Archive for the ‘coffeeshop chronicles’ Category
In my neighborhood, coffee shops are overrun by people on laptops. Baristas put signs on tables pleading for courtesy, the places that have zero tolerance rules feel extreme, and the New York Times reports on us under the headline “Destination: Laptopistan”. For the freelancers, the appeal is free WiFi. For me, it’s the promise of a sanctuary from online life.
While meditating on this coffee shop life of mine, one free from Twitter “interactions,” time-sucking Internet memes, and the endless flow of information, I came across a quote from Lynda Barry, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” A tidy aphorism with great timing.
When I was in college I had a zine. I created it mainly by hand. All I had was a word processor — the electric typewriter kind — scissors, and glue. It felt good to sit on my floor, listen to music, and create something physical. It’s been nearly 10 years since I’ve done anything like that. Now, with websites and blogs, there’s no reason to go through the hassle. Believe me, there’s a lot to be thankful for but we also lose something in this neat way of publishing.
In his book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, artist Austin Kleon, in the chapter ‘Step Away from the Screen,’ where the Lynda Barry quote can be found, explores the work habits of illustrator and cartoonist Tom Gauld: once the computer is involved “things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.”
Anyone who’s sat down to a blank page, pen in hand, knows there’s a certain amount of freedom in it. When I stare at a clean, unlined sheet of paper I wonder what will happen. How will my thoughts manifest? In words? Pictures? Both? When I edit on paper, or when I work out an idea in longhand, all sorts of things creep in that are impossible to replicate onscreen — grammatical cues that only I understand, words circled and heavily retraced either for emphasis or while daydreaming, and blatant disregard for margins and linear composition.
It’s easy to overlook the limitations humans face when drawing a straight line. Now that much of our work, often from start to finish, is done on computer, where perfection is possible, we demand exactness. “The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us,” Austin says. “We start editing ideas before we have them.” While I don’t have the scientific background to support it, I’m the type of person who likes to think there’s some neurological significance to these dueling processes. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only that both need our attention.
My weekend mornings are spent on the computer, alternating between writing and allowing whatever shiny, virtual object of the moment to pull me away. After the third hour of disjointed creative focus I pack up my books and head out the door. It would be easy to stay inside that sterile world, the hours dissolving into the ether with each distraction, but as online has become our default location, it’s more important than ever to consciously engage with something tangible. Austin suggestions two desks, one analog and one digital, but for those of us with limited space and deficient willpower, a coffee shop offers a unique space away from the online world. If it weren’t for coffee shops, I’d be just another casualty of the delete key. Austin’s book is a great reminder as to why we should never let that happen.
there’s no lack of starbucks in this city. you trip over them like you would a tree root or fallen branch in the mountains of montana. they’re on every corner—threatening to turn us all into ‘grande, skinny, no-whips’. yikes. lucky for new yorkers there are some great indie coffeeshops in between.
tucked away in the east village is a place that almost allows you to forget the crowded hustle of city-life. east 1st street between 1st and 2nd ave is a special place, especially when walking west and the tropical hut kicks off your oh-so short journey down the block. just a few few feet away from the hawaiian-motifed juice shack is one of my favorite coffee spots: bluebird coffee shop.
part of 1st street’s beauty is its lack of function for motorized vehicles: it’s not easily accessible and, with houston street running one block parallel, it’s useless. if that weren’t enough, a park sits opposite shielding it from the traffic. the smallness of the coffeeshop, along with its dark wood paneling, makes it a cozy retreat. the baristi* are always friendly and you’re guaranteed to hear good music. i’m happy sitting either inside, when there’s room at the few scattered tables, or out front at their 4-seater bar.
