I spend a lot of time on trains. As transport goes, trains are my favourite: mountainous Swiss railways, trundling and erratic rural English ones, the wonderful grandeur and quaintly outdated American system, they all give you both function and aesthetic: when you get bored of your book, the endless view rolls by, with a backdrop of ever changing characters to add flavour to the journey.
My local station is a 20 minute walk away, a typical Victorian relic, staffed these days by one person, part time, in a peak hours ticket office, although his days are surely numbered as my only interaction is to wish him good morning as i collect my mobile purchased ticket from a machine. But we do have a coffee shop.
Or, rather, we have a coffee van. This is a story about community, the community that has emerged around coffee. And if you’re looking for a foundation of community, coffee is as good a place to start as any.
A couple of years go, a blue minivan turned up one morning, with a coffee machine in the back, and a cheerful soul offering to sell you some vital morning refreshment. Today, the blue van is still there, but decorated now with stickers, and pasted on coins and notes from around the world. There’s an awning on the back, seats, a table of snacks, community notices, and, of course, a community.
There’s the coffee man himself, plus his partner, with an infectious laugh, and ever present smile. There is the Polish man, who talks to me about the importance of stout shoes, and tales of long winters, working on a rig. There’s the man who will become a father any day now, and the woman who always puts sugar in her green tea. There is a collection of characters. There is a community.
I am an interloper: sometimes i travel once a week, but often it will be a month or two between visits, and yet he invariably remembers my ‘usual’ order, and takes pride in looking down the line and reciting his anticipated trade, “black americano, latte one sugar, tea, tea, hot chocolate”.
There are many types of community: this one is a transient affair. Nobody lives here, nobody works here, we just all pass through. Even the van is gone by lunchtime. But there is a shared schedule, a shared routine, and as we take an ethnographic stance, to understand the role and purpose of communities, that shared experience must be something to stick a pin in.
There is something about charisma, or possibly i could use the Social Capital language of the Social Leadership work: possibly there needs to be a nascent effort and willingness to reach out, to make contact. This early momentum of communities is an important one: organisations need to shift the mindset away from ‘control’, towards enablement and facilitation.
Rituals are also important: both the meta rituals of wider culture (the morning coffee), but also localised, conversational, and gifting aspects of culture. This morning i was given the coffee to take onto the platform to give to the Guard. So i was actively pulled into what is clearly a routine, and given a task to fulfil, a role to play, no different than if i’d be cast in a play.
This is actually important from a whole Performance perspective: the Guard took the coffee, precisely because i was taking a known and assumed role. If i was simply a stranger, with no contextualising frame of ‘morning coffee’, and no known context of the coffee van, he would not have taken (or certainly not have drunk) the drink.
I remember last time i was in Austin, on a blisteringly hot day, out for a walk, when i walked past a food truck selling milkshakes: someone from the truck grabbed me and gave me a drink, saying that it was spare, and free, but i didn’t drink it. I felt suspicious precisely because they fractured the known script of ‘pay for drink’.
There is an interesting aspect of the coffee van culture that it is oppositional, much like Donald Trump, in it’s application of power: there is a constant dialogue against ‘the powers’, be it the council, or the railway company, even though at a local level, relationships with the Guard are clearly great. The unifying power of dissent is another notable feature of community coherence and sustainability, perhaps not all communities, but certainly some. And some invent an enemy where no true power exists.
Yesterday i shared the experience of my niece, who explained how a community was killed off by new members joining. Possibly ‘transient’ cultures are inherently more resilient, as they shape the time bound, location situated, context, and can recruit and contextualise new players into pre-existing, established, and understood roles.
The Social Age is a time of massive, interconnected, radically complex, co-dependent communities, held within a lose structure of formal and social systems. One of our core competencies as both individuals, and organisations, must surely be to understand the underlying dynamics, to be able to create the conditions for community, and to thrive within such spaces. Perhaps coffee will help.