Frozen dyed hearts for Valentine’s Day. Chunks of green snow for St. Patrick’s Day. “Go Yale!” written out with small, white stones for Harvard-Yale. Whatever the occasion, the mysterious Commons decorator never fails to beautify the Grove Street alleyway that leads to the personnel entrance to Commons. While walking past this alley, I’ve always wondered who the mastermind is. I imagined a lithe elvish character, darting around so quickly that he remains undetected by the human eye while setting out decorations. And so, feeling a bit like I was setting out to find Santa Claus or catch the Easter Bunny, I went to Commons to discover the identity of the mystery artist.
I expected the hunt to be difficult, with dining hall workers giving me vague answers such as “Nobody knows” or “We think it’s Tom, but he keeps denying it.” But the Commons artist was anything but elusive. The dining hall manager knew exactly who I was talking about and one of the senior administrators led me directly to him.
The covert creator turned out to be Michael Cook, a hefty man of six feet, hardly the elvish sprite of holiday cheer I had imagined. He began working at Commons 15 years ago and has risen through the ranks to his current position as a receiver, handling the massive influx of food delivered to Commons each day. He started these projects about five years ago, as a way to brighten his hectic work environment. “When you walk down these stairs to enter Commons, you kind of feel like you are going into battle,” Mike says. “We serve around 3000-3500 meals a day, and everyone’s weaving and bobbing, trying to defend their own turf, you know? With all this tension here, I thought, ‘How can I diffuse that?’ So I talked to the manager and asked if I could put some stuff up.”
Mike started simple, by putting up pictures in the rooms and hallways of the basement. “In the basement, people don’t know whether it’s night or day,” he says. So he hung scenes of the outdoors — a soothing landscape of trees and a lake in one hallway, a beach scene next to the coffee station — so workers could rest their eyes on something other than piping, walls and kitchen appliances. Eventually, Mike hung a picture up in almost every room of the basement. A portrait of Don Quixote is the “protector of the storeroom,” George Washington is the “protector of the linens,” autumn leaves swirl around in the prep room, dolphins swim through the kitchen. It is through these “little subliminal messages” that Mike hopes to lighten the constant “boom boom boom” of his work environment.
And it seems Mike has succeeded, according to his co-workers. “[The decorations] really help,” says Rhonda Meyers, a Commons dining hall worker. “I’ve been working in this building for 19 years and it really helps to see all that stuff up.”
“He puts stickers on us every day too,” says Rose, another worker, showing me one that she has stuck on the top of her apron. “He has stickers for every holiday, every occasion.”
But Mike did not stop with enlivening the basement. He expanded his beautification program to the alleyway that leads to an entrance used by 90% of the Commons staff. He started off with a couple of lawn chairs, a table, an arbor, and a swing, creating a homey atmosphere, complete with a sign next to the door that instructs, “Enter with a happy heart.” Though his original purpose was to hearten harried co-workers as they came and went through this entrance, he realized that his projects could also cheer up passers-by. And so his decorations leapt up from alleyway to the street-level sidewalk and railing, and Mike added a mirror on the lower level so that the effect would be doubled when viewed from above.
Mike not only brightens the days of fellow dining hall workers but also those of students. “It’s always interesting to look down and see what the latest decorations are. I’ve been curious about who does them,” Rachel Harrington ’06 says.
“I have always wondered who goes through all the trouble to put something like that together especially in such a random place,” Cole Carnesecca ’07 adds. “Whenever I go the gym, I glance down to see what is there. I thought the heart-shaped colored ice was pretty cool.”
Throughout the years, the alleyway exhibitions have included a wading pool filled with greenery, rocks and fish illuminated under colored lights; a four-tier wooden shelf, each level bearing one word of the message “No Place Like Home” written with stones; and a canoe complete with paddle, lifejackets and pond reeds. At first, his inspiration came largely from his wife, a former art teacher, who helped him with his projects. But like all great artists, Mike eventually charted his own path. Many times a display is the result of his “just wanting to see what something will look like.”
One of his most elaborate projects, one that he is particularly proud of, is his 9/11 display. “On 9/11, people were sort of just wandering around, saying ‘What should we do?'” he says. “So the very next day I put up this huge flag over the hallway entrance and people were able to gain a sense of security and hope again.” Mike followed up with depictions of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon made entirely from small white stones he collected on the beach. He made three variations of the 9/11 tribute: one at Commons, one at his home in Branford and one at the City Point Yacht Club.
Mike’s devotion to these projects has won the admiration of his co-workers. He is described as a “very, very upbeat person” with “a wild imagination” and “a lot of energy” by fellow workers Rhonda and Michelle. “He’s a really exceptional guy,” says Jodie Testa, a senior administrator at Commons. “He comes in at night on his own time.”
“Everything he does is right out of his own pocket too,” Rose says.
On St. Patrick’s Day last year, Mike rose at 3 a.m. to deck the streets with proper holiday spirit. Three hours and 24 gallons of water and green food coloring later, the snowbanks of Grove and College Streets were green, ready to celebrate with the Irish. On St. Patrick’s Day this year, however, there was no snow, but this hardly discouraged the ever-enterprising Mike. He simply brought his own, making two trips to Ingalls Ice Rink, and dotted Grove Street with green chunks of snow. Mike has already started making frozen bunnies for Easter: he only has four bunny molds and estimates that he will need about 100 for his desired arrangement, and with only 18 weekdays until Easter he must make at least five and a half bunnies a day.
Despite such dedication, some remain unappreciative of Mike’s efforts, and he has lost hundreds of dollars worth of stolen goods, including a handcrafted sign that read, “Welcome to Common Land,” another welcome sign, and an angel lawn ornament that had perched on top of the freight elevator. Others will not go so far as to steal, but will mess with Mike’s designs, changing messages like “No Place Like Home” to “This Ain’t No Home” and smiley faces to frowns. But Mike remains steadfast in his mission, saying, “I will not be deterred.”
But not all are mean-spirited. From friends donating a Christmas tree to co-workers asking him what his next project will be, Mike has plenty of help and encouragement. He stays motivated by knowing that his endeavors are making a difference. “Sometimes I get tired, you know? I was out for two months because of surgery once, I gotta take care of my mom, and I gotta work too!” he says. “But people will ask, ‘There weren’t any decorations out for the past two months, are you still doing them?'” Mike has heard of at least one recent alum asking if someone was still doing the Commons decorations. “It’s people like that who keep me motivated,” he says.
Mike shows me a picture of this past Valentine’s Day display. It is a frozen red heart spectacular, with hearts composed of dyed bits of ice made from mini muffin pans, hearts made from a larger heart-shaped mold, hearts that formed the letter “V,” and the whole effect doubled with a mirror. I tell him I saw frozen hearts out on the street but missed the display in the alley.
“Always look down when you walk past,” Mike says. “Always look down.”