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cafe society

January 12, 2008

If you’ve ever read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and followed the story through the bakeries and tea shops of Karsh…

If you’ve frequented the cafes of Cairo in the novels of Naguib Mafouz…

If you’ve sat till 2:00 A.M. at the Romano in Berkeley, or till midnight in Naples pizza in New Haven, eaten breakfast at the Bridgehead or Miller’s in Antioch, or blackberry pie at the Phillips Coffee Shop in Oxford, Ohio waiting for the ground to thaw so spring planting could begin…

You know that Starbucks is a poor, poor second– a pale and canned imitation of public space.

So I avoid it if I possibly can. But I’ve made an exception for the Starbucks on Eighteenth and A. It was a strange choice of location to begin with, and though it is still a Starbucks, it’s become an unassuming and egalitarian meeting place for a real variety of people. And I’ve never seen them mistreat anyone because he looked down and out, or pander to someone who seemed well-heeled.

My only complaint (aside from the basic Starbucks MO, and that’s another entry) is that when it comes to coffee culture, the nice friendly kids who man the counter are, well, novices. To put it kindly.

Oh, they know about Talls and Grandes and extra sweet, and the corresponding paper cups with plastic lids. But ask for something “for here,” and you’ll find you’re over the line.

People my age grew up with cups and saucers and Yuban, so at least we have a ground to start from. These kids, not so much. They’re adrift in a sea of crockery.

Here’s how it goes:

Me: I’d like a single espresso for here, please.

Kid: That’ll be $1.35 , reaches for paper cup


Kid: Oh… searches cupboard, reaches for eight ounce coffee cup

So I get it in a porcelain cup, but ninety percent of it has coated the inside before it gets to my lips.

Next time:

Me: I’d like a single espresso and a croissant please, for here.

Kid: That’ll be $1.35, reaches for paper cup


Kid: reaches for giant coffee cup

Me: That’s a regular coffee cup—do you think I could have an espresso cup?

Kid: Oh… searches cupboard desperately, finds espresso cup, fills it and sets it down

Me: Do you think I could have a saucer with that? the cup bottom has the circumference of a magic marker

Kid: Oh… another desperate search; sets cup on a ten-inch oval dessert plate; reaches for croissant

Would you like a plate with this too?

Me: Please. croissant is set on a saucer, its little croissant horns pathetically hanging two inches over either side

Next time:

Me: I’d like a short regular coffee, for here.

Kid: panics… to other employees:What size cup is for a short? searches cupboard frantically

Me, and Supervisor: Just pour the amount for a short in a regular coffee cup…kid pours coffee in porcelain cup, which is about the size of a short anyway

Me: May I have a saucer with that?

Kid: Oh… puts eight-ounce coffee cup on an espresso saucer

I have to say their good nature has never failed! At first, I dreamed of becoming an Apostle of Coffee Education, but now I’m just happy to get out of there without a cup to throw away.

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