Would You Like Sugar With That?
Part aspiring journalist and, I suppose, part flight attendant of the non-Steven Slater variety, I got a lot of coffee this summer.
“And what would you like to drink?” I would ask most mornings, tallying the number of petit crèmes, grand crèmes, and espressos I’d need to bring back to the offices of the Paris-based American newspaper where I worked.
Some of the other interns had a problem with the idea of (occasionally un-thanked) coffee runs. One flat-out refused to go because, as she saw things, getting coffee made one into “the help” rather than—and I’m not entirely sure that I understand this distinction—the replaceable but apparently essential entity that is the unpaid intern. In fact, you might think that, as a Harvard student and as an only child, I might have felt the same way.
Looking back, getting the coffee was probably one of the most valuable parts of my experience.
Inside our offices, located in a nondescript modern building just a few Métro stops past the Arc de Triomphe in the tony suburb of Neuilly, three editions of a daily newspaper are produced in two different shifts. Journalists, whether writing right there in the Paris newsroom or huddled over a laptop somewhere in Afghanistan, Turkey, or South Africa, are obliged to send in their stories in advance of strict, hard deadlines. “If it’s not in by 8:55 p.m.,” my supervisor told me on the day I started, “then it just doesn’t go in.” Needless to say, a certain amount of stress accompanies that sort of production cycle—and more often than not, just before deadline, an important story breaks, the front page needs a redesign, or a convoluted lede must be rewritten.
The editors responsible for solving these regular but potentially catastrophic crises needed to maintain their focus; they had to ensure that their unblinking eyes could remain fixed on their large screens for hours on end. To that end, the newsroom was fairly quiet, sometimes even silent—a world away from the atmosphere at the Crimson.
Before I started, I guess I had this image of a bustling newsroom with far too many people and far too few seats. Above all, I thought I would find conversation, the sort of environment one observes in, say, All the President’s Men, where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman take down a president one minute and then chit-chat with interns like me in the next. But there was hardly any chit-chat in these offices that didn’t relate to what was on the front page in Asia, or to why the Tokyo A4s hadn’t been printed yet. There simply wasn’t time for an intern to have a real conversation with the editors, and I realized just how naïve my rehearsed “Hi-my-name-is-Jake-and-I-want-to-be-a-journalist-just-like-you-some-day-so-what-kind-of-advice-can-you-give-me?” spiel actually was. Even so, I decided I just couldn’t spend a whole summer without talking to anyone, and finally I found a way to make conversation without interrupting the editors’ focus. In fact, you could say I found a way to make conversation while maintaining that focus: namely, the voluntary coffee runs each morning in advance of the 10:30 news meeting.
To clarify, I should say that none of the editors at this newspaper required the interns to bring them their morning coffee—and they paid for us to buy our own if we did—but it more or less became one of the little tasks I did every morning, along with deleting hundreds of e-mails from passionate but dubiously articulate individuals living in places like Bangalore and The Hague.
“Would you like some sugar with that?” I would say when I came back, being careful to place the steaming little cups far enough away from the keyboards that controlled everything. “Du sucre?” I would sometimes add for a laugh, pretending that I actually spoke the local language better than someone who’d had just two years of college French and an ill-fated summer at the Dallas International School.
Sometimes I’d get that laugh; sometimes I wouldn’t, and the same was true of any acknowledgment of thanks. But, sure enough, the prospect of a steaming cup of cafe crème in the morning brought a smile to most faces and, more often than not, those smiles would lead to an engagement in conversation. After I brought her a café allongé one morning, one editor, for instance, told me that she liked my polo shirt, which reminded her of the one her cameraman had worn when she’d covered Bosnia in the early 1990s. And she started to tell me a little bit about what it had been like to be on the ground there, and then about her memories of being among the first journalists to cross the Berlin Wall after it fell in November 1989. Another editor asked me where I was from and, when I told him Dallas, regaled me with his passion for American Airlines and its frequent-flier miles, which seemed more like something out of The Orchid Thief than Up in the Air. Finally, one of the reporters told me, after the daily delivery of her petit crème, about how she’d landed her current job, and about why one should think twice before considering journalism school—both invaluable perspectives.
In a sense, getting the morning coffee was a way of breaking through the very real barrier that can sometimes exist between interns and editors at a publication this large. It’s easy to sit around and bemoan the fact that no one is talking to you, the overworked and underpaid intern, when you’re putting in long hours and making the best damn PowerPoint Presentation no one will ever actually watch. But, by the same token, it’s arguably more important to realize that the offices in which you find yourself are filled with people whose entire careers consist of the tasks you merely observe for two or three months. In their shoes, would you pull up a chair and start quizzing transient semi-colleagues about their goals, their dreams, or—perhaps most intimate of all—their favorite New York Times columnist? I probably wouldn’t, although I realize I can’t speak for everyone. (If you would, please e-mail me, and I will shamelessly send you my résumé). I realize now that it was a little ridiculous to expect the people I “worked” for to find me as instantly fascinating and interesting as Lady Gaga, merely because I rolled out of bed and into the office on time every morning.
Somewhere around day three, I figured out that any workplace relationships would be up to me, and, when I look back, I see that it was the coffee that allowed me to have these sorts of relationships, the basic reason I’d gone to Paris in the first place.
All I can do now is thank God profusely for the existence and effects of what is probably the most addictive legal stimulant, with or without the sucre.