Saturday, March 07, 2009

When in Rome

Every city has that quintessential experience: strudel and newspaper-perusing at a Viennese cafe, getting insulted by a Parisian waiter in the middle of the best meal you've ever eaten, and so on. In New York, there is the independent coffee shop. Granted these exist nation-wide, but in New York, things go a particular way. Whereas in all cities, baristas are laid-back, tattooed, and all, I mean all, liked that band before it sold out, in New York, the contrast between the chill barista and the surroundings - hip but harried customers, honking cars, etc. - make them these odd representatives of college-town life. Even through the prices, neighborhood, and pastries scream high-end, the vibe of the place is Down with the Man, leading to a strangely dissonant experience for the customer, and, perhaps, to an overly generous tip.

There's this café in southwest SoHo that's perfect. The barista? Tattooed, scruffy-haired, 23-ish, with his Camel cigarettes displayed prominently on the counter, constantly changing the (very loud - why yes, I am 100) music, all as if to say, 'No, I don't work a 9-5 job.' Everything about him was just so. Even the tone of his voice was perfectly tailored to make each customer sound uptight in comparison. 'I'll, um, have a soy latte.' 'Yeah man, that's awesome.' And so forth. (Not exact quotes, but you get the idea.)

In the brief time I was there, he hit all the items on the hip-coffee-bar checklist: discussed cool bands with a customer; played the new song by a cool band; lifted up his cuff to show a customer (a different one, I think) a tattoo on his leg, explaining which cool band inspired it; discussed the member of yet another band's "solo stuff"; complained about the condos that are taking over New York; explained that Park Slope has "no soul." (This is, I believe, a direct quote. Where does that leave SoHo?) Had the young man made reference to which liberal arts college he'd dropped out of to pursue artistic endeavors and made reference to how Starbucks is evil, and only then, would the experience have been even more of a success.

But it wasn't just the barista. No independent coffee bar is complete without signs intended to make the customer ill-at-ease. Sometimes it's about how you'd better bus your table correctly - usually something involving hard-to-locate, overflowing dirty-dish tubs - or else. At this place, on the door, there's a sign explaining that brownies are "first come, first served." Who'd have thought otherwise? Were people trying to claim these brownies in advance? But that didn't prevent me from being disappointed, though not surprised, to see, upon entering, that the bin labeled "brownies" was empty. (After all, I was by then convinced these brownies must be fantastic.) As I ordered, the barista asked if I was OK. Apparently my 'what, no brownies?' thought process manifests itself as a facial expression, visible to others. Damn.

And of course there was a prominent tip jar. Not only did the container bear some kind of plea, but there was a sign on the register itself admonishing you to "Tip your barista." Which you will be less inclined to do once reminded twice, and still less once his over-the-top understated hipster friend comes by, and he in a loud voice he tells her and her friend, whom he's just met, that whatever they want is on the house. They take him up on this - the hipster woman even reaches oh-so-hygienically over the sneeze-guard glass to grab, without a piece of wax paper (and these were available), the pastry of her choice.

The friends-don't-pay system was particularly confusing, not for me because I'd never seen any of these people before in my life, but, I'd imagine, for the regulars. He greeted all of them as though they were friends, yet they had to pay for their coffees, often quite a bit. The only difference seemed to be that this woman was relaxed, whereas every other customer seemed to accept his or her position of inferiority with respect to the barista's cool demeanor. Attitude is everything.

As I was leaving, a 35-ish man was telling a woman (dare I guess: a date) about how much he loves this coffee shop, both because the coffee is good and because the people who work there are really nice. 'Nice' isn't the word I'd have gone with, but at any rate, although I did not stick around to see what happened when he entered, I can imagine: the barista recognized him and was friendly, the two discussed bands for the duration of the latte preparation, and, at the end, he had to pay (and, heck, over-tip) just like everyone else.

23 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

I need the address and name of this place so I can go there next time I'm in the city.

Anonymous said...

Barista is a woman. Like waitress or actress.

JMR said...

