We here at SCV have been reading with great concern about what has come to happen to a certain habit that for a generation of ‘bohemians, intellectuals, sleepy sods’ and other irascible souls of the leisured class have come to lament.
What we’re talking about is the culture of taking stock, refuge and post afternoon siesta jaunts to our preferred cafes and brasseries where since the epoch of the industrial age sordid mankind and gentry have taken solace in their Beaujolais, café and duplicitous cigarettes.
This weekend, the New York Times had the audacity to run a story Across France, Cafe Owners Are Suffering confirming our worst fears that long sauntering afternoons in the parliament of cafes have come to be simply no more, or rather a bygone thought that one now bothers to pay little regard or no regard to.
The story title alone; “Across France, café owners are suffering,” was enough for us here at SCV to hasten our cigarette smoking and unprovoked chaffing on our café lattes at our local haunt- ‘Choice,’ here in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn (the owners both incidentally French themselves…).
The article takes exception to note that ever since the smoking ban came into effect the first of this year the jaundiced actions of its patrons no longer cease to exist, worse the patrons no longer exist period.
The writer, Mr Steven Erlanger (and we do wonder if he too equally laments the decease of the preoccupation of café hobnobbing) pauses to consider whether it’s an effrontery to our troubled times, mounting global anxieties or simply a ‘compounding of long term problems stemming from changes in how people live and growing health concerns.’
To which I may agree as I puff on this idle cigarette, but if that was so can anyone please explain to me why hamburgers and fast Americana are still the go?
This all very much concerns us, if the French, the supposed arbiters of café and brasserie culture are shunning the idolatry of bygone yesteryears, then what of the romance of knowing that Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and other French heroes (does that include Karl Lagerfield?) once stoically pranced the corridors of Boulevard saint Germaine des pres and once conferred on luminaries such as Café Les Deux Maggots and my personal favorite Café de Flore. Are we to believe that we have simply come to an end of idyllic culture, of a cultured disposition that we had until recently fought so hard to preserve?
It’s true, most Americans (that’s not you dear readers….is it?) have traditionally shunned the franca of extended luncheons, fluffy croissants that melt in your mouth and the wafting of espressos and ‘Gauloise’ with your close proximity to Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ firmly nestled in your lap.
But how could you? To be American, has always been to be industrious, zealous, mercurial, uber successful and demonstrative not sublime, hackneyed, leisured, idol or too remotely interested in the mechanics of how one goes about the task of drinking three bottles of Bordeaux in the late afternoon.
Not until the nascent 90’s did we really experience the ‘je ne sais quois’ (the I don’t know what quality) aspect of what it was like to sit (and for more than ten minutes) and drink our coffee and really appreciate its aroma, its veneer, its sexual possibilities. Until then, drinking coffee in public had been for the most part a virgin experience, drinking it out of a paper cup on the go at best a form of pre masturbatory exercise in our libido.
A virgin experience until the zealots and idle and counter culture prone Seattle(ites) of the west coast introduced us to illicit foreplay and our collective inhibitions that it was now okay to stroke oneself in public with their newly acquired cappuccino. By then we were reacting to the Persian gulf war and recession (sound familiar anyone?) and singing along with Pearl Jam and Kurt Cobain of ‘Never Mind’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ counter culture Nirvana. We were all feeling a little giddy and unsettled by the malaise brought forth by war, S and L crises, OJ Simpson race riots, and illicit corporate bond junk culture (still sound familiar….?)
So it was out (at least for a while) with flashy drinks, shoulder pads, yuppie pretensions, coke affixations and in with ‘Birkenstock’ sandles, relapse retreats, sashimi, and of course long lazy afternoons (since you were unemployed or under employed) with your Seattle branded café latte.
It all represented a dropping of pretension and the dropping of pretensions became its own kind of unique pretension, which gave you license to finally say you didn’t care and if the masters of the universe couldn’t figure it out, how the hell where you suppose to figure it out? Well you did, all afternoon, every afternoon, in the comfort of your favorite café house.
