Monday 28 January 2013

On café loyalty cards

There comes a time in a man’s life when he understands that he can never again use a café loyalty card. Nowadays every self-respecting coffee retailer in Australia has its own loyalty card. Buy ten coffees get the next one free. The economics of the thing is excellent. A saving of thirty-five cents on every cup. The sociology of it is excellent. Producing one’s well-stamped loyalty card at the counter, one is able to enjoy a certain sense of entitlement, of belonging. I have seen some gentlemen swagger impressively, hands on hips, while their cards are stamped. They survey their surroundings with satisfaction. “Good, very good indeed, everything here seems to be in order,” you can almost hear them say. The theology of it is excellent too. There is a certain irrational pleasure that comes from getting things for free. Even if you know that you have purchased that eleventh coffee, that its cost (plus the cost of producing your loyalty card) was distributed evenly across the previous ten cups of coffee, even then you cannot help smiling, cannot help feeling that small tingle of religious gratification when the fellow at the cash register announces with surprise, “Well now, would you look at that, your next one’s free!”

I have used these cards, why should I deny it? I have crammed my wallet with documentary evidence of my loyalty to cafés around Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, Byron Bay. I have collected stamps across four states. But there comes a day when you find you have grown weary of belonging to things. When your loyalty is spread too thin. When too many belongings seems the same as not belonging at all. When producing your loyalty card, watching them stamp it like a passport, sliding it back into the anonymous folds of your wallet – there comes a day when you cannot bear it anymore, when it is wrong and no amount of good economic sense can make it right.

In a moment of clarity – I nearly said a moment of righteousness – I unburdened my life of all these loyalties. I dumped them, all the cards and all their crooked little stamps, in the bottom drawer of my desk, down there with the bits of crumpled paper and broken pens and used envelopes and receipts from years ago that have faded back to their original virgin white. Down there I laid my loyalties to rest. It made me light and free, the way you feel sometimes after sex or church.

Tomorrow, I told myself, tomorrow I will empty the drawer into the rubbish bin, tomorrow I will throw it all away.

Today I lined up for coffee, I handed over the money, I took the change, I gave the card to the boy behind the counter. While I waited for him to stamp it I put my hands on my hips and swaggered rather impressively, surveying my surroundings with an air of satisfaction so that nobody would see how unhappy I was, how defeated, because of my loyalty. 

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