Today I spent some time standing at one of the most mixed corners of the city, with the high-concept idea of “coffee as community.” The plan: hand out (strong/free) coffee as long as it lasts. Fill up the box and hand out more. Feel better about your world and yourself as a result.
While yes, it might be argued that this activity is not dissimilar from that of a drug dealer going through his daily paces, there is one key difference: my caffeine buzz actually heightened my ability to gauge public reaction, something that may or may not apply to the crack dealer who shares his supply with his clients.
But put coffee aside.
To be honest, it could have been tea, or hot water. Or could it? Something made me believe that coffee carried a particular meaning in this particular place: standing in Montreal outside the busiest métro station on a cold morning in February.
I wanted to see how people would react to:
- a) food in a normally-foodless public space (in this case, in the snow outside the metro, near a huge music store, decaying church and some rugged urban university buildings), and
- b) an unexpected gift of shared consumption
The reactions were, um, varied. The first few sideways glances and quickened footsteps were punctuated by an bucolic itinérant who walked up, grabbed a cup and calmly helped himself. He thanked me two or three times, and dutifully continued on his way without a backward glance, as if it had been pre-plotted into his daily trajectory.
An older salesman type waiting for his bus squinted at me, and I gestured to offer him a cup. He approached with an amused smile, and asked the first of many: mais-pourquoi-vous-faîtes-ça? I couldn’t really give him (or anyone, for that matter) a completely satisfactory answer. We shot the breeze and he happily drank a cuppa—so quickly he didn’t want a lid. But, as a salesman, he was more concerned with the visibility of my operation. I hardly saw you, he roared with a smile, if I were you I’d be out on the sidewalk yelling, café! café! café!.
He had a point. For a time, I tried to get more aggressive, approaching people on the street with the coffee. Consumption actually went down: far from sharing in my utopian “urban mealscape” vision, most smiled politely, or avoided me completely. After 20 minutes of the salesman approach, and utter failure to interest a single person in a free coffee, I suddenly realized the ridiculous grasping that had crept into my mind. What was I after? I wasn’t selling anything; I wasn’t on commission. I had no one to whom to report ‘conversions’.
I gave that up and moved indoors to the university outcropping (more of a heated shelter), setting up a tempting display of cups facing the stream of folk coming in for some kind of annual open house… to warm their spirits, to drink at will.
Within minutes, a security guy appeard: Pas içi, monsieur. I took my time laboriously packing up my ‘freewares’ and, forced to stand there and watch me, his statuesque posture slackened noticeably. Monsieur, he told me, écoute, c’est pas mon décision. And then, as I shuffled outside summoning to the surface my most pitiful possible body language, he called out a final consolation: Monsieur, tu fais un bon job by offering café comme ça!
It was nice of him: I crossed the street toward the métro entrance and told him and the ‘institution’ to go fuck themselves. Good thing I had no manager checking up on me. I’ll be honest, I only hated him because it was freezing, and he had appeared at the precise moment my hands had begun thawing.
In less than four hours, I was asked at least five times if I wanted to buy pot. I rallied each proposition back at them: want a free coffee? The dealers were – to my smug satisfaction – pleasantly disarmed every time. Their reactions varied: the first eyed me up and down and continued on his way wordlessly, another laughed, and at least three took me up on the offer. The last
of these seemed most intrigued with the idea. He took the time to investigate my surprise counter-0ffer with a series of food-safety assessments that would have made the Agence de la santé proud (why are you doing this? where did you get it? prove that you’re not trying to poison me!)… but when finally convinced, he partook full-throttle. Having aced his screening quiz, I was rewarded with a slap on the back, many shared laughs, and a newfound charmer-on-the-streets to my operation: he deftly seduced businessmen, bus-attendees and students alike to come enjoy a free warm beverage.
Another guy, chuckling as he walked off with his freshly-poured coffee, asked himself why Starbucks felt the need to promote themselves with stunts like this. My poorly lettered felt-marker sign, lack of table (I was setup on a big snow-laden utility bin of some kind), nine o’clock shadow or Nordiques jersey had clearly not phased him—I’d imagine his loyalty already went far beyond their general cohort of finicky customers.
All told I guess I delivered 12 quarts of coffee (or about 45 cups) in about 3.5 hours. Not bad, but hey, I wasn’t an outreach worker, and this wasn’t a numbers game. Just try telling that to my inner critic. True, some of its arguments were valid: If you were a club promotor or a sample-hander-outer, you’d have been fired!
Luckily, I just wanted to do something silly and extroverted for part of a day, and blog about it later.
As to whether a different type of drink would have garnered different reactions, I don’t know; I can only attest that the majority of passersby could never have read my poorly-executed sign, nor seen the unassuming box-o-coffee which I readily refilled throughout the day (See pictures)…but by the time they had approached me, it was clear most already knew or assumed it was coffee I was handing out.
So would we have a true (ie, useful) sociological study on our hands if it had been free Jack Shits* on offer and they had acted differently?
(*Jack Daniels/Nesquick/Kahlua/Baileys/vodka for those who are wondering)
…..God only knows, but let’s hope He doesn’t really care.
As for me, I’ll have to wait until my next poppy outing to find that out.