The student body of Stanford University is riven by a discord as unspoken as it is deep and rancorous. What divides us, you ask? Not the tiresome, performative quarrel between techies and fuzzies; nor Israel–Palestine discourse; nor still the perennial debate over which gym is “Nearillaga” and which “Farillaga” (turns out, they’re relative terms).
No. The great Farm firestorm of our time is neither Western Civ nor David Palumbo-Liu, but rather the enduring and contentious question of where to purchase one’s coffee and talk pleasantries with a friend: to quote a familiar phrase, “CoHo or Coupa?”
I found myself recently at a party which counted among its attendees many of the most frequent patrons and enthusiastic partisans of both these fine caffeine-purveying establishments. I struck up a conversation with the host, a dear friend and zealous backer of the pro-Coupa faction, and the two of us quickly found ourselves drawn to issues of the most polarizing and political nature. I have no patience for diplomacy on this most vital of topics; accordingly, I made my case clear:
“At Coupa, you’re always either cold in the shade or squinting and sunburned in the sun. There are no outlets, so your computer invariably runs out of battery, forcing you to decamp to Green before you’ve finished your coffee which, by the way, is served in a thimble and costs $5.75. You’re surrounded by frat stars complaining about Karel, people doing interviews, and haughty aristocrats from countries you’ve never heard of. It takes Coupa thirty minutes to make your burrito, whose cheese is cold and unmelted. By the time you leave, you have needed to pee for several hours.”
My interlocutor, simmering with rage over my rhetorical onslaught on her spiritual home, wasted no time before responding in kind:
“CoHo is like a cave. In fact, it’s teeming with ex-SLE students, so it’s like Plato’s cave, except everyone is talking about machine learning. It smells greasy! When you go there, you smell greasy for the rest of the day! They could make better coffee by taking water and putting dirt in it. The food makes you want to die. And it’s not actually any cheaper than Coupa!”
I must admit, I cannot directly rebut any of these shrewd points. Despite the new espresso machine CoHo bought at the start of this year, which stands next to the counter like a monolith of shiny chrome, their espresso is as weak as their drip coffee is acrid. My opponent’s words rang unpleasantly in my mind as, just this morning, I sipped a CoHo latte which tasted like steamed milk mixed with campfire ashes.
What’s more, as of a month ago, when I pushed aside a plate of CoHo’s chicken alfredo penne in disgust, I have lost the capacity to eat any item on the menu without being overwhelmed with revulsion. (The exception to this rule is the cream cheese croissant, which I find goes very well with one of their charcoal-flavored lattes in the late morning.)
I lately spotted a friend committing the campus café equivalent of sacrilege: bringing a coffee from Starbucks (that most tiresomely bourgeois of Tresidder establishments) into CoHo, in order to avoid CoHo’s coffee but still experience its fabled atmosphere. This may, I admit, confirm the assault on CoHo’s coffee, but it also attests to CoHo’s unique and irreplicable charms. Where else, on campus or anywhere, may one sit at a marble-topped table and gaze distractedly at a wall of doggerel, before having one’s attention drawn to a disgraced former Peruvian president currently being sought by Interpol, who picks up his almond milk chai latte from the bar before drifting over to the long wooden table near the east door? Wild-haired postdocs ensconce themselves on the grimy couches; sharply dressed, self-styled alternative intellectuals parade up and down the rows of tables, filling up water bottles at the soda machine in the corner. If you move in certain circles of Stanford society—the Review being one, I might add—you cannot sit in CoHo for five minutes without saying hello to half a dozen acquaintances.
CoHo is cavelike; it’s organic, in the sense that one almost feels that the floor is dirt and the exposed pipes above one’s head form the umbilicus of some great benevolent beast whose belly the patrons inhabit. Though its prices may be nearly as high as those of its rival, there exists an undeniably democratic charge in the greasy air of CoHo, while Coupa remains the den of the globe’s aristocrats. Professors look at home loftily talking to colleagues at Coupa; in CoHo, among the populace, they seem brought to earth, as though playing the role of student. In practical terms, CoHo has an accessible bathroom, outlets, shade from the sun, and beer, including (as I write, at least) the sublime Sam Adams Winter Lager — nourishment for the evenings when Coupa is too cold and dark, or else closed, and in any case serves no caffeine alternative for those of us not aspiring to an all-nighter.
I present this final argument in defense of that great grungy polis of Tresidder: What joy can surpass that of ordering an iced latte on a warm Friday afternoon in springtime, snagging one of the coveted two-person tables by the east door, and sitting down to write? Surely not the sun-stunned stupor of those long weekend brunches at Coupa, one’s shot-glass–sized paper cup of coffee falling well short of the task of curing one’s hangover. None of my finest work has ever resulted from my sojourns at Coupa — only lethargic, if pleasant conversation conducted while hunched over sideways, trying to position my head in a patch of shade. One of the great joys of rain at Stanford is that it makes the one truly fitting decision into the only viable decision: one must go to CoHo and sit, umbrella half falling off of the chair of the table obtained only with great difficulty, until the rain stops and the sun shows through the large western window and the oaks near the Faculty Club.