The Magazine

Poland Springs Eternal

Water, water everywhere, and a cooler, too.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By JOE QUEENAN
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This is a tale of one man’s well-meaning attempt to prop up our fragile economy. It is a cautionary tale about how goodwill and laudable intentions do not always produce optimal results. 

Poland Springs Eternal

For years, the bottled water sales rep who visits my building every week tried to get me to sign up for his product. I always blew him off. I told him that I was the only person in my office and that I didn’t need a water cooler. Anyway, I was only in the office three days a week, four tops. There was no way I could drink enough water to make it worth his while. Besides, I don’t even like water that much. I prefer frothy chai cappuccino.

He kept after me. He proposed a three-month trial. Not interested. Please. No. Just a trial. Forget it. Think of what you’ll save on coffee. I won’t save anything: I’m not the kind of person who would ever brew his own coffee in the office. Tea, then. Even less likely. Soup? Now you’re really stretching. I thought I had him pretty well discouraged. But then, after the economy fell apart two years ago, he banged on my door, left a card, banged again, left more cards. The next time I saw him I detected a note of desperation in his voice. I’ll give you a discount on the cooler. No. I’ll give you a discount on the water. No. I’ll give you a free month’s delivery. No. I’ll give you a free five-gallon jug to get you up and running in the aqua pura department.

Then one afternoon, I cracked. I don’t know why; maybe I felt sorry for the guy. Several of the offices in my building had closed up shop, one with six employees. I could see how the recession was impacting the sales rep’s business. No work, no water. No water, no work. You could see the whole society falling apart here. The building was a microcosm, perhaps even a barometer. Maybe even a harbinger of worse things to come. Reminding him one last time that I didn’t think this thing was going to work, I threw in the towel and signed up for a very basic package: a water cooler, a five-gallon container every month, a sleeve of plastic cups. 

Five gallons is a lot of water. Writing doesn’t actually make you that thirsty, and those writers who do get thirsty rarely sate their appetite with water. Moreover, the whole point of water coolers is to allow people to take a break from work and chat with other employees about sports or the weather or taxes. Some of the greatest brainstorming in America takes place at water coolers. But I didn’t have anybody else in my office to chat with, so whenever I wanted to take a break, I would wander down the street to the diner.

I started getting my water deliveries in January 2009. That was the month I took my wife to Paris on the To Hell With Adversity Tour. I figured that if we started the year by going to Paris, 2009 would be a success no matter what happened over the next 11 months. But because I was gone from the office a full three weeks, I didn’t put much of a dent in that first five-gallon container. And by the time I returned home, another five-gallon jug was already waiting in the hall. But that was okay, I thought. I’d catch up.

I traveled a lot last spring, and was never particularly parched, so by the time June rolled around, I still hadn’t gotten through that first five-gallon container. Now I had five more sitting in the back room. My office isn’t very big, so unless I started making some headway here, there would soon be very little room in which to maneuver. I tried as hard as I could to polish off some of the water, but it took me until October to get through the first jug. In November, I called the company’s 800 number and told them to skip a couple of deliveries. For the next few months I would pay just the $5.36 a month it costs to rent the cooler. But I still had eight unopened jugs in the back room. 

I tried a lot of things to get rid of that water. I watered my plants, probably a lot more than they needed, made tons of soup, brewed vatloads of tea. Some days I would invite unsuspecting people up to my office and force-feed them water. One night I took a jug home and used it to wash my car; another time I used a couple of quarts to have a sponge bath in my office. It didn’t make any difference: Eventually the water deliveries would resume, and one day, I would find myself completely hemmed in by bottled water.

The bill for the latest shipment is now a month old. It’s only about five bucks, because now I only pay for renting the cooler. But pretty soon I’m going to stop paying that. In short, I’m putting the ball in the water company’s court. It wasn’t my idea to start this relationship, and I shouldn’t be the one responsible for the emotional fallout from canceling a contract in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. I was doing my best to help, but this just isn’t working. If the water company is okay with leaving the cooler here, I’ll give it back to them during Jeb Bush’s second administration, when I finally work my way through the seven gallons in the back room. 

Last week, a friend wondered aloud whether bottled water that’s been sitting around for more than a year might not eventually turn poisonous. My friend is an idiot when it comes to science—but so am I, so he might be on to something. Either way, I’m not touching that water. I don’t like water anymore. Now I’m afraid even to let people into my office for fear that they’ll spread rumors that I’m a survivalist. 

So in the end, my heroic attempts to jump-start this moribund economy have blown up in my face. I tried, I failed, and now I’m finished. This well has run dry.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.

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