The coffee machine is no drip filter. It is sleek and black. It has curves like a European sports car. The choices of brew are a tribute to democratic choice. Hot or cold, steamed or black, tea or coffee—the machine mixes and matches these possibilities to suit each individual’s point of view. Espresso with hot chocolate froth? No problem. Steamed milk au natural? With pleasure.
But alas the coffee machine’s magic is slow and deliberate. Awaiting its bounty one must adhere to decorum. Always apologize to the person behind you for the lengthiness of coffee-pouring. If the CEO or other upper-management stands hip out, cup tilted, waiting to fill their mug, apologize more deferentially. Ceremonially offer to step aside. The CEO always declines; he’s a coffee-machine egalitarian.
On a recent morning, just after the creamy topping had twirled forth but before the espresso shot had begun to trickle through the spout, my boss arrived behind me, metallic travel mug in hand. He wore a black turtleneck and black pants, as he did every day. His physical presence is characterized by circles—bald, round head; half-moon belly; black-rimmed oval glasses perched in perfect creases under his eyes. The consistency of spheres is broken only by a rectangular sole patch under his bottom lip. It is the thickest collection of hair visible, and it is all right angles.
My boss once found me tolerable and competent—hireable—and I would like to continue my employment. Additionally, I seek authority figures’ approval (see apologies to CEO). So standing next to my boss at the sanctified coffee machine was an opportunity to solidify our relationship. To chit chat brightly and subtly endear myself to my boss before the consultants came in. Yet historically, our talks tend to jolt and hiccup, like a motorcycle that refuses to kick into gear. But, here we were, stuck within the office kitchen’s narrow confines, beholden to the coffee machine’s whims and excesses. We had no choice but to make conversation. He made the first move.
“Ah, the coffee maker…”
Everyone has something like this to say about the machine. It always seems like a robust conversation piece, but one quickly learns the coffee machine’s romance cannot be adequately verbalized.
“Yup,” I said, in a lively way. A meaningful “yup.” A “yup” suggesting an ironically-inclined but wholly committed employee. A “yup” that masked the barren verbal field I visualized in front of me.
The brewer spit out the last of the espresso. I smiled. Beverage preparation was finished. I could walk away from Sole Patch Boss and my lack of witty retort would be seen as an accident of the coffee machine’s unpredictable timeline.
I placed my hands around the mug’s warm exterior ready to pull away. Suddenly, the cogs of the coffee machine whirred back into motion. I jolted and dropped my hands. Of course. The cappuccino air kiss. The machine still had to puff up my drink to the very tip of the cup.
Just before debilitating silence engulfed Boss and me, I was moved by the frothy
proceedings. “Ooh, the final flourish,” I said.
He laughed. I smiled. Perfect.
While he set up his own brew strategy and I sweetened my coffee alongside, we chatted, yes chatted, about technology these days: the coffee maker’s habit of politely spelling out, ‘Thank you,’ on the screen, your cue to remove your mug from the machine’s belly and go on your way.
“I don’t like when machines talk to you,” my boss confessed to me in what I presumed was a conspiratorial admission.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure I understood his point. I am a believer in societal politesse; technology should be no exception. Worried that disputing his point might be an admission of a subconscious right wing agenda (You know who else loves when technology talks? Republicans.), I subverted my ambivalence and laughed.
He went on. A futuristic scenario unfolded. “Machines talk like people and then pretty soon you have technofiles—people who start talking like machines. Oh, God.”
Ooh, technofile. Although I was pretty sure adolescent boys had talked like machines since the original Star Wars, I was impressed with his linguistic improvisation: ‘technophile.’
It was my move. I scrolled through the possible comebacks:
But I’d already missed the beat. He looked at me, awaiting my volley. I smiled.
Eyes glued to the linoleum kitchen floor, company-issued coffee cup in hand, I bowed
out gracefully and returned to my desk.
The next morning, I resumed my position by the coffee maker, replaying yesterday’s unfulfilled exchange in my head. “Soon technofiles will be talking like machines…” There was something available in that conversational nugget that I’d missed. Machines… people… people… machines. It’s like anthro-po-mor-phism but… backwards. It’s…reverse anthropomorphism! I looked around delighted. I had it. It was brilliant.
I lingered a bit, wondering if he would return. Could we pick up where we left off? He would have to arrive before ‘Thank you’ vanished from the screen. It appeared and was gone. Dejected, I returned to my desk. I did a fleeting search for ‘anthropomorphism’ on dictionary.com. Then, to be double sure, looked up ‘reverse.’ I considered sending him an email: “Re: reverse anthropomorphism?”
The next morning, alone by the brewer, I went through the quiet ritual of preparation. I finished and held the warmed mug in my hand an extra second, enjoying the heat on my fingers. I looked at the machine’s kind message once again; it’s lack of intimidating facial hair or conversational acumen. I nodded my head in defeat and admiration and said finally, “No, no. Thank YOU.”