01/25/2013 09:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

One Small Sign of Society's Unraveling

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

When someone studies early 21st-century life to try to pinpoint exactly when society started to unravel, I have no doubt they'll identify the small-appliance department in Bed Bath and Beyond, and single-cup coffeemakers.  Exhibit A.

Coffee used to be communal. It meant friendship, family, a kitchen table conversation. An unassuming pot called everyone together to sit, sip, and share the good or the bad. Perked coffee was the standard, and when someone "put on a pot," it was a universal signal: Time to get comfortable. We're staying. "They put on coffee, honey."

Once in a while, people would partially take up the offer with something like, "Only if you have it made...." This was code for, "How much do you really want to hear from me?" Nothing says "I care" more than brewing a pot of coffee to accompany a heartfelt conversation.

At some point, we moved on to Joe DiMaggio and Mr. Coffee. Why I can't tell you, and while it didn't offer happy, peppy percolating to let us know coffee was coming, it still signaled community. When it took over kitchen counters from coast to coast, our moms stored their percolators on shelves, plugging them in only when they wanted to make "the good coffee."

Quick aside: For purposes of this little theory, I'm leaving out the arrival of flavors, types of coffee, and the dozens of vendors who sell the stuff now, from gas stations to grocery stores. In the old days, you bought coffee-flavored coffee. With or without caffeine. You drank it with cream, sugar, both, or black. The occasional powdered milk. End of story. (When someone made instant coffee, you knew they probably didn't really like you.)

So there we were: percolators tucked out of sight, our Mr. Coffee or Krups dripping steadily. Then came the built-in timers to start the process before dawn so we'd wake up to coffee. But this, my friends, was the beginning of the end.

A timer was the very first sign that coffee was changing from a beverage that was all about us to something that was all about me. What started as a convenient timesaver in the morning--coffee ready to serve a household buzzing with activity--has become a self-serving, egocentric, and indisputably single-minded cup of coffee.

Choose your cup (never easy, given the 250 flavors available--dear God). Pop it in. Once the growling, buzzing, and spit-drip have stopped, you have your own personal coffee. Isn't that the point?

Well, here's the confounding thing: I kind of love my one-at-a-time coffeemaker.  For decades, I was the only coffee drinker in the house. Brewing coffee for myself--even just a few cups at a time--seemed excessive. I usually poured at least some of it down the drain the next day, but buying coffee at a drive-through was expensive. I love that I can brew a travel mug on my way out the door every morning or brew six different cups of coffee a day (and I have).

But it's a sad little story, isn't it? And no, maybe just having my coffee isn't the point. Where are the people? Where is the camaraderie? Where is the love, people, where is the love? Dropping a cup into place and pressing a button for coffee isn't warm and welcoming. It's robotic. It's solitary.

I know, I know, I know. I'm a Luddite. "We live in the future," as my son likes to tell me. Great coffee? Absolutely. It's just that I miss everybody.


Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning Op-Ed column for The Morning Call, in Allentown, PA for almost ten years.  Her essays have been part of two humor anthologies: 101 Damnations; A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells and Mirth of a Nation Volume 3, and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It's Not Me, It's You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.


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