Coffee Politics

This past May, with my first year of law school under my belt, I started an internship in a law office. In some ways, working in a law office was different from working in a faculty office, my old haunt when I taught high school. In other ways, though, it’s pretty similar. In particular, since I started working in an office again, one daily reality came back into my life, little altered from the way it used to play out in the faculty office. I’m speaking of the office coffeemaker.

The first day of my internship, I came equipped with my own cup of Starbucks coffee (Starbucks isn’t typically my first choice, I hasten to add; I had a gift card). The second day, however, I didn’t, and after slogging through a couple uncaffeinated hours, I rejoiced to find that the office had a coffee maker. Making myself a cup, I figured I should of course make a pot for the rest of the office — surely I wasn’t the only caffeine addict around, and I’d be doing my fellow coffee-seekers a little favor by leaving enough brew in the pot for them to have when they came by. But how strong should I make it, I wondered? Everybody has a preference, and few people (I’m slightly proud to say) like their coffee quite as black as I do. I figured the best course was a moderate number of scoops, and I carried on like this for a few days, feeling slightly good about myself every morning when I made a pot of coffee for the office. I even started to feel like part of the community — not just a summer intern, but one of the regular employees — brewing for the regulars, drinking with the regulars...until a troubling thought occurred to me. Should I be doing this? After all, those aren’t my grounds I’m jovially (and generously) spooning out. It’s not my coffee maker. Have I stepped way out of line by usurping the office coffee pot?

In a large office, it’s hard to know where to go with questions like this. It’s not like anybody would think to post the policies and procedures for the office coffeemaker in the break room next to all those required disclosures about workplace harassment, minimum wage, and disability benefits. Like other aspects of office culture (or any culture) it’s the kind of thing that you tend to learn gradually, through little interactions — sometimes friendly, sometimes snippy. Recalling the war that had once broken out between teachers at my old job over alleged under-contribution to the espresso fund, I began to think that I might have been foolish to rush headlong into the coffee politics of an office I barely knew.

This whole episode reminded me of a little hobby-horse critique I had worked out several years ago of Keurig machines. As I saw it, the Keurig turned upside-down one of the chief goods of coffee — and in a way that highlights what's wrong with the modern condition in general.

It goes like this. The coffee pot, like the water cooler, the cracker barrel, and the well, is a good shared by a community. Members of that community have to exercise certain virtues if they hope to benefit from the shared good without stepping on each other's toes. Assuming they can do so (and they often can, and do, do so successfully — when economists talk about the Tragedy of the Commons, they're right only insofar as they ignore customs, norms, and even the possibility of people genuinely caring about each other), they practice virtue. When coworkers share a coffee pot, they're forced to think about each other, deal with each other, and (maybe) even care about each other. They receive a sort of political education.

Not only that, but the coffee pot brings a community together. Just as “water cooler” has become synonymous with “gathering place,” the coffee pot often forms a little nexus of office social life. People go there merely to satisfy an animal need, but are thereby drawn to satisfy their highest needs — the very social and political interactions that distinguish us so clearly from animals. Christianity teaches that such shared goods are even somehow mystically connected to the very highest things: think of the woman at the well, who comes to get water and ends up encountering the Author of Life; or the common cup of the Eucharist.

This is politics the way politics was meant to be: the art of working through all kinds of practical challenges in community with others. It’s the fundamental human experience of realizing the uneasy alliance of interest between yourself and your neighbor, prudently judging when to work together, when to tolerate, and when to object. Not the “politics” that’s become a dirty word, virtually synonymous with corruption and cynicism, but rather that fundamentally human experience of living in a family, a neighborhood, or a nation — what Aristotle meant when he called man “a political animal.”

The coffee pot, like the village well or the common cup, participates, in its own humble way, in an ancient institution: a shared material good that draws man out of himself and into the political and spiritual realms. How many great conversations and friendships started with the coincidence of two people's cravings for a cup of joe?

The Keurig, however, dispenses with all of that in the name of convenience. No longer do coworkers share a common pot — everybody now has his or her own individual, disposable, customizable pod. If you're buying coffee for the office or the family, no longer do you have to weigh your own preferences against your fellows' — you can get the variety pack! Dark roast for the dark roast drinkers, chai for the chai drinkers; no need for negotiation or mutual accommodation. No longer do you have to worry about making a new pot if you took the last of the old one — one person, one cup is the new standard. A symbol is lost: the coffee in your cup was never commingled with the coffee in your coworker's cup. The Keurig turns the modern person into a naked individual in yet another facet of life: free to pursue his own values, unencumbered by the common good, and empowered to interact with others only on his terms, only when he wants to.

Like Kramer with his coffee table book about coffee tables, I've slyly found ways to bring up this idea constantly over the last couple of years. Every cup of coffee is a chance to pontificate on the soul-deadening loneliness of the comfortable modern world. And despite all the little quibbles it can provoke, I’m glad the communal coffeemaker is still a mainstay of many offices.

To my relief, I eventually learned that I had not stepped on any toes this summer by helping myself to the office coffeemaker. The attorneys take turns buying bags of coffee, the interns aren’t begrudged a cup or two, and the strength of my brews was indeed unobjectionably moderate. But I’m grateful that the communal coffeemaker drew me out of myself – that it caused me to consider how my actions affected others. If the office had had a Keurig, I never would have thought about my coworkers’ attitudes toward coffee. I never would have asked, and they never would have offered, to share. And I never would have thought, on my last day, to bring in a bag of my favorite coffee as a thank-you gift for a great summer internship.

John Thorpe