Coffee shop or coffee … house?

A good book makes you do something, and reading about the old coffee shops in Vienna made me want to go to Austria and get some coffee. With the exception of full carbon that is 100% carbon and made exclusively of carbon, few things are more important to underwear bicycle riders than coffee. But Vienna is far and Los Angeles has lots of coffee shops, so why cross the ocean for something you can easily get right around the corner?

The answer is long. #sorrynotsorry

The Vienna Coffeehouse

Once upon a time, the legend goes, Vienna was the world’s center for coffeehouses. The greatest writers, artists, actors, politicians, and financiers of Europe could be found at their favorite coffeehouse, conducting business, arguing, reading, romancing, discussing, holding forth, snorting cocaine, observing, in short doing anything but drinking coffee. This was the Viennese coffeehouse, a place for the “vagabond and footloose nomad who didn’t like to leave home.”

As I read through the book I jotted down notes that captured the essence of the people and the times better than anything I could regurgitate or plagiarize.

  • One famed writer always refused to move outdoors when the weather warmed and his favorite coffeehouse opened its garden terrace. For years his friends begged him to leave the hot and stuffy indoors during the summer months, but he never budged. Then one day a man hurled himself from the fifth floor of the hotel above the coffeehouse, crashing onto a table in the garden and nearly killing a guest. “See?” said the famed writer. “That’s why I never take my coffee outside.”
  • “The only pleasure I ever gave my parents was nine months before my birth.”
  • “Words are never so right as those written for the eyes of one.”
  • “You’ll be my guest at the Royal Hotel tonight! Assuming I can find someone to invite us.”
  • “I’d never do him the honor of sponging off him.”
  • “When your last name is ‘Cow’ and you want to be taken seriously, you’d best act like a bull.”
  • “It was his incomprehensible fortune that made him a beggar.”
  • “It was the laboratory of the destruction of democracy.”
  • “He was divorced, like every educated person.”
  • “And it ground the mass of humanity into soulless materiele.”
  • “She was like a burned up piece of paper made entirely of ash but retaining its shape, waiting only for the tap of a finger to crumble into formlessness.”
  • “Nothing makes a renegade quicker than money.”
  • “Man accustoms himself to nothing so quickly as comfort.”
  • “He sat there forced to do what so many before him had done, the choice not his but the Muse’s.”
  • “This is the place where Karl Kraus used to sit and so studiously read the newspapers, which he hated.”
  • “If you’re in a coffee shop the coffee is the goal, but if you’re in a coffeehouse, the coffee is the means.”

The Los Angeles coffee shop (cyclists, take note)

A couple of days ago I did Intelligentsia the dishonor of insulting its atmosphere and clientele. I made fun of its ridiculous customers, its jangling atmosphere, and its inhospitability.

The fool, however, was I, because a coffee shop is not a coffeehouse, just like a strand cruiser is not a time trail bike. Unlike the coffeehouse, whose existence has little if anything to do with coffee, the coffee shop is all about coffee. You buy it, you pay too much for it, you drink it, you pose a bit, and you get the hell out and make way for the next patron. Plus, you have somewhere else to go pose. The coffeehouse is a state of mind; the coffee shop is a state of mindlessness with a profit motive. In fact, if you are staring around wondering “How does this shabby place possibly stay in business?” you may well be in a coffeehouse, although you may also simply be in a crappy coffee shop about to go under.

On reflection, no place could possibly be better for cyclists than the Center of the Known Universe, the Starbucks on Highland and Manhattan Beach overlooking the pier and the Pacific Ocean. Where better to preen, flex, gab, and look at the people who are also looking at you? Where better to quaff an espresso or, better yet, a quattro? And where else is it 65 and sunny in February?

But if Starbucks isn’t your fancy, then Intelligentsia or Zinque or Nikau Kai or Dogtown Coffee or that place in Santa Monica where the coffee is made with butter should be. These places all define themselves based on what they sell and how it tastes, and they provide a venue to strut your stuff, or at least to hide in a corner and watch while others strut theirs, but please don’t do it for very long even though we do have wi-fi.

But what if you want a coffeehouse? And what is a coffeehouse, by the way, really?