The east coast must have looked on with a huge limp and not wanting to feel left out it did what it has always done, it expatriated the talent, the coffee beans, the dollar signs, the jingles, and the white foam to your local haunt. Expatriated as much as it mutilated it the way a lover mutilates a rubber doll he once bought in the heat of the moment. Of course that didn’t happen all over night, and there was a time one could feel going to ‘Starbucks,’ or any chain was really an exercise in new found civility, leisure, luxury. Everything was perfectly arranged, the out door seating pre ordained, and the barista a holy saint.
So there it was, the west coast pioneers being business prone and market savvy (unlike the French who have been prone to be being philosophical and Sunday idle clone) were able to take a product, a feeling, a staple of bygone generations and turn it into a sex object, a piston, a sensibility that we all of the glamorous, newly enlightened and disenfranchised sect could partake in the revelries that for the longest time had been cordoned off to those who vacationed in Cannes, Capri or Barcelona. The time had finally arrived where sitting in Starbucks and drinking double lattes was our god given right.
Immersed in the notion and the marketing hubris that openly drinking latte was now a preferred and celebrated state of being we found our seats and buried ourselves in deep for the long haul. Starbucks and the like had become our new living rooms, where cute little lamps flickered orange light and the sanctioned music of Dizzy Gillepsie played in the background as you worked on the next great American novel or at best the next best social affiliation, all along attached to your behemoth latte.
For a while it was glorious, you could drop by and meet ‘cool’ people, become the icon you always felt you were capable of being, courtesy of corporate America and relapse into the knowledge that not so long people like Dizzy Gillepsie, J.D Salinger and Allen Ginsberg used to inhabit the village café houses until recently you probably didn’t even know ever existed.
Of course like all dreams, dreams are prone to turning into nightmares. It all happened slowly, the bad habits, the recklessness that until now you were apt to overlook, the guy or girl you were dating on the sly now becoming the husband or wife you insisted could never be.
So there you were with what you thought was the perfect latte, the perfect husband when you started to realize that something was becoming amiss in the communal living room. At first it wasn’t so obvious, the bad table manners, the forms you were politely asked to fill out, the stream lined efficiency of which your latte was being made ( maybe a tad too mc-efficiently), the double helping offers, the over repeated thank yous, the same furniture set as the store down the road, the impersonal corporate junta and of course those long long lines to use the bath room.
Yet once all the corporates got a taste of the brew they too couldn’t refuse and rush to bring you their version of latte, McDonald’s (imagine a hamburger joint serving cappuccinos?) Dunkin Donuts (a bagel and donut house daring us suburbanites to go up market…) and even Au Bon Pain(full). There was money to make, stacks of it, and what once used to be a delectable revelry had now being transformed by the engineering team of Ford Motor plant into the milky black dunk in your stomach. It had all gone over board, and the funny thing of course was until recently we were still standing in those long lines pontificating whether today we’d try caramelized or triple fat free latte for a now mere fourteen dollars.
The irony of course is that what could have been an egalitarian experience for all had suddenly now become a deplorable experience for most of us. Not willing to endure the humiliation of being denied an affable café experience the charmed and over zealous amongst us began to seek out new café parlors, the same parlors that until a few years ago were being driven out of business by the corporate bastions and were now ironically being resuscitated by their demise. Note all the recent Starbucks closings.
This of course is not to infer an explanation of how and why the French are now finding themselves idle partners in empty café tables. The troubles there are varied, and yes even if one can find a Starbucks along the Champs Elysees this hardly explains the French phenomena. It could all be that smoking and spending afternoons idle aside has begun to create consternation in our torrid economic times.
Yet I am inclined to wonder if this all speaks of another kind of revolution, the type experienced back in the early nineties. The phenomena called virtual reality. What once used to serve as common living rooms has now shifted to the peripheries of our own private abodes and preferred reality modes. From the computer and internet one can now download and become the beggar of their imagination, home made café and smoke all at hand.
Of course we here at SCV don’t seriously believe that the future of drinking café latte at ones preferred bastion will evaporate as we are keen to point out the desire for human affectation and social parade will always over ride our introverted tendencies. Perhaps it would be worth noting next time one comes across a charmed café to re imagine the sanguine pleasure that drinking a café, lighting a cigarette and reading a good book amongst new friends can re affirm the vitality of life.