November 1, 2016

On Hotel Coffee Makers

A Courtyard Marriott, but where?
A Courtyard Marriott, but where?

When I go somewhere to give a talk I have a tendency to dither over what I’m going to say until the very last minute. This leads inevitably to a lot of writing in hotel rooms. It helps to be an early riser–you can get a lot done between the hours of four and seven in the morning–but there’s not much you can do about the coffee. I’m talking about the stuff you make in the room yourself. It supplies barely any caffeine and has an unpleasant flavour, but that’s all there is until breakfast opens. Until six or six thirty at the very earliest.

Deprived of a nutrient as crucial as coffee, the brain needs extra stimulation. I make a habit of starting my hotel writing process with exercise. Not yoga or stretching. A purely mental exercise, one best performed with laptop in queen-sized bed. I open a file and start to describe, as clearly as possible, the coffee maker in the room. Writing about the coffee maker turns out to be a great way of warming up the mind.

And–as this first editor’s blog post for Social Text Online surely proves–it is a perfectly legitimate method for generating content. When I began describing the hotel room coffee maker I was not yet aware of the intense passages focusing on a teasmade in a bedsit in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. Nor did I know that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts sketches every hotel room he stays in and has done so for decades. I certainly wasn’t thinking about what to say in a first Editor’s blog post.

Yet the fruitless character of the task and the insipid qualities of the object seem only appropriate. Is there any non-event less momentous than a blog launch? Assembling the following observations on appliances was a useful way to learn about blogging as a practice. It helped me understand the difference between posting something and writing. Cutting and pasting these estranged pieces of text from my journal, I felt as if I could be fashioning an artisanal form of Lorem Ipsum, a fancy pants filler text, a trade test transmission, a document people aren’t expected to read. A first blog post, in other words.

Writing this way–writing for digital platforms–makes you very aware of the ways that the work of writing and reading are changing. Appropriately enough, all the talks I was giving during these coffee maker studies had to do with these kinds of changes. In the contemporary culture of words, the transformation is most palpable in the commonplace applications of the word content. It has come to describe a kind of highly communicative stuff, a cut-rate version of art, or writing, or work, that has been fashioned to be consumed online and, in its consumption, to make money for someone other than its creator.

In “curating” the following items, which are essentially journal entries, I’ve edited them only slightly. Most of the edits eliminate troubling personal qualities such as hypochondria and mean spiritedness, along with various overly crazy thoughts. In all other ways, the capsules of thought offered below are testaments to the moment in which they were written down.

Saturday March 29, 2014
Albany. The Holiday Inn Express. A microwave and a fridge in the room. This kind of place is designed for Per Diem living.

A woman checking in ahead of me was a regular. The clerk seemed to know her. When her credit card was declined they kept on talking like it was no big thing.

There is a coffee maker in the bathroom of my room, and beside it a stack of styrofoam cups, each individually wrapped in plastic. Hanging on the towel rack is the ubiquitous sign asking guests to help the hotel save the environment by reusing towels. The sign is decorated with a vivid photograph of a snowy owl.

Friday April 4, 2014
Nashville. The Courtyard Marriott. A new generation of hotel coffeemaker has arrived. It is designed to work with individual styrofoam cups (wrapped in plastic, naturally). The pouch of ground coffee is about the size of a teabag and, as usual, comes in its own plastic package. It rests in a small plastic tray that slides into the drip part of the appliance. This tray is disposable, but otherwise the same as the filter holder in any coffee maker. This disposability is the key innovation in the hotel coffee makers of today. There is a disposable tray inside every single-serving plastic bag along with the coffee pouch.

The disposable plastic tray
The disposable plastic tray

On the packaging, a picture of a frog. It is part of an official-looking symbol, a green seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. The coffee is “minumum 30% certified content,” the packaging tells me.

This language, and particularly the use of a singular noun where one would expect a plural, makes me wonder whether this guarantee refers to the coffee at all. Perhaps it refers to some aspect of the text on the packaging–which is also, in today’s usage, content.

Thursday, May 1, 2014
The coffee maker at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Providence, RI, is the same model as the coffee maker in the Courtyard Marriott, Nashville. But the coffee is a different brand, and unlike the sachets of coffee in Nashville, the one I’m holding now bears no marks indicating that the creatures of the rain forest feel okay about me drinking it.

The cups are paper and not styrofoam, but as everywhere, they are wrapped in plastic. A plaque set under the drip tray explains the benefits of the apparatus:

The one cup system eliminates concerns about the cleanliness of traditional guestroom coffee pots, brew baskets, and coffee mugs. It is the most sanitary way to provide you with a great cup of coffee in the comfort of your room

I am drinking coffee from the downstairs. It’s not very strong. I am tempted to go down for another cup, but have taken my eyebrows off.

Vendredi le treize juin, 2014
How delightful it was to discover a Nespresso maker in the Continental Hotel, Lausanne. There are two Nespresso pods costing 1.50 CHF each in the minibar. I used one this morning. But then, at breakfast, I saw a whole basket of them, made available for free. So I took a bunch. The theme from Frasier was playing on the stereo.

Samedi le 14 juin 2014
At first I thought there was no coffee maker in my room here in Genéve, but upon returning from a chocolate run to Migros I discovered a Nespresso machine in the closet, along with a selection of capsules. This was supposed to be a standard room. Does the “standard” secretly convert to the higher rate “executive” room?

A nice idea, but I don’t think so. The machine was dirty. The liquid dripped out slowly and had a funky taste. So perhaps I’m staying in an abandoned executive suite. A ruin, with a cupboard that was supposed to be kept locked.

Friday October 3, 2014
The coffee machine in the Inn@USC Wyndham Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina is a Cuisinart. A few things distinguish it from the no-name single cup coffee makers I saw in the spring of this year, but it is essentially the same thing: a drip machine that sends mildly hot water through a small pouch of coffee set in a disposable plastic tray. And as was the case with the ones I wrote about before, each plastic wrapped cup sits in a custom built stand alongside plastic tubes of sugar. Plastic stirrers. The cups are cardboard, not styrofoam, and the Cuisinart design signature speaks in the modern accent of the stainless steel. Also, in this case the tray is a fixture of the appliance itself, not another disposable item.

The individually-wrapped plastic cup
The individually-wrapped cup

Wednesday November 5, 2014
The Westin Bonaventure’s Presidential Suite, room number 3280 at the very top, is high enough to challenge the glass elevator in windy conditions. On the plus side, we have at least three coffee makers. All are the same model, and all are comparable in design to the hotel coffeemakers described in previous entries. Comparable, but not identical. They have the styrofoam cups wrapped in plastic. The coffee is Starbucks, because after all this is the Presidential Suite, but still it comes as the usual paper sachet contained inside a plastic sachet.

The most novel thing about the Bonaventure coffee maker is the blue light, which indicates that the machine is working. I don’t recall seeing this color on the previous hotel coffee makers I’ve described. This makes me think that perhaps blue carries classier connotations than other colors when it comes to appliance lighting. No, not classier, more digital, more designed and perhaps, even, more responsive to the needs of the user. Blue is the color of the light on my router at home when it’s working properly. And all my wireless speakers and other peripherals glow with blue lights, no doubt because they use bluetooth technology.

So perhaps the coffee makers here use blue lighting to capture the connotations of progress, efficiency, productivity that the color signifies in the cyber world.

Saturday April 11, 2015
Here I am, having to produce a talk, another content talk, in another hotel room. Coffee maker is the Cuisinart model, with its own flimsy tray. It’s a double-sized one. This is the Midwest.