I should have recognized it for what it was: a workplace horror movie with a dark-roast plot twist. The whole office was wigging, showing all the telltale signs of collective caffeine poisoning. But like Jack Klugman in "Quincy, M.E.," I got there too late to help. All I knew was that when I returned to the office from my dentist appointment, drooling heavily from a bovine-appropriate dose of Novocain, the reception area at PotatoWare looked like a scene out of a nasty episode of "Homicide: Life on the Streets."
One of the Topknot Twins was sobbing and waving her hands over her head, screaming at the top of her lungs that Spud was a coffee-crazed killer. The other Topknot Twin was in a daze, moving like a white-eyed zombie straight out of the "X-Files." Everyone else was running around at 78 rpm, but she was moving slower than a 33, shuffling at a creepy-slow pace, absently loading all her personal odds and ends into a green garbage bag - the universal sign of sudden-termination syndrome.
It was a Thursday, a heavy-use day at PotatoWare. The PotatoWare teams were meeting in the conference areas, which Spud had designed to look like kitchens, each with its own sleek, black, Euro-style grind-and-brew coffeemaker. In each kitchen-cum-conference zone, there's a bag of Espresso Habana Opus X beans, ordered wholesale from Cuban roasters in Miami and drop-shipped by FedEx every Monday. The timers on the coffeemakers are set so that automatically, every hour on the hour, moist Cuban beans are ground, after which pure Poland Spring water is forced through the machines' gold filters to make fresh espresso. Imagine your office being spray-painted with coffee, and you'll get the sensory experience of PotatoWare that Thursday.
It was my day for espresso duty. That means washing Spud's matched set of Italian ceramic coffee cups - which are hand-painted with the colors of Tuscany and guaranteed to poison you slowly with lead paint. And it means making sure that the precious Espresso Habana Opus X beans are in plentiful supply.
But all I could think about was my impending root canal. I was halfway out the door when I ran into Spud. He was storming through the office, carrying the largest, blackest mug of coffee I'd ever seen. "Don't forget," he bellowed, "coffee duty! Failure is not an option!"
I waved at the Topknot who was on reception and asked if she could handle the coffee for me. "No problemo," she said. "We got enough beans?"
"Sure," I said.
When I got back, PotatoWare looked like Godzilla had hit. I knocked cautiously on Spud's closed door.
I opened the door a crack. "It's me," I said, simultaneously announcing the obvious and biting my tongue. "What happened?"
Spud's face was ashen, the color of weak coffee with too much cream in it. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. "Tell me what happened," I said. "I want the truth."
"The truth?" he spluttered. "You can't handle the truth! Okay, here's the truth: She tried to slip McBeans by me. Now get out."
Quimby, the ultimate suck-up, was waiting outside the door. "We ran out of Spud's beans," he explained. "He caught her trying to substitute Starbucks's beans and fired her on the spot."
"You mean he can taste the difference?" I asked.
"Taste the difference?" Quimby said. "Spud never drinks coffee. He's a caffiend. He's addicted to having a hot cup on his desk - and he can feel the difference. But he hates the taste! We all do. We just fill our cups and dump them in the ficus trees when the coffee gets cold." Then he shot me an accusing look. "Tell me you don't drink that stuff! It'll take the enamel right off your teeth."
This is episode six in "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work. Next issue: "The Collar of Money."
A version of this article appeared in the August 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.