they should have gone. There were rooms that looked like they hadn’t been used since the 70s, and certainly hadn’t had a design update since then.  

Getting lost in the Union was, in a sense, a rite of passage. We all had to figure out where the Tap Room printers were. We all, in our own ways, stared at grades below our standards on Canvas in the cafeteria, read rejection emails on the couches and fell asleep in the huge chairs in the study lounge with a red eye from Starbucks in hand — spilling it just enough to wake ourselves up with the burn.

Eventually, though, you found your way through the Union. Eventually, you learned where the hell the bathrooms were and what the hell a red eye from Starbucks was, learned who you wanted to see in that cafeteria off Au Bon Pain, and who you didn’t. You didn’t notice the progression. One day you looked back and realized it just sort of happened.  

Will the class of 2024 experience spring as tangibly with a Union courtyard roofed by glass? Will they feel history as present in the post-renovation “media-rich zones” as it did in the sweltering heat of a corroding study lounge? Will breakups be as meaningful — as quintessentially college — when they’re no longer shared with the rest of the Tap Room, done in those damp basement corners over Subway sandwiches, in hushed whispers still loud enough for the rest of the room to hear? “It’s just that… that at this point, well, I’m in college, I’m trying new things out, and I just think that I’m not in the place for… something like this right now….” “What is this…?” they ask back in a curt tone — masking hurt. There’s never a right answer.

Can this all exist in a “welcome and flexible environment” like the newly planned Idea Hub? Will it be — for all this talk of collaboration and innovation — ever so organic and shared again?

Sure. Probably. It seems senior year has a habit of making people grossly nostalgic, and I’ve easily fallen into the trap. I’m a sucker, I admit it. I have no doubt that when the Union reopens in 2020, the newly designed north entrance, complete with a glass overhang, will indeed promote an inclusive and open experience, as the website claims. I’m sure freshmen will walk through it just as I did, looking for roof access they’re likely to be disappointed by. Maybe that glass overhang will be what keeps those explorers in touch, rather than fall away.

What it will not be, unsurprisingly, is the same. I won’t be around to see this new, glorious hub of student interaction; to learn new places to have discreet phone calls and print assignments rushed to the last minute; to fall asleep on new chairs and couches and compose breakup texts over whatever new food options are available. And I’ll say, thank god for it. I was satisfied with eating my Panda Express while wet, hot, cold, disheveled, elated, disappointed, happy, tired, content, angry, heartbroken, and writing out:

“I’m just … not in the mindset right now …”