As you wait in line at Espresso Vivace in Seattle, you are confronted with a "Cell Phone Etiquette suggestions for urban coffee shops..." sign (including the dot dot dot) that has various directives and admonitions.

I should have snapped a photo of it this morning but I didn't want to reach for my phone.

Phoebe said...

Right. In the same way that "latte" is "milk," not "milky coffee." In contemporary, coffee-bar English, "barista" is gender-neutral, just as "latte" contains espresso.

Matt said...

I've generally been fairly disappointed with NY city coffee-shops. They often have many of the vices of the city itself- too expensive in comparison to quality, too small, crowded, etc. But, I was very happy when a branch of the wonderful Philadelphia coffee shop La Colombe opened up fairly near my work. The coffee is great, the pastries are above average, the prices are okay, the people nice, etc. It's not as good as the one in Philadelphia in that it's smaller, the tables are oddly shaped in a way that make them a bit hard to use, and, in another way that many places in NY city are bad, there's no bathroom, making it impossible to spend too long there drinking coffee. (Maybe that's the idea). Still, it's worth checking out. It's on Church st., just a bit south of canal.

Phoebe said...

Can't say I've ever noticed that place--it's a bit beyond the NYU area, but I might have to check it out. Although no bathrooms might be a deal-breaker.

PG said...

I don't like coffee so I generally avoid all purveyors, but when I was tutoring LSAT I was at Jack's Stir Brewed Coffee once or twice a week, and it hit a couple of these cliches. However, I thought the people who worked there were basically nice, in the capitalist sense; they weren't pushy about selling stuff, or even about collecting money. One time I didn't have enough cash on me to cover my beverage before the tutoring session started, and the guy behind the counter said it was OK, I could run by an ATM and pay him later. I actually walked out forgetting to pay him, and he didn't chase after me. Instead, I meekly showed up with the money the next time a tutoring session was scheduled, and the (different) person behind the counter took it in stride. (And there is no way I am even a faux friend, because I know no cool bands and after all was there to help someone become a lawyer.)

Phoebe said...

PG:

I know that Jack's place--they also don't have a toilet! Word to the wise: if you have to pee even before ordering the coffee, you won't find yourself less in that situation after drinking said coffee.

And, I forgot to reply last time, JMR:

Please do take a photo of that sign! Maybe there can be a feature here on signs admonishing customers in independent coffee shops across America. (There are also some good ones in Parisian cafés, but one thing at a time.) I now wish I'd taken a photo of the signs at the coffee place where I was admonished for incorrectly busing (i.e. busing, but not putting everything in the right place) someone else's dishes, ones that had probably been sitting there the whole day. Ideally a place that asks for tips would not also ask that you bus your own (and in some cases someone else's) table. But... so it goes.

Matt said...

The La Colombe in NYC is pretty new, I think. It's less than a year old, anyway. But you're right- no bathrooms is a problem and it certainly keeps me from going there any time that I don't know that I'm going somewhere where there will be one. (So, I'll go there on my lunch, or on the way to work, but not to read on a weekend afternoon.) It is awfully good coffee, though.

PG said...

I hadn't noticed that Jack's didn't have a toilet. I have to admit that being a girl without awesome quads, I'm leery of using the toilet in most public places in NYC where it's possible to come in and use the toilet without being a customer. (I.e., in sit-down restaurants I feel comfortable ... well, sitting down; in a coffee shop, notsomuch. Shopsins does well by this by requiring one to get a key for the restroom.) So lack of toilet doesn't bother me tremendously, though I can certainly see the problem for people who are better customers than I and order multiple beverages in one visit.

Phoebe said...

The ability to use public restrooms without actually touching anything is, I think, a key skill, esp. in NYC. (Watch out for MoMa on free Fridays. That's all I'll say.)

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about that latte/milky comparison - Is Barista gender neutral? I never heard that before.
That would be a new development in the language
Would you say Sean Penn is a good actress? You could say actor is gender neutral, but not actress - Like barista, it's so conspicuously a feminine word.
I was just thinking about my cousin who works in a coffe shop and laughing at the idea of calling him a barista. He'd be appalled. But then he's in S. Carolina, so they are a bit touchy about stuff like that.

