Monday, February 11, 2019

Coffee Houses

Yesterday at lunch, I was reading Ernest Hemingway's "A clean, well-lighted place," when I began to think that if the story had been set in Italy rather than in Spain, the ending could have been much more upbeat.  In Spain, bars were about the only place open late at night, whereas in Italy bars are also coffee shops, so the old man and the old waiter could have shared a congenial espresso at the end of the story rather than going home to their respective lonelinesses.  I know, I know, that's completely misunderstanding the point of the story--which is to affirm the "nada-ness" of life.  Whereas "the coffeehouse is the ideal place, as Viennese wit Alfred Poger once put it, for people who want to be alone but need company for it."

I love coffee shops.  If I'm not mistaken, my generation has seen a shift in how we live our social lives.  Instead of a woman cooking for most of the day to serve a fancy dinner that night, we now meet at Naked Bean, French Press, or Brewed Awakenings.  Now, our social lives employ people--people who need jobs, and our weekends are our own, something we very much need in a time when jobs take more time than they do and 24/7 availability is expected.

I like eavesdropping in coffee shops, capturing snapshots of other people's lives.  Bill and I breakfast out on Saturday morning, where we make up the week's menus and grocery lists before we do the shopping.  There's a group of about six that meets most weekends and talks respectfully and quietly about scrabble words, resources for families with a member who has Alzheimers, house renovations, vacations to Hawaii, the challenges of 'instant families.'  They give you the rich flavour of the human family--its curiosities and its challenges.

Coffee houses have a long history.  Jurgen Habermas lists coffee houses--along with the penny post and the novel--for The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, as he titled his study.  Coffee houses offered reputable places for people, mostly men, to come together and talk about politics and ideas, and in that setting they created a current of thought and opinion robust enough to wrest the public sphere from the exclusive purview of the British aristocracy.  Bach, in an attempt to raise his stock and convince audiences he was still in style, wrote a cantata about coffee whose translated title is "Be still.  Stop chattering"--the closest thing to an opera--the most popular genre of his later years--he ever composed.  It was written for the Collegium Musicum, a group that played in Zimmermann's Coffee House--one of Bach's own haunts.  Aria's father is concerned that she is addicted to coffee, but she sees it differently:  
Father sir, but do not be so harsh!
If I couldn't, three times a day,
be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee,
in my anguish I will turn into
a shriveled-up roast goat.
Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!
In a parallel plot line, Aria's father, Schlendrian, is trying to find his daughter a suitor.  She tells each of her father's candidates that she won't marry anyone who will deprive her of her three cups a day, and through a series of attempts to manipulate suitors and father--father is afraid his daughter will refuse to marry--Aria not only finds a suitable husband, but has her right to three cups a day written into her marriage agreement.

If you are old enough, you will remember the arrival of Starbucks.  In 1983, a specialty coffee roaster from Seattle hired Howard Schultz and sent him to Italy.  Milan, "a city the size of Philadelphia," supported 1500 espresso bars where the making of an espresso or a latte was partly theatre, and the drinking was accompanied by friendly conversations among neighbours. In his book on coffee, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast records the insight that led to Starbucks--and to all the small coffee houses that rose up from its inspiration.  Schultz thought they shouldn't simply sell well-roasted beans, but should create "community gathering places like those in Italy," "a third place beyond home work, an extension of people's front porch."  (All my quotations come from Pendergrast's book.)

Lee, the ceramicist in the novel I'm working on, holds body and soul together by working as a barista. When she needs to create pottery that will attract the young, the poor, and the hip, she makes ceramic re-usable coffee cups and writes their orders on them, just as a barista would.  Her experience leads her to what Pendergrast calls "the poetic art form" of ordering coffee:  double this, extra shot of that, this special milk.  Not surprisingly, Lee's mugs are a success, particularly if people can find their own predilections among her wares.

Not surprisingly, for something so basic in our private and social lives--how many of you can't even think before you have coffee?--there is a kind of ethics of coffee.  Starbuck's, for example, keeps its baristas by paying them more than the minimum wage and giving them stock options, and thus a stake in the company.  More recently, Starbuck's started giving its employees support for the third and fourth years of their post-secondary educations--whether they return to Starbuck's afterwards or not. As well, we have realized that we need to think about whether the people who work in the coffee fields are being taken advantage of.  McQuarries Tea and Coffee Merchants in Saskatoon "curates" (their word) their offerings, ensuring that fair salaries, schools, and medical care are available for the workers.  A whole host of organizations has sprung up around this need, one of which helped develop the coffee industry in Rwanda, so that their "exquisite beans..[are grown in] a country where Hutus tried to exterminate their Tutsi neighbors."  Now people from the two tribes " in harmony to grow and sell coffee."  As well, some coffee growers have been quite creative about reducing the environmental footprint of the coffee so many of us seem to need to kick-start our days.

Writers often work in coffee shops.  Malcolm Gladwell is perhaps one of the earlier writers to confess to his addiction.  He maintains that he was drawn to coffee shops because there he can see what the rest of the world is up to.  Madeleine Thien wrote her extraordinarily powerful novel in a Berlin coffee shop because her partner, Rawi Hage, was in the city on a fellowship that gave him space to write.  Lacking such a space herself, she would get her cup of coffee, put Bach's Goldberg Variations on her computer, plug in her earphones and go to work.  Bach's variations were with her constantly as she worked, and are beautifully woven through the novel.  J.K. Rowling worked on the early Harry Potter novels in The Elephant House, an Edinburgh coffee shop that gave her a view of Edinburgh Castle from the back room where she worked.  Perhaps it's apocryphal, but the story goes that her child would go to sleep in his stroller on the way to the shop, giving her uninterrupted time to write.

In their blogs, lots of writers confess to working in coffee shops.  One notes that there is nothing else one needs to do there.  There aren't guilt-inducing dishes to do or windows to be washed.  Or should that be "procrastination-inducing" tasks?  You can't easily take a nap there.  In some ways, said several authors, the coffee-shop setting alleviates some of the inevitable isolation of writing.  John Robin celebrates the "susurrations" of random chatter that is so comforting.  Nancy Warren finds evidence of the human condition there.  I have never written in a coffee shop, but I often read there, or simply sit quietly with the  notebook dedicated to the project I'm struggling with.  There's something about the combination of caffeine, sugar, and those susurrations of conversations (maybe with a little chocolate thrown in) that physically and mentally knocks me out of my grooves and helps me find the creative, insightful , maybe even quirky solution to a problem in my writing, not just the obvious one ready-to-hand.  

 One morning in Naked Bean, there was a voluble conversation going on two tables away that I couldn't help overhearing from time to time, the unthreaded fragments crying out for a narrative that made sense.  The young woman explained to the middle aged gentleman she was having morning coffee with that "Seriously, you can transform your life with this guy,"  particularly that he will "get your concentration back."  The gentleman countered with the fact that "my other dogs never needed dental work.  I'm supposed to brush his teeth now!"  Where else can  you find such a synecdoche for the human desires and puzzles that sometimes threaten to break our consciousness into little pieces?

The photograph above is taken by Veronica Geminder.  Together, she and I created a book of photographs and poems called Visible Cities (University of Calgary Press).

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