What a coffeehouse is, really

For starters, and for most folks enders, a coffeehouse is a place with mediocre coffee. No one goes to a coffeehouse to drink something out of a cup with this description:

As the cold air rides in on the north wind Borealis and settles in for the season, warm yourself with our new winter blend. Our inaugural Borealis blends three sizzling coffees from Africa and reminds us of butterscotch, candied ginger and plum jam. [That’s a real description from Intelligentsia, by the way.]

People go to a coffeehouse to scrounge around. To lay about. To waste time and while away the day, and perhaps to talk with an acquaintance or, best of all, to wash down the taste of the mediocre coffee with a cigarette or three.

Nothing, however, defines a coffeehouse like books. In short, if books are not strewn about, or if someone isn’t lounging on a broken sofa reading “Dianetics,” then you’re not at a coffeehouse. And if everyone is hunched over a phone or iPad or laptop, you’re not at a coffeehouse either, unless it’s clear that most of the people are looking at each other or, better yet, the walls. In Los Angeles, the true coffeeshop has at least one patron who’s never written a screenplay, book, or poem, never acted, never played guitar, never developed an app or had an idea for a new social media app, and never tried to surf, but who looks like he might have done each of those things professionally before he stopped shaving in 1983.

The coffeehouse close to home

It didn’t take long for me to find a coffeehouse, and better yet I didn’t have to fight the killing traffic on the 405 to get there. No sir, right down the hill was a place that fit the bill to a “T.”

I walked in and noted that the place actually smelled like coffee. It was quiet, old, worn, and dumpy, and my “here” order came in a permanently stained mug that, with a little effort, could easily have been chipped. But what told me in no uncertain terms that I was in a coffeehouse were the books. Hundreds of them were lined up in bookshelves, and as you’d expect they were books of the worst sort, old, pawed through with ratty covers, and left behind only because donation required less effort than tossing them in the trash.

More than the overflow of bad books, however, were the actual human beings reading them. What could be weirder than people reading books in public, unashamedly?

In the background Wes Montgomery slid up and down the guitar neck, and muted, first-class mediocre jazz standards ensured that you wouldn’t have to leap out of your chair at the first lyric of a rapper fucking his girl. A big, algae-stained aquarium made splishing noises that further drowned out the mindless conversations that no one was having, and if they were, that you couldn’t overhear.

Deep leather chairs and ugly velour sofas, long past their expiration dates, sucked the patrons in like quicksand; uncomfortable and mismatched, they were hard in the wrong places and not soft in the right ones. Commanding the generally degenerate scene was no barista, perish the thought, but rather a part-time dude in a t-shirt “making coffee.” And however sketch his coffee knowledge was, he knew the names of the customers and, more impressively, was able to make their drink without even asking. He had a vaguely foreign accent that sounded like “no work visa.”

Bad photos from local photographers were interspersed with ugly artwork from local artists, all overpriced, and none appeared to have been purchased in years judging from the geological strata of dust along the top edge of the frames. The bathroom was washed in graffiti, none of it obscene. A woman was giving French lessons to a Japanese student; scroungers were smoking outside on the terrace; strange looking old men hunched over their coffee while scrolling through Facebook … but best of all was the dumpy fellow with the smell of stale armpits who sat on the couch and stared out the plate glass window for more than an hour, unmoving.

This coffeehouse had Stammgäste, regulars who plainly loathed human contact but who craved the society of others, nomads who preferred to stay home. In sum, a coffeehouse is a place where you can go in with nothing but a book and some pocket change, although I dare you. A coffeehouse is vaguely tattered in all its particulars, made uncomfortable by everything that has passed from broken-in to simply broken, but it exceeds anything you could possibly lounge in that is new or comfortable.

I pulled my book up over my nose and sipped my brackish brown water, lightened with a bit of foam, as I read the Gothic letters: “It began to rain softly, quietly, like silent tears.”

END

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2 thoughts on “Coffee shop or coffee … house?”

  1. In the 50s I was a teenager and I remember beatnik coffeehouses in San Fran and Sausalito. The inhabitants would sit looking depressed and glare back if you looked at them. Seems to fit the bill.

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