Phoebe said...

Fair enough. In my experience, mostly in NYC, the term "barista" is used for male and female espresso-drink-makers. It just is. Should it be? That's something else.

PG said...

Besmirching this speculation with the results of a Google search: apparently in Italian, "barista" means "bartender" and can be used for either male or female servers, although there are gender-specific pluralizations (baristi, bariste). What do male coffee servers in South Carolina prefer to be called? "Hey, garçon"?

Jeff said...

Please do take a photo of that sign!

I will try to get a picture of that sign the next time I'm in that neighborhood.

In the meantime, there is this sign at the shop closest to my house. I don't live in the hippest part of town so it doesn't ooze attitude, but it's a start.

Phoebe said...

Not bad!

What irks me most is a cafe I mostly like that, despite having paper plates and plastic cutlery, posts sanctimonious requests that you not through out their ceramic mugs (the only non-disposable thing they provide) 'because of the environment.' It's like, no, cafe people, it's because you want your mugs. Otherwise you'd get some cutlery that could be used more than once.

Matt said...

I've lived in the west (both Northwest and, briefly, San Francisco) and in several North eastern and mid-Atlantic cities. In all of them "Barista" is a gender-neutral word for someone who works at the counter serving coffee. ("Jerk" is often the term used for someone who thinks imported words should act in their new language like they do in their old one, at least in most cases.)

Phoebe said...

PG: good to know! I hadn't thought to Google it, but now that you point this out, I can't think of too many words where the feminine form is used for men and women alike. ("Une personne" in French comes to mind, but it's not so much a feminine form as a feminine noun.)

Matt: looks like barista is, in fact, operating as it does in Italian. I kind of preferred thinking it did not.

PG said...

looks like barista is, in fact, operating as it does in Italian. I kind of preferred thinking it did not.

Be consoled by the knowledge that we lazy Anglo speakers just stick an "s" on the end ("all the baristas were on a smoke break") instead of pluralizing it properly in Italian ("in that hotbed of espresso incest, all the baristi were sleeping with the bariste").

Jeff said...

I'm sorry, Phoebe, the original sign I mentioned at Vivace seems to have disappeared. I've been going there for years and it's always been there, including as recently as last Saturday.

I had the staff look about for it, they don't know what has happened. Somebody may have swiped it.

I posted a message on a fan site requesting help from anyone who has knowledge of its whereabouts.

Anonymous said...

I know that right wing commentators like Joe Scarborough and Rush would refer to men who work at coffee shops as "baristas" as a way to pigeonhole them as unmanly cosmopolitan elites snobs in the kulturwar.

And I just heard Jon Stewart use the word the way you did.

PS - Matt, chill out - don't be sloppy.

PG said...

A hipster explanation:

Bars and restaurants -- many lasting but a few months, and some doing the bulk of their business during only the warmer months of the year -- also benefit from the starving-artist ethos, but they benefit even more from the concern for status that pervades Wicker Park. For example, people working in the service industry are encouraged to display their status as hipsters, to be their subcultural selves, because in so doing they contribute to the aura of cool that attracts clientele of the financially endowed sort (the “urban tourists” consisting largely of yuppies, “amateurs,” the insufficiently hip). Service workers are also permitted to play a game of distinction that at first glance might appear to be only detrimental to an establishment’s bottom line. It’s a game that consists in demonstrating that one knows and is known by the right people. Lloyd describes it as a “circular process of mostly symbolic exchange,” for it consists in waiters and bartenders giving free drinks to their service-industry friends, receiving large tips in return, and then giving that tip money back when, on a different night and in a different establishment, their friends give them free drinks. Employers permit this practice of “juicing the tips” because the hip friends of their hip employees help “make the scene” that makes their businesses thrive. Service workers engage in the ritual in earnest and with pleasure, apparently not realizing that the whole thing ends up being a little like receiving a day’s pay, only to spend most of it at the company store.

Phoebe said...

Haha, so true.