Coffeehouse Blues

by Larkin Vonalt

It’s just a footed bowl, wide-mouthed and deep, filled with very strong coffee and nearly as much scalded milk. It’s not that complicated to make, but the leggy college students at every coffee house counter stare at me blankly when I ask if they serve it.

“I can give it to you in a mug,” one says, twirling her raspberry-colored hair around the end of her finger.  I can’t really explain why the bowl is an essential part of the equation. Some people will tell you that the French serve cafe au lait in these bowls so that they can dunk their baguettes in it, and maybe that’s the case. I don’t find the idea of a soggy baguette all that appealing, and anyway what I most remember from breakfast in Paris is bouncing the rubber-hard centers of the boiled eggs on the dining table.

So I just make the stuff at home, and I’m more or less content with that. I make the coffee in an old Krups espresso machine which isn’t quite adequate for actual espresso and scald the milk in a saucepan on top of the gas range. I have a stack of bowls from which to choose, and with the little espresso pot in my left hand and the milk in my right, I marry them in their bowl.

And anyway, I’m starting to think that coffee houses, like leather motorcycle jackets and Tom Verlaine concerts are something best relegated to the past. (What’s really depressing is that the first four musicians I wrote in that sentence are dead: The Clash (Joe Strummer), the Cramps (Lux Interior) Johnny Thunders, Alex Chilton. Godspeed, boys.) I’ve gotten too damn old.

Not yet realizing this, we stopped in for coffee at a recently opened Dayton coffee house last week. I had been intending to go there for some time, having long followed the accounts of their tribulations getting the doors open on their historic building in South Park. They have a lively, friendly Facebook page and through that have conjured a welcoming vibe. So how is it that I couldn’t wait to get out of there?

It wasn’t that I was the oldest, fattest, lumpiest least cool customer in the room. I wasn’t . And I didn’t get the feeling from the sweet young guys at the counter that they would judge. Much. But the selection process was bewildering, a funny combination of too much choice and not enough choice. Nothing seemed all that appealing, the seconds dragging by like so much dead air as they waited so patiently for me to decide. Of course there was no cafe au lait. When I ordered a macchiato, at long last, the boy behind the counter patiently explained to me that “it isn’t like Starbucks’ macchiato.”

It was in fact, a true macchiato and not like the oversweetened dreck that they serve at the ubiquitous place with the green circle.  I suppose there’s been some flack from customers who expect it to be like SB. So why not a description then, on the board? That way customers are forewarned, instead of the barista just assuming that the person doesn’t really know what they’re asking for.

At the Leaf and Bean, a rather egalitarian coffee house in Bozeman, Montana, the back wall is lined with enormous chalk boards bearing descriptions of every drink they sell– including my son’s childhood favorite, Cafe Francis: steamed milk with vanilla syrup, whipped cream and gummy bears. The boards served a dual purpose of giving customers something to peruse while they’re standing in line. But that was then.

We found a tiny table for two and pulled up another chair, perching there with our knees under our chins. Note to hipsters: if you want your current favorite coffee hole to stay open, stop taking up one of the six tables for hours on end while you write your opus on the laptop or play games on Facebook. The baristas may love you, but they really want you to drink your coffee and leave so that other customers don’t open the door and go “No room, let’s go to the other one.”

The macchiato arrived in its tiny cup, with a shot glass of sparkling water to cleanse the palate. My mother (70 something) and my son (17) were with me and it seemed the entire time like they were about ready to bolt. My son wouldn’t even deign to order anything, I suppose it was bad enough to just be in such a place with one’s Mom. I wanted to say how droll the sparking water was, but I thought the comment might precipitate an avalanche of negativity, so I just drank the macchiato, dull and uninspired on the palate, cleansed the same with sparkling water and said “Let’s go, shall we?”

Down the street about eight blocks– Dayton has another new coffee house, written up in Zagat’s as one of the “coolest” in the country. Some locals have noted that the “baristas”  seem aloof and arrogant. (A little sad for hipsters when working at a coffee shop hardly brings home enough to make the rent.) I wouldn’t even know what to wear to this place. I mean I have all manner of black tights and a little black dress from Sweden, but you know my Keen shoes are from last year.  And oh yeah, my hipness has long passed its expiration date. Sigh. There’s not a whole lot I’m afraid of, but I think I’m afraid of going in there to get a cup of coffee.

Coffee used to be simpler, I think. There was the Twin Peaks experience we yearned for:  “a damn fine cup of coffee” served alongside cherry pie.  In Italy, the coffee in open air trattorias was priced according to whether or not you planned to sit down. God help you if you paid the “carry it away” price and then changed your mind and took a seat. In Boston I had to learn what “regular” is — coffee with cream and sugar, and plenty of it. (If you just want cream that’s “light.” ) This is similar to the Canadian doughnut chain Tim Horton’s “Double-double” which has two creams, two sugars and crack in it. Okay, maybe the crack is just a rumour.

In Berlin by the wall, I staggered heartbroken up to an Imbiss kiosk everyday and asked for “Kaffee” and the man always gave me exactly the right thing. Coffee heals us– it shouldn’t have to be a trial just to get what you want, without a side of attitude. Years later in Boston I had to take my very elderly dog to be put to sleep. I was stoic until he was gone. Then I cried buckets. After that, the boy with me (whom I loved truly, madly) and I put the body of the dog in the trunk of the rental car and drove around the corner from the veterinarian’s to a Dunkin’ Donuts to drown our sorrows.

I blame Starbucks for the whole “barista” thing– and now, apparently, some coffee houses are boasting “competition level baristas.” Please, would someone just bring me a cup of coffee? It used to be that the people making you a coffee were bit players, an incidental walk-on in your search for succor in a cup. Less advisor-confessor than the bartender, but more high-profile than the woman who sold you your subway token. Now, you stand before them naked in your ignorance, trying to decide between a Kopi Luwak cappucino and  Antarctic French Roast Guillermo, and hoping to God you don’t look like a fool.

And all the while, I still can’t even get what I really want: comfort in a bowl-full of cafe au lait. Might as well stay home and make it myself. Sigh.