From my living-room windows, I can see two of the three coffee shops within a block of our apartment. Within less than a mile, there are five other coffee shops. In America the coffee shop has for the most part replaced the neighborhood bar, the country club, it used to be said, of the working man. Bars have never been my idea of a good time. Hemingway was, I think, correct when he said that there were only two reasons to go into a bar: the search for complaisant women and the yearning for a fight. Looking for neither, I tend to steer clear of bars.
I do, though, tend to steer into coffee shops. For a good while I met friends and acquaintances and a few strangers down the block at Peet’s, the coffee shop begun at Berkeley in 1966 and now franchised round the country. But Peet’s is frequently crowded, and, as a neighborhood character, I am too often recognized by people who come up to greet me and have to be introduced to whomever I’m with. I still take out coffee from Peet’s, but otherwise avoid the place.
I’ve noticed that a number of people spend a good part of their day in Peet’s. Some, who don’t need to go into offices to earn their livings, bring their laptops, legal pads, and whatever else they require and set up shop there. Others I assume come to Peet’s to escape the loneliness of isolation in their apartments. They use Peet’s the way people once used neighborhood bars. Ten or 11 such people, more men than women, are regulars in my local Peet’s, members, as I think of them, of the Occupy Peet’s Movement.
Over the years I have become friendly with some of the baristas working at Peet’s. Many are young men and women just passing through. A nice feeling of toleration reigns among them and their customers; they are often tattoo-bearing, pierced, with day-glo-colored hair. Nobody seems to mind, nor does anyone suggest this might slow them in their efforts toward getting better jobs. Before long, as the country continues to alter both its etiquette and its expectations, this may well not be true. The Wall Street Journal reports that many large corporations, the Ford Motor Company and Boeing among them, allow their executives to bear tattoos and piercings; about day-glo hair the word hasn’t come down.
My current coffee shop of choice is called Coralie. A Nous Sommes Charlie sign is in the front window. French songs often play lightly in the background. I enjoy at Coralie the presence of an attractive woman, young enough to be my granddaughter, who works there and with whom I have a running joke. The premise of the joke is that she is my long-divorced first wife. After introducing her as such to whomever I’m with, I sometimes add, “The sex was terrific but we found nothing to talk about.” Other times I say, “The sex wasn’t much, but the conversation was dazzling.” Playing along nicely, she inquires, in a complaining tone, about yet another of my late alimony checks. How I have come to acquire the reputation of a neighborhood character I shall never know.
I claim no connoisseurship in the realm of coffee, and cannot tell you on which side of the hill outside Lagos the beans for my coffee were grown. I take a pass on all designer coffees, lattes, cappuccinos, half-cafs, mocha-boca ratons, skim milk, four Splendas lightly marinated in cinnamon, and order only plain coffee, regular in the mornings, decaf in the afternoons.
I’ve still not got used to the steep price currently charged for coffee. I come from the time when Henny Youngman used to tell a joke about a bum asking him for 50 cents for a cup of coffee. “But coffee’s only a quarter,” Youngman says. “Won’t you join me?” the bum replies. Today that joke, with the bum banished for political correctness, would go: A homeless man asks for $6 for a cup of coffee. “But coffee costs only $2.50,” he is told. “I was thinking of adding a chocolate croissant,” the homeless man replies.
My friend Edward Shils once asked the Christian socialist R. H. Tawney, author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, if he had noted any progress in his lifetime. “Yes,” said Tawney, “in the deportment of dogs. In my youth dogs seemed so much more unruly than they do now.” I wonder if Professor Tawney, were he alive today, might wish to add the replacement of the neighborhood bar by the coffee shop as another bit of small but genuine progress. The neighborhood bar was dark and xenophobic, the coffee shop light and welcoming. For those still looking for complaisant women or a fight, I recommend Google or the Yellow Pages.