A Simple Glass of Water

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August 23, 2001

A Simple Glass of Water

By TED C. FISHMAN HICAGO -- Recently, on a day so blistering in Chicago that authorities issued a heat warning, telling people to stay inside when possible, I was out early with my wife and 10-year-old son, hoping to run errands before the temperature topped 90. Alas, at 9:45 a.m. we were too late, and the heat hit. We wanted water. We went into a coffee shop and ordered a latte for my wife, an iced decaf coffee for my son, and please, a glass of water for me.

"I can only give you a small cup," the clerk told me. That would be fine, I told him. He came back with a thimble-sized cup with roughly one ounce of liquid in it. Was it possible to get more? I asked. "No," said the clerk. "That's all we can give out. We do sell water, though."

These days it seems that providing a simple drink of water is not so much an exercise in quenching the thirsty as in soaking them. Worldwide, bottled water is a $35 billion business. Over the next four years, the bottled water market is expected to grow at 15 percent annually. That dwarfs the growth rates for fruit beverages, beer and soft drinks, all under 2 percent. Of course, sometimes bottled water does taste better or is more convenient or safer than tap water and is worth paying for. That's nothing new. More novel is the pervasive push by businesses to sell bottled water by depriving customers of tap water.

For the past few years, the movie theaters I frequent have been declining requests for water, pushing at $2.50 each the bottled product instead. Seen a water fountain at a gasoline station lately? Not likely. Bottled water is the one of the highest selling items after cigarettes in the stations' convenience stores. In restaurants, waiters now frequently ask for your drink order before they bring you tap water, in the hope that you can be talked into buying bottled water. A waitress I asked called this the "beverage greeting" that her manager required her to say before bringing a glass of water.

During my travels nearly 20 years ago through Indonesia's coffee-growing regions, I would often stop by a bamboo-thatched lean-to for a drink. Water in the land of the coffee bean rarely comes from a tap; it has to be hauled from wells, strained and boiled. Often I was served by rail-thin old men or women in fraying sarongs who subsisted on a few dollars a week. Yet, ask for water and they brought it. At first I asked to pay, not for the water, but for the work behind it. They'd refuse even the smallest coin. The custom of sharing water was too elemental to gum up with finagling.

In India, the Sarai Act mandates that an innkeeper give a free glass of drinking water to any passerby. Indeed, in most places around the world, giving strangers water is the bare minimum of humane behavior. Why is that not so here?

Ted C. Fish is a contributing editor for Worth and Harper's Magazines.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 23, 2001


You've gotta be nuts to drink tap water anywhere in the US. Start carrying your own water from home, where you have a reverse osmosis system that removes fluoride. That way, you've got a chance of having functioning bones into your seventies.

-- Ken (n4wind@sonic.net), August 23, 2001.

I've put in RO units in my family's homes. http://www.premierh2o.com/ These folks sell a good product. Oreder extra filters, they last 3-8 months depending on your input.

-- (perry@ofuzzy1.com), August 23, 2001.

Ahhhh, we're just now catching up to the Europeans. I had a hell of a time getting a glass of ice water in Europe. It was unheard of. You either paid for bottled water or got nothing. But I would hate to have that custom catch on here.

-- Guy Daley (guydaley1@netzero.net), August 23, 2001.

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