I remember a simpler time. A time when getting coffee at the office was a nice break from the critical task of hitting reply-all to the zillion emails merrily multiplying in your inbox. It involved walking up to the pantry while nodding hellos to random colleagues in the corridor, selecting the least chipped mug from the cup-closet, filling it with a spoonful or two of the freeze-dried coffee granules from the jar, some hot water, and for those so inclined, some sugar and milk, mostly in that order.
Then, while swirling the spoon to dissolve the sugar (if one had been so inclined), there were pleasantries to be exchanged or bosses to be gossiped about with colleagues who were standing in line for their fill, or alternatively were not yet done with their own swirling that preceded yours. When the bosses became more paranoid about productivity, they replaced the jar with a tall flask of strong black coffee, premixed. Spoon in your additives, your sucrose, your dairy, but only if you had been so inclined, and you were set.
These sentences may be long-winded and painful to navigate, but those tasks were not. As I said, a simpler time.
Today my Caffeine Craving brings along a tall dose of Trepidation as its plus-one. I could try to smother Mr. Craving but with three more meetings to attend before the final bell, but it would be reckless endangerment. Therefore, I drag my feet to the pantry.
I'll tell you the reason for my reluctance.
You see, the friendly jars and flasks have now been replaced by a large and intimidating machine. It has lots of buttons offering a bewildering quantum of choice. It looks like it can launch a space shuttle, albeit from an Italian space station, somewhere north of Macchiato. Unfortunately, the thick company manual that has everything from an optimistic “Career Progression” to shrug-worthy “Credit Card, Corporate” does not have anything under “Coffee Machine, Operating Safely.”
The fun begins as soon as I press a particular button. The machine assumes the role of a stern elder and I am shrunk to the equivalent of Oliver Twist making an unreasonable demand. Nothing happens at first, while the machine considers my selection, staring me down with a figurative hand on chin.
It then comes to a decision. “Place cup,” flashes the screen. It even lights up the area under the spout where I am supposed to place it.
I nervously place the cup under the light. But the blinking continues, recalling the table-drumming of an impatient café customer.
Before I know what I am doing, a mumbled apology escapes me. I nudge the cup a bit to the southwest. That seems to make it happy enough. The screen changes to “Preparing drink #3,” as if to preempt any follow-up requests on my part.
Then it tries its hardest to launch aforementioned shuttle. Some steam and a few droplets of unknown liquid hiss and sputter into the cup. Then it lets out a high-pitched whine designed to pierce the eardrum, followed by loud gurgles and tremors that recall aftershocks.
I take a step back and reconsider my life choices. It then deigns to release a trickle of dark brown liquid into the cup. As the liquid turns lighter and lighter it follows up with a whiter fluid that seems to be the closest it can get to milk.
And just when I'm lulled into reaching for the almost-full cup, the machine tosses its last card onto the table with a flourish of steam-propelled foam and appropriate sound effect.
All good performers know to exit on a high. The machine does too. The screen flashes disdainfully, “Remove cup.” Show’s over, buster, get back to work.
I will my palpitations to slow down, pick up the cup, and trudge back to my desk, sipping on brown sludge, thinking to myself never to repeat the experience. Three hours later, I'm standing in front of that screen, wondering if drink #6 would be any different.