The Spirit of the Age
When M woke one Tuesday a few weeks into the New Year to discover three more coffee shops had opened up in his neighbourhood, he was perturbed.
“Harumph,” he said.
Still, he did need a morning cup of coffee, and so he chose one of the new places more or less at random and walked inside. It claimed to serve Estonian espresso, which M, having spent some time in Estonia, did not remember being a thing. The barista was a pretty, short, dark-haired girl with dimples and a poorly chosen nose ring. She seemed disappointed M didn’t want anything more complicated than drip coffee. January’s favourite song played on the radio.
M sat at an unfinished wooden table in an unmatched chair and tried to remember how many coffee shops there had been in his neighbourhoods when he had moved in a few months back. He decided to count his neighbourhoods as ending at Washington Avenue, although some would have said Vanderbilt would have been more appropriate, but if he went by Vanderbilt he’d be sitting there all day. Park Perk and Eskimo’s and Adieu’s and the Brown Bomber and Solomon’s Brew and Brokeland Coffee and Zummi’s and the Happy Werewolf made eight. Nine with that joint the Hasidim ran on Prospect that he never went into. Also, any of the innumerable restaurants in the area would serve you a cup of coffee, and most of the bars as well. And also the bodegas, which generally had a pot going and ran about one to a block. And, of course, M had his own coffee maker.
“Does that seem strange to you, at all?” M asked a man sitting next to him. “Three coffee shops opening in one day?”
The guy laughed. “What can I tell you? It’s Brooklyn.”
Which was true as far as it went, but still.
Heading out the next afternoon, he grabbed a cup of coffee at the joint across from his house. A week earlier, it was vacant, a fit haven only for roaches and crack addicts, but in the interval, it had been refurbished in what was someone’s idea of a Parisian salon circa 1920—though M had spent time in Parisian salons in the 1920s and didn’t remember them being so hatefully twee. It had two tables that could have comfortably sat a family of gnomes. It had a full set of Flaubert’s works, leather-bound, above the espresso machine.
The barista was a pretty, short, dark-haired girl with dimples and a badly chosen nose ring.
“Welcome to Marcel’s!” she said, happily. “What can I get started for you?”
M gave her a nasty look. “You don’t work here,” he said.
The girl laughed. “Why, of course I do!”
“No, you don’t. You work in that Estonian coffee shop. I saw you there yesterday.”
The girl laughed again. M got the feeling that he would get the same response with anything short of physical assault. M glowered at her a while, but he still ordered a large coffee with cream. It was delicious, though M bitterly resented that the only available seating was a repurposed antique barber’s chair.
When M walked outside of Marcel’s, he called Boy and asked if she had time to meet up, but Boy was crawling out of her bed in Williamsburg, a short eternity from Crown Heights, and so M had an hour to kill at least. If it had been later, he would have gone to a bar, and if it hadn’t been raining, he would have gone to the park. But it wasn’t later and it was raining, so he ended up just going early to the coffee shop at which he was to meet Boy. It had a rather strong nautical theme, which didn’t make sense on all sorts of levels. The internet connection was fast as lightning, the coffee as strong as a punch in the gut. The croissant he ate was flaky.
After Boy had been late thirty minutes, M decided to split, only to run into her outside, looking rather furious. Boy often looked rather furious, though in this case the target of her rage seemed to be M. “Where the fuck were you?”
“Where the fuck were you?” M asked. “The coffee shop at the corner of Washington and Park,” M said, pointing back at the way he’d come. “I’ve been sitting there for half an hour.”
Boy looked at M strangely for a moment, then pointed kitty-corner across the street to a cute little joint that hadn’t been there when he’d walked past an hour earlier. It had wide bay windows and comfortable-looking couches.
They went to get a beer at The Lady, which seemed like the safest choice.
“I saw this happen in the late ’70s,” Boy said. “Broadway was an unbroken string of disco joints from the Financial District to the Bronx. There was a three-month period when I had to trek out to Jersey to buy a pair of pants. But this kinds of aberration doesn’t last forever. It’ll straighten itself out eventually.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
Boy shrugged. “It’s not my neighbourhood.”
Crossing down Franklin the next morning, there were more new coffee shops than M could keep track of. Everyone he walked past seemed to be coming in or out of one of them—bodegas remained unvisited, boutique sandwiches uneaten, thrift stores unexplored. Walking past a black barbershop, M saw a line of empty swivel chairs, the proprietor looking out the window with big, dark, sad eyes. He held a razor in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. It was almost enough to tempt M out of apathy. Not quite, though.
