Off the beat: On C.R.E.A.M., community

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On an unreasonably cool summer night not long ago, my cantankerous friend Kelly and I were driving up Telegraph Avenue when we saw the line at C.R.E.A.M. — “Cookies Rule Everything Around Me,” for anyone keeping score — wrapping around the building along Channing Way, as usual.

Also as usual, the Bay Area summer demanded that the patrons, mostly students, wear their UC Berkeley sweatshirts. But the cold didn’t deter them from seeking out the customizable ice cream sandwiches.

Just like everyone else I walk past the C.R.E.A.M. line with, Kelly scoffed at the multitude of people all waiting to surrender $2 for a sweet treat.

“Why would they wait all that time for just for that?” she questioned. “Don’t they have better things to do?”

I told her that the short answer was no, but I also advised that she think back to her first visit to the ice cream shop to try and understand why.

When I transferred here last fall, I ended up moving into Telegraph Commons, a private dorm at the corner of Channing and Telegraph, because my campus housing assignment was not at all what I wanted. I made friends with freshmen over the course of the semester, but would I have been able to room with two of them? Probably not.

Even though rent was outlandishly expensive, someone told me one perk was living catty-corner to C.R.E.A.M. Despite the glowing recommendations, I wasn’t motivated to wait in a long line for an ice cream sandwich until someone on my floor came running down the hall one night during Welcome Week 2011, informing everyone that we could get one for free through the now-defunct meal deal website Munch On Me.

A group of about 10 of us quickly registered, claimed the offer and ran downstairs in a futile attempt to beat the other people who had undoubtedly heard about the deal and been equally drawn by the appeal of free food.

The end of the line was half a block down Channing, next to Berkeley Thai House, which anyone will tell you is an exceptional distance for that line, but oddly enough, the wait wasn’t particularly upsetting. The greater concern was taking the opportunity to get to know my new floormates, with whom I had interacted little aside from saying hello in the hallway.

We talked about where we came from (Southern California, Northern California, Minnesota, Nigeria, Spain), our majors (one in every college except the campus College of Environmental Design) and our first impressions of Berkeley (lots of homeless people, some who feel the need to fill the night sky above Telegraph with song or scream).

And by the time we had shared all of that, we were at the front of the line. I ordered a combination that has continued to be one of my favorites — Golden Gate Caramel Swirl ice cream between two chocolate chip cookies — which I found both decadent and comforting in its simplicity.

We stood at the corner outside the shop and indulged, not saying much at this point aside from smiling and grunting our approval.

In the ensuing weeks, my floormates and I began going to football games, club meetings and parties together. Would we have gotten to know one another if not for our C.R.E.A.M. outing? Of course, people are social by nature. But the fact remains that it happened there, and I’m almost certain we’re not the only group to have bonded in that line.

Kelly thought back to her first C.R.E.A.M. outing, and she recalled it being nothing special. She had gone with her then-roommate and said she regretted spending $2 on a dessert. I then pointed to the line and asked her what she saw. “A line?” she asked. “No,” I said. “It is people bonding.” As far as I could see, everyone in that line was conversing, holding hands or, much to our chagrin, making out.

That old saying “Food brings people together” rings as true as ever, but the inverse is also true: that people come together over food. Everyone needs to eat, and while some prefer to enjoy their meals alone, many would rather spend them fostering friendships and establishing that sense of community that is such an integral part of any college experience.

That line is no different from the Sunday night dinner table that brings families together, the cup of coffee over which couples first get to know each another and the lunch date that provides an excuse for old friends to catch up. But why C.R.E.A.M.? The cookies are baked fresh and are still warm and tender to the tooth as they give way to cool, creamy ice cream, all for $2. That has nothing to do with bonding — it’s just good eats.

Contact Christopher Yee at [email protected]