Most of the drama of communal living, I have learned over the years, plays out around the kitchen sink. Tension among housemates eventually appears on kitchen surfaces. Who left the counter full of crumbs? Who always leaves the dirty bowls and cups in the sink? Of course, a kind and generous (and maybe a little compulsive) soul inevitably wipes the counters and cleans the dishes, but resentment can build if the bad habits persist. When I lived in community for the first time with other full-time lay volunteers, a used pot, left behind one too many times, somehow walked upstairs and slipped into the suspected culprit’s bed, a not-so-subtle reminder to clean up after oneself. Ten years later, we still laugh about it.
In a work setting, a similar battle can brew in the staff lounge around the coffee maker.
When I graduated from college and started working in an office for the first time, I saw people drinking four, five, even six cups of coffee every day. Resolved to avoid that particular habit (I already had enough others of my own), I forsook coffee altogether. But perhaps there was a hidden reason I passed on the morning cup of joe: I wanted to avoid the inevitable tensions around choosing the type of coffee (light or dark, fair trade or not), purchasing the coffee, brewing it and, of course, cleaning up.
Years later, when I taught an early morning class, I surrendered; though I never drank more than a single necessary cup to get my day started. It also helped that I had a relationship of convenience with the coffee maker. I lived with 13 other Jesuits, so we had a sizeable percolator and a willing (I think) brewmeister. I never had to do any work.
After I finished the teaching gig, I stopped drinking coffee—until the fateful day when I encountered one of the greatest of American inventions. In one fell swoop, all of my concerns about communal responsibility for a coffee maker dissipated with the arrival of the Keurig machine, an ingenious device that delivers custom brewed single cups of coffee on demand. Everything was so easy. As the company sells itself: “Choose. Brew. Enjoy. Three simple words that started a coffee brewing revolution.” Immediately I started drinking coffee again. I am not even sure if I needed coffee or even wanted it. It just seemed so easy, so why not? No one needed to take responsibility for brewing a pot of coffee for the whole office. We could avoid any debate about what kind of coffee to buy. People could choose their own cup and do their own work.
Reflecting on these dynamics, I had a minor epiphany: the Keurig machine seems to foster individualism, which conflicts with my values of community and generosity toward others. But that isn’t my only concern.
First, it is expensive. We typically buy Keurig-cups for just under a dollar each, which may cost less than a latte at Starbucks but is far more expensive than a cup of Folgers. Second, it is not environmentally friendly. With the individual Keurig-cups, which admittedly offer a nice array of roast and flavor options, we create more trash after each brew. Third, even this method of brewing is not entirely effortless. It takes a little time for the cup to brew. And who will refill the water? Who will buy the coffee? Who will clean the machine when old coffee begins to cake on it? The shadow side of this brewing revolution has become glaringly apparent.
In time, we have made an effort to be more conscientious. To avoid the high cost and needless waste associated with K-cups, one of my co-workers purchased a plastic cup that could be refilled with any brand of coffee and reused. Brilliant. I loved the idea and started doing that immediately.
This practice, however, raised another question. If I am filling the plastic filter with ground coffee each time I make a cup for myself, why not instead use a larger filter, put in more coffee and brew enough not just for myself but for others?
In one of the most mundane practices in the culture of American workplaces, I think I have learned something about the false promise of individualism and the unexpected efficiency of communal commitment. We started with a large coffee maker, sought an individualist solution in a Keurig machine, and now it appears we may end up right where we started.
Next time, rather than avoid doing a small favor for my co-workers or community members, I will embrace the opportunity.