GREY CITY

  /  

May 29, 2022

  /  

1:56 p.m.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Coffee: A Pilgrimage Through Campus Cafes


Grounds of Being

Estelle Higgins / The Chicago Maroon

An internet quote often misattributed to Camus goes: “Should I kill myself, or should I have a cup of coffee?” Although the quote itself is most likely apocryphal, its sentiment rings true. Overworked and over-caffeinated, modern American society is obsessed with caffeine. We turn towards it for a convenient excuse to network, for curing the smallest or greatest of ailments, and for buying us one more meager point on our GPAs. In the sage words of an email from Woodlawn housing staff, “Loss of sleep is temporary, GPA is forever.”

At UChicago, where work is God and students and faculty its humble worshippers, we have, in a wonderfully ironic loophole, chosen both of Camus’ two options: to die, perchance to caffeinate.

 

Ex Libris Cafe: On the Genealogy of Coffee

At 12:35 p.m. on a Thursday, I settle down on one of the sterile, circular pale little tables at the center of Ex Libris Cafe’s drab library-core carpet. It’s my first time here. In the spirit of adventure, I order a mocha, which, before it induces my inevitable caffeine high and resulting crash, I will enjoy greatly. From my vantage point at the table, I’m trying to scope out the crowd—the people at the bar table are working individually on what I imagine to be their theses on tantalizingly niche subjects that you’ve never heard of, involving opaque, academic words like “dialectics” and “hermeneutics.” Some of them look a hair’s breadth away from snapping.

The girl next to my table and her friend are talking about German definite articles. At least, I think they are. “My heart is beating so fast,” she says in English. I concur. The excitement of being in such an illustrious institution for the first time is simply too great to bear. My mocha is called. I go to retrieve it.

It’s a little difficult to wrap my mind around, but the little cup of coffee which sits in front of me emerged from centuries-worth of history and legend. The story goes that an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi was the first to notice coffee’s salutary effects upon observing that his goats, after consuming some red berries from a coffee tree, were so energetic that they became the world’s first goat-insomniacs.

After its humble origins on the Ethiopian plateaus, coffee’s influence spread to the Middle East during the 14th century, where it facilitated the emergence of cultural hubs in the form of Istanbulite coffeehouses called qahveh khaneh. These coffeehouses were so full of intellectual activity that they were deemed “schools of the wise.”

As word of the “Arabic wine” spread, so too, did its spell over Europe and America. London established its first coffee shop in 1652, Boston in 1676, and Paris in 1686. Being both convenient and publicly accessible during the Enlightenment, coffee houses became meccas of business, the pulpits of democratic revolution, and sanctums for male artists and philosophers alike. (They did not admit women.) They also brewed subversion: King Charles II famously detested coffee houses, condemning them as “a place where the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.”

However, the emergence of coffee didn't only contribute to the European intellectual scene. According to Mark Pendergrast, the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, it is impossible to talk about coffee without confronting its role in perpetuating colonialism and slavery. When Europeans discovered just how profitable coffee was in the late 16th century, enslaved Africans were forced to work in merciless conditions on plantations in Caribbean outposts like Barbados and San Domingo. European landowners grew rich from exploited labor while the world grew ever more caffeinated.

“In San Domingo, Haiti, for instance, where half the world's coffee was grown, the slaves revolted in 1791, and though it was ultimately ‘successful,’ it led to years of famine, poverty, etc., that continue to this day,” Pendergrast told me.

The problems Pendargrast discusses manifest in widespread labor exploitation that remains unchecked and oftentimes unacknowledged to this day. According to Verité, approximately 26 million people work annually on coffee plantations. In Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee in the world, many coffee farmers are seasonal migrants without legal documentation that would allow them to claim minimum wage or adequate safety equipment. Even as the movement towards fair trade coffee has been popularized recently with Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade Certified coffee beans flooding the market, the internal mechanics of the coffee industry remain mystifying at best and disturbing at worst. Reuters, for example, reported on an incident in 2017 of Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee which was found to have relied on the labor of exploited farmers who worked overtime illegally. The journey towards reform for the coffee industry is far from over.

 

Harper Café: Work and its Discontents

I’m walking to Harper Café: tiny blue crocuses bloom on the grass next to the ice rink; bleak and suffocating clouds hang on the distant horizon. Ah, spring at UChicago.

