Being a coffee drinker at The University of Chicago is a lifestyle. Sitting around and drinking coffee with friends just looks cool. Telling people to not talk to you until you’ve had your first cup of coffee is even cooler. And just being able to say, “Hey, do you want to meet up for coffee?” means you have the initiative to make plans with friends. If anything, drinking coffee gives you some sort of social capital that I want to get in on.
I’m ready to live, breathe, eat and drink UChicago. And that means I have to like coffee. I’m prepared to get myself addicted, even if that means I have to sacrifice my taste buds and my independence in the process.
Last week, I went into intensive training and drank small black coffees at three student-run coffee shops on campus. Although I could take pity on myself and add cream or sugar, I’m pretty sure that the blacker you drink your coffee, the more you’ve lost your ability to recognize good things and therefore the more hardcore UChicago you are. Maybe if I have a cup of coffee in my hand, people will take me more seriously.
Day One: Harper Café
When I walk in at ten in the morning, I ask for an extra small coffee. They give me a cup and point me to a coffee keg that’s labeled “SQUAD ROAST.”
I’m not sure what “squad” is supposed to smell or taste like. I sniff my coffee, wafting it towards my face (per lab protocol), and conclude that it smells pretty good.
I take a sip. Blergh. I force myself to take another gulp. By my fourth mouthful, I’m really aware of my heart pounding in my chest. I’m convinced that I could stay awake for the rest of my life. I could run a marathon right now.
Two hours later, I’m only two-thirds of the way done with my extra small cup. I look around warily, hoping that no one has noticed my failure. I accidentally lock eyes with one girl as she takes a sip from her large-sized cup. Is this a challenge? She adjusts her beanie and flips the page of Marx’s Capital. I’ve clearly lost.
Day Two: Ex Libris
Today, I’m determined to out-cool everyone else. I’m sitting on one of the armchairs outside of Ex Libris drinking their coffee and trying really hard not to flinch as each sip scalds every one of my tastebuds because — that’s right, kids — I’m cool now. I have a reputation to protect.
I cross my legs, slouch in my seat and lift up my copy of Capital so everyone can know what I’m reading. I’m pretty sure I look like a self-secure, academically competent college student. I’m an Economics major with no social conscience and a guaranteed internship at Goldman Sachs for the next three summers. I’m – Hey, why isn’t anyone looking at me? Why isn’t there a UChicago Crush written about me yet? I lift my book up higher.
When I go to class, my coffee is getting really cold really quickly so I decide to gulp it down as fast as I can. My leg is shaking so much the girl in front of me turns around and shoots me a glare.
I still couldn’t finish my coffee even though I tried to chug most of it in a span of ten minutes. By now, the caffeine high has worn off, and I’m really tired. I stare at the centimeter of leftover coffee. It mocks me as my illusion falls apart. You weakling.
Day Three: Cobb Café
It is the final day of my experiment, and I am feeling hopeless. No one has even acknowledged how hard I’m working to fit in. I’m just getting “Rachel, stop trying so hard,” and mostly “Rachel, are you okay?”
Anyway, I ask for my requisite extra-small coffee, and, out of curiosity, I ask the cashier on duty why he thinks Cobb Café’s coffee is better than coffee at any other coffee shop.
“It’s because of the people making it,” he says. “We’re [redacted] awesome.”
Wow, he said that pretty confidently. But how does he know for sure that he’s [redacted] awesome? Did he conduct a poll? How many likes does each of his Instagram posts get? How many UChicago Crushes were written about this guy?
Perplexed, I take a sip of my coffee.
“Is this coffee supposed to taste, like, nutty?” I ask, wanting to confirm my incredibly descriptive flavor profile. After all, I’ve been drinking the stuff for three days now. I’m basically a coffee connoisseur.
“Actually,” he replies, “it’s supposed to have notes of dark chocolate, cherry and peach.”
“So it’s not nutty at all,” another employee says, kindly reminding me of my failure.
At this point, I’m having an identity crisis. I’ve been publicly humiliated and my confident façade has been replaced with all-consuming insecurity. I plug my earphones into my laptop and start listening to the “Life Sucks” playlist on Spotify.
I can’t be cool drinking coffee. I’m going to be UChicago’s social pariah, condemned to a life of drinking stupid things like water. I deliberate over my other options. Maybe I should switch my major to Economics. No, that’s a bit extreme.
I pick up my coffee to take another pity sip, but the cup is empty. Wait…it’s empty. I’m not sure when this happened, but I did it: I finished an entire cup.
Looking for some validation, I text my roommate that I just finished an entire cup all by myself.
“YAY,” she replies. “You’re turning into such a UChicago student.”
I guess I am. Maybe fitting in at UChicago isn’t so hard after all.