Not exactly Central Perk

New York coffee shops might have predictable food and plastic décor, but their warmth and friendliness will be sadly missed.

George Blecher

Topics Politics

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A couple of weeks ago, my favourite coffee shop disappeared. One day it was filled with customers, waitresses and the smell of hamburger grease, the next day locked and shuttered, a victim of rampant urban development. One of my provisional homes, the only kind we seem to have left in these times of heartless rents and downsized workplaces, was torn overnight from my life. Now when I get up in the mornings, I have to choose between preparing a boring breakfast, or dragging myself to one of the remaining coffee shops in the neighbourhood – dreary places filled with strangers.

New York coffee shops, a misnomer for cheap restaurants with interchangeable menus, aren’t exactly known for their décor or cuisine. Unlike British pubs or French cafés, where soft seats and wood paneling can help nurture a feeling of coziness or Bohemian informality, the décor of most New York coffee shops is formica/plastic; usually the booth seats are patched up with duct tape, and the colour scheme ranges from pink to grey. Generally the food isn’t any more interesting than the decor. Even the menus are encased in plastic, which is an unnecessary precaution since by adolescence every New Yorker knows the choices by heart.

But the atmosphere! The coziness! My particular ‘Café/Restaurant’ – a name that my son and I gave it, because its neon sign only illuminated those words, not its actual name – was run, like similar places, by hairy-chested, warm-hearted Greeks who spend half the year in the States and the other half back home. For the past few years, the owner turned his back on immigration regulations and hired as waitresses pretty Eastern European girls right off the boat – which, come to think of it, wasn’t that strange, since all the busboys and kitchen help were illegal immigrants from South and Central America anyway.

At least half the customers were older people, retirees with time to kill and a need for company. After a few visits, you began to recognize and eventually trade greetings with the group of old guys at the counter talking baseball, the poet making notes in her black and white mottled notebook, the retired teachers sampling each other’s food, the gaggles of older women, either hefty and big-bosomed or as fragile as butterflies. It wasn’t unusual to see a waitress sitting in a booth with her favourite customers, or to overhear Gus or Janni arguing politics with the men wearing Yankee baseball caps. My breakfast of half-grapefruit-tomato-eggwhite-omelet-rye-toast-butter-on-the-side was usually waiting on the table before I sat down.

Descended from earlier democratic gathering-places like the drugstore soda-fountain of the mid-20th century and the general store cracker-barrel of a century before, the coffee shop is fast disappearing from the New York scene. Try to find one these days in mid-town Manhattan. Before you have time to blink, they’re converted to take-out food shops with a few sullen counter-men and dry sandwiches in plastic wrapping – places where there’s no time or space to sit and talk, or personalise one’s order the way Meg Ryan did years ago in those charming scenes in When Harry Met Sally. In take-out food venues, eating is no longer about digesting and socializing; rather, it’s an unpleasant intrusion on work, a quick pit-stop in the middle of the race.

It strikes me that the demise of coffee shops is the latest example of what one could call the de-intimisation of contemporary culture, a phenomenon that Robert Putnam touched on a few years ago in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Think of how the group experience of watching drama has evolved over the past century through film and TV to watching videos on cellphone screens: not only has the vista shrunk, but sharing the experience with other people has been eliminated. Think of the ever-increasing number of people working at home, or spending all day relating only to computer screens. Think of the tirelessly cheerful robotic telephone voices that we have to put up with every day, and how we cringe before making the simplest call, which most young people have eliminated anyway, in favour of text messages.

Some companies are unreachable by any means, even email; they exist in a creepy, self-contained space, where isolation is a natural, even preferred, way to live. Those haunting images of empty streets patrolled by robot cars popularised by science-fiction writers like Ray Bradbury in the 1950’s aren’t so much literally as emotionally accurate; they’re pictures of how we’ve come to regard human contact.

Embedded in this de-intimisation of culture, I sense both a fear of the mess and slowness of human relations, and an exaggerated faith in a mindless version of Efficiency: whatever a robot or computer does is by definition more efficient than what a human can do. Not that this is exactly a new concept: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times made merciless fun of it almost a century ago. But what I think is new is our readiness to accept the idea, and our assumption that values like warmth, security, kindness, friendliness, dependability have no place in the workplace, or even in customer service: the only value that we hold dear is monetary value.

Even if no-one rises up in protest, there do seem to be consequences of this social coldness. I recently read that half the fathers in the US would gladly change places with their wives and stay home with their kids if they could afford to – their workplaces have become that alienating and unfulfilling. In this kind of atmosphere, it’s not hard to imagine a future where McDonald’s is the only inexpensive place to sit down and eat, and where the chatter of teenagers behind the counter will be the only human music available to lonely people.

These days, I bump into refugees from my coffee shop wandering the morning streets. They look dazed, disoriented. We stop and say hello, and trade scraps of rumor that the owner of Café/Restaurant has found a new space a few blocks away, and will re-open in the fall. We don’t really believe it, because we know how prohibitive rents are. Like students who’ve graduated college and now have to face the Big World, we wish each other luck and wander slowly off to less congenial settings that can’t replace the family we’ve just lost.

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Topics Politics


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