Category Archives: cafe culture

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place Not Requiring Fumigation

tumblr_inline_nx0i37Gzbg1rbqvxq_540I’m back in Oxford today, immanentizing the eschaton once again in the Social Sciences Library, where I must regularly do at least 67% of all my work. The other 33% is done either in pubs (sometimes quiet and wonderful places to sit, sometimes full of stinkin’ drunks, though what do you expect, eh?) or coffee shops (usually loud, packed with psychotic tourists, and unclean just an hour after opening). Unlike London, Oxford is not predominately a culture where people will sit in cafes working. I was surprised at that when I first arrived, having become very comfortable with the American and Central European styles of productive solitude-in-a-crowd encaffeination.

Cafe culture is slightly different wherever you go, but there are certain international standards one can expect (that is, everywhere but in Oxford). I think my top five favorite cafes of all time have to be:

(1) Cafe 976 in Pacific Beach, California, essentially a well-kept house from the 1920s with a big porch and a garden, where I used to while away the evenings of my misspent youth reading tarot;

(2) Cafe Josephine in Tallinn, Estonia, as much for the owner’s dog, Bari, a gregarious old retriever who functions as the unofficial greeter and maître d’hôtel, as for the coffee, which is also excellent;

(3) Cafe Indigo in Prague, which I think has gone the way of the dodo, but which used to serve an Algerian coffee that would knock you out of your shoes and realign your priorities in life. It was a great gathering place for students and literary types;

(4) Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle for frankly being one of the coolest places you’d ever want to sit and think; and

(5) Osama’s in Columbia, Missouri, where I used to hold my office hour and drink Turkish coffee after Turkish coffee in order to cope with the sad realities of teaching freshman comp in the Midwest. It was run by Osama Yanni, the nicest guy you’d ever want to know but unlucky enough to have a name recognizable by the vast unwashed proletariat of the Show-Me State. It closed.

There have been many others (and more than a few in Tallinn and Paris), though these are the ones I think I’ve liked the most in my itinerant writing life. These are the places where I’ve written some of my best stories.

But today, today brothers and sisters, I am holding forth from the holy of holies, the inner chamber of the inner chamber of the great whited sepulcher of sepulchers, the ivoriest of the ivory towers. Actually, it’s not that grand. I’m in the steel-and-Formica lounge of the Social Sciences Library, over by the vending machines. It’s a spot where I can at least eat a sandwich and have my coffee without being psychically accosted by some miserable family on vacation from upper Spokaloo, pissed that they just paid £15 each for breakfast on the Tolkien Walking Tour. It happens. Now you’re all wearing identical Gandalf vs. the Balrog T-shirts. Balance your expectations relative to that choice, okay?

Naturally, this is a university, the university, and people don’t just come here for the amenities. They come to do the work (always the work, whatever it happens to be), to get recognized, and to generate sufficient cultural cachet for them to continue on in the style to which they are accustomed. The coffee can be bad. It’s for the service class anyway.

Enjoying what you’re eating often upsets people here for many reasons. You are expected to frown into your soup and sigh over your bagel. You might even go so far as to faintly shake your head at your Greek salad, implying thoughts of great consequence that probably have nothing to do with your packet of fattening and therefore off-limits croutons. The weight of the world is buried in your mashed potatoes. Your parfait is the parfait of melancholy. To enjoy any of it is to indulge in an unforgivable lapse of seriousness.

In such an environment, one tries to be as gentle and understanding as possible toward the highly refined sensibilities of the world’s future ministers, art patrons, and captains of industry—most of whom were born after Kurt Cobain died but who nevertheless seem to constantly reference his death as if that were some kind of magical touchstone for sincerity. This makes me kind of tired, but I try to get along.

For example, I will not smuggle lunch into a reading room. I signed a five-page agreement when I got my very special non-student library access card (speak friend and enter), stipulating that I would not bring food and drink into Moria no matter how lightheaded or hypoglycemic I might become. There are the vending machines outside. There are enough steel-and-Formica tables in the lounge to support an army. So I intend to honor that agreement. And I acknowledge that seeing me in the corner with a Cesar salad might drive some of my more delicate colleagues over the edge.

They might snap and order a pizza in the middle of the night, discipline punctured, starvation-vegan diet shot to hell, shame, existential angst, eventual career failure, disinheritance. There shall be no cheese and pepperoni. For many of these kids, life is a game of no-limit hold-em with the Devil, but as long as they do exactly what they’re told, they feel they’ll keep on winning the way they always have. The thing most of them don’t seem to understand is that if you build your life around a game, even if you never lose, that’s what your life will be about. Welcome to the casino of success. You are a VIP for life. When you die, we’ll bury you under the craps table.

So food. It’s problematic. Earlier, I was breaking about half of the rules, enjoying a deli sandwich and reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which also meant I was smiling. So it was not surprising when I felt hot darts of psychic rage boring into the side of my face. They were coming from a very thin, aggravated girl at the table across from me. She had on a sweatshirt that looked a few sizes too big and what I assumed was her usual expression of dislike mixed with contempt. I thought what I always think: who, me? But then I realized: it wasn’t the standard-issue animosity most people display in this environment. It was a food thing. Next to her laptop was a plastic bag of carrot sticks and a bottle of mineral water. Lunch. I’d be in a bad mood, too.

