Coffeehouse Blues

Coffeehouse atmosphere ain’t what it used to be.

Why, I’ve frequented coffeehouses from Greenwich Village to San Francisco in my day…

Yjohnson.coffeeears ago, in the mid-70s when I lived in Manhattan, I did lounge about coffeehouses in the Village, particularly the chess coffeehouses. I was more interested in chess than coffee at that time, and between hanging out in Washington Park, and losing a few bucks against the street chessmasters playing on cardboard boxes along The Avenue of the Americas, I eventually had my fill of the chess hustlers. Chess hustlers are like pool hustlers, but worse.

I don’t recall the coffee establishments in Greenwich at that time sporting much of a variety of coffee drinks — the raspberry white chocolate lattés and mocha frappachino grandes with a twist we have today were sorely missing. Espresso was as fancy as it got.

It wasn’t until I arrived in San Francisco in the late 70s that I frequented a real coffeehouse and discovered lattés near the intersection of Noe and Market Streets.

I was down and out for about a year in San Francisco, living in a rooming house run by an elderly Chinese woman in the same area near Market Street. At one point I resorted to selling framed foil prints (perhaps you know the kind – a common one was an antique map of the world) door to door at doctors’ and lawyers’ offices. I was assigned a difficult territory by the perpetrator of this business, and then forced to buy the stock I sold. I may have even had to rent a huge portfolio briefcase to lug them around in. I managed to break even, just before I quit.

With the few bucks I’d saved from my sojourn in New York City I struggled for a while to write before that desperate time.  When I was massively stuck, as I so often was, I gravitated to the coffeehouse down the street.

Walk in the door and almost always I would be greeted by that hubhub, that buzz, that cacophony of crockery and human voices, laughter and exclamations that typifies the sound of the human animal gathered convivially together. Everybody being wired on coffee raised the frequency of course.

st johns chThere were paintings by local artists on the wall. People read, argued, laughed uproarishly. One bearded fellow, I observed, sat down and pored over arcane tomes on the game of go, the black and white stones diagrammed on every page. Eventually, one day I saw him bring in a small go board and stones and he played through games all by himself. Soon, he and another fellow played, cups of coffee in hand, in a quiet corner.

For some reason, although not a great go player myself, I invited myself to play a game with him, and although I lost fairly badly, there was a moment or two, in front of a small audience that sprang up, that I had him going, and that was enough for me.

Now when I go into a coffeehouse in Vancouver these days, there might be a voice or two, but usually it is somebody on a cellphone. At almost every table, or the long shelf against the window where people sit, each space is occupied by a solitary person and a laptop. Morning or evening, it’s not much different, almost no place to sit as everyone interacts with their computer together, rarely looking at or even noticing their neighbour.

One local coffee shop has increased their hours to around the clock, to better accommodate the influx of lonely people with their machines.

I often felt this myself, especially when I was a student on my own. In those years, go someplace where there’s people and read my book, study my text, write my essay — it was a good break from my room. But I could always count on at least the sight of other people making up for my lack of sociability or friends.

It reminds me of that science fiction story “The Machine Stops” written by E.M. Forster way back in 1909. A rebellious son wants to visit his mother in person rather than communicating with her through machines like everybody else. But his mother, grossly fat and confined to a chair by inactivity, and surrounded by technological and communication marvels satisfying every physical and emotional need, prefers not to come into actual contact with her son. It is a sad story and a cautionary one.

These days, rather than go to the coffeehouse for a semblance of human contact, I’d probably just stay home and surf the Web. Except, I still like lattés.

Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Remembering, Science Fiction

6 Comments on “Coffeehouse Blues”

  1. If it is not already being done, someone needs to start setting up Laptops Anonymous meetings. On my recent vacation many people were whacking their terribly portable machines when they ought to have been vacationing. Orwell would have been impressed. It made me feel oddly superior to have felt no urge to use a computer even though I use one just about every day at home.

  2. fencer Says:

    Yes, I feel that snobbishness too about the Laptoptonians… I spend enough time already, at work and home on computers, although I do hugely enjoy the computer as a toy.

    It’s similar to other modern equipment like Blackberries and Bluetooth phones snugged against the ear: chains as much as conduits of information.


  3. Nothing makes me crazier than the Bluetooth phones. Are we too afraid to be alone with our own thoughts?

  4. fencer Says:

    Yes, I get that I, Robot feeling everytime I see them.

    And not to forget iPods and similar devices… people blithely strolling through traffic, nodding their heads to the beat, like a deaf version of Mr. Magoo.

    I think there’s something to your aloneness hypothesis…


  5. K Says:

    It’s time to join a Philosopher’s cafe and talk to real people with real (but not necessarily valid) ideas. It stimulates the brain especially if you don’t agree with everyone; and it beats the insularity of computer addictions.
    Were I to paint portraits as a sign of the times as a record for posterity, I would paint them of people glued to their gizmos.
    Just take a bus and note the number of people plugged in to some device that terminates in their ear. You can’t walk down the street without seeing some person deformed at the neck by listening to their telephone, permanently walking with their head cocked to one side. And God forbid (and the Motor Vehicle Branch as well) that one should take a phone call in a moving vehicle! There’s proof of it everywhere. Though proscribed, it seems like seventy-five percent of the motorists are holding one up to the ear, especially in intersections!
    NY and SF are great places to visit, but you made a smart move returning to British Columbia. It’s a fine place.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi K,

    Thanks for your thoughts…

    That is a good idea for sign-of-the-times imagery. I can see a photo series doing that well too.

    One of my brothers, who lives in the country, occasionally visits me, and he always remarks how many people are walking around talking to themselves… not sure if he means just the cell phone users.


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