Athens locals and Ohio University students alike turn to Donkey Coffee and Espresso to not only get into a caffeinated overdrive, but also for a strong sense of a diverse community in Appalachia’s favorite college town.
It was Friday night. The air was cold, but fresh. The night sky was clear and speckled with stars as I made my way toward High Street for the Front Room party. Every so often, coworkers of the Ohio University cafés get together for a night of building friendships and downing shots. These “Froom” (short for “Front Room”) parties are hosted by employees for their fellow employees. For the past two weeks, news of this semester’s party had been traveling by word-of-mouth through the café sphere. Unlike many parties, the guest list was not limited to a few choice friends of the hosts. All OU café employees were invited, and those who were “in the know” had tried to ensure that every employee had received their invitation.
“We work hard so lets party harder,” read the description on the Facebook event page with all the imperfect grammar of a casual invite. “Help us celebrate the best job on campus.” Brought together by a love of coffee and chill vibes, OU baristas jump at the opportunity to have fun with work friends outside of work. These people weren’t just work mates; there was something special about the bond café employees shared. They could relate to the stress of refilling the milk dispensers. They knew the pain and sorrow that a broken espresso machine could bring about. They understood the difference between a caramel macchiato and a vanilla latté (one is stirred, one not). It wasn’t an easy job, but working in the OU cafés was one of the most coveted on-campus jobs. The café employees knew this, they knew the real struggles of the café life, and they loved it.
As a Front Room employee, I had been invited to a few Froom parties before, but this would be my first and I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. All I knew, from anecdotes and Facebook, was that there would be at least 70 people and a substantial amount of Jell-O shots. The party had been a major point of conversation behind the coffee counter for the past week. Everyone was really excited.
THE EMPTY FRONT ROOM
It was around 9:30 p.m. when I walked up the sidewalk towards the cute, grey house with its porch lights on. Bass beats from the rap music playing inside could be heard from the sidewalk. A small crowd of unfamiliar faces mingled on the spacious front porch. I made my way up the faded wooden steps and was greeted by a young woman with a small frame wrapped like rugelach in a woolen blanket. I’d never seen her before and I began to wonder if I was in the right place. Trusting the large silver “36” nailed to the plastic siding of the house, I placed one hand on the front door and twisted the knob with the other. Rap music blasted through the door as soon as it cracked open, making the outside world seven decibels louder than it had been.
The living room was surprisingly empty, contradicting the volume of the music. There were couches, all different colors, along three of the walls of the square room. Along the fourth wall was the largest television set I’d ever seen in a college student’s living space. A narrow hallway led to the kitchen, bathroom and back of the house. A small crowd of mostly-unfamiliar faces congregated in the kitchen, beers and solo cups in hand. Someone’s mom stood by the kitchen sink, laughing and talking with a few college-aged girls. A small black speaker played tunes from someone’s iPhone on the dark countertop. Next to it, a bright orange drink cooler filled with punch served as the center piece for a group of girls all wearing black leggings, flowery tops and cross-body purses. A few more reserved partygoers sat at a massive wooden dining table, backs against the wall, watching the others mingle around them.
At this point, I didn’t recognize anyone. I made my way back through the empty living room to the front porch and closed the door behind me. The music immediately muffled. Breathing in the refreshing air, I thought about heading home. It was only 10 p.m.
A whole living room’s worth of furniture—a plum colored velveteen love seat, a pale blue linen couch, and a glass-top coffee table—were neatly arranged on the right side of the spacious front porch. I sat next to the girl with the blanket who had greeted me earlier. A thin boy with dreadlocks and a light brown complexion sat next to a blonde boy in a lavender button down and bowtie. They were clearly pretty high and deep in conversation.
“Do you work with them?” blanket girl asked, referring to the people I had yet to see. I told her I worked in the cafés but hadn’t found anyone I recognized. She nodded knowingly. She didn’t know anyone inside either. She, however, did not work in the cafés.
“There’s, like, three separate parties going on,” she said. She knew the two guys across from us from high school. “It’s his 21st birthday,” she said, motioning to the kid with the bowtie just as he brought a lit joint to his smiling mouth. “It’s just kind of a clusterfuck of a party,” she said with a shrug. The three friends chatted for a bit about old friends and shared experiences, laughing and smiling. Then, blanket girl revealed that she was not warm enough, bowtie boy put out the remainder of his joint, and we all made our way back inside.
HOW DRUNK PEOPLE MAKE FRIENDS
In the kitchen, I grabbed some water and took a seat at the wooden dining table, near the back wall of the kitchen. After about five seconds, the brunette next to me asked if I wanted to play a drinking game with her and her two friends at the table: a black-haired boy in jeans and a grey t-shirt, and another blonde boy in a button-down. The girl leaned over and told the blonde with the deck of cards that I would be joining them. I was surprised to hear that she knew me by name. I had worked with her before.
“I’m really good with names,” she said. Her name was Jenni George, and so far, she was one of about five people I had seen who worked in the cafés. “It’s really more people who don’t work here than people who do,” Jenni said of the party. This was not her first Froom party, though. “They’re usually a lot more exciting,” she promised. She was a senior and had worked with a lot of these people for the past four years. “This is my last run,” she said, twirling her finger in reference to the surrounding buzz as more and more coworkers began to fill the small kitchen. She smiled sadly. “It is terrifying” she said of being a senior. The years hadn’t felt like years at all.
