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379. Youthful folly (IX)

To pick up from yesterday’s meditations on coffee: this drink was largely consumed in spite by Americans. Coffee was a persistent “f*ck you, Dad” to Britain; and its consumption continued after the Revolution to keep up the adolescent defiance. “But this drink is bitter and foul; why do you drink it in huge quantities? You prefer tea really…” “Fuck you! I know what I’m doing, stop interfering.” American coffee consumption is a case where someone cuts off their nose to spite their face.

Contemporary coffee consumption is a hybrid between the traditional American model—huge endless black refills from reststop waitresses who say “y’all”—and the Italian model. As noted yesterday, the Italians softened coffee: they consume either homeopathic amounts as an espresso or smother an espresso with milk to form a cappuccino. The Americans took over the Italian approach and combined it with the “endless mug of joe” to create what we see in Starbucks and so on; we can now have a pint of cappuccino—or perhaps smother the bitterness in sugar-heavy frappuccinos (“Mamma Mia! Whatta da Americanos do wit’ cucina Italiano now?”).

This fusion occurred in the 1950s, when the coffee shop—particularly the late nite coffee shop—became hip in Britain and America. Earnest young men in black polo shirts nursed espressos at 03:33 AM in Soho; occasionally, they looked up from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness to comb their goatee with help from their reflection in bar’s stainless steel countertop. In the corner, a Beat poet in a striped top would recite “pomes” accompanied by a single saxophone (“That authentic Negro sound, man”). “This is called ‘Woman’: Woman. Woe man. Woah. Man. Wooooahh, man.” (Apologies to Mike Myers for this).

“It was that night at the Milk Bar that Mailer rapped about existence. He took my hand and his plashy-blue eyes met mine, tiger-sharp, and said: ‘Buddy, it’s not existence; it’