60 W 129th St., New York, NY
The last time I had irregular heart palpitations was at the Ace Hotel in midtown New York, where I was on my third macchiato in as many hours, sitting at the large grand table in the middle of the lobby where tourists, locals, and carefully plumed hipsters would while away the day in conversation and intense laptop use. I imagined the place as a sort of alternative Library Reading Room, where all the talk and indie reverb would fill out the empty silences, an atmosphere that enveloped and cocooned you so that you could read or code or, in my case, work on a dissertation. My graduate school friends were mystified by my ability to work in cafes. Isn’t it hard to concentrate? they would ask. It isn’t hard, I replied, and then they would say: sure, no harder than quantum physics. I could say the same thing about libraries. Despite being trained as a scholar, I have little affinity for libraries and have never been able to work in them. I could browse the stacks, pretending I was in an endless bookstore without a pesky shop attendant, but when it came to sitting down… There was something empty about libraries, although the shelves groaned with books and the tables were dotted with hunchbacks. Even though the coziest nook featured a fidgety undergraduate who kept capping his highlighter.
I have found it much easier, indeed only possible, to write in cafés and noisy places. The base level of sound, the human chatter mixed with piped soundtracks and the occasional siren, suppresses the seed of doubt that flourishes in quieter zones, such as the hushed library or the cloistered apartment. All that is left to do is drink coffee and write, the two feeding each other in a cycle of excitation and withdrawal, until exhaustion sets in and it’s time for lunch. Much of my dissertation was written in cafés. As a result, I ended up visiting almost all the cafés in Manhattan, from Starbucks to its third wave successors, or at least those hospitable to a writer looking to muster up a paragraph or two.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that I started to learn, without really intending to, quite a bit about coffee. I wouldn’t say that I was exactly knowledgeable, let alone an expert, but I seemed to give off the impression that I was a barista, or perhaps training to be one. Resident baristas never seemed to believe I was just a student, and to perpetuate their disbelief they served me all kinds of coffee, beyond what I had ordered and beyond what I could, constitutionally, handle. They offered me single origin espressos from Brazil, filtered pours of Panama Geisha beans, Colombian shots with varying ratios of Jersey milk (or no milk at all), which came in porcelain mugs or mini glasses or hemp-etched whisky tumblers. I was always grateful but also a little overwhelmed, aware that a single shot might fuel a paragraph and another two or three might put my heart into overdrive. There was also brewed coffee, an American specialty, which for whatever reason affected the right side of my brain in a precise and unnerving way, as if I were having a mild aneurysm.
Still, I had little choice but to patronise these cafes, because my time as a graduate student was running out and I couldn’t write anywhere else. It’s true that I had some success writing at a deserted library (now gone) and a certain food court, where I could approximate the feel of a café, coffee in hand. But they only worked in relief, as a way of breaking up the monotony of cafés by providing the novelty of muffled speech or Muzak. They could never sustain me, or rather could only sustain me when I needed a change of scene.
After two years or so of itinerant café writing, I started attending a café in Harlem with such frequency that it became a sort of second home. In retrospect, this was hardly a surprise. The café, called Lenox Coffee, was literally (as Americans are fond of saying) next door to my apartment, completed a month or so after I had begun occupying a corner room on the seventh floor. It was easy enough to descend to the first floor, endure the winter cold for a mere second, then close the door behind me. I’ll have a cortado, please! (A cortado has about half the milk of a regular latte.) When I found out this café had the same address as mine, I felt vindicated, as if I’d discovered it was really an extension of my quarters, a living room the landlord had finally remembered to build.
The real owner, however, was a talkative burly white guy, a once-aspiring musician who had traded in his cello for a modest real estate empire in Harlem. A few years later, I visited another café in a truly gentrified part of Harlem which had all the hallmarks of being his: small wooden tables, bentwood chairs, a few long benches, and mediocre third wave coffee. Nevertheless, it was an improvement over Starbucks by an order of magnitude; and if it did not reach the precious heights of a Japanese siphon bar, it made up for it with a relaxed sense of time.
Word got around about Lenox. Soon the place was filled with writers, musicians, programmers, graduate students, and the odd entrepreneur. Visitors, seeing us contorted over our computers around the communal table, would wonder out loud: is this a library? Sometimes there was a hush while we tapped on our keyboards into the night; other times, the barista would get bored and play a selection of modern jazz standards, ’80s bebop, avant-garde classical, or the entire Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus by Messiaen. The afternoon barista was usually a certain drummer, whose idea of education was an endless assault of feverish jazz tracks, with hopes that softening up the ear would benefit the snare. (The last I heard of him, he had crossed the border south with an Israeli girlfriend.)
On one particularly wintry afternoon, we discovered that all of us, benched around a long brown-black table or seated against the window, were working on a long thesis of some sort. Many of us, I presume, attended universities roughly within the tristate region, but for whatever reason—partners, fallouts with advisers, the city lights—were temporary exiles from our home institutions. This was even true for those enrolled at Columbia, the closest university campus: the steep ascent on the western side of Morningside Park acted as more or less an insurmountable barrier. Hence this modest Harlem café became a place for us institutional émigrés, a library and lounge for us who had left our departments but had not quite abandoned the academy, holding onto our scholarly identities by dint of our fitful efforts on the bench.
