“What do you mean, I can’t swipe here for my coffee and bagel?” an anonymous first-year student confoundedly inquired in September upon the rejection of his ID as payment at Tunnel City Coffee. Though independently owned and not officially affiliated with the College, Tunnel City, which sits on the corner of Spring and Latham Streets in a space that formerly hosted an auto repair shop, is often treated as an extension of campus by students of the College. Crowding remains an issue at the Williamstown institution during the academic year. Students often occupy tables with their problem sets and course packets for hours on end.
This dynamic, however, becomes troubling when patrons remain at the establishment for an extended period of time having either made one purchase or not buying a single item at the shop, a tendency capable of forging a hostile relationship between management and the local community and all student patrons. The scoffs of local patrons over a group of four students taking up two tables joined together when one iced coffee has been purchased amongst all of them are audible throughout. Paul Lovegreen, Tunnel’s venerable manager, has been known to shut off the wireless internet and power outlets in the shop’s backroom to express his disapproval of students camping out in this section of the establishment or sneaking in without a purchase. To consider this dilemma within the broader context of area coffee shops, I took my Java Jack cap out of retirement and ventured off campus to see how another local purveyor selling “the nectar of the gods” would feel about an extended occupancy by an Eph.
Thus began my Friday morning expedition to Williamstown’s Dunkin’ Donuts, about a twenty minute hike from the center of campus. Upon arriving at the chain around 6:45 a.m., I found myself the only patron of the shop who opted to take a seat inside. I subsequently ordered for myself an extra large black coffee and a wheat bagel before finding my place at a spacious table intended for two that served my academic needs nicely. As I made my way through Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and the accompanying Glow posts, my singular presence as an occupying patron was gradually alleviated by an incoming mix of locals heading to work, the occasional member of the College community, Greylock students and, most importantly, retired older folks.
The first in this series, an unassuming man accompanied by his cane, found his way into the establishment around 7:30. He sat quietly at a large table in the corner of the shop with his small black coffee. He was not reading a paper or looking at his phone but simply taking his surroundings. By about 8:00, a few more members of his gang proceeded into Dunkin’. They appeared baffled at my presence. Between my presence in the shop at a time when Greylock students would be on the other side of town already and my College quarter-zip jacket, they could distinguish me as an Eph.
One of the older men, sporting a hat indicating his status as a veteran of the Vietnam War looked over puzzlingly to the gentleman already seated in the other corner. “Hey, he took our table,” remarked the man in a somewhat jocular yet discontented tone. My friend in the corner waved his hand in the air, telling his companion to drop the matter. “These Williams kids come in here once a year and do this,” he commented. “Just come over here.” At this point, I was extremely embarrassed. I certainly had no means of knowing this group of four always occupies my chosen table, especially since there are only two chairs positioned around it. Still, as a native of a city with incredibly poor “town-gown relations,” I understood why these gentlemen would feel like I was invading their particular space.
I attempted to ameliorate the situation by pushing my chair out and offering to move to another table. My offer was received with a friendly smile from the previously upset older man who then advised me to take my time and offered to buy me a muffin, a generous gesture I respectfully declined. The men relocated to another large table across the room. Then, amidst my work, I noticed more glares from a local contractor meeting with one of his coworkers and an architect a table over from me. These glares grew more numerous as more people began to sit down inside the shop.
By around 9:00, after I had taken up residence for roughly two hours and knew I had to make an additional purchase to renew my privilege of patronage, a middle-aged couple that had originally planned to sit inside the store while consuming their doughnuts and coffee recognized that there simply was not enough space. “Forget it,” the woman exclaimed as she left the establishment. At least in part, I was responsible. Feeling a mix of guilt and embarrassment, I knew the time had come to make a second purchase and ensure another two hours of “covered time” before I could catch a ride back to campus.
I proceeded to the counter to see the same employee who had taken my order earlier, a lovely older woman by the name of Linda. She initially looked up to greet me with a “Hello, young man” before realizing that she had already encountered me a couple hours prior and added an “again” to her remark. The common Tunnel City practice of purchasing an additional product once you have taken up a table there for an hour or two seems absent from the Dunkin way. Regardless of whether you are there for four minutes or four hours (the amount of time the older men roughly spent in there), you will likely and are expected to only make one purchase.
I headed back into the purple bubble with far more questions regarding patronage and town-gown relationships than the amount of commentary I could offer on the experience. My extended visit with homework to Dunkin’ may have not been universally well received, but I am still unclear as to what served as the root of this disapproval. The other patrons from the College were very well-received at the establishment, all of whom were there for purely social reasons. Had I been an MCLA or high school student, would my working inside have been more welcome? Additionally, do we at the College truly value having other institutions that members of the purple-and-gold and local community share jointly than Tunnel City? How can we best sip caffeine products and power through work alongside our neighbors while avoiding patronization?
These issues were very present on my mind, especially as I headed into Tunnel immediately afterward and felt as if I knew all of the faces that lied before me. What I gained in knowing I had not stolen someone’s table I lost in the persistent familiarity and homogeneity.