Then, on Friday, M went to buy some fruit at the only decent supermarket within twelve blocks in any direction only to discover it, too, with an incongruousness M felt was clearly pushing the boundaries of coherent reality, had turned into a coffee shop. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked. Since he was inside of a small warehouse, all of the shelving jettisoned to make one large, open space, vacant except for a distant section in the back with a counter and some chairs, his question echoed louder than he intended. The twenty-odd berets typing away at their MacBooks looked up at him unhappily.
M snarled, set his shoulders, and strode right up to the barista, head down, like a bull to a matador, like a soldier ready for war. “I need to see the manager,” M said firmly. “Right now.”
“Of course, sir,” said the smiling ingenue working the register. “We’ll get him in just a moment.”
And sure enough a smiling man in a flannel shirt whisked his way out from the back and offered M his hand to pump. “I’m Nigel,” he said. “Is there something the matter?”
“Not you,” M said. “The real manager.”
M was still not quite sure if Nigel and all the rest of his staff and all the rest of the Nigels and all the rest of their staffs had had a Day of the Truffids pulled on them or if they were just side manifestations of whatever was at the heart of this unpleasant change. That they had some capacity for independent thought (apart from the uniform at least) seemed to be confirmed by the look of pure terror that Nigel gave to the cashier. “Look, man,” Nigel said, “I’m not sure that’s the best idea. He’s . . . awful busy.”
“Look, buddy, if I need a recommendation on which flavour macchiato to go with, I’ll drop you a line. Past that, I don’t need advice. I need you to take me to the man you answer to.”
Nigel shrugged and pointed at the door he just came through. “That way,” he said. “Isn’t a man, though.”
But M wasn’t listening. He unzipped his coat over dramatically and went to make trouble.
There was a moment after opening the door and walking through it wherein M wasn’t doing either of these things, when he was suspended in some strange netherworld, an instant that would have been terrifying if he had been capable of processing it, but since he wasn’t, it just seemed like a strange sort of blip in his mind, a scratch on an LP, snow flickering across an old television set.
“Come on in,” said the thing sitting behind the desk. “Can I pour you a cup of coffee?” Before M could answer, it had already decanted half a pot into an oversize ceramic cup and thrust it across the table.
“Thanks,” M said, taking a seat. He took a sip out of politeness. It was the best cup of coffee he had ever tasted.
“On the house!” the thing said. It was trying to look like a human and only partially succeeding. Its hair was hair until it got up close to its scalp, then became something that clearly wasn’t hair. It had a flannel shirt and a badly rendered beard. The tattoos running up its arms were straight gibberish, random symbols and letters that did not add up to words, and M could swear that the hands at the end of those arms switched between possessing four digits and five, shifting whenever he looked away. It had big, brown eyes, dark as—well, as a cup of coffee, though it annoyed M to have to think that. “Always happy to speak with a satisfied customer—and if you aren’t satisfied, then by golly, I’m going to satisfy you!”
The setting had the same not-quite-real feeling as the thing itself. There were bookshelves everywhere and books inside them, but if you looked closer you saw their spines were unlabelled, and M felt confident that if he had plucked one, it wouldn’t have opened or would have opened on blank text. The landscape outside was windblown and barren, as if you had built an office park in the middle of Siberia.
“First, I’d just like to tell you how much I love the new shop.” M had found that when it came to these strange deviations of reality, these ungainly manifestations of the zeitgeist that sprung up when the passions and prejudices and joys and miseries of the populace came in contact with whatever mystical current was required to give them some semblance of life, it was best to try to just explain the matter calmly, as to a child or a madman. Always being very conscious, of course, that children are cruel and madmen are mad, and that this particular tempestuous toddler or muttering transient could warp the foundations of existence in ways potent and incomprehensible.
“Thanks! It’s about the community, really—setting up a space for people to come together and do their art or work on the great problems that are facing society. To live up to the full potential they have inside them, all with the aid of nature’s most beneficent stimulant, the coffee bean.”
M took a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be easy. “And so many different franchises springing up . . .”
“How else to reflect the extraordinary diversity of the drink? From the common Ethiopian arabica, smooth-flavoured and casual, to the precious kopi luwak, brewed from beans fermented by the digestive process of the noble Asian palm civet, truly, there’s nothing like coffee.”
M looked at his cup. “Digestive process?”
“We only use beans that are taken from wild civets. Some of our competitors use tamed civets, which,” the thing shook his head back and forth, “well, you can imagine.”
“See, we believe that making good coffee is about more than just giving someone a smile while going about their day. Coffee can be a real source of positive change in this world. Did you know that every drop of our coffee comes from free-trade farmers in third-world countries? Or that, for each cup of espresso sold, we donate five cents toward a charity that provides support for organic Romanian goat herders?”
“So you’re saying this coffee has been shat out by some sort of marmot?” M asked.
