I like coffee. I like it a lot. It helps conjure the illusion that I might be human. I consume it in vast quantities, hoping to fool the world into thinking I am in fact a functional adult.
As a nation, too, our coffee consumption is vast. Ubiquitous UK sandwich and coffee chain Pret sold a million cups of coffee a week last year. They'll also give it to you free, if they like you. I wanted in on the free joe.
According to Pret's boss, being polite or attractive is the best way to get free coffee. I was already on the back foot. This did not bode well, but being completely unqualified has never stopped me before.
Yesterday, I decided to visit every Pret I found on the way into work in an attempt to score complimentary coffee. This is my journey.
Pret 1: Shoreditch High Street
Morning is not a friend of mine. I fought my way out of bed and fell into the nearest pile of clothes. My aesthetic these days tends to be "Look, Mum, I dressed myself!", with the creased shirt and mismatched socks to prove it.
My nearest Pret is at Shoreditch High Street overground station. I've passed it before, but I've never been inside. It's a short distance from half a dozen very good independent coffee shops that I frequent in a desperate attempt to appear cool. I'm not cool.
In jeans and a jumper I looked like a politician pretending to be casual, but I tried to own it as best I could. I gave the guy behind the counter my best Miliband but he pointed to the card machine without a second glance.
A black Americano costs £1.75 at Pret. I punched my PIN number into the keypad. I felt like I'd been robbed. I was nice to the man. It was supposed to be free.
I looked at the white and red Pret cup dumped on the counter in front of me seconds later and thought that maybe all I needed was to wake up a little, you know, in order to be better at pretending to be nice in exchange for free things.
Maybe coffee would help me get coffee.
Coffee did not help. It did not help at all.
On the train to Highbury & Islington I took a few feeble sips at the contents of the cup, which was hotter than coffee should ever be served. I couldn't drink it. No closer to being awake or passably human, I binned it at the station.
I took the Victoria line to Warren Street – thus becoming the only human to ever disembark a train at Warren Street – and decided to walk to Oxford Circus, hitting every Pret in between.
I didn't open Maps to find out if there would be a Pret at Warren Street, because of course there is a Pret at Warren Street. You can't walk to your own kitchen without passing a Pret; I was confident I'd find one without consulting my iPhone.
As I left the station, several people passed by holding the distinctive white and red cups. I'll have my next coffee with a shot of vindication, thank you very much.
Pret 2: Warren Street
I decided if I was going to do this properly, I'd have to commit to character. I strolled into Pret 2 on a wave of unearned confidence and smiled at the woman behind the counter. She smiled back and then looked away. I worried I was doing it wrong.
She asked how I was. "Fine thanks, and how are you?" I responded in a jovial manner. Nailed it. That felt painful. Not physically painful, but certainly on a spiritual level. I ordered my coffee.
"That'll be £1.75, please," she shouted directly into my face, laughing maniacally. Her colleague slammed the coffee on the counter, and pointed to the door. "No free coffee for you!"
I might be exaggerating. But perhaps my anxiety about getting free coffee had rendered me unable to get free coffee. I had so many questions. Can Pret staff read minds? Is coffee ever free, really? Who does that dog belong to?
At this stage I still hadn't had coffee, and if anything could help with my anxiety and tension, it was vast quantities of caffeine. I poured some of the molten brew down my throat and felt a little better. As good as someone with a burnt tongue can feel.
Pret 3: Tottenham Court Road
I didn't have time to finish the cup. I'd already stumbled on the next Pret. I dumped the remainder of my coffee in a planter, and made for the door. This was the one. This was it. Sweet, bitter, free coffee. I stood tall. Taller. This was my time.
It was not my time.
Thirty seconds and £1.75 later I was back on Tottenham Court Road, wondering what went wrong. Not my outfit, surely. This jumper has had a great review. At least one. "Nice jumper," someone said once. This is that same jumper.
With my knitwear game undoubtedly on point, the only other possible explanation is that I'm entirely insufferable, even in small doses. In retrospect, the way I say "and you" when someone tells me to have a nice day sounds very much like a threat.
I gathered my thoughts and paused to take a needlessly artistic shot of the coffee on top of a junction box, because taking artistic shots of Pret coffee is something you can do while you wait for Pret coffee to cool down. Or you can add some cold water. Either/or.
I pressed on. Outside Goodge Street station, I saw the most delightful coffee cart with brass fittings and wondered what kind of caffeinated ambrosia they pipe from that wondrous contraption. Alas, I never found out. I had a quest to fulfil.
I looked down at the cup in my hand and wept for my inner hipster.
Prets 4 and 5: Tottenham Court Road
I took precisely one sip of Pret 4 coffee before I happened upon Pret 5. In both I tried variations of my routine, evolving polite banter into friendly chat, hoping I hadn't crossed too far into creepy stranger. Both attempts failed. Another £3.50 sunk without taste.
