Friday, October 7, 2011

Around this time of year, I become convinced that we are machines. It's a meaningless proposition, but from it an aesthetic logic strings itself together: machines are, you know, soulless. They're determined, and have no free will, and stuff. Or are they?!?! From here we could plunge pointlessly into the well-trod territory of Blade Runner fanboys, but we won't.

Instead we'll go to Javastop for coffee. We'll be guided by one of their staff into the establishment. They want to make sure that we make it from the door to the counter. There are helpful lines and arrows on the floor to this end, but they don't want us to take any chances. If we were to lose our way we would certainly fall into Hades and sink into the river of “not buying anything”. So with a bright face one of them directs us along the treacherous path, beset on both sides by economic folly. He uses their standard hand signals (I suppose they all would), which are to them universally recognizable. I assume the unnatural spinning of his hand indicates that we should continue walking forward, slowly. One of you veers dangerously close to the precipice, and our guide efficiently tells you "just a little to the left sir. No, your left, sir. Yes that's perfect."

When we reach the counter another one of them asks in their customarily brisk way if we are here for coffee. When only some of us answer in the affirmative, he asks each of us individually, politely directing those that are here for something other than coffee to another counter. "Please step over to the counter to your right, sir, ma'am. Stay within the yellow lines. Thank you." He makes a queer barking noise, like you might imagine a drill sergeant to his soldiers. The one at the other counter barks back in a slightly different tone, then yells "thank you!" to which the one at my counter yells back, in the same militaristic tone, "you're welcome!" It's more like "Yoooooouuuure welCOME!" With such lock-stepped discipline, does this all-male brigade have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy?

He then deals with us one by one. "I will be offering you our baked goods, teas, smoothies, sandwiches, and sodas. We do not work for commission, and I am not trying to push any of these things on you." He lists off each cookie, cake, tea, fruit combination, sandwich, and soda that they offer, asking me if I want each one. Everything he says to us is in an elevated voice that's slightly lowered from the loud, barking voice he uses with the rest of them. I answer "no, thanks" to most everything he offers me. I feel obliged to return the same politeness, no, I don't feel at all, I just can't help but reply with the politeness of "no, thanks" rather than "no." A simple "no," "nope," or "naw" would not come out of my mouth. I feel somewhat guilty for declining so many offerings. He makes me feel as if not buying these things will decrease the quality of my life. When I decline each one, my stinginess sounds like irresponsibility. I won't even spend the money to take good care of myself. Rather than feeding myself now on a scone, muffin, slice of pumpkin pie, or ham on rye, I will wait until I go home to eat. Because it's cheaper. I starve myself. This time, though, I'll be a little nice to myself. I said yes to a Mexican tea cookie, which is half the price of the coffee, the essential thing. "Huy-yuh! TWO Mexican tea cookies one coffee, SIX-teen OUNces!" he barks, still facing me, as if I weren't there. This summons another one from the kitchen, bearing my order at a fast trot, barking back "huy-yah!" When he puts the requested items on the counter, the one at the counter yells "thank YOU!" and the other one "you're welcome!" as he rushes back into the kitchen. Their eyes did not meet.

Plate and coffee cup in hand, I am shown the way to my seat. "Just around the corner to the left, sir. You will meet the rest of your party there. Mind the gap."

I sit down, and I catch your look of exasperated resignation. I share it. I fumble about in my bag for my notebook, and one of them hurries to me, asking if I wouldn't like a clipboard or other surface that might make my writing experience more ergonomic. Helplessly, I consider this. "It's $1.99," he says. Like a formal dinner we are surrounded by servants bustling about, but they name prices for their services. They want to make our lives easier as conveniently as they can, which just happens to have a cost. They toil seemingly without toiling, bringing us refills, tiny tumblers of simple syrup, half and half, pastries (as soon as they see you eying the pastry case, they politely solicit your desire for a pastry), pillows, trays for our laptops, even tops for the coffee cups (when they sell you a cup of coffee they say "we recommend you add a ceramic top for $0.29 to keep your coffee from getting cold"). All of this is done without showing fatigue, even though I'm sure that by now, well into the afternoon, some of their shifts have lasted many hours. Well, there are hints. Sometimes there is a stifled sigh of breathlessness when one hustles to your service. Once in a while one of them forgets to switch from their military voice that they use to communicate with each other (although it, too, is also a massive performance for the customer) to their stilted but quieter voice for customers, accidentally yelling at someone "WOULD-YOU-LIKE-A-PIECE-OF" and then remembering--"chocolate, sir?" They also sometimes slip out of the formal machine-gun voice when they talk to each other. This voice is so ritualized that it seems as if it's actually incredibly bad at communicating any information to each other, because when there's anything out of the ordinary or really necessary to say amongst them, they talk informally, at a normal volume.

We are left to imagine the training program that lathed, greased, and, well, machined their voices and mannerisms. The machinations of Javastop have little chinks of necessary error that we can’t help noticing, just like we can’t help responding to their service industry Marshall arts. We may be machines, but very bad machines.