“Only the best!”
Something about having discovered he had just drank faeces, or something that had been suspended in faeces, gave M a little extra nerve. “I gotta say, there’s been an awful lot of shops opening in the neighbourhood these past few weeks.”
“People love coffee.”
“Believe me, man, you’re preaching to the choir—I can’t get through the day without having a cup. The thing is, I can’t get through the day without other things too—food, for instance, and clothing—and lately those are harder and harder to find.”
“People love coffee,” it said again, and this time there was a weight on top of it.
“Look, I love coffee. Coffee is great. Coffee might be, literally, my favourite thing on earth. But even still, I don’t think that I like it to a point where I would want to be exclusive. It might be nice if, in addition to drinking a great cup of coffee in the morning, I might buy soap or visit a bank.”
“I don’t think you know what you’re asking,” it said, hands up as if trying to stop M from sprinting off a cliff. “Sure, our expansion might have made it a bit more difficult for you to pick up some staple goods. But what is that when held against the joy of a freshly brewed pot?” Outside the windows in the room that was not a room, something crackled. It was not quite thunder, because thunder is caused by electrons flowing through clouds, and M was no longer in a place where the rules of physics, or at least his rules of physics, held much sway. “There are prices to pay for living in Brooklyn—one has to make certain sacrifices. If you want your box stores and your cheap groceries, you might as well move out to Jersey. You can buy your shoes at Walmart and get your morning coffee at a Starbucks.” It snarled out the last word like a Serbian cursing.
“No one’s suggesting that,” M said, trying to mollify the minor god. “The one time I set foot in Starbucks I’d been forced at gunpoint, and even then the fumes were enough to make me vomit. If Adolf Hitler himself came in here right now, and he was about to bring a Starbucks espresso up to that little thumb-width moustache of his, I’d knock it right out of his hand. If you were to poison me and then mix the antidote in with a cup of their house blend I would die in agony on the floor rather than drink it.”
The thing nodded again, happy that he and M were on the same page. “You had me worried there for a minute. I was thinking maybe you were one of these poor bastards who don’t know a double-roasted espresso from a mug of Folger’s instant!”
They both laughed at the absurdity. M decided to try a different tack.
“Really I just came by to congratulate you on all the good work you’ve been doing in the neighbourhood. I have to say, the success you’ve been having, it’s unprecedented.”
“Thanks! Well, like I said, you make a good product, people will come, right? It’s basic stuff.”
“Absolutely, absolutely. And the product here is so tremendously good, I’m sure it won’t be long until the whole country gets to appreciate it. It’s amazing to think, in a few years, when you’ve got shops blanketing the nation, hell, the world, I’ll be able to say I went to the original franchise.”
“Excuse me? Every one of our coffee shops is independently owned and operated.”
“Well, not really—if I’d walked into that Estonian joint you opened the other day and went through the stockroom, I’d end up here, right? So really it’s just an elaborate franchise. You should be happy about it—pretty soon you’ll be taking things national. Imagine it: One of your coffee shops in every strip mall in the land, sandwiched between the Cinnabon and Chipotle! Hang out at Davos with all the other titans of industry, talking about synergy and . . . words like synergy!”
“No!” the thing croaked. “Never!”
“You can partner with Urban Outfitters and release a line of coffee-inspired clothing! You’ll sell branded water, and prepackaged ham and cheese croissants!”
“Those things are disgusting!”
“It’s unavoidable. It’s the end result of any late-stage capitalist process. You know, Starbucks started as a couple of proto-hipsters and a dream, and look at them now! The way is paved for you, my friend. Bourgeois conformity within three years. No way around it, I’m afraid.”
The thing about these—well, call them spirits or demons or loas or whatever you wanted—was that they had more power than any mortal adept, enough power to rework reality in any fashion they chose. But they couldn’t choose much, the rules of their existence being adamantine and unbreakable.
“You could put out a line of instant brew!” M said, giving the thing one final shove over the cliff. “Just shake and drink!”
It blinked twice, horrified, and then reality blinked away also.
M found himself back in the coffee shop that had been a supermarket but was now just a big, empty room—an empty room partially filled with two dozen extremely confused hipsters, each trying to figure out why the internet had gone out, and the lights, and where the cute barista was, and, also, while they were on the subject, what in the name of God had happened to their coffee?
Outside the day was grey and rainy, and M discovered that whatever cosmic backlash he had caused had taken with it all of the coffee shops in the neighbourhood, even the ones that had been around before this most recent wave of expansion, which was unfortunate, as he belatedly realised that he had not yet drunk his morning cup.
“Harumph,” M said, not for the last time.
A City Dreaming publishes October 6th and is available to pre-order now.