The storm unleashed, and rain pelting the brick walkways outside was the only sound. Someone said something else about the weather, and people murmured noncommittal murmurs.
So began this Dinner with Seven Strangers, a secretive group that launched at Georgetown University with an empty table set for seven guests mysteriously appearing on the social floor of the library one day, a very polished Web site, and an open invitation: Come to dinner.
And they have been coming – hundreds of people, with hundreds more waiting for an invitation.
The dinners, offered free and hosted at people’s homes, are open to anyone in the Georgetown community, so that an unlikely mix of students, alumni, professors, campus police officers, anyone can join in. The evenings tend to arc from quiet and occasionally cringeworthy to funny, soul-searching, even intimate.
At the dinner Lexi Cotcamp hosted that rainy night, there were unexpected connections. There were revelations. And when a freshman unleashed his gospel-choir voice during a conversation about singer Etta James, there was perfect silence after the last notes – with seven strangers holding onto a moment of unexpected beauty.
Cotcamp was, unbeknownst to her guests at the table, behind the whole thing. She had heard of a similar idea years before and launched the idea at Georgetown with the help of a large group of friends “who all have a little spark of madness.”
She thinks it resonates because the school is so competitive that students even compete, in a sense, for their friends. Much of Georgetown’s social life is determined by student groups, and many of those groups have an intense try-out or application process — so people can end up getting shut out, or locked in with a certain set.
“As a freshman you go through and apply to tons of different organizations, trying to find your niche at Georgetown,” she said. “As a senior, you’re the one with the power in your hands to accept or reject people.” With so many great applicants, she said, “it’s kind of defeating to be the one doing all the rejecting, the cog in the machine.”
So DW7S is mixing it up. “Engaging in the inherent tensions of Georgetown is at the core of what it means to be a student here,” she explained; college is about exploring ideas, taking chances. “It means getting to know those who aren’t like you rather than those who are. It means confronting the embarrassing, the inconvenient, and the awkward.”
So, back to awkward.
The last guest was making a run for it. “Oh, he is going to be straight-up soaked,” Cotcamp said, and when he burst in, his clothes were drenched and water was streaming down his hair and his face, dripping off his nose. She ran to get him a bath towel and when he emerged out from underneath, he handed over a bottle of lemonade. He started the round of introductions by saying, “My name is Dan, I’m a first-year in the college, and I go by ‘he, him and his.’ Oh, fun fact? I have never broken a bone.”
No one knew for certain whether he was lightly mocking gender politics with the pronouns, or earnest, so all the others followed the same convention – name, year, preferred pronouns, trivia. There was a freshman from Europe, a junior from Oregon, the vice president of student government. Cotcamp was trying to get the conversation bubbling while serving dinner on mismatched dishware, splashing balsamic vinegar onto the caramelized-onion-and-butternut-squash pizza.
But as they began eating, things eased up. Freshmen at the table asked seniors about how early they would have to get in line to see Hillary Clinton’s speech the next day. (5 a.m.) The professor told them that when he was a freshman at Georgetown, Bill Clinton was a senior, and they grilled him about that.
When Etta James was mentioned, they urged Jordan Knox, a freshman from Harlem who had told them he has a huge collection of vinyl records, to sing. “At last,” he belted out in his baritone. “My looooooove is coming home. My loneliness is over.”
After a stunned silence, Daniel Luis Zager, a pre-med freshman, joked: “I closed my eyes. I couldn’t tell it wasn’t her.”
They talked about Missy Elliott and Katy Perry, poetry and resumes, jury duty and stolen laptops. They compared regional slang. (“You don’t say ‘janky’?!” “No. Could you use it in a sentence?”)
They talked about stress. Senior Ben Saunders told the freshman not to be too focused. “Go to a snowball fight on the front lawn,” he said. “Go to a fireside chat.”
They poured wine.The professor told them how they used to borrow trays from the dining hall when it snowed, to sled down the hills of Georgetown. Saunders told the story of a guy who walked into the dining hall in a suit, slipped an entire tub of ice cream under the jacket, and sauntered out. (People laughed; Charles Skuba, the professor, looked concerned.) Cotcamp poured brown butter and sugar from a sizzling pan onto chipped mugs of gelato.
They talked about one of the required theology classes about God. “I remember being in our little bunk beds at Darnall [Hall, a freshman dorm] talking about the meaning of life,” Cotcamp said. “We had it all figured out.
“Now the running joke is we lost the meaning of life –
“Maybe it’s somewhere in the basement of Darnall. The rats took off with it.”
Saunders said he was taking Russian literature class at the same time as the theology course. “It was the first time I had an existential crisis. I went on a midnight run, and ran it all out.”
Everyone should have a crisis or two at Georgetown, he said.
By this time, one of Cotcamp’s roommates was in jammies, studying, but agreed to take a photo of them for DW7S. “C’mon, we just had dinner together, squeeze in close,” a freshman said, making everyone laugh. People pulled on jackets, all talking at once, laughing. Saunders reached for his place card, to save it.
They walked out as a group, leaving the room suddenly very quiet.
The awkward part was over. Now it was time to embrace the inconvenient.
The only sound was Cotcamp laughingly wailing to a roommate, “I so wish we had a dishwasher right now!”