Lessons learned in line for coffee

Yesterday at work we said goodbye to the Latte Lounge.

Our office was testing it out this week. Friday was its last day with us, and I can already feel that it’s made a change all our lives.

The Latte Lounge is a remarkable little machine. Actually, it’s enormous. It must outweigh our old coffee maker 10 to 1. It stood in an underused part of the first floor like a robotic guard watching over the adjacent vending machines.

Take me to your leader!

Behold the “Latte Lounge.”

It grinds beans for each order to make regular and decaf coffee of varying strengths and flavors. The lattes and cappuccinos use real milk. And for the colder months, it spits out hot chocolate and mocha. The transparent canisters of beans on top show how close we are to needing a refill.

Of course the decaf has not yet needed a refill.

The coffee-making process is a little more intense than we’re used to. Gears whir and spin, lights flash, tubes rattle and contract as they suck water and milk into the Latte Lounge’s Goldbergian innards and transmogrify the liquid into your beverage of choice.

The resulting cup is surprisingly good.

It ran out of milk Thursday. Friday it was out of regular coffee beans. I don’t see the point of decaf, so what brewed for me was more like dark urine than the “finest organic suspension ever devised.” I poured it out in the sink.

It’s time for our Latte Lounge to move on. Yet somehow I feel we’ll all be a little better off for having known her, albeit for so brief a time. It’s a theme I’ve seen time and again.

When I was a kid, all my favorite movies seemed to end with someone leaving.

How many times did I weep when Elliott the dragon left Pete in Passamaquoddy—a little happier, a little wiser, and finally with a family who cared about him?

And speaking of Elliott, a different Elliott—thank goodness I was sitting in a dark theater the first time I saw “E.T.,” surely the first time I ever sobbed over a creepy-looking space alien.

My dad had kept me home from school that day to play hookey, so the movie was already a very special experience for me. Just me and my dad, breaking the rules, making some memories, watching the government chase down a little boy and his alien friend.

And then E.T. lights up his fingertip and presses it to Henry Thomas’ forehead and says:

“I’ll … be … right … here.”

The music swells. E.T. picks up Gertie’s potted flower and waddles off toward his spaceship.

Ugh — it gets me every time.

But nothing could ever top “Mary Poppins.” Oh, my poor mother.

Even at the—what?—13th, 14th viewing?—the wind would change, that weather vane would twist around, and I knew it was time for Mary to leave the Banks children. And then those tears would start to flow. A slow build, just a trickle at first, something I could surreptitiously wipe away with my sleeve.

But soon, as Mr. Banks in his crushed bowler skipped around with his children, waving that mended kite in the air, and Mary, speaking to her indignant parrot-head umbrella reminded us that it’s ok that the children don’t realize she’s going away because they don’t need her any more and “that’s as it should be,” I would collapse into a bawling, heaving wreck until long into the closing credits.

My poor mother, rubbing my back, holding me closer, rocking me in her lap, must have found the whole thing rather startling.

“It’s ok,” she would say, laughing gently, reassuring me, reassuring herself. “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s only a movie.”

“Yeah … b-b-but,” I would wail through a fit of sobs and hiccups, “why … does she have to … l-leave?”

Not once, mind you. I did this on repeated viewings into my second decade.

If the scene weren’t built around the triumphant and uplifting closing number, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” to countervail against my complete and total despair, I’m sure I would have ended up in therapy at a young age.

It’s no wonder I’m in love with Julie Andrews. I mean, honestly!

So with the departure of Latte Lounge, that theme of going away has resurfaced in my life—albeit in a far less traumatic and meaningful way. The all-too-briefly visiting agent of change, in our case, helped build a bridge between people from different departments who never speak to each other, let alone see each other. Every time I went down for a cup of coffee, a small crowd would be gathered around the Latte Lounge, marveling at its mechanical feats.

“I’m going to get the vanilla hazelnut. What do you want?”

“I’m getting a cappuccino. I think I’ll try the Irish cream next.”

First-timers would timidly approach the machine like supplicants begging audience with a great granter of wishes, gripping their cups hopefully, humbly. Helpful coworkers—strangers—would walk them through the buttons and digital readouts.

“And when that button lights up, press it.”

A press of the button, and then a step back to watch in awe as the Latte Lounge did her stuff.

Waiting for the cup to fill, people would introduce themselves, chat, crack jokes. In the shadow, and at the mercy, of the Latte Lounge, we were all equals, just seekers of some early-morning get-up-and-go, or something to fight that 3 p.m. slump.

Who knows what friendships and alliances were bonded in the midst of the Latte Lounge. Who knows what deals were made, what ideas were forged, in the time it took to brew a french vanilla latte or a decaf mocha.

We must all learn to get along without the Latte Lounge for now. She has moved on to other office buildings to challenge their castes and break down their cubicles. And wherever she is, I must wonder if she is carving smiley-faces into the froth of her cappuccinos, looking back on the good deeds she has done.


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the untallied hours

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