This summer I worked at a large media company in San Francisco. People have since asked me what I did — how much blood I squeezed from their turnips, how much gold I alchemized from their mercury, and how much victory I could steal from their fail.
I could lie to them and say I invented a new widget that cures cancer, that turns water into wine or that saves newspapers from going the way of the dodo.
What I should tell them, though, is that I fell in line with all of the others.
My day became a ritualistic schedule of coffee-filled moments. Starburst jelly beans and peanut M&M’s on the hour and blueberry cake donuts on Fridays were the schedule, and work seemed to be an afterthought. (I would never work for peanuts, but I definitely would work for peanut M&M’s.)
I could tell them I learned the starting lineup of the San Francisco Giants, the top ten places to get pastrami sandwiches in The City, or why the Muni logo looks so hard to read. (It’s because it’s supposed to be Lombard Street.)
Yeah, we did work, and we did a whole lot of it. I learned all about and reported on the culture, changes and people of San Francisco — I proudly never missed a deadline and I always swung for the fences.
But like everywhere else, we produced more cat video playlists than journalism. We had more Giants-Dodgers smack talk than completed graphics. And we completed more cups of coffee than projects.
And that’s the way life is lived — you can only drink one cup of coffee at a time. I probably spent enough hours to count as days this summer at proto-hipster coffee shops all across The City waiting for some of the best bean brews in the country. Between Blue Bottle, Sightglass and Philz, I would venture for a tasty acidic drink, but I tended to go to the cheapest place in town that also happened to be the most convenient.
I became great friends with the two baristas-owners of the coffee shop on the first floor. Every morning I would ride in on my bike, ready to drink up their latest batch of some exotic brew.
For the first month, we did a delicate dance — each day we would talk about how much room-for-cream I wanted. To them, I was a consumer. They’d ask “Do you want more or less room?” but what they really meant was, “Are you a pseudo-coffee-drinking-teenager who could barely stomach the taste, or are you a caffeine addict who needed the coffee black to shield the fact your heart was as dark as the beans we’ve roasted?”
I’d respond honestly, which meant each day they'd get closer to how I exactly wanted my coffee, which meant with each response they’d probably peer closer into my soul. It seemed that this internship may have on the surface been about a specific trade or task that I had committed to, but on a much deeper level, it was about building a ritualized interpersonal relationship with the people you meet. That and figuring out what’s your favorite flavor of jelly bean. (My favorite is green apple.)
We claim that our lives are complex, sophisticated and of great mention — we claim we work hard for wealth, fame and fortune. But if you stop and look, intricate systems are nothing but a bunch of simple things put together.
At some level, as we get into our professions and higher up the pay scales, we pretend that we’re leaping from one rung of a ladder we’ve climbed. But all we’ve done is given ourselves more excuses to drink more coffee and with less room-for-cream. At some basic level, the acidic drink we Americans are so addicted to measures us like a pH scale — how we’re doing could be measured by how willing we are to get up and take a ten-minute-coffee-break.
So take a minute today and get a cup of the coffee you crave. I know I will.