Before coming to Princeton, I was a stranger to the effects of caffeine. Not that I never had coffee before – I was a recreational drinker and even a proud Gold member of Starbucks’ loyalty program. I was a stranger in that I did not understand the ritualistic nature of drinking coffee every morning. I thought myself superior for not having to take something to ‘help me wake up,’ as if I had some innate superpower that exonerated me from fatigue.
Late in the fall of my freshman year, I was sitting at one of the silver tables in Frist, pretending to read some dense text for Writing Seminar. I was nodding along to the Spotify playlist of smooth jazz I usually listen to in the mornings and checking the lunch menus for the dining halls, when a friend suddenly slammed her S’well bottle down onto the table. The cacophonous clang of metal against metal rudely jolted me from my trance.
“I’m getting an iced coffee. Want one?”
I wanted a little change in pace, so I decided to go with her. A little coffee never harmed anybody, I guess.
My friend confidently walked about to the counter and recited her order: “A large iced coffee with soy milk please.” With one smooth action, she took out her phone and handed the cashier her prox and punch card. She was a regular. It was my first time; I was overly timid. I decided to go for the same thing, but I asked for it plain, because I had once heard that soy milk was fatal.
The process was so swift. There was no mention of price or particularities. A brief swipe of the prox, and a quick punch of the loyalty card. The efficiency was almost mechanical.
As we retrieved our coffees, the line was slowly accumulating with bleary-eyed students about to head to their 10ams. The taste of the coffee was mild, which made it easy to go down. I vaguely remember our conversation about a cappella drama, I think. I went to my politics lecture at 11 am with my iced coffee. It was an ordinary morning.
I realize that Frist is a regularly frequented space for me, especially in the limbo between the time when you get up and your first class. At this time, Frist is a particular kind of ‘quiet’ – most of the students are still too dazed from sleep to have lively conversations, while the din of Witherspoon café and the tapping of keyboards harmonize in the background.
Two days after the first time I had coffee from Frist, I decided to purchase my second. I saw that the legion of early-birds at these tables, many of whom I had seen two days ago, all had their beverages in their hand. It just seemed right to me that I should have an iced coffee positioned next to my laptop as I checked Blackboard for any announcements that morning. I also wanted to complete all the punches on my loyalty card so that I could receive my free coffee drink after purchasing nine of them. I don’t think I felt a strong desire for the actual beverage itself – rather, the minuscule punches on the flimsy card urged me to satisfy a sense of completion that it deserved. This time, I ordered with more confidence, and the efficiency of the process did not faze me.
It is clear that Witherspoon Café has its troop of loyal customers, making the same trek every single day to purchase their drink of choice and enjoy it at the conveniently situated sitting/study area endearingly nicknamed the ‘silver tables’ (even this sounds elevated). I promised myself that I would not be tethered to this daily pilgrimage, partly because I didn’t want to feel reliant on this bizarre drink called ‘coffee’ – a drink which is essentially water infused with the rustic bitterness of ground beans that can at once incite so much dismissive snobbery from an Italian, but also so much cultish excitement from the masses of American youths.
Almost a year after my first purchase, I am now a regular buyer of Frist iced coffee. I have since come to realize that the Frist iced coffee seems to be a lot more than a caffeinated beverage. I think it occupies a greater social purpose.
It is a catalyst for conversations. Masses of students flock to the silver tables by the café for trivial chats, group work sessions, and glorious package openings. The coffee cups give you something to do with your hands. A long sip can act as a filler for pauses in the conversation. The beverage is also a timer – the amount of time it takes to savor a large iced coffee serves as a tangible alarm; when the coffee runs out, the conversations can naturally reach a conclusion.
When you’re only 3 pages into the 10-page philosophy paper due tomorrow, or when you can’t quite remember what happened the night before on the Street, your large iced coffee with a dash of almond milk will always remain a constant. It may even feel performative in a way, yet this is an aspect of normality that you cling on to for its reliability.
Amidst the bustling student hub that is Frist, the unassuming Witherspoon café, enclosed by three glass panes has become an unexpected beacon of social activity. The sitting area beside it is one of the most visible areas in the center – what could be a casual greeting to a friend walking by could develop into a full-fledged conversation about the drunken antics of a past night.
At Princeton, known for its rigorous undergraduate academic program and the notoriously intense work ethic of its students, the ‘grind’ (the colloquial term used by students to refer to the at times grueling process of completing academic work) can be an isolating and very taxing. Students are subconsciously drawn together from all corners of campus to Witherspoon, a social oasis amidst the droughts of studiousness in the surrounding libraries.
From what I’ve heard and experienced, Frist coffee is nothing to write home about. No one has ever declared to me that they are drinking Frist coffee for the rich taste of its roast. Not many seem to rely on it to wake up in the mornings. Frist iced coffee is a totem of social activity on campus. Perhaps this phenomenon is a universal human characteristic. Just as the ancient civilizations were brought closer together through shared rites or sacred chants, maybe drinking this brown liquid submerged in ice in a clear plastic cup with a black straw appeals to us as an activity that connects us to our peers as a common ritual.