The queues in the Kohlberg coffee bar snake through the main lounge, five minutes before class. For those myriad students, faculty, other regulars and visitors impatiently waiting for their drink, a woman busily makes chai with one hand, a mocha smoothie with the other, and polite conversation with some people. “Where is Michelle?” people ask when she isn’t there, wondering where the familiar face has gone.
For eight years, Michelle Hartel has been working in day shifts in Kohlberg, 7 am to 4 pm, with co-worker and friend Kate Corbett. From her small city of Clifton Heights to the Swarthmore College bubble, Hartel has journeyed as a small-community woman and tells the tale.
“I’m content here,” she drawled, explaining her long residence in the food industry and specifically at Swarthmore. Hartel began working the food business as a high school student to help her family financially. Even after she received a Paralegal degree from Widener University twenty-some years ago, she continued working in the business because she enjoyed the fast-pace and the flexible hours.
“I didn’t like the confinement,” she said. “I like the contact one-on-one with people, so that was my decision. It’s not easy… If you don’t like people, you better get out of this business.” Along with her Swarthmore shift, Hartel also works for few hours at a catering business started by her friends, called “The Bungalow” in Media.
Hartel’s reign at Swarthmore College was seeded through her mother, affectionately called Marmi by Food Services, who works at the dining hall Sharples. She heard that there was a position available as a card-swiper in Sharples, and from there, Hartel moved to running the Kohlberg coffee bar. The Swarthmore-Hartel family group also includes her cousin, Adele Tracy, who works several food related jobs with Swarthmore including bag lunches and the grill at Essie Mae’s.
The Swarthmore community motivates Hartel to continue working here until her daughter graduates from Neumann College in three years. “The thing is, with Swarthmore, the campus, the community is very close and very supportive. If you need anything from Swarthmore campus…Kate and I always call it the bubble.” The Swarthmore bubble supports her family through its benefits and flexible hours.
Hartel has been a part of community bubbles since she was raised in a town close to Swarthmore, although she feels that the communities have been disintegrating. “I was born and raised in Clifton heights. Back then, each borough had its own school, and you’d go home for lunch,” she reminisced. “The school would play football or basketball against Swarthmore. When [schools] merged…Strath Haven mingled with Swarthmore. Clifton merged with Upper Darby. I grew up in a little town, in a little community and still do…well not as much as they [were].”
The larger and less “community oriented” schools were an indicator that each city had lost its small-town environment. According to Hartel, the cause was the decline of “little mom and pop stores that used to be in the boroughs,” she said. “A few years ago, Swarthmore used have their own pharmacy where Dunkin Donuts used to be. Everyone loved that place.”
Dunkin Donuts is suspect in her eyes for changing the tight-knit community of Swarthmore, along with Giant and Genuardi’s, two grocery-store chains. Her childhood favorite hang-out, a small store in Clifton Heights, was replaced by a CVS. “Across the street from high school, there used to be a candy shop, when you would come back [from lunch], stop there and it was like a quarter for a candy bar. It was called Rosie’s. Great store, and anybody in Clifton back then will remember that,” she said.
Hartel stressed the importance of friends and family in her community, both back in Clifton Heights and at Swarthmore. Although Corbett is not related Hartel, Hartel still calls her “my twin. We speak in twin-speak when we want to talk about other people,” she said.
She unabashedly admitted that she talked with Kate about people, admiring their clothing or sharing anecdotes about customers. “A lot of people say to us, we’re like CNN on campus,” she said, “because people have to go through Kohlberg because it’s centrally located. We see everybody going through, hear everything that’s going on.”
Professor Keith Reeves came to the counter for the second time that day with his kids, to order few bottled drinks and tease the pair of ladies. Other familiar faces in Kohlberg include administrators, admissions counselors, and fellow food-service employees. According to Hartel, she even serves Mr. Jerome Kohlberg ‘46, an alum who donated money for the building and coffee bar.
“Kohlberg comes in twice year,” said Hartel proudly, “for his double-shot espresso.”