Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.
Joseph Epstein, cat dancer.Jun 22, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 39 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Roughly four years ago I reported on the acquisition of a calico kitten named Hermione. I began by writing that she was asleep in my inbox. Now four years later, too large for my inbox, she sleeps in the chair next to mine in the room in our apartment I call my office. I ended my earlier scribble about her by saying that whatever disorder she might bring into my life I judged to be worth it. I now have to report that she has brought no disorder whatsoever, and instead her becalming company has brought only contentment, pleasure, and delight.
The more he learned, declared Michael Oakeshott, the less he knew. Jun 15, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Philosophers, held Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990), are of two kinds: didactic and contemplative. The former tend to have minds that gravitate to the formation of bold and graspable ideas, the latter to thoughts less readily summarized. Aristotle’s golden mean, Descartes’s cogito, Kant’s categorical imperative, Hegel’s dialectic, and Marx’s economic determinism are examples of the first kind of philosopher.
On the rise of Hillary Clinton and other underdogsMay 18, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 34 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Our virtues lose themselves in selfishness
as rivers are lost in the sea.
Joseph Epstein has issues.May 4, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I have an issue with issue—with the word, that is. It pops up everywhere, meaning everything and meaning nothing. One hears of a pitcher who has rotator-cuff issues, of a landlord who has issues with pets in his buildings, of a bill up before Congress that poses jurisdictional issues. A weather reporter informs me that dressing warmly in a snowstorm is the main issue. The issue over reinstating the draft is whether soldiers serving only two years can be of serious military use.
A report from the battlefield in the war on clichésJan 26, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 19 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
"Mother,” asks 10-year-old Johnny upon returning from school, “do I have a cliché on my face?”
“A cliché on your face? Whatever do you mean, Johnny?”
“A cliché,” he answers, “you know, a tired expression.”
Joseph Epstein, Yeah Man
Jan 19, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 18 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I once appeared on a panel at the National Endowment for the Humanities with two women who talked about the importance of their secondary education. One was German and spoke reverently of the gymnasium she was fortunate enough to attend. The other, an American, spent her adolescence in France and mentioned her deep debt to the lycée that gave her so sound a grounding in the classics. When my turn came, I remarked how I envied them, and allowed that I had myself gone to a public high school in Chicago notable for its disadvantaged teachers.
Herodotus and the human dimension in the pastOct 20, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 06 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Herodotus, the first Greek and thereby the first Western historian, had bad press long before there was anything resembling a press. Aristotle referred to him as a “story-teller,” which was no honorific. What he meant was that Herodotus made things up, another word for which is “liar.” Thucydides had little good to say about Herodotus and thought his attempt to recapture the long-gone past foolhardy.
Joseph Epstein; a fan's notes.Oct 13, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 05 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Sometime in mid-February, after the long winter, baseball fans are delighted to read, usually over a two-paragraph-long story buried beneath the fold in the sports pages, the tag line Pitchers and Catchers Report. They are reporting, of course, to spring training two or three weeks ahead of the rest of their teams, and the announcement bodes the first news of the lengthy and leisurely baseball season ahead.
Joseph Epstein contra voguishnessJul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
In past years I have taken to print to attack two words—focus and icon—that drove me bonkers. Focus, a metaphor from the world of cameras and microscopes, replaced the words concentrate and emphasize. Suddenly everywhere ballplayers lost their focus, students were encouraged to find theirs, schools, companies, nations began focusing on this or that problem. Hocus-pocus, I used to -mutter to myself, please, drop the focus. Nobody did, and the word today has still not lessened in popularity.
Joseph Epstein sees himself through four eyes.Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Of late, the last four years or so, I rarely go out for long without being praised. I am praised not for my writing, my perspicacity, my elegant bearing, my youthful good looks, my extreme modesty, but for my eyeglasses. “Nice glasses,” strangers say to me. “Like your glasses,” they say. “Love those glasses,” is a refrain I hear at least once a week. “Where did you get those glasses?” people wearing glasses of their own often ask me. “Thank you for your kind words about these glasses,” I have taken to answering. “They are my best feature.”
Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
Our friend and contributor Joseph Epstein once called himself a “serious dilettante,” which he defined as “someone who feels he needs to know nearly everything, but not all that much of any one thing in particular and certainly nothing in the kind of depth that will weigh him down.”
Erich Auerbach and the understanding of literature. Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
T.S. Eliot thought that the first requisite for being a literary critic is to be very intelligent. The second, I should say, is to have a well-stocked mind, which means having knowledge of literatures and literary traditions other than that into which one was born; possessing several languages; and acquiring a more than nodding acquaintance with history, philosophy, and theology—to be, in brief, learned. To be both highly intelligent and learned is not all that common. Eliot claimed for himself—and this by implication, for he was a modest man—only the former.