I looked back down, pretending like I didn’t notice her staring, but I was also thinking, you know, there’s this golden retriever named Bari you really need to meet. If only. A clean, well-lighted place and a friendly dog can make all the difference in your life, in your work. I dug into my sandwich. It was good.

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Horror at 2½ Feet

Working in cafés can be wonderful.  A clean, well-lighted place with good coffee and relative quiet can be inexpressibly fantastic.  I’ve made the rent and written books in cafés.  On the other hand, close proximity to others under the influence of caffeine can reveal a certain darkness in the human condition that would otherwise be difficult to notice.

People get bilious.  A baby fires his diapers and the café hazmat expert springs into action.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.  Don’t worry,” says the teenager in the green apron.  He’s down on his knees wiping up baby’s spillage with a rag.  Mom takes a second before she moves.  She says: “Yes.  Well.  I appreciate your help.”  Mom’s friend—an almost identical copy, right down to the French twist and the yoga pants—crosses her arms and looks down at the boy.  How do babies contain so much waste?  Half of the café pretends it didn’t happen.  The other half is smiling.  Baby is so charming.

Mom and her friend finally decide to help.  They sigh and wipe the drippings off the stroller, the floor.  This is a normal thing in their world and mom executes her duties without getting a smudge on her yoga pants.  From a certain point of view, this, I know, is admirable.  But still, baby contains a gallon of fecal matter and mom contains a gallon of meaningless cooing.  How does this happen to a person?  These women are in their 30s.  They seem oblivious to the fact that they have been speaking very loudly in close proximity to others about absolutely nothing for the last 45 minutes.  Who raised them?

I am irritated, yes.  I am a misanthrope, maybe.  Timon of Yosemite.  But I feel bad for the parents of the kid with the crew-cut who’s still down on his knees, apologizing for someone else’s shit.  His choice, but still.  My inner Nostradamus tells me that if he doesn’t quit this job soon, he’ll be doing that for the rest of his life.

Of course, I don’t have kids.  It’s easy to pass judgment when you aren’t constrained to be a guardian of public health because baby has a bowel problem.  But what about a pediatric  gastroenterologist?  I don’t know.  Could an expert address this?  Maybe mom already covered that angle; though, it seems to me baby would feel a lot better if he wasn’t bathed in his own waste.  (Later, when mom goes out to a Lexus RX 350 with chunks of gold glued to the side, I will think this again in less charitable terms, wondering whether dad couldn’t take a day out to see about the health of his boy.  But such are my prejudices.  We should all foul our diapers and own Lexuses.)

I’m at the big table –the one for the losers who come to the café to work and read quietly.  The era of socially egalitarian coffee shops ended with the rise of the Starbucks beast.  There is definite class polarization here.  Corporate culture and proletarian workforce self-segregate at the little tables by the windows; liberal democrats, professorial types, senior citizens, and other undesirables lurk at the long table in the back.  In-between lingers the great murmuring maternity, the guardians of our future, a triple-parked fleet of strollers, an ocean of yoga pants, and the inevitable cloud of post-Yogalates hormonal dismay.

Being a mom is hard, yeah?  My mom thought so and I’m sure I didn’t make it easy for her.  She was a good mom—in my opinion, the best.  And even though my parents stayed married (until my mom’s death from cancer in 2009, after which my father descended into a second perpetual adolescence), she was the one who took care of me on a daily basis.  So maybe this is more of a personal moment for me than it seems on the surface.

Is it crazy to think parenting should be a group effort?  Sorry guys, bringing home a paycheck doesn’t absolve you of having to mop up the Schmutzigkeit.  We don’t want junior to have a lilliputian colostomy before he’s old enough to enjoy solid food.  It makes me sad.  It’s wrong.  And I think just because you can reproduce and have money doesn’t mean you should.

Next to me, a 40-something guy with white shoulder-length hair sniffs and clears his throat.  His long-sleeve is buttoned all the way to the top and he has a pair of square rimless glasses (spectacles?) at the end of his nose.  He  looks over at the baby in disgust and shifts his Kindle two inches away from that side of the room.  That’s okay, I saw a different young mother do that with her baby when she looked over at our table.  Germs.  Competing bacteria.  Everyone’s a vector.  Everyone wants to eat your child and poo in your laptop case.

Why can’t we just get along?  The answer is that we can—as long as everyone stays in the small box they were given at birth.  Born in a box: live there, paint the walls all you want, inch a tiny mirror over the top edge to see what it’s like in the other boxes, sure.  But try to climb out and everyone will destroy their diapers.

Said incontinent baby is now squealing in hideous misery while mom is sipping a latte and laughing with her friend.  I really hope baby grows up to run with wild horses over the hills.   You can always hope.

The kid in the apron has brought out a mop and bucket.  Mom and friend ignore him.

“I’m sorry,” he says for the fiftieth time.

Yeah, me too.