On Commitment I
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
Would you like room for milk?
On better days, excuses to visit the corner cafe can be limited. It usually falls after teeth brushing and before the first ping on Slack. But mostly as walks that converge post lunch break, just past noon, at congregations that disrupt the urban grid. On worse days, that race towards a refill is at closing time as well.
Would you like to start a loyalty card with us?
For an object typology that is so densely populated within our public realm, the coffee shop loyalty card, for most of its life, is not visible. Through all its infinite mutations in form, of graphic and branded designs, this persistently analogue gesture to membership continues to prove successful—to some. As homage to stationary aesthetics of the Vista Prints, Office Depots, and Staples’ past, may the ancestral stamp pads and hole punches that do endure, maintain their obscure presence in the mundanity of the collective day to day grind.
It is often discarded to the invaluables pocket that lines the cashless wallets of 2019, or stashed in a junk drawer, to only be summoned when in dire need of an improvisational notepad. Unlikely to be collected from every instance offered, but when acknowledged, and this does happen occasionally, it’s otherwise forgotten companionship on city meanderings can be profound in soliciting a person to a place.
Would you like one as well?
An insubstantial paper body of flimsy construction, typically decorated with undulating hearts or stars, the voids dedicated to this object’s function are discreetly disguised. It’s conception is for profit and it is demanding of that ritualistic succession, a model for recurring revenue and enterprise. If you use it five times this week, and another five times next week, it will gift you something free. Don’t let this golden ticket get wet, the unlaminated ones will disintegrate in the rain.
Only here for two weeks. I could punch it on the same card, and the two of you could share?
You don’t need to possess it at the same time…
We have multiple locations.
You could split the free cup…?
A subscription plan to music, to entertainment, to biking, to news, to walking dogs, to train rides, to car rides, to coffee, to someone else? Sign up for free, you can cancel at anytime. Coffee shops, boutiques, franchises, and everything in between, are all competing for allegiances and a subscription to their identity. Choose one. Or play the field.
This loyalty card is most revealing of current attitudes toward juggling loyalties. Courtship and unions, both desired, and disputed. Easily categorized with engagement rings, though not worn publicly as a declaration of status, the interactions that this card invites are public nonetheless. The loyalty card that can just as easily be neglected, could bring two people together by joining rituals. It requires serious coordination as all shared objects do and proposes nuanced complexities or worse, anxieties. This object cannot belong to both as a possession, meetings will need to be planned. What time of day, for here or to go, forget the serendipity. Is this object disclosing a contemporary reluctance to commit? Even if it is monogamy with a coffee shop? Even if it is monogamy with an expiration date?
…How would you like to pay today, together or separately?