Report from the coffee frontier

Expectations of good coffee steer one away from brightly lit convenience stores and towards the grungy, independent holes that carefully cultivate that underground feel.  I’m grabbing the wheel back from these expectations, and steering towards the convenience stores.  The diminutive proprietor of the Shell sold me a delicious cup of coffee this morning.  He had made it himself a bit earlier.  It was strong and hot.

A dapper older gentleman in a convenience-store tunic, he combs his hair back.  When I came in, he was in the far corner and moved quickly around to the counter.  It’s a self-service program, at a clean white counter across the shop from the front door.  You grasp the styrofoam cup, and it resists unlocking from its neighbor, such is the delicious static electricity that nests them together like lovers.  There was only one carafe of coffee.  The lid is a classic eighties design, thin translucent plastic.

At the register, I gave the proprietor a big grin.  He took my two dollars and handed over change with a hint of a smile under his moustache.  That’s probably about as much facial expression as one could expect early on a rather dreary Sunday morning.  His little cash wrap has no place for tips, so I pocketed the coins and left.  I didn’t ask to take his picture.  Last week, when I asked his wife, she shook her head no.  This couple is so zen that they refuse to be recognized as part of the A-Park coffee trail.

Last week, I realized that I had fallen into a trap.  I was so dedicated to a single place that I started taking it for granted, and it started taking me for granted too. We were like an old married couple, bickering but accepting of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  But it had become an overly sensitive spouse with bad habits, and it finally wore me out.  Making a customer feel like the Other is not Stardust.  Ordering an artist to take his stuff down NOW, before his show is over, is not Stardust.  So I left.

It was disloyal.  Stardust was my second home.  It’s partly where I raised my kid.  It was my office during the recession.  Each time I tried something new as an artist, Stardust was where I hung it first.  Stardust is the seed inside the core of my manuscript “The Soul of the Tropical City”.  It was where I brought travelers like Joel Kotkin passing through our city.  Like hundreds of other loyal customers, it felt like it was partially mine.

Knowing this is a shared feeling gives one a sense of deep satisfaction, and a sense of the meaning of the word “community.”  I perceive injury to this community from without and wrote about this last week.  Having shared so much together, it was a surprise to be on the receiving end of suspicion.  It was the final straw to be given the “get out of my way, artist, I’m busy and important” treatment.

America suddenly soured like a quart of old milk.  The theory that “Stardust became what whoever coming in needed it to be” might hold true here.  For some, it needs to be a place for public accusations and for reflecting the new tribalism.

This led to a confession on my part and a decision to seek new adventures.  A few days later, one of my editors wrote a touching paean to Stardust.  One act follows the other in gloomy succession.






Suspicion and discontent

Only a few weeks after the ugly, populist right revealed itself, a certain bunker mentality has already surfaced at key locations within the geography of the city.  Where there was warmth, one feels coolness in the air, a little less eye contact, briefer conversations, a sharper tone.  We’ve been burned badly, those of us who practice tolerance and inclusiveness and bend our lives towards mutual sustainability, but this is no time for recriminations or succumbing to the temptation to snip at one another.

We must expand our tolerance even further, and recognize that true inclusiveness really means everybody.  At the same time, there is a subtle upswing in other places too.  Just around the corner from Stardust lies three convenience stores, ostensibly gas pump backdrops.  It’s time to get to know the coffee choices around here, and expand my horizons a bit.

The mood in these colorful, brightly lit stores is upbeat, and it shows how the two different streams of society intermingle within very small spaces of one another.  In the 7-eleven, Rhonda and Lexi posed for the camera, shoulder to shoulder with big grins on their faces. When asked who made the coffee, Rhonda announced “I did!”  Convenience store coffee is good.

Around the corner, Elizabeth briefed me on her complicated coffee system at the National Food Mart. When I asked her for a picture, she shrugged.  “Yeah, sure,” and broke into a sweet, disarming smile.  Lotto, beer, and cigarettes figure big in these places; our small weaknesses are their small profit. For the workers in these stores, there’s a coming-out, a sense of “yeah, well, we’re cool now,” a new position being cautiously assumed.

Is it the surprise, the swift triumph of the unhip, that has suddenly put a bounce in their step?  The uniform-clad cashiers of our vices are happier, a little more hopeful, in these heady days after the election.

