Friday, January 27, 2012

Starbucks and the Inner Id

All day long, I am responsible. I see the world through the prism of someone who has been a mom for almost a decade and basically done pretty  much the same work with the same people for more than  15 years. What that means is that I am boring in certain respects. I eat my greens, work out quite a bit, keep a clean house, and go on date nights with my husband. I am boring---except I’m not. I too have an inner id---an id that I don’t let out very much. Not sure why. It won’t hurt anybody. I feel the safest place to observe my inner id is the safe sanctum of a nice café in a large city. But when I walk out those doors---oh well, I once again become the me that I’ve been all these years. Nice, responsible, disciplined, happy, kind of boring me. How about you? Can you tell me about your inner id???

From January 26, 2011
I have had a pretty tough day. I’ve been working hard, copy writing on demand all day. Trying to basically write a 12-page custom publication in a couple of days. I’m in downtown Manhattan. But I’ve stopped off at Starbucks. There is a barista with the highest cheekbones I’ve ever seen. She is ethnically unidentifiable and stunningly beautiful. She is a perfect size 2. Definitely under 25—and she is completely unselfconscious. When she takes an order, she simply looks at you with her expanding eyes and in a very matter-of-fact, professional-barista way asks what you want. She is exceptional because she is not narcissistic or trying to be cool or appealing. For that reason alone, she would be a good role model for my daughter, I think. The guy in front of me gets a cappuccino. His friend gets water.  I get a 3-pump grande skim chai—which for the record has caffeine.

All day, I have been thinking about this character Felicity in Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart.” At 18, the man who promised to marry her went off and married someone else, shocking her into  lifelong sadness and an endless search for love. As a maid, Felicity was involved in caring for other people’s children, who eventually either died or abandoned her. She fell in love with God and eventually with a parrot. When the parrot died she had it stuffed, and even as she herself lay dying, she focused on the parrot, worrying about its eternal soul. I wish Felicity had been able to come to Starbucks and find soulmates or friends to hang out with---to cure the loneliness of the French countryside.

As I sit here in lower Manhattan, there are lots of people catching up, talking about when they got married, how they met their spouses, whether they should go to CUNY Law School, their fascination with feather earrings. There is a man of indeterminate age, probably in his 50’s, with one of those hats that looks like he just got back from skiing in the Alps. His scarf is plaid. He is wearing high-end running shoes and frayed faded denim jeans, eating oatmeal, wearing hipster glasses and texting.  He is not at all unappealing. Since I am writing about him, I keep looking at him and now he is looking at me too. I am nondescript today, wearing a navy blue suit. Basically sitting here working. He is not wearing a wedding ring, but he is toting a backpack---a sign that he is happily engaged with his work, I assume.

 Across the street is Dunkin’ Donuts with its bright orange and red lighting. It looks like it would be painful to sit in there. One would need sunglasses for sure. And above that there is a sign for breast mammography and medical/dental/podiatry. All of this is housed in a post-war,  tan building with green-trimmed windows. I can imagine that there are many women who go for a mammogram and come to Starbucks for a latte afterward. Or perhaps they go get their teeth whitened and come for a hot chocolate to get rid of the taste. Perhaps they work in one of the nondescript offices doing something terribly creative. I wonder about all of those people. This sea of humanity whose lives intersect at one corner and who congregate in one of the two largest coffee chains in the northeast (and in the case of Starbucks in the world).

It’s raining. There are so many young people milling about with coffee and bags and umbrellas, and so many middle-aged people who look incredibly young. And so many people drinking coffee whose eyes widen each time they take a sip. I should be rushing home, but I’m not. I’m going to go order more coffee now.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coffee & Politics 2012

Coffee’s universal popularity is indisputable. Most people love it. According to information collected and reported in a recent issue of National Geographic (see graphic inset), coffee is the 2nd most recognized smell in the world. It is widely loved for its utility, ability to enhance functional capacity, and its taste. When we’re down it picks us up and it even makes us healthier.

Today is a big day politically. It’s unclear where the Republican primaries will net out as both Romney and Gingrich consolidate their popularity among voters. Add to that, the excitement of Obama’s State of the Union address, which is expected to address economic concerns and the need for more jobs, and it’s clear that the United States is geared up for lots of café talk.

Coffee has always been part of the American political landscape. During the Boston Tea Party in 1773, drinking coffee was patriotic. As the nation was being formed, the founding fathers got together in coffeehouses and strategized. Coffee continued to be popular during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Coffee was also included in the ration pack sent with soldiers as part of their combat ration packs during World War 1 (1914-18) and World War 2 (1941-45).

Coffee is the great equalizer. Factory workers drink coffee, as do bankers, as do artists, and even gemologists. We owe a lot to the factory workers of the 1940’s who first insisted on being able to take a “coffee break” in order to get a respite from the intensity of their jobs.

Every day, my friends and I drink coffee. We discuss our children, our work, our health, our lives. And we do it over coffee---because in the final analysis, everything is political.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our Annual MLK Party: Coffee, Justice, and Lip Gloss

Every year, we have a party called “Drinking Coffee (and Hot Chocolate) in Honor of MLK, Jr.” We get together on what is almost always a cold night and drink hot drinks, listen to music, talk, and let the kids play. It’s a nice way to acknowledge the holiday. Though one year some of the kids read parts of King’s most famous speech (“I Have a Dream”--- the one that he delivered in Washington, D.C. in 1963) out loud, we don’t generally recite quotes or watch youtube videos of Dr. King or anything like that. Basically, it’s just another party in Montclair. A typical multiracial groupfest with dogs and cats wandering about and lots of kids running around---some with parents of different races, others with parents of the same gender, some with parents from similar ethnic backgrounds, but radically different backgrounds in other ways. Many married people and some single people. People with children and without children. People from every part of the United States and the world.

