Snobbery, not caffeine, is the real reason for the ascent of the coffee bar as the new social axis. We can’t visit Rome to goggle the Sistine Chapel, but we can read Italo Calvino while sipping our espresso at a conspicuous table. Authentic outdoor Parisian cafes may be ultimately replaced by their Euro-Disney simulacrums, but here in Sydney we can lift our cafe au lait in cupped hands like sacramental wine chalices as we discuss the psychological nuances of the Truffaut film aired on the CBC Late Show last night and viewed on a 12 inch black and white portable tv.
I have done it. You have done it. We all have done it. We are the coffee snobs.
The to-remain-nameless Sydney cafe in which I am presently writing has a list of 22 caffeine-related-products (hereafter referred to as CRPs). Only one could be described as your basic cup of joe.
Which is strange because, after all, it’s this egalitarian Model-T of caffeine delivery that is the essential thing, the hydrogen atom in the Periodic Table of CRPs. Samuel Johnson discussed ancient Greek civilization over a cup of joe in the London coffeehouses of the 1700s and, in the 1950s, Jack Kerouac gloomed over the whimpering end of civilization in a thousand midnight diners over a bottomless black well of steaming java (remember that movie – Kerouac Told Ya: Feast of Java?).
Speaking of the Beats, a good thing about the coffee house rebirth as the new social axis is its usefulness as a venue for everyone under legal drinking age to work out their creative compulsions. Kerouac, Cohen, and Dylan linked to a new generation by a hill of beans as the alternative beverage of choice. (editor’s pop quiz: what other pastimes, besides drinking coffee, do you figure Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan shared?)
But java faces an uphill battle, what with beer commercials linking suds guzzling to everything from sexual potency (“They call him ‘X-Ray’ ’cause everywhere he goes, he meets his ex’s.”) to the more tribal forms of social cohesion (“It’s ours.” says the billboard caption next to the photo of the scowling young thugs, one with a prominent black eye). Imagine if they marketed coffee that way: “Juan Valdez – sex machine and party dude!”. Coffee drinkers are tough-minded singer-poets, beer drinkers, at least in their commercialized forms, are just toughs.
But what do people have in their heads when they order a “double decaf cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles”? After all, decaffeinated coffee is like virtual sex–sure it mimics the experience, but it misses the point. And decaf cappuccino is like virtual sex with your eyes closed. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the cheapest mug of joe in any greasy spoon has a harder caffeine kick than the most sublime demi-tasse of espresso. So why do people think they’re living on the edge with their iced mocha javas?
Having practiced it myself, I can declare it has little to do with coffee and everything to do with the social pretensions of coffee snobbery.
But then snobbery has its merits over the assembly-line vacuousness of our omnipresent “friend along the way”. The molded plastic seating modules in this chain of coffee and donut shops have been computer crafted to precisely press the spine in a way to make cognitive functions go inert after the company set limit of twenty minutes. Intellectual pursuits are not smiled on. Read a Danielle Steel and you arouse suspicious glances; read Alice Munro and dark mutterings are heard over the Boston creams. The coffee has jump, but the organization flattens the sensation into a corporate society of well-behaved “friends”.
Then there is that other chain restaurant also open all night, but offering the bottomless cup. All my nicotine addicted friends prefer this establishment. It has big, feast-sized booths, as opposed to the intimate little circle formed in cafes. So, amid the jovial boisterousness, the solitary java hound with his lonely journal tucked under arm might feel out of place.
As it was in the beginning, when coffee inspired the literary salons of Europe as the hub of that new social axis, so it is now and ever shall be. The price may be pretense, but what a very small price. So see you at the cafe. I’ll be at my usual window table, steaming cup of house blend at my elbow, and reading my flea market copy of Ulysses.