Approximate number of coffees ordered prior to moving to the US: 4.
Approximate number of coffees ordered while living in the US: 4845.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2006: NA.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2007: cappuccino.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2008: latte.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2009: latte.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2010: flat white.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2011: cortado.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2012: cortado.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2013: cortado.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2014: piccolo.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2015: espresso.
Most ordered coffee beverage, 2016: batch brew.
Biggest order mistake at a coffee place: large ice milk latte in summer, Los Angeles.
Reason for order being the biggest mistake at a coffee place: lactose intolerance.
Main reason for changes to “Most ordered coffee beverage” entries: lactose intolerance.
Main reason for lack of changes to “Most ordered coffee beverage” entries: lactose intolerance denial.
Reason for lactose intolerance: turning 30, recessive Asian gene (??).
Best single coffee experience in NYC: macchiato at Blue Bottle Coffee, Williamsburg (Saturday, closing time).
Worst single coffee experience in NYC: Dunkin’ Donuts (anytime).
Café with best selection of contemporary classical music: Café Grumpy, Chelsea (Saturday, or whenever the owner sets the playlist).
Best coffee place to impress your friends: Stumptown Coffee, Ace Hotel New York.
Best coffee place to seem pretentious/rich/special to your friends: the Japanese siphon bar at Blue Bottle Coffee, Chelsea (upstairs).
Most hipster employee at a coffee place: the dedicated pour-over barista at Four Barrel Coffee, Mission District, San Francisco.
Coffee place I don’t understand: Philz.
Percentage of graduate stipend spent on coffee: 8.
Years mostly irrelevant to US coffee consumption: 2014–.
Coffee most brewed at home: single origin filter pour-over.
Times I’ve thought about giving up coffee: 5.
Times I’ve failed to give up coffee: 5.
The night I was due to leave New York, a filmmaker who I’d befriended for about two months said to me: don’t forget New York. Or if he did not say that—I don’t remember the exact words—he said something to that effect. Don’t forget New York. Don’t forget the experiences you had here. It will take you some time to process. You’ll go back to Australia and go on with your life. You’ll be reminded of New York now and then, maybe you’ll have a bit of nostalgia. Maybe you’ll put it all behind you and forge a new life. But don’t forget this time, this time which has formed you and made you who you are.
I did not know what to do with this advice except to safekeep it for a time. I was hoping in vain for a time when I would recall the exact words or magically reconstruct them in writing. Failing that, I would ask him later what he had meant.
A few months after I arrived in Sydney, this filmmaker and friend suddenly fell to the ground and died. A blockage in his chest had arrested, irrevocably, that steady pulse connecting him to us, to life. My memories of him remain vivid, even the darkness of the Harlem streets where he’d walk ahead of us and speak with the homeless or slightly deranged, or those figures who were always wheeling a trolley of used plastic bottles. He was trying to understand them for a new film project, he’d said, but it was clear to me that in conversing with them and taking on their strange idioms and unfamiliar forms of speech, he was doing more than regular research. This man, just getting started in his forties, was enlarging his sense of the world, and in turn they were enlarging his. It was an openness that required more than method or canny or dogged persistence, I thought, but something else: something of his humanity.
On that night a group of us gathered at Lenox Coffee. Nowadays, when it got dark, the café underwent a subtle transformation into a wine bar, and sometimes on Saturdays into a jazz haunt. There might have been a red Nord synthesizer, whose keys were depressed in time and in chordal fashion with the sounds of a double bass, whose strings were no doubt vigorously plucked or jabbed. Or it might be that I remember another duo on another night, superimposing them—the duo and the chronology—onto a faded memory. What I do remember is something else: an image of friends in conversation, their faces lit up by candles and brought near in an atmosphere of kinship. I overheard snippets among artists of different stripes—that’s I how I do things too!—but could only envy them, being no artist myself. Instead, I took some pride in knowing that my presence—or rather my soon-to-be absence—had brought them all together, had been the occasion for their shared discoveries.
Finally the café had to shutter, and we were out on the street. We walked; we lingered; we loitered. I was watching the clock somewhat closely because I needed to pack and shower—sleep would have to wait—before the airport bus arrived at 4 a.m. Try as I might, I could not get away easily, although my apartment was close. At some point when the chatting had stopped and the farewell had begun to sink in, the filmmaker said: how will we go on without you? How will we hold it together? When you leave, what will happen to us? At the time I thought he was being melodramatic. We were all a little tipsy, and no longer accustomed to nightclub hours. I was also worried about missing my bus.
His outburst proved prescient, however, and not only in his tragic case. Today, these friends of mine, once gathered under the roof of a small Harlem café, are now scattered throughout the Americas.