I chose the coffee-drinking theme not only because I know that coffee is a form of community glue---and that it is healthy and invigorating---but also because Dr. King liked coffee. In fact, he drank coffee as part of his writing process. The idea of Dr. King fretting over a blank piece of paper and drinking coffee is incredibly humanizing. While he has become an icon, he was a person—a person who got married, had kids, drank coffee, and probably did not plan to die in his 30’s.

It has often bothered me that I don’t know the words to the “I Have a Dream” speech by heart. It stands as one of the greatest prose pieces in the history of American writing. As a writer, I am dazed by Dr. King’s mastery of our beautiful American language. His use of metaphor and point/counterpoint exposition. Yet, I am deeply pained by the imagery that his language evokes. That of the “sweltering summer of discontent” and people languishing in the “dark and desolate valley of segregation” waiting to get to “the sunlit path of racial justice.”

These beautifully assembled words reflect an awful reality---a huge opportunity cost. The price paid by all of the people who went through sweltering summers and never enjoyed a day at the beach—metaphorical or otherwise. People who wanted to read and never had an opportunity to. People who worked in tortuous jobs, because those were the only jobs available. People who woke up day after day only to deal with the psychic strife that accompanies the legacy of years of racism and other types of discrimination. Those who missed the mark---not because they weren’t up to the task at hand---but because they never even had a chance to try. The door to success was closed---and failure was a foregone conclusion.

At our party, after we had marveled over interesting toys, discussed ways to support a family facing a medical challenge, compared different gyms, and debated the merits of being on or off of facebook, I lamented that I had not prepared any MLK-related activities for the kids. What was the point really? Some kids were busy drawing pictures or walking on stilts downstairs while the adults watched the Giants game on TV. Some were upstairs playing in my daughter’s room, secretly putting on lip gloss or playing some tween-oriented online game. Others were on the main floor, sitting at the table in the dining room trying to get every last drop of fat-free organic whipped cream out of the container. All told, we were in the midst of living out one version of Dr. King’s dream in a completely relaxed unselfconscious way.

Then we took a couple of group photos. As the photographer took the shot, we held our coffee cups up and said, “I have a dream.”During that moment, there was absolutely no sense of irony---only a sense of transitory magic. People complain that MLK day has been reduced to a set of tropes and clichés. However, I think that the “I have a dream” speech, the MLK holiday, and all of the related symbolism serve as reminder of the need to be mindful of the idea of justice. Justice.

Although the kids don’t totally get it yet, there are at least 100,000 acts of justice that created all of the circumstances that made that party possible. It’s mind-boggling to really think it through. When the kids were out doing service projects the next day, they were holding up signs with photos of MLK, Jr. on them. They were performing small acts of justice. I am certain that they were waiting to finish, so they could get back to the things they wanted to do. I am also sure that they felt that calm quiet sense of satisfaction that comes with service. It’s all good. What matters is that these small acts of justice are done at all. It all adds up to something. Even if it just means putting a hot mug of coffee in someone’s hands so they have the energy and drive to try again. Or putting a hot mug in someone’s hands to simply welcome them in.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Shout out to a Coffee House in Bahrain: Where Lattes and Tear Gas Mix

Although the Kingdom of Bahrain is renowned for its pearls and oil, as well as its World Trade Center and Financial Harbor, it is also getting attention for how the ongoing Arab Spring Revolution has been playing out here.

One of the hotspots of the uprising it turns out is Costa Coffee, a café in the capital city of Manama.

In an article published in the New York Times on December 29, 2001 with the title “A Haven for Dissent in Bahrain, Where Lattes and Tear Gas Mix,” Adam Ellick writes about Bahrainis who get together at Costa Coffee not only to drink coffee and eat sweet treats with their friends and families—even bringing their children—but also to protest the lack of democracy in their tiny island nation of 1.23 million people.

What’s the issue? According to Ellick, “The island is governed by a Sunni family, the Khalifas, with ties not only to Washington, but to Riyadh. The country is majority Shiite.” The Bahraini Shiites complain of systematic discrimination, exclusion, and lack of access to jobs, education, and positions of influence. It is an unfortunate example of a common problem. There have also been reports of torture and killings of dissidents.

The desire for justice is universal and the lack of justice that has emboldened people all around the world also encourages them to seek community. Where? In cafés and coffee houses.

At Costa Coffee, coffee-drinkers are regularly disrupted by militia wielding tear gas and seeking to scare them and inflict harm. But people keep coming back for more coffee and more community. Costa has become a command center of sorts for intellectuals and government protesters, who tweet their messages about what’s going down in the streets of Manama

Fear has been transmogrified by a sense of purpose and community. Coffee undoubtedly has had an energizing and focusing effect, providing a sense of well-being and warmth in the face of government-sponsored tyranny. Ellick writes, “This surreal scene in which activists gather at a high-speed café with high-speed Internet to a backdrop of tear gas illustrates the contradictions of Bahrain---a cosmopolitan, successful banking center with a well-educated population that is facing crushing repression and sectarian tension."

Bahrainis love to drink lattes with gingerbread syrup...Here's to their ability to achieve their societal goals in a nonviolent way---and to drink coffee in good health and in peace.