At Harper, I sit in the small alcove of frumpy, reddish couches beside the cafe tables, accidentally meeting the eyes of a café-goer who looks mad to be inconvenienced by eye contact. I avert my gaze to focus on the rest of the cafe. There’s a busy crowd today, full of chatting café-goers at the small individual tables and those lined up for their morning lattes. I join the line, and in deference to my caffeine-sensitive body, I order a small, iced chai latte. For a cup of spiced sugared milk, it is insanely good. I’m in love with the ice cubes, which look like frozen little cups themselves, with splashes of chai puddled at their center. My brain supplies the thought that they look very aerodynamic.

It’s Admitted Student Week, when students with acceptance offers tour the campus to decide whether or not to spend their next four years at UChicago. As “Everybody Talks” by the Neon Trees comes over the speakers, I spy prospective students checking out Harper’s perfectly red walls and the mini blackboard at the entrance, which at this moment says, “Harper is for lovers,” and, in badly outlined spiky letters: “LIVE FA$T DIE YOUNG HARPER CAFE (now with matcha)”

I laugh a little at the irony. I’ve heard that Harper, traditionally, is for the browbeaten and disillusioned students du jour. During midterms or finals week, people fall asleep on Harper’s iconic stained couches from sheer exhaustion. Harper Café, located within walking distance of the study desks at the Arley D. Cathey Learning Center, is where many burned-out students stock up on their caffeine before burying themselves once again in essays and P-sets. Live fast die young, indeed.

We aren’t the first to engage in the time-tested habit. In 18th-century England, cheap coffee was what fueled underfed workers through the excessive working hours of the Industrial Revolution. Now, according to the National Coffee Association, 64 percent of American adults drink coffee every day, and among those coffee drinkers, the average consumption is a stunning three cups a day. A majority of those numbers consist of craft or artisan coffee, like Starbucks or other specialized cafes. And the numbers only seem to be rising. Since 2015, the number of Americans under 40 who drink coffee has increased by 40 percent. With expanding demand in Asia, coffee is poised to become one of the most popular drinks in the world.

 

Pret A Manger: The Productivity Trap

Pret is as busy and bustling as ever when I arrive on a warm spring day. With its dark wooden archways, light wood floor, and metallic accents, Pret feels like the Grand Central of all coffee shops on campus, full of well-dressed students on the grind, at their laptops, and doing interviews. People are wearing warm-weather clothes and ordering iced lattes.

The status we assign to work is, historically speaking, entirely new. According to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, many modern Americans rely on work to give them a sense of purpose in life. Thompson calls this fevered religiosity for work “workism.” Compared to other comparably rich countries, American workers have exchanged longer hours for fewer work benefits, less paid leave, and less leisure. Unlike the landed gentry of yore, which historically spent their lives in happy merrymaking, the wealthy elite of American men works more than ever (more, in fact, than any other group of people in America). By 2005, Thompson says, the richest 10 percent of married men also held the longest average workweek. We have naturalized the idea that to work is to live, reversing an age-old model of work as a means to an end. This is known as the productivity trap.

In her article “Is Your Job Lynchian, or Is It More Kafkaesque?”, journalist Rachel Paige King, discusses the inescapability of the system of workism.

“Workism is Kafkaesque [because of] the oppressiveness of bureaucracy and large organizations that have very little sympathy for the individuals who are trapped within them. I think all of us feel that way at one time or another in the modern world,” King said.

It’s also intrinsic in the design of the productivity trap that we fall prey to our own hubris. We start to think that work is inherently perfectible, that the fault lies with those who fail. When workism produces wave after wave of stressed, burned-out workers, we label them as aberrations in the system, rejects of Darwinian natural selection, instead of what they really are: the products of an absurd, pointless system designed for planned obsolescence.

“[Burnout] is the modern condition,” King said. Speaking of the 2008 financial crisis, the dot-com crash, and other economic crises that have been identified by journalist Anne Helen Petersen as causes of work-related burnout, she said: “These are all symptoms of a system that’s out of control and not really delivering the kind of work that people want.”

