dahl-ings: A Cooperative piece on the Co-Op

19 February 2015

Entering Union House, you are provided with distinct scents. First, there is raw fish and rice: it carries through the ground floor hallways. The food court brings pungent burrito that glides up the staircase. On the landing, chai tea takes over, emanating from the Food Co-Op. Once past that odd and expansive crepe place, there begins a super cool strip, starting with a bathroom that I only realised was there recently. It doesn’t contaminate the chai scent, which is this bathroom’s strongest quality.

The world is a very strange place, and one of the strangest things I have come across in life so far is the Food Co-Op in Union House. This curious little room, filled with huge containers of rice puffs and rooftop honey, the smell of organic soap mixed with curry spices bubbling in a pot, and people rushing around, humming to some Macedonian folk music while serving chai and rolls, is the single most bizarre, heavenly vision the earth has bestowed on me.
I usually carry a pencil case with me, but one day I forgot it and needed a pen to finish an assignment. Scaling the Union House staircase, I went to the Environments Office for help, supplied there with a blue pen and friendly company. Across the way is the Food Co-Op, and I realised then that the scent was coming from a giant pot knocking out mean chai for all the world.

There’s a weird feeling of belonging, homecoming and comfort that floats in the air. It has permeated the old couch, and it settles into your clothes as you awkwardly stand in the doorway. Someone will catch your eye though, and help you out with enthusiasm. A hot plate? Some chai? Maybe a slice of cake? Just a chat? A hug!

Potentially overwhelmed at this point, you might find yourself walking over to check out the in-house baked goods, or investigate the bulk herbs that are for sale. But it’s too much, you can already sense there is more to this enigmatic place and it’ll require repeat visits to unravel the mystery. So you pick up some chocolate cake, or maybe a slice of pizza, and wander back out just as the line starts to form out the door.

The Co-Op is probably the closest thing I’ll get to the wild times of 1970s university life, having remained proudly ‘under no management’ since 1976. It is reassuring to know that post-Gough Melbourne retains a sense of community in certain pockets, with a globally aware ideal unrestrained by economic fetishisation. Being a not-for-profit organisation, donations to the Co-Op are injected into a sustainable and alternative way of life. Their food and products are entirely vegan, and are cluttered endearingly on the shelves. Sitting on a loved old-world couch, with a staple hot plate, I’m taken away from my usual consumptive self; a cavaliering lifestyle that is so difficult to leave behind.

There are people chatting outside, talking politics like it’s a normal thing to do, discussing camping trips, or trading travel tales. Who are all these people, you wonder? Why do they all seem so happy and safe here? If you sit down, you won’t be moving for a number of hours, arrested by the intriguing company, the bountiful opinions on all topics, the laughter, and the way everyone seems to simply be. No judgement, no assumptions, no expectations except for mutual respect. But you have places to be, so you smile and wave to the person who helped you out earlier and trundle past all the people; cool individuals among a community you’re starting to feel drawn to.

If only for 30 minutes, eating dhal while listening to Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness can truly instil in me a positive wellbeing that could never be achieved by a plastic bowl of processed grease elsewhere. The Co-Op exhibits the potential of eco-friendliness that could and should have widespread realisation in society, lessening the desire for people like me to fall back on grease bowls for their daily meals.

I am distracted the rest of the day, trying to process this experience, and eventually I find myself wandering back up that staircase and past the odd crepe place, only to realise the Co-Op is closed, the couch is gone and there is just one lone figure measuring out flour in the back.

I want to believe, and the cool people at the Co-Op, flying in the face of monumental external bullshit with such dedication, inspire me to do so.

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