The news that Manning Bar had closed cast a pall over my summer. The evening I heard the news, storm clouds rolled in with the southerly buster, and it rained for five days straight. My memories of that period are largely amorphous. I took long walks. The press made it worse. “Dying campus life” bemoaned Honi; “rigatoni and wine at Courtyard Cafe” lamented the Herald; “what the hell is going on!” raged Albo. I dreaded the new semester.
But, just days before the start of classes, salvation arrived. The party animals at the USU, who for weeks I had cursed, provided deliverance in the form of a Fun! and Cool! new venture. On Facebook, the students praised it: “let me in!” demanded one, “!!!” exclaimed many, “GUUUYSSS LOOK WHAT OPENED AT UNIIIIIIII” cried another. Thus, it was with vigour restored that I returned to Camperdown for another semester, looking forward to whiling away time with friends at the USU’s brand new establishment: “Cereal Lab”: “Your favourite cereals…only $8”
And so, with time to kill on a dreary Tuesday, I gathered some friends to celebrate the beginning of another semester. The metal tables were deserted, so we took prime spot beside a sad-looking potted plant, with uninterrupted views of the impressive greyness of the Footbridge thoroughfare. While the new venue does not share the same vistas as Manning, one does have a front row seat to a parade of depressed students, set against the belching of trucks from Parramatta Road.
Inside, only a six year old child is ahead of us in the line. From a woman in a lab coat (Cereal Lab — ha ha), the boy orders Nutri-Grain with milk, yoghurt, soft-serve ice cream and honey ($8.50). I feel sick on his behalf. I lean in to try to read the menu, but it takes my eyes some time to adjust to the ecstatic colour scheme. The light from a giant Froot Loops poster refracts off the metallic laboratory-imitation furnishings, giving the unsettling impression of a fever-dream disco. Overwhelmed, I order without thought: the “Healthy Start” – Special K with raspberries and honey. I throw $7.50 in loose change at the strange woman in the lab coat.
There is something not quite right about watching somebody prepare you a bowl of cereal. Like asking someone to draw you a bath. It seems inappropriate. The lab coat woman is unnecessarily deferential as she asks me which type of milk I would like. There is a choice of seven varieties, which is more choice than Manning ever had in beer. My bafflement must have been evident, as she just served me milk which looked like, and tasted like, real milk.
Of the cereal, it tasted – like all cereals do – of nothing. I tried to converse with my friends, but the cardboard cereal in its cardboard bowl kept drawing us in, a black hole into which all joie de vivre and other nice Romantic ideals had been sucked. With some grief, it dawned on me that I lived in a time where a breakfast cereal cafe is a more viable business proposition than a bar on a university campus. A brave new world in which I could be charged $7.50 for a single cardboard bowl of Special-K. I was rattled. The illusions and lights of my universe had gone out, and, during a brief moment of clarity as I drank the milky dregs, I think I understood the wisdom of Silenus.
It would be wrong to say that I felt empty upon leaving the cereal cafe — I felt, in fact, very bloated. Instead, I felt nothing. I discarded my friends and made a beeline straight for the library. For days on end, without distraction, I imbibed the dullest regulations and the most verbose judgments. I opened a stock portfolio and conspicuously checked its progress in class. I threw myself into my OLEs and came to appreciate the endless group mind-mapping exercises. By the end of that week I was, to my own surprise, eminently employable. Potentially distracting brain activity did not eventuate, for the feeling of nothingness remained concreted to the pit of my stomach, supplemented by a weeks worth of supply stuck in my molars.
At first, I was skeptical of the cereal cafe. But I have realised the ills of my past ways, and embraced prudent asceticism. I know now that “loss of time through sociability and idle talk…is worthy of absolute moral condemnation.” Thus, I have spurned the memory of the sinful Manning Bar, and now find myself a reformed dilettante. I will therefore continue to return to the “Cereal Lab” for my fix of the lab-produced nothingness which will see me thrive at Sydney University in 2020.