Albert Alexander looks like the kind of guy who would appreciate a good story. He has the tousled brown hair, the casual T-shirt and, on some days, a batch of brownies in front of Wells Hall.
He is not the only one drawn to the campus intersection. What happens at Wells changes daily, but do not be surprised to see a PETA protest with pictures of slain animals, various couples hugging and kissing simultaneously in honor of Personal Display of Affection Day or preachers enthusiastically announcing Bible versus while making your way to class. It has all happened at Wells before and it is people like Alexander who make the place curiously compelling.
Every once in a while, Alexander, a senior electrical engineering major, lugs out his table after one of his baking endeavors. He advertises “Tell A Story, Get A Brownie” and waits for people to take him up on the offer. “It takes a while sometimes, but people will talk to you,” Alexander said.
He usually stays at his stand for two or three hours, listening to any story that people passing by are willing to tell. Sure, he cannot help judging a little bit. Sometimes people get really small brownies or told they can do better, but for the most part, he just likes talking to people and doing something personal. “It’s so interesting how everyone fixates on different stuff. Some people launch right into a story about themselves. There’s drugs, sex, bad first dates, crazy family stuff,” Alexander said. [albert]
His favorite story was something a little more unexpected. A paleontologist came up to his table and told him about the time he had been studying an ancient PaleoHebric language, trying to figure out its origins. Most languages have their roots in other languages and can be deciphered after a while, but he had been studying this one for weeks and was unable to figure it out. He was out in New Mexico taking a break and lay down to look at the stars. “He said he just looked up and there was the alphabet,” Alexander said. “They had used equal divisions of the sky. All the letters were out there.”
Alexander has heard his share of other good stories too, like the Chinese girl who pierced her bellybutton herself and hid it from her family for seven years. When she was leaving for the U.S., her mom hugged her goodbye and started crying when she discovered the culturally taboo secret.
And the guy he met while holding his stand in Ann Arbor who had taken a bunch of methadone and wine to try to commit suicide. He woke up in the hospital five days later with both of his legs gone and decided to make something of the rest of his life.
There was even the unkempt professor with 25 pens in his pocket that told Alexander he had a story worth two brownies. It ended with him giving a business card with his name and the Playboy mansion emblem on it to the attractive woman sitting next to him on a plane back from Spain.
“I get all types of people. Sometimes it just takes a little persuading to get a story out of them,” Alexander said.
What is it about Wells? With its central location on campus, the hall has become a hotbed for anyone looking to spread the word about their organization, protest a cause or, on occasion, dress up in a Chiquita costume.
Finance sophomore Ruslan Mursalzade put on a banana outfit on Oct. 14 to give out free hugs and flyers for S.C.O.U.T. B.A.N.A.N.A. (Serving Citizens Of Uganda Today Because Africa Needs A New Ambulance). The group is working on raising money to help orphans in South Africa. They hold dance-athons, T-shirt sales and events like “Capture the Banana” to raise funds. Wells was a good place for them to get the word out. “People are cool out here,” Mursalzade said. “Especially when there’s a banana walking around.”
Journalism junior Michelle Grossman has also stood outside Wells to register voters before Michigan’s Oct. 6 deadline. As Campbell Hall’s vote captain, Grossman had already gone door-to-door registering people and letting them know about absentee ballots, but Wells had more traffic.
“A lot of people walk by there,” Grossman said. “There are people coming in from all directions, going in and out of class.” She was able to sign up 11 people in an hour and a half, a pretty good turnout for being so close to the end of the registration deadline.
To make an official appearance at Wells, registered student organizations have to fill out an activity form from the Office of Student Life in the Student Services building. Groups that are not registered are supposed to find a student organization to be their sponsor.
This usually is not a problem, but one has to wonder who sponsors the preachers who frequent the area and have turned more than one student away. “I see them all the time,” astrophysics freshman Kristen Garofali said. “Sometimes I wear my iPod so I don’t have to hear them, but they’re terrifying.”
Welcome Week brought some religious protesters who were uncomfortably upfront to the students walking by. “At the beginning of the year, there was a guy in an orange shirt saying sin was evil and getting in people’s faces,” elementary education sophomore Adam Clements said. “It was the most intense I’ve ever seen them.”
Having Math 301 in the hall three days a week did not allow Clements to avoid them very easily. “I have a problem with those people because they do a lot of that stuff [that they’re preaching against], too. It’s such hypocrisy,” Clements said. [adam]
Still, with positive events like Free Hugs Day, the Wells atmosphere tends to balance itself out. No one really knows what to expect when they go past on a daily basis, and that only adds to the appeal. “Even though there’s offensive people, I know I’ll see good things,” Grossman said. “It’s always entertaining as I walk to class.”
Alexander has loved the spontaneity of his stand and wants to live in a city like Austin, Texas where that kind of impulsiveness is built into the culture. He is thinking about coming back and giving out cocoa in the winter and recently started a Tell A Story, Get A Brownie Facebook group. Even though he tries to plan times to set up, he sometimes runs into unexpected problems. “I’ll tell my friends that I’ll be out there next Thursday, but then no grocery store within two miles of my house will have unsalted butter,” Alexander said.
And he does get the occasional doubt. Not everyone will trust free baked goods. “One girl made me eat a brownie with her,” Alexander said. “I didn’t mind too much.”
But if the stand does show up again, be sure to ask him about the pygmy goat his family bought when he was ten. There’s a harness and a pair of roller blades involved, and it definitely merits a jumbo brownie.