It is Stardust which now feels dour and tragic. Avoidance of eye contact was once a game practiced at 7-eleven; now it is practiced at Stardust.  At one time, the scene at Stardust was open, with shouts of greeting and smiles.  A boisterous and diverse crowd kept a gentle, Haight-Asbury vibe going.  It was improvisational, a do-it-yourself kind of culture. John, the retired engineer, mixed with hippie chicks, artists, writers and techies in for a cup and a jam.  DJs and photographers met to plan out a photo shoot.  Salesmen sat with their laptops, looking at their sales leads for the day.  In the evening, kids did their geometry homework; old couples sat and drank wine.  The feel of a public house was rich and was ripe.

This openness is what I love about Stardust, it has a sense of shared ownership and a mutual agreeableness that we are all in it together.  It suits me, as I move in a wide range between laborers and one percenters.  In these days of looking backward at how things went wrong, a veil of grimness seems to separate us now.  Stardust is lately tinged just a bit with the atmosphere of all convenience stores.  It is tinted with the grimness of losers.

This grimness of losers was once the province of convenience store workers, hanging their heads, ringing up gas sales, condoms, smokes.  They knew their place, and it was pretty far down the class system.  Condemned to shapeless, garish uniforms, convenience store workers were the losers, especially in the hip and cool neighborhood of Audubon Park.  Everyone on Corrine Drive outranked the convenience store worker.  The only caste lower than convenience store clerk was possibly convenience store night clerk.

Life at the bottom of the social pyramid was bad enough, but especially the Audubon Park social pyramid, what with its ultra-cool scene of independent record stores, custom beer taps, movie production guys, East End Market, for christ’s sake–a hipster convenience store in drag–and, naturally, it was all anchored by  Stardust Video and Coffee.  For the convenience store clerk in this neighborhood, a special hell was your lot.  High school diploma, if you’re lucky, making nine oh five an hour selling stupid stuff to pretty liberal arts school students, techies wearing glasses that cost six months of your wages, bourgeois bohemians.  It rankled.  You suck.

Back at Stardust, the post-election mortification has given way to the next phase of loser-mentality:  recrimination.  Now, for the first time ever, I’ve been the recipient of green-shaming:  “Where’s your cup today, Richard?” after I asked for a coffee and committed the green sin of not bringing in my own reusable mug (the top wouldn’t come off that morning so I left it at home).  This never used to happen at Stardust, where they are usually happy to sell you a disposable cup.  The barista, however, got a little dig in that morning, fingering me as the Other.

I do not have to prove to anyone that I am not the Other.  That charge just won’t stick.  It’s a symptom of being a loser, possibly, to accuse:  fingerpoint at someone, label them as Other, and sulk.  During my day, I sit at a desk and think about those all around me in a modern, white-collar office, and how good we all have it:  still, for many, the sense that it just isn’t good enough caused people to send a signal in the voting booth.

People are tired of being the unhip, the uncool; people who are green-shamed are tired of it.  Enough is enough.   So this bunker mentality has taken over at Stardust, and places like it as well.  The wagons are circled, and anyone who isn’t inside the ring is the Other. Greener than thou, my sister and brother; we know who we are and we know who you are.

This is not the road to inclusiveness, and perhaps the “in-crowd” at Stardust never was very inclusive to begin with.  If you want to see real people of color, go into the unhip convenience stores all around.  African-American, Asian-American, and Latina-American.  Inclusiveness means a society where all of our people, even the convenience store clerks, are included.

At Stardust, one could easily convince oneself of being in surroundings of openness and diversity.  This bubble of comfort sadly diverged from reality.  Outside the bubble, the Lexis and  Rhondas and Elizabeths have finally gotten a break.  The bubble they were decidedly NOT inside of has burst.

So I’m taking a break from the hip and the cool, and creating my own hip and cool with people in 7-eleven, National Food Mart, and Shell.  I frequent these places often, for they have things that I need:  gas, air, vacuum, batteries, aspirin. Stardust offers nothing practical like that anyway.  I’ve already introduced myself to a few of the clerks, and found them to be very nice.  I haven’t been subjected to green-shaming, and probably won’t be.  They’re professional, they make it snappy, and they smile.  I’m enjoying getting out of my comfort zone and creating a zone of inclusivity that’s larger.

It is weak and incorrect to circle the wagons and point fingers at The Other and continue this divisiveness that has caused such a big warfare in our hardened, weary society.  It is the sure road to further isolation and loss.  The secret is that there really are no losers and winners, and to act like there are just makes more.  Instead, acting like we are all people with lives, with our own aspirations and fears, is a more interesting road to travel.  This is not about populist politics or presidents; rather, it is about the need to re-invent the concept of a society where everyone wins.