I saw it first on Facebook, so it must be true.
From the old Italian tradition of “caffè sospeso” comes the practice of ordering “suspended” coffees at coffee shops. These coffees are paid for but not drunk. Rather, they are “suspended” or held on reserve for less fortunate members of the community to order later and drink for free.
After a bit of investigation beyond Facebook, I’m satisfied that the practice exists at least on some level, and however wide or narrowly spread, I’m convinced the spirit of suspended coffees is good for Ann Arbor.
First, I know that well-meaning intentions do exist. When I ask my students to write personal narratives, a number of essays every semester — written by students from hometowns large and small — detail encounters with panhandling and homelessness in Ann Arbor as raw and unsettling. Who am I, goes the common question, as a fortunate student studying at this esteemed University, to pass on by? And if I stop, if I engage, how much interaction or change is enough? How much charity is enough? Can I ever do enough?
Second, suspended coffees, despite the odd name and European birthplace, aren’t a particularly foreign concept. We’ve been asked to donate money for good causes when we check out of stores before, and we’ve seen restaurant walls filled with stickers and signs noting past donations. This coffee thoughtfulness, however, begins with the customer. We, coffee-drinkers of the city, decide when we are feeling generous; we decide when we want to give a little back. I like the idea of taking ownership of our pleasures and our vices, and I like appreciating that our daily routines, down to their smallest moments, can have meaning.
What’s more, though I’d like to think that the coffee shops in town would be happy to lend their support — particularly, say, Espresso Royale, headquartered here in Ann Arbor — this charity comes with bill in hand. We, not the companies we frequent, are the driving force of change. We, with money in hand and without prompting, are capable of thinking not just of ourselves. The customer isn’t always right, but maybe the charitable customer, eyeing a small and imminently attainable goal, is.
Now, I know I’m talking about coffee, and not about so many of the necessities that many members of our community go without: food, clothing and shelter, and for that matter, medical care, legal representation and political voice. There are plenty of naysayers who say suspended coffees either won’t work or aren’t a good way of helping the needy. I freely admit the idea is imperfect and small-scale. But the smallness and easiness of suspended coffees is what interests me most. Too often in a college town — in an educated, well-meaning, but transient town — the will exists, but the follow-through and the logistical perseverance falls short. I believe that every graduating class (and for that matter, every individual student) does have the capacity to change the world, but I fear that too often world-changing is seen as an all-or-nothing proposition: If you can’t fix everything, why even try? On a big, problematic planet, I worry we’ve outsourced solutions — and even attempts at solutions — to saints and diehards. Instead, I want to believe that charity, thoughtfulness and decency are common skills, and like sports or music or writing, these skills, however inborn, must be practiced to be kept sharp.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, we’re reminded that the needy drink coffee too. Of course, not everyone drinks coffee. Of course, coffee is not a meal, and even during finals week, it’s not life-sustaining. But, as anyone who’s been on a first date knows, as anyone who’s crossed from one coffee shop to another directly across the street can attest, coffee might be as close as we get to the universal. To talk only of providing necessities, of delivering first (and often, only) basic sustenance, is also to distance us from our fellow travelers. The more our conversation is framed solely as “what we take for granted” and “what they need,” the easier it is to see the less fortunate as an entirely different species. Coffee is an imperfect touchstone, but it’s a valuable reminder of what binds us together.
Suspended coffees don’t come close to solving the world’s problems. They aren’t a one-stop-shop for supporting those in need. But they are practice for greater generosity. They are easy decency that brings tougher, longer, more resonant decency closer. They are, in one of our more privileged spaces, a reminder of lack, and they are, in our early-morning mindlessness, a reminder of possibility. They encourage a routine of charity and admit the accessibility of shared humanity.
And if you’re like me, any practice of humanity at 8 a.m. is a good start to the day.
Joseph Horton can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.