For a while, Jenni and her friends showed me how to play a game called Ride the Bus—a drinking game similar to Blackjack. Then, a dense crowd of girls I knew quickly overtook the table, and Jenni and her friends left to mingle elsewhere. Cecilia Ellis shouted my name from across the table and the two other Kaylas in the circle snapped their heads in her direction. The new crowd of baristas was ready to play Flip Cup, another drinking game. Unlike the card game Jenni and her friends had set up, this game was more active and competitive. The table divided in two teams and the least coordinated members of the group were exposed as the game went on.
Over the next hour, the amorphous group of strangers and work mates played multiple rounds of several different games involving ping pong balls and strategic shouting. People came and went, popping in and out of their favorite games and taking breaks to refill their drinks and mingle with newcomers. About halfway through the second game, Cassie Metzger lowered a plastic Kroger bag filled with multi-colored Jell-O shots into the intense game circle and hands rushed in from all directions, taking multiple shots at a time. Cassie was barely visible through the crowd of semi-sober partygoers surrounding her. The speakers on the counter blasted everything from Diplo to Kanye West, but somehow the music seemed half as loud blended with the sounds of six-to-eight twenty-year-olds screaming at each other. Finally, after the umpteenth round of Boom, the table was empty.
HIP HOP AND WALLFLOWERS
I made my way out of the kitchen to the living room. Along the way, I brushed past the boy with the bowtie from the porch. “It’s my birthday in three minutes” he said with a dazed grin. In the living room, which was now full of people dancing and catching up, it was almost a completely different party. People seemed more coherent. Friends made eye contact and annunciated their words. Still, everyone seemed to be smiling. Then, DJ Khaled’s “All I do is Win” tumbled out of the speakers and everyone went nuts. We all knew all the words.
“Happy Birthday!” A voiced squealed at the other end of the room. Bowtie boy was latched in the embrace of an overjoyed, short young woman. Though there was no clock on the wall, we now knew it was after midnight.
Standing next to me along the wall by the massive TV was McKennah Robinson. Though she was a junior, this was McKennah’s first year working in the cafés. While she did know some people, McKennah found that most of the partygoers were strangers to her. “I wish I would’ve started working here sooner,” she admitted. While she agreed that everyone was nice, it was difficult to have a good time around so many unfamiliar faces. “A lot of these guys have been working together since freshmen year,” she said. It was easy to feel left out, but it was fun to just watch people, she said. She and another coworker had bet on who would be hooking up with whom that night.
On my way to the bathroom, I ran into Cecilia Ellis again. Another junior, this was Cecilia’s first Froom party as well, and she seemed to be having a good time. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she said in an interview later. “I did not see the Jell-O shot attack, but I did manage to snag a few shots.” Unlike McKennah, Cecilia didn’t feel as disconnected. “I feel like I knew almost everyone!” she said.
A PARTY’S LAST BREATH
Back on the porch, as the early morning minutes passed, a larger group of friends had gathered to smoke cigarettes and gossip about the most irritating events that had taken place inside. Someone’s younger sister was throwing up. Someone’s older sister wasn’t sure where her brother had gone. Someone else had said something to piss everyone off. The smell of smoke seemed appropriate as the porch-dwellers attended their own party of deep breaths and relaxed smiles. This was where overheated partiers came to recharge or power down.
The night was cooling off and the party was simmering down. It was about 2:30 a.m. when Cecilia decided to head out. “It was definitely peak excitement earlier on in the night,” she said. There were a lot of hugs and cross-room-shoutouts as people made their departures. The kitchen floor had developed a sticky film, so walking toward the sink felt like walking along a giant strip of upturned duct tape. I sipped my water by the counter, taking in the dozens of empty red cups; the damp, punch-colored paper towels which sopped up spills everywhere; the empty grocery bags that had once contained Cassie Metzger’s highly anticipated Jell-O shots; and Cassie herself, who now stood with a few other remaining partiers, connecting her own phone to the now-abandoned speakers. Her Jell-O shots had been a huge success. She had made a tradition out of making large quantities of shots for her coworkers and had promised over 300 for the party. She’d followed through on her promise in various flavors and colors. There’d been 311 shots in total. “Used two handles of vodka,” she said proudly. When she’d entered the party, people were practically mauling her: a sight she’d warned me about at work the week before. By the time I’d caught up with her, the shots were gone. She wasn’t the least bit surprised. It turned out, baristas loved shots of alcoholic Jell-O as much as they loved their shots of espresso.
One could say there wasn’t much difference between a Froom party and any average college party, but such a conclusion would miss the point. The fact that Froom parties exist at all, that they happen annually, that they have a reputation, makes these gatherings a little different from the typical college “rager”. The fact that so many people—–some best friends, some perfect strangers—–can come together to play games and sing along to Fergie’s “Fergalicious” at the top of their lungs is a testament to the sense of community that exists between the baristas of OU. That thing which we all share in common, that we all have the best job on campus, is the thing that makes these parties a little bit special.