Once upon a time, a bowl of lemons sat outside the entrance to Downstein. One by one, the lemons vanished at the hands of hungry NYU students. Soon, a “for display only” sign popped up next to the replenished bowl.
The bowl emptied again.
The lemons were swapped out with limes, likely under the assumption that students would not want limes as much as lemons. This strategy did not work.
The situation escalated.
One day, the usual bowl of citrus had been replaced by a bowl of large, yellow squashes. A couple of days later, it was bell peppers and strange, questionable black gourds. Nobody would want to take those, right? Wrong. A student stood in the Weinstein lobby with a Downstein to-go box, and perched atop it was — you guessed it — a black gourd.
In the short month and a half of the fall semester, the Downstein food display has become a running joke among those who regularly eat at the dining hall. Stern first-year Rachel Liu’s friend group is in on the joke.
“I saw the escalation from the display,” Liu said. “Every time I would go to Downstein, there would just be a chunk missing from the nice pyramid. It looked like the freaking Apple symbol, with a chunk taken out of the apple.”
Liberal Studies first-year Mika Struhl fondly remembers the first time she saw the display before the “for display only” sign showed up.
“The first time I noticed the lemons, they were just sitting there,” Struhl said. “It was a really neat display and I was like, ‘oh, they’re beautiful.’”
She began to slip them into her pockets, backpack and friends’ purses so she could make lemon water in her dorm room. Then the prohibitive sign showed up — a dramatic turn of events.
“I was broken from [the lemons] because it said, ‘for display only,’ but I had to be with them,” Struhl said. “This is a Romeo and Juliet kind of story.”
What began as a typical NYU student’s quest to get her hands on whatever free food she came across grew into more than that.
“I’m going to take free food even if it’s just lemons,” Liu said. “But then the ‘for display only’ sign was a declaration of war.”
Both Liu and Struhl held stolen lemons in their hands as they reflected on the fruits of their labor. Struhl took breaks to sniff the lemon as Liu talked.
“It isn’t just like your regular scent, it’s pure from the fruit,” Struhl said. “You can’t get this scent without the lemon, and the stolen part just enhances it.”
This is all in good fun, Liu was quick to clarify. And it’s not just her friend group who steals food from the display.
“Please don’t come after us,” she said.
While Struhl takes each new food item as a challenge, she also doubts the sincerity of NYU Eats’ “for display only” sign.
“They’re putting them out, and they keep restocking it, and they know they’re going to be stolen,” Struhl said. “So this clearly isn’t that much of an issue. It’s ‘for display only,’ but is it? Because they keep restocking them when I steal them.”
In the meantime, Downstein has gone back to displaying lemons and limes, which might be taken as a sign of surrender in the ongoing food war. Struhl said she hopes they will update the display for the seasons. She is looking forward to Halloween because she thinks they will put out pumpkins — which she will definitely steal.
One can only imagine the reactions of the NYU Eats employees behind the scenes, but hopefully, they get as much of a laugh out of the war as the students do.
“When life gives you lemons for display only,” Struhl said, “take them to display in your room.”
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, print edition. Email Tessa Kilcline at [email protected]