On Commitment II
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.
Everyone has the same card, but no two are punched alike.
In New York, as in many cities, coffee has become a serious phenomenon, and over the past ten years, barista culture has proliferated. A barista’s commitment to coffee can be nothing short of extraordinary—knowing the difference between a macchiato and a cortado, serving a perfect espresso with a small glass of sparkling water, all while practically caressing the coffee grounds. But right after they make your drink, they ask about a coffee punch card. A strange transition. How do these self-proclaimed artisans reconcile their dedication to flowers made in milk foam with this marketing maneuver?
A coffee punch card is the standard loyalty program for most coffee shops—a system designed to entice patrons to have coffee from the same cafe each time with the premise of getting a free coffee typically after their tenth cup. The object itself comes in various forms: sometimes it’s a stamp, sometimes the cashier signs it themselves, and sometimes it’s actually a punch hole in the card. In these high-end coffee shops, punch cards are taken seriously, too. It’s the next level of commitment in the relationship between barista and customer.
The engagement with the card itself is not as clear cut as one might assume. Some people just take it so they don’t have to say “no,” and then throw it away. Some take it but the card becomes forgotten in a pocket somewhere and each time they come they have to get another card—the objective of free coffee is never accomplished. Some just say “no” without reasoning, while some try to say “no” and give explanations about their situation not to seem rude, just like I do, trying to explain to the barista that I’ll be hanging around on this street for only three more days…
I’m with a friend, so the barista asks, “Would you guys like to share the punch card, then?”
Suddenly, I am paralyzed with this next level commitment. I have no clue how to respond. In which stage of a relationship can two people share a punch card? What would that imply for our relationship? Who is going to drink more coffee? Would I drink more coffee in order to give that eventual free coffee as a gift? Or would it make me feel guilty if I don’t drink enough? Would it ever turn into a game? Or maybe something more annoying? What if I find myself being passive aggressive about each other’s coffee drinking habits? Or the other way around? Would this thing end up causing any sort of fight between us? I panic and say “no.”