May 5, 2006

Slope Day 2006: 'It's all downhill from here'

If there is a perfect day for donning a giant black wig, racing your friends down a hill on giant bouncy balls, having your roommate shave your head in a reverse Mohawk, strolling along Ho Plaza with a red foam finger on one hand and a stick of cotton candy in the other, standing on a table outside the Campus Store waving and tossing out beads as if you're on a Mardi Gras float . . . or even for sitting out on the grass, talking to friends and watching it all pass by . . . this is that day.

Slope Day 2006. A blissful, sunny 65 degrees as the gates opened at noon. From Collegetown, the crowds of students stream over the bridge in tank tops and Slope Day T-shirts ("It's all downhill from here").

Classes are finally over. The semester is not -- finals week is still to come -- but on Slope Day, that doesn't matter. A year is essentially complete, and students are celebrating.

Inside the gates, there are the first-year law students milling by a tree and inevitably choosing to remain anonymous. ("Dude, this could seriously mess up my chances of getting nominated for the Supreme Court.") Visiting undergrads from the Rochester Institute of Technology are cruising aimlessly, arms slung over each other's shoulders, musing about life. Matt Akey from Syracuse University, in a black wig, has lost his friends but is looking for the potato sack race ("I'm going to find it, I'm going to win it, that's my guarantee.")

There is Eric Young on Ho Plaza, with a lucky bamboo stalk and a red tulip tucked into his American flag bandana. Dave Condon, admiring Brandon Artz's newly shaven head. ("I did that myself, with a shaving razor," he says proudly. "I don't believe I did that.") And down on Libe Slope, a concentration of staff volunteers in orange T-shirts with "SOS" printed on the back. (What does it stand for? "We were just wondering that ourselves," muses Laurie Conlon, a human resources staff member, who is wearing one.)

Near the stage, campus police officer Randy Bowman stands at his post by the beer line, hoping for a smooth day. He has been here since 7 a.m. and will come back at 11 p.m. "It should be interesting," he says, a little dubiously. Up the hill, groups of volunteer Cornell EMTs (with Emily Treubig from Oneonta) talk to each other and into their radios, gearing up for the inevitable calls.

At 1:30 p.m., the slope itself is not yet crowded. Sophomores Maren MacIntyre, Matt Caulfield (yes, as in Holden) and Eric Heymann sit on the grass, listening to the musicians doing sound checks on stage and watching the afternoon unfold. They will hang out here awhile, relax to the music, maybe meet friends later. So will freshman Leah Wright, soaking up the sun -- or at least as much of it as will penetrate her wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

The anonymous law students are still congregated near the big tree. They were among the first in the beer line, and they are a little grouchy about their experience there -- walking back and forth in a seemingly miles-long zig-zagging maze of orange plastic fence, considering more than once whether it might just be easier to turn back and give up. In the end, the call of the beer wins out -- but only barely.

"It's ridiculous; it's going to be a complete bottleneck later," they say. "Not only that, you're laughed at. It's adding insult to injury."

Still, this is a day to enjoy, not complain. And a few hours later, when Ben Folds is playing onstage, the slope is a mass of students -- sunbathing, Frisbee-playing, dancing, sitting, hugging, yelling, sleeping. The beer line, though long and zig-zaggy, is moving smoothly. (Zig-zagginess is by now, after all, the normal gait for some.)

It has been a perfectly typical Slope Day, says a Cornell police officer with a shrug. And a satisfying end to another semester, adds a sophomore named Kristen. "The music was better last year, but I know how to handle it better this year," she yells above the chest-thumping bass. The sun hits her from an angle now, sinking deeper behind the stage at the bottom of the hill. "I'm having a great time."