Remember when: The Black Bubble
Mark Algar (BMath ’76) recalls how a student-led coffee house brought music, creativity and relief to a difficult study term
Mark Algar (BMath ’76) recalls how a student-led coffee house brought music, creativity and relief to a difficult study termBy Mark I Algar (BMath '76) and Evelyn (Stephens) Dawson Alumni
Evelyn Stephens came towards me as I approached the apartment building entrance, my off-campus home while attending The University of Waterloo. "Would you like to work on a coffee house?" she inquired hopefully. The spring term, May to August, had just started. It was my first time enrolling in a full set of courses for the summer, and the stretch of sunny warm days ahead of me seemed endless. I recognized Evelyn from the mathematics building and near our apartment, but I had not talked with her at any length. Without having any idea of what I was getting into, I agreed. It seemed an interesting project, and completely different than the heavy mathematics workload I would otherwise be focusing on.
There were two places that students could go and relax on campus, one with deafening rock music that required two beers just to stand listening to, and the other was a smokey, boozy basement with highly variable entertainment. Being unhappy with these options, Evelyn stayed awake one entire night planning a solution. She made use of her Four-H leadership courses, principles learned from friends in the Junior Farmers and product models from a marketing course at the nearby Waterloo Lutheran University. She figured, correctly, that musicians would be happy to play for free if an enraptured audience would stay to listen. With optimism and conviction, she asked for support to put her vision into place. The Engineering Society, Math Society and Entertainment Committee each contributed $40 in seed money. Roles were defined by consensus with the growing list of volunteers, the team was mobilized, and it took flight! AV equipment was borrowed, an electric piano was rented, and an open entrance hall to one of the engineering buildings was chosen and approved. A two-story brick wall of the hall had been decorated with black bubble artwork, and when I proposed the name, it stuck.
It turned out that it is easy to attract crowds and make money selling high-quality coffee, tea and hand-held dessert foods in comfortable surroundings, especially with great live music at a volume that allows conversations. The summer coffee house model had come to campus. We were given boxes of empty wine bottles into which we stuck candles and placed on the brown paper-covered tables. Adding a box of crayons turned each table into personal art studios, with amazing results mixing hot wax, melted crayons and candlelight. However, an encounter with the fire department ensued, which forbade lit candles going forward, spoiling some of our fun. But the decorated wine bottles from the first evening survived through the summer.
Evelyn became the overall problem solver, pulling curtains from her apartment to cover up vending machine lights at the back of the stage, filling in for people who couldn't make it, chasing fresh cream when we ran out and reviewing the selection of fresh finger food. The volunteers were predominantly from the Mathematics Faculty located on the other side of the campus, former brilliant high school math students working on their future career options. The Black Bubble provided relief from a summer of arbitrary linear isomorphisms, combinatorics case-based proofs and projects in artificial intelligence. It was an immediate outstanding success, with over 100 attendees the first week. A decision was made to continue until the end of the term. Word got out, supported by advertisements on campus and in local newspapers and both the attendees and the volunteer musicians continued their active participation.
All of this resulted in a big problem for me — I failed all but one of my midterm exams. The immediate reward possible from helping to launch something new, fun and different was too great a temptation. I was called before the cooperative course coordinator and given a warning — a good academic standing was a prerequisite to stay in the program. I needed the work term salary to pay for my subsequent semesters at school. The Black Bubble continued for some time after that, but without Evelyn, who left school and started a programming career, or me, who continued at school. The experiences continued, stored in the back of my mind for a future story.
About the artwork: Oil painting by Mark I Algar, inspired by The Black Bubble. You can see more of his artwork at markalgarfinearts.com.
Photos from Evelyn (Stephens) Dawson.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.