during my most recent visit, there was a lull in the usually-consistent stream of coffee drinkers and i had a chance to speak with the baristi. they confirmed my suspicion that this is one of the greatest places to spend your time and money. unlike starbucks, the music you’ll hear at bluebird depends on the person working. ive heard some great tunes there that have made me ask what was playing. not only was the guy behind the counter happy to tell me who it was, he even spelled out the artist’s hard-to-pronounce name. today, black friday, there was christmas music but it wasnt obnoxious—it was some warm, soulful jazzy type stuff. at one point a little girl, about 5 years old, got up and did some ballet moves across the then-empty wood floor. the barista said that there’s an overwhelming amount of 70s soul music played at the cafe.
bluebird is intentionally comfortable; and while i would think most places strive for this same ideal, bluebird achieves it. as mentioned, it’s a small place and their seating arrangement forces you to engage your fellow coffee drinkers but since the place is so mellow and the servers so cheery, the customers, strictly by association, appear approachable: of course they’ll move their bag and no, they wouldn’t mind if you took the empty seat next to them.
bluebird does not survive on charm alone—even fantastic customer service has its limits; they keep their steady stream of loyal fans by serving some of the best coffee in this city and baking their goods on the premise. using stumptown coffee roasters, their espresso is so smooth and chocolatey it can only be called undeniable. and yes, they have soymilk.
cortado: espresso with a small amount of warm milk. served in a small glass.
macchiato: espresso with a small amount of hot milk. served in an espresso cup.
irish soda bread if you want something subtle but if you want something sweet, try the chocolate cookie praised as “perfect”.
*the american plural for ‘barista’ is baristas while in italian it’s baristi for male and mixed sex. i’m going italian on this one.
sunday, 11:15am : communal table at coffeeshop
they have copies of a few newspapers on the communal table every morning for people to read. some old magazines are thrown in as well. by 10am the sections are scattered, corners tinted with the color of coffeestain and pages warped from dried spills.
it had rained all morning and finally, there was a break. not a very positive looking one but a break nonetheless. it seemed a few of us had taken the opportunity to get out of our apartments but still, the place wasn’t as crowded as usual.
the woman next to me was reading the new york times – the paper of the neighborhood – although i have caught a few hipsters reading the Post in earnest. the sections unread were still looped around each other, giving the sunday edition that substantial, all-day-affair look. the sections discarded we neatly to the left, unraveled and tamed. the front page of Business was facing up, showing it’s full-length, above-the-fold photo. i couldn’t clearly see what the picture was but it almost looked like two businessmen in the middle of an island-blue lightshow.
i went back to reading my book and only looked up again when i noticed a man standing between us – his back to me and him gesturing to her. i couldn’t make out what he was saying but i assumeed from the way he was pointing to the the newspaper, he wanted a piece of it. ‘sure,’ said the woman in a nasally, yet warm french accent, ‘but i would like them back.’ ‘oh,’ said the man. he was, at first, taken aback but then realized the paper belonged to her – it wasn’t the table’s in pre-mangled form.
he’d approached her as if he was asking for what was rightfully his: the paper that she appeared to be hoarding. i assumed that she was put off by his tone but, being french, was accustom to sharing her paper at a local cafe. slightly embarrassed by his mistake but more concerned with finding something to read without strings attached, he distanced himself from her personal space while saying, ‘no no, it’s ok’. He reached out for the day-old arts section and went back to his single table.
the incident hung over us like the cloud-laden sky outside. i wanted to catch her eye, shrug and say something like, ‘he thought it was the table’s.’ but then i thought that would only create more confusion and i would either have to leave her more confused, mentally scarred by two people instead of one, or i would wind up explaining it, in full, possibly losing her at some point and annoying everyone else around us. so i kept my mouth shut but i wondered if she’d figured it out.
then she got up, the two newspaper sections in hand and walked over to the guy’s table. i’m sure in her cute, little french manner she pleaded with him to take the paper, that she didn’t mean to offend him – or something that like, maybe overcompensating for the perceived notions that americans have of the french. but she came back, papers in hand and placed them back on the table – the lightshow, bursting with shades of blue, caught my eye and for a very short moment, i thought asbout asking her for the Business section.