The Brick Prison Playhouse

Alumni of Hunter College High School always seem compelled to mention that it’s where they attended the seventh through twelfth grades, when others would simply say “where I went to high school.”

It’s understandable. First there’s the confusing name of the place: it’s neither a college nor merely a high school. Second, when you’re in the habit of telling stories from high school, and some of them take place in 1978 and some take place in 1984, unless you’re diligent about the seventh-through-twelfth disclaimer sooner or later someone is going to do the mental arithmetic and wonder.

As a junior, late in 1982, a few friends and I felt the urge to write and perform a collection of short one-act plays. With faculty help we ended up founding The Brick Prison Playhouse (so called because the school’s appearance earned it the affectionate nickname “the brick prison”), a repertory group for performing student-written plays, as opposed to the existing repertory groups that performed established plays and musicals.

Our first performances took place on February 10th and 11th, 1983. They were a success and a lot of fun. After the last performance the entire playhouse group trekked through Central Park in a light snowfall to the Upper West Side apartment of our friend Michael, where we had a memorable cast party — and ended up snowed in. The only reason I know the exact dates is because it was the great New York Blizzard of 1983.

The next morning, I had to make it back to Queens, but transit had been only partially restored throughout the city. Exiting Michael’s building I was amazed to discover that Broadway was navigable only via a shoulder-high snow trench, just wide enough for two pedestrians to squeeze past each other. Through this narrow channel I worked my way downtown to where working buses and subways could be found — with my also-Queens-bound friend Steve in tow, on crutches with a broken ankle!

(Steve was the best writer in our group. The most talented actor among us was Andrew. I’m pleased to report that today Steve is a professional writer and Andrew a professional actor.)

On the radio program Fresh Air the other day, I heard an interview with the journalist Chris Hayes. In it, he mentions that he grew up in New York City, attended a school from the seventh through the twelfth grades, and performed in a student-written play in the eighth grade. From this I concluded (correctly) that Hayes is a Hunter alumnus, and that The Brick Prison Playhouse still exists!

It occurs to me this is the second blog post in a row where I lay claim to an unacknowledged legacy. Well, acknowledged or not, this one’s an agreeable legacy to have, and the Brick Prison Playhouse’s near-mention on Terry Gross’s widely heard radio show is a nice little brush with fame on this, its thirtieth anniversary.

Coffee optimization

When I started at YouTube a few years ago I encountered fancy coffee machines in the break rooms (or in Google parlance, “minikitchens”). At the touch of a button it would dispense a single serving’s worth of coffee beans from a hopper into its internal grinder, grind them up, add water from a supply line, and brew and serve a cup of hot coffee, all in seventy-four seconds. (I timed it.)

Occasionally a line would form of coffee addicts needing their fix. Most had the same routine: when one brew cycle was finished, the next person in line would place his or her cup in the machine and press the button. Seventy-four seconds later they’d withdraw their cup, add sugar, carry it over to the cooler, take out the half-and-half, and add that; then leave.

Doctoring the coffee after brewing added a good twenty or thirty seconds to the total coffee preparation time, a substantial increase over the time needed by the machine per se. But the machine’s user waits idly for seventy-four seconds; why not put that time to better use? After several months it dawned on me to change my routine. As soon as the previous user’s cycle ended, I pressed the start button without putting a cup in the machine. Instead, during the first thirty or so seconds of grind-and-brew time, I put sugar and half-and-half into my empty coffee cup, then placed it in the machine. By the time the machine was finished, I was all ready to go, about 25% faster than everyone else.

In hindsight it was an obvious optimization to make, and in an office full of bright, busy engineers I was surprised that I was the only one I had ever observed making it. I did occasionally get some appreciative glances from others on seeing my technique in action, and finally within the past year I’ve noticed my method catching on. It’s gratifying to be a trendsetter, but frustrating to be unacknowledged. At least I can tell you about it.