I left Tottenham Court Road in hope of finding solace in a Pret-free side street. By this point I was chest-deep in an existential crisis.
Somewhere between Prets 4 and 5, a thought had occurred to me, and it was now sinking its teeth deep into my skull and refusing to let go:
"Am I uncompable?"
At some point in the past, I remember benefiting from a free Pret coffee. I was sure of it. And yet I was no longer sure of anything. Had I absorbed the anecdote of another? Was I living a lie? A fallacy based on an alternate me who could score a free coffee?
No. I am worthy. I am. Just because the Pret baristas so far hadn't comped me, doesn't mean that no one out there would comp me. I mean, I would comp me. I would comp me so hard.
I was at my lowest ebb. This was the dark, sunny morning of the soul.
Then the coffee gods sent me a sign.
The message was clear: I don't need free Pret coffee. I enjoy buying coffee. I get free stuff all the time – just the other day I got a free lunch from Leon by being a grumpy shit – and so I'm happy to pay for good coffee. This quest is just that. A challenge. A jaunt. A jape.
My ability to get free coffee from Pret doesn't define me. I won't let the baristas get me down. Come at me, Pret.
Pret 6: Rathbone Place
GODFUCKINGDAMMIT WHY WON'T YOU GIVE ME FREE COFFEE?!
Pret 7: Wardour Street
With the end in sight, there was nothing left to lose. I owned my role. I made eye contact, smiled politely, engaged in friendly chat, and made a joke about forgetting what I came in for. "If only I'd have already had my coffee this morning," I said, "I'd remember."
She laughed. I laughed. We laughed together. She charged me for my coffee.
I smiled in defeat. I did not despair. I'd paid £1.75 to play a game, not to drink coffee. I'd gambled. I'd lost. A simple carnival game, not commerce. I did not press the cup to my lips. I did not cast it down. I placed it in a bin.
I moved on to the final round.
Pret 8: Carnaby Street
The sun was sitting high when I arrived on Carnaby Street to the closest Pret to the BuzzFeed UK office. Tourists basked in the heat, smiling and free of sorrow. Perhaps they'd been gifted free coffee. Perhaps they were just happy people.
I entered the Pret relaxed and focused, ready for one more dance, stretched and supple from a morning of warm-ups, brimming on a caffeine high built from parts of half a dozen coffees, adding up to more than a whole one. I was ready.
Eschewing polite banter, I ordered with an easy smile and a confident metre. The ball was in his court now.
"That'll be £1.75, please."
He took my payment and we talked a little as his colleague made the coffee. "Back to work after this?" he asked. I nodded. "A shame on a day like this," he added.
"That's OK, I've been outside all morning," I smiled, a legitimate smile. I took my cup, my final cup, bought and paid for, back to the office.
My quest had failed. Who knows why. Perhaps no one at Pret thought I was attractive. Perhaps they'd already given out their freebies for the day.
Their CEO estimates 28% of customers get free coffee or food. By that count, two of my eight coffees should (or at least could) have been complimentary. As marketing ploys go, Pret's is a savvy one. "Come to Pret. Be polite to our staff. You might get free stuff."
You might. But not me. Not today. Today I spent £14 on Pret coffee.
I don't even like Pret coffee.
Epilogue – 4 weeks later
It's the end of May, a month after my coffee quest, and I have just been comped.
Yep, that's right: Free coffee. I didn't even go in for coffee. I went for food, and came out with this, a richer, entirely more validated man.
Events unfolded as follows:
Me: *Puts curry pot on counter* "Just this please."
Her: "Did I see you in here yesterday?"
Me: "Yes I came in for food, I don't think you served me though."
Her: "Oh, okay. Would you like a coffee?"
Me: "No, thank you."
Her: "Really? When I ask, it's free."
Me: *TRIES NOT TO CRY OR COLLAPSE WHEN I REALISE WHAT IS HAPPENING* "Oh, well in that case, yes please. A black Americano."
Her: One black Americano coming up. *Takes payment for the curry pot* *Hands me my coffee*
Me: *GRINS LIKE A SIMPLETON* "Thanks so much, enjoy your weekend!"
Her: "You too. Bye!"
And that was that. Free coffee. It was so simple. So easy. I mean, she asked me! She opened the conversation, she offered me a coffee. I didn't have to do anything! I almost ruined it by saying no, and still got one.
The secret to my success? I don't know. But I wasn't wearing my blue sweater. The one with the all compliments. I was wearing a blue check flannel shirt, and a slightly confused expression. Perhaps it was the flannel. Perhaps it was just my day.
I don't take sugar in my coffee, but this one tastes pretty sweet.