Back, long ago, in the days of yore, I didn’t drink coffee. Shocking, I know. This is not the story of how that changed, it’s what happened after that. Perhaps I may tell you that story later, or better still, I already did in 2008 when I blogged my whole life in Costa Rica for a semester. Should you choose to sift that unyielding mass of college-age Chauncey’s thoughts, I shan’t stop you. In the meantime, I press on.
In Seattle–at least when I lived there–there was an elaborate system of judgment based around coffee. The dark, hot liquid that saved many a soul from the dark, cold rain also saved us from each other’s unwanted company. It wasn’t the coffee itself, but from where you bought it that spoke untold volumes.
From grande towers of caffeinated snobbery Seattle we looked upon others and passively chose (with great self-satisfaction) to not get to know one another. It was as simple as it was childish, particularly given that since all of the coffee shops my classmates and I frequented were in the same upscale neighborhood populated by neurosurgeons and lawyers. I, a man of the people, purchased my coffee at El Diablo alongside many of the artsy-yet-not-quite-artsy crowd. By that I mean, we liked to listen to and talk about music rather than make it ourselves. Did we have classy opinions? We thought so. Did we sit in the dark to brood over them? Well, not quite in the dark…just like, y’know, not in the light that was as bright as an overhead lamp in the dorms…bro.
On occasion, the actual artsy crowd would come to El Diablo. Their conversation full of reference to musical theory (God, I found it all so intoxicating) and the art they made or were planning to make. After waving hello, I would consider ways to learn all the musical theory in the world to impress them for about 5 minutes. Then I would sigh, and move on. Until the next time they came in.
The artsy crowd got their coffee at Cafe Ladro. There, deep in darkness-induced solitude (this time I ‘m serious, it was really dark in there), they wrote their English papers analyzing Virginia Woolf or wrote their songs for their next set. Several times I tried to sit in Ladro with an artsy friend, but Ladro was a place beyond my strength. The sad, moody, artsy music blended with the dark and I always felt like I needed to take a nap. Cafe Ladro is the ultimate test of artistic commitment at 8pm–go to sleep or endure the pain of existence and channel your creativity. When walking near Ladro by night, I would see the artsy crowd sitting, looking creative, and talking about how yes, that song really could be better if it went up a fifth instead of a third in the 4th bar before the crescendo. It was not a place for us regular schmegular degular humans, who liked seeing the words on the page we were reading without a candle. On the other hand, Ladro was great for a daytime cookie on the go.
There are various coffee shop distinctions of this sort. They made an unofficial sort of framework for judging friends according to capitalism’s manufacture of taste to sell us the same different things…but oh, did we feel like we KNEW who we could be friends with. “Where do you get coffee?” was the same question as “Tell me why I should be your friend.” Certain things (getting coffee at Ladro for example) marked a barrier that was un-crossable by any known experience. On the other hand, getting your coffee only at Starbucks–of course we all went there sometimes–showed how you were drab and one of the nameless crowd of business people carrying on about their various conversations with Jeff about how in fact, yes, what Walter said in that meeting was indeed over the top and he should be hesitant before making such outlandish claims about store-bought hummus before trying yours, Steve.
Seattle, being a city that lives in the heart of the Pacific Northwest’s coffee culture, is a place that sit upon unexplored fault lines. Some of these are actually horrifying, sad expressions of our region’s amnesia–Seattle being a name derived from a tribe of indigenous people whose reservation is now just outside the city limits. One doesn’t have to wonder very hard how it was that the people after whom the city was named live unmentioned outside its bounds. However, some of these fault lines are the absurd sort of nonsense that make the series Portlandia so ironically un-comical to those of us who call the PNW home. It’s actually like that. Yes, I really do want to know if that chicken has a name. No, I haven’t given Ladro another try. I know my limits.