Shamefully, even I have fallen prey to the productivity trap. This quarter, I have three relatively manageable classes. In my “quarter of rest and relaxation,” as I’ve dubbed it, I have attempted numerous times to take on extra responsibilities or to pad my free time with a fourth class. And notably, when I want to be productive, I’ve begun to spend my time in pretty coffee shops.

 

Grounds of Being: What is the Coffeeshop Aesthetic?

Grounds of Being is, according to the sign at the door and also the Reddit page r/uchicago, “where God drinks coffee,” the best place on campus to get good, cheap coffee. The shop itself is a little dingy, distantly cool yet authentically grunge, like a lone-wolf skater kid who everyone knows but nobody knows. Religious iconography line the walls, and a layer of mugs hang from the dropped wooden platform ceiling beneath the exposed pipes. In front of me, there’s a blackboard menu of teas and coffees; bagels and chips galore, fridge stocked full of trendy kombucha drinks.

The clientele is as cool as you’d expect, too. It’s fairly lively at 10:48 a.m. on a Monday, with bar-tabled café-goers working on readings and a group of graduate students at the bigger ground-level tables. Vaguely hipster, ironically bookish—the type, in short, to meet their friends at the coffee shop. From my corner at the bar by the perpetually shut window, I spy one man bun, two instances of socks with Birks, and one flannel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the baristas here are known for being really hot, too.

Of all the campus cafes, Grounds of Being most solidly embodies the coffeeshop aesthetic. The grubby-industrialist cafe chicness combined with the cool academic café-goers makes me think that if I stayed here long enough, some of that ineffable coolness would rub off on me. It’s the type of place that probably speaks to the archetypal UChicago Marxist, who might buy a Grounds of Being coffee named after a religious icon while thumbing through a beaten copy of Being and Nothingness. It’s the type of place that makes you want to pretend to be that kind of person.

The coffee shop aesthetic (and its cousin, the dark academia aesthetic) is burnout culture with a more palatable disguise: It is the belief that a cup of coffee will biohack you to become more productive, that a deconstructed latte can masquerade as a cultural stand-in for intelligence, cultural wisdom, status, a B.A. in art history, and a certain je ne sais quoi. It is stringent, demanding both the performance of aesthetics and the production of work from the coffee drinker. It has produced cafes as the epicenters of work, like this Japanese cafe which won’t let you leave unless you finish your task. Like burnout culture, it presumes work as God and proffers coffee as your muse.

UChicago embodies the coffee shop, dark academia aesthetic. Harper’s North Reading Room makes it onto Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs with alarming frequency. Among UChicago’s dark, Gothic arches and bustling student population, it’s difficult to believe that the word school originates from the Greek skholÄ“, which meant leisure. The Ancient Greeks believed in the didactic power of free artistic and athletic endeavors. “While simplicity in music begets sobriety in the souls, and in gymnastic training it begets health in bodies,” Plato said in The Republic.

In Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian who specializes in the history of work at the University of Iowa, retraces the lost American dream of leisure, during which economists and labor workers alike had “visions of a future in which work was reduced to a minimum and ordinary people, liberated from necessity, would spend the best part of their lives as only the wealthy had before, pursuing High Progress.”

But with the progress of the centuries, we find ourselves being relegated instead to increasingly longer workweeks and more stringent expectations.

“We used to teach people to be free,” Hunnicutt said to The Atlantic. “Now we teach them to work.”

In preparation to deliver us to the productivity trap’s steely jaws, college teaches us to excel at 100-pages readings and hours-long P-sets. We strive so hard to find meaning in work that we find ourselves blindsided when we’re asked to find it elsewhere. Alice followed the white rabbit because she saw in it the glimmering promise of wonder. How have we fallen so far down the rabbit hole?

 

Saieh Starbucks: The Birth of a New Machine

The Saieh Hall Starbucks and the Saieh corridor study space used to be one of my favorite work spots on campus. Due to its proximity both to overwhelming amounts of caffeine and many economics classes, it’s also a fan favorite of the econ crowd. So every time I’m there, I get a live demonstration of the ideology of caffeinated workism at work. Around Saieh, one spies people typing away at their laptops, immersed in readings, and buying their second venti drinks for the day.

To answer the question of how coffee has burrowed itself so deeply into our cultural marrow as a conduit of work, I interviewed Augustine Sedgewick, the author of Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug.

