No coffee for Amherst students

By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor

You can't have coffee today. Sorry, it is now a banned substance because of its dangers to human health. In a story covered by the New York Times, Amherst (MA) college students could not buy any of the famous brew on campus on May 8.

Writing for the Times, Julie Flaherty said, "On any given day the coffee house in the Amherst College campus center offers a dozen brews, plus espresso. But today the pots were covered with white shrouds, and the dispensers in the dining hall were empty. This was the day that coffee was banned forever from the campus."

Not really though. This was an elaborate class project staged by an art student, Andrew Epstein, and pulled off with the help of friends and the Administration.

"While not exactly the War of the Worlds," Flaherty wrote, "students and staff members did panic when they showed up for their morning cup and found signs that read:

In order to curb the use of caffeine at Amherst College, the sale and distribution of coffee are no longer permitted on campus. Effective Immediately."

Questions were to be directed to the Caffeine Control Coordinator.

The dining services, which were in on the joke, brewed not a drop today.

Mr. Epstein, who is 22, conceived the Day of No Joe as a final project for his art class on social sculpture to draw attention to what he regards as the hypocrisy of drug laws. A painting is easily ignored, he said, but remove part of a person's daily routine, and notice is taken.

"I came upon this idea of trying to re-create Prohibition by taking away a substance that's been culturally domesticated, to make people aware of their own substance abuse," Mr. Epstein said.

Recruiting friends to act as black-market coffee dealers, they sat outside the dining hall offering bootleg java at inflated prices. "Hey, you need coffee?" Dan Farbman, 22, a senior, hissed from behind his dark glasses. To entice hard-core addicts looking for a quick hit, he added: "Espresso beans, 10 cents a bean." Some bought. Most just averted their eyes or said, "No thanks."

Several confused students attended a news conference at which Mr. Epstein enumerated the dangers of caffeine. "Is this for real?" a student reportedly asked Epstein, who also volunteers with November Coalition. That comment showed him he'd succeeded in illustrating his message.

The true art of Andrew's work was in persuading the college to go along with his scheme. The student government approved his plan in a late-night, closed-door session. Epstein also met with Charles Thompson, the director of dining services, and Tom Gerety, president of the college, who gave their tacit blessing.

DeWitt Godfrey, the assistant professor who oversaw the art projects, said Mr. Epstein, who is known around campus for his involvement in Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, was wise to couch his proposal as art, not policy.

"I suspect if he had come to the administration as an activist, there would have been much stronger resistance," Mr. Godfrey said in the Times. "It shows us how art has this kind of peculiar permission."

Mr. Thompson, the head of dining services, was said to have had trouble sleeping for several nights before May 8th, knowing that he and his staff would be on the front lines when people discovered that coffee was no more.

Obviously conflicted, Thompson lamented that refusing to sell caffeine "went against everything I believe in my job." He posted signs on the following day apologizing for the inconvenience, and offered hazelnut and other specialty coffees in the dining hall as penance.

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," Mr. Thompson admitted to Flaherty. Mr. Epstein had originally proposed to stage his coffee ban next week - finals week. However, Mr. Thompson objected, feeling that that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.