We set up and hosted a free coffee bar several times in 2007 and 2008. We gave free coffee to anyone who would come by and sit and talk for a while under our big green market umbrella.
We sprung up like a mushroom and appeared on a corner downtown and people would stagger up, kind of confused and surprised, and there we’d be: Their friendly neighborhood coffee cart, enablers of their daily habit so they could pour free hot strong black coffee into their face.
We designed the stand to collapse down and fit into a bike cart so we could transport it easily.
In the context of Santa Cruz’ ultra consumerism downtown, the free coffee cart was satisfyingly incongruous.
We set up at the corner of Pacific and Cooper, our would be town square. We had a handsome coffee bar, a bright green market umbrella, stools, and fancy cafe aprons.
People were cautious, confused, incredulous, inquisitive, excited, and grateful in pretty much that order.
Here’s a conversation we had a lot:
“The coffee is free?”
“Yes, and hot. And strong.”
“Wow, what is this… what is this part of?”
“It’s part of the community.”
“No, I mean, what… what is this for?”
“So you can have hot coffee! And we get to chat.”
“I mean, is this for something?”
“Well, definitely for good conversation, and a chance to meet people.”
We understood what they were asking. What they meant was this: Who is sponsoring you? What are you selling? In a world ruled by commerce, a society in which every interaction is mediated by the exchange economy, they wanted to know how we could exist in the context of capitalism.
It was confusing them that we didn’t appear to be selling anything. To paraphrase Burroughs, “Never trust those who say they don’t want money. The hell they don’t. What they mean is that they want more money. Much more.”
Except we didn’t. We wanted to offer a gift to our community, good conversation, and to challenge people’s expectations. It worked all around.
(Thanks to espressobuzz for the stereoscopic and panoramic photos)