The Magic of Crowds

The Magic of Crowds

This week is a good week to talk about coffee. I'm not interested in talking about the best roasts or the best home brewing methods, at least not yet. I am a huge coffee snob, don't get me wrong, there are just a lot of those blogs and opinion pieces out on the wild wild internet already, you don't need to hear that from me.

I've talked previously about the intersection of the cafe atmosphere and the library space, and those thoughts centered mostly on the micro-culture that organically bubbles to the surface in a coffee house. I've recently done a fair amount of research into cafe 'areas' or zones in the modern workplace that I'll share at a later date, once I find out how they can plug into the library as a building and librarianship as a profession.

I am going to pull on the culture thread a bit more this week and center it around my experience at the recent and so-called 'World's Largest Coffee Break' hosted in Catalano Square in the Historic Third Ward of Milwaukee, WI.

I am not so naive and unworldly to imagine that this was, indeed, the world's largest coffee break, as it is billed. It was a pretty big event though that focused on that beverage. The premise of the event, that I have attend two years in a row now, is that a number of local coffee roasters, cafes, bakeries, and event associations get together in the lovely Catalano Square park next to Milwaukee's Institute of Art and Design in the Third Ward neighborhood just off of downtown. The event is widely publicized in the immediate area and the ask is simple, wear a paper clip somewhere on your outfit, come down to the square at 9:30 AM, and get some free coffee and pastries.

Understandably, the lure of free food dangled in front of a shoal of largely office-based knowledge workers resulted in an enormous turnout.

All of the familiar players were there, well, familiar to me anyway. There was Kickapoo, Colectivo, and Anodyne. Valentine had a booth, as did Starbucks. Holey Moley (the artisan donut shop), and more.

My first stop was Kickapoo. They didn't have a tent like the others, just a table with a nice table cloth on it, but their free coffee was served in 8 oz cups, not like the sample size versions of most of their cohort. I know the proprietor of the Milwaukee, Kickapoo and we had a conversation about the Outsider Art exhibit up at the Kohler Arts Center that I recently recommended he check out. Scott was busy but made time for conversation. That is important.

I took an excellent full bodied and bright iced coffee and walked a bit through the now thick crowd of what was clearly over a hundred people. My intent was to practice some of the anthropological skills I learned while studying education at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, to listen and try to pick up trends in the conversations happening around me.

There was a pianist playing a waltz and people were waltzing. Catalano Square has several really old trees and a deep green lawn that the sun and breeze penetrated in an easy manner. My thought was, maybe I can clue in on a type of collective 'business culture' by collating different eavesdropped conversations. Looking around, I recognized a lot of people and knew what industries they came from - technology, engineering, architecture, and theater were all represented by individuals I knew or had known in my past life before becoming a blogging librarian superhero (I think librarian should always be followed by 'superhero', but that might be just me).

Turns out, it is really difficult to pull any kind of coherent conversation out of a crowd that size.

Having finished my drink from Kickapoo, I wandered over to the Colectivo tent. I knew the owner's of Colectivo once upon a time and they are all three genuine and honest men. The tent their company had set up was only serving warm milk based coffee in sample cups and offering sample pastries. I jumped out of line and made my way over to Starbucks.

Now, it is easy to criticize that coffee behemoth, and I want to point out that isn't my goal here, but the coffee they were serving was clearly a watered down version of their normal ice coffee, which I drink quite a bit. Maybe someone thought it was a good idea to skimp, but after a few sips, and especially following the stellar example from Kickapoo, I chucked it in the bin.

My third stop was the cutest little paleteria inspired nitro coffee off a bike service by the name of Pilcrow. Their nitro black coffee was really good and my palate was glad for it after the Starbucks.

I said I was going to talk about culture, and I am. My two main, albeit poetic, takeaways from the event was the music of the human voice and the magic of crowds. I mentioned before that I couldn't really pull out any conversation from my totally covert eavesdropping as I wandered through the maelstrom of business casual engineers and t-shirted software developers. What I did notice was that, at a certain level, there was a natural rhythm to all of the conversation. An undulating type of noise that was not at all unpleasant.

My hypothesis was that I would hear a lot of workplace drama, but what was coherent was anything but that. Everyone seemed to be engaged in discussing the sacrament, that's right I said sacrament, that we were gathered there to enjoy. Floating out of the crowd were single words like 'Tea', 'Whiskey', 'Chai', and of course, 'Coffee'. Everyone was discussing the coffee and it was a kind of magic.

The Ojibwe word for coffee is makademashkikiwaaboo. Makade means 'black', mashkiki is the word for 'medicine', and aaboo (here with the 'w' as a connector) indicates a liquid. The literal translation to English is black medicine water. This is in reference to the physiological effects of coffee, that is certain, but I think there was a different kind of medicine in the park that day.

Medicine, in the Ojibwe context, means a substance or event or word or sound that heals the physico-spiritual whole of a person. Coffee was the catalyst for this medicine, for the magic of crowds. I normally avoid crowds but this one was just right and everyone was focused on the right things, conversation, camaraderie, and coffee.