Sedgewick said that to understand the history of coffee, we first have to understand how its relationship with us shifted throughout the ages from something irregular, suspicious, and hardly necessary to the popular super-drug it is now.

“The really important thing about the history of coffee when it was introduced to the West is that it was subject to fear and suspicion and distrust and disgust,” Sedgwick said. But in the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution cemented our dependence on coffee and, in parallel, radically changed our bodily self-conception.

“We’ve developed a way of understanding the body that helps us not only understand coffee but also other products like it, which is that of understanding the body as a machine,” Sedgwick said. With the help of the Industrial Revolution, capitalists had found a way to maximize the labor of their workers by reconceptualizing humanity as distinctly mechanical. If our bodies were the new generation of productivity machines, compelled by the demands of capitalism, then coffee was our oil.

The idea was set into motion as the eight-hour work week emerged from English factories. Coffee marketing departments, picking up on coffee’s relationship with productivity, made some pointed advertisements in the 1940s (“It’s delicious—and an aid to clear thinking!"). Moreover, as our machines sped up, so did our coffee habits. The to-go cup was popularized in light of sanitary concerns with communal cups, which only intensified after the Spanish Flu of 1918. And when America suburbanized in the ’50s, coffee was right there with the commuting drivers and their car seat cup holders. In 1952, the Pan American Coffee Bureau, in a stroke of genius, invented the term “coffee break,” inextricably tying together productivity and fast-paced caffeination.

Then, Starbucks was founded in 1971, dramatically and irreversibly altering the American coffee landscape by appending to coffee’s original meanings an additional social aspect. After its original establishment as a coffee bean and tea shop, Starbucks’ founder Howard Schultz sought to bring Italy’s cafe culture to America in 1987 by introducing a sit-down component to the coffee process. This cafe culture reinvented the coffee house as an inherently social space as opposed to a purely transactional one. Academics, students, and businessmen all found safe harbor in the sweet embrace of Starbucks and other coffee shops that began to model themselves after it. By the 2000s, the Arabic qahveh khaneh of old had long been upgraded for the modern era, equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi and accessible outlets.

 

Hallowed Grounds: Brave New World?

A friend tells me that Hallowed is where the cool kids go. Compared to the tense, academic fervor of Ex-Lib, Hallowed is radically chiller, if not calmer. Punk-rock music blasts from the speakers. People are talking to their friends, playing pool, and generally—it seems to me—having a good time.

With its black Gothic arches and royal green old-school pool tables, Hallowed is the cool, weird counterpart to its workaholic sister cafe, Pret, located just downstairs. Named Uncle Joe’s Cafe before it was renamed by a campus-wide renaming contest in 2006, Hallowed has had a long history of being a central campus social hub. It’s open late until 11 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, and there are board games at the front to borrow for those late nights.

As Gertrude Stein once wrote in her Selected Writings, coffee is “an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself.” To me, Hallowed’s coffee represents Stein’s conception of coffee—the opposite of the frenzied hamster-wheel mindset. It is the allowance for pool and idleness, for time, as Stein says, “not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.”

“Do people come here to work at all?” I asked barista Ryan Volpe when I order my customary iced chai. The answer seems to be mostly no. The loud music is enough to deter the truly studious crowd, most of the time.

“We are very specifically not a quiet study space,” he said. “I think you come here for the vibe.”

“If you were to work at a commercial cafe, there’s a really big focus on efficiency and doing as much as possible,” he said. But crucially, Grounds doesn’t work within that paradigm. Instead, each barista individually mans the bar for their shift, and customers just have to wait in a long line for their drinks. That one working barista will get to your order, eventually: “Either you come in and you’re willing to be patient, or you go downstairs to Pret.”

And the customers do wait. Hallowed has cultivated for itself a cult following which celebrates it as one of the best cafes on campus.

“I think that coffee is not incompatible with a fairer, better, more humane workplace, world, or country. But we should start using it as something we enjoy rather than a drug,” King said.

She was right. Because Hallowed offers another, more seductive reading of caffeine: Just as it can pull us into the productivity trap, coffee can also show us the way out. Here are cafe-goers who have postponed work at least for a moment, who have blocked out time for friendship and company, who’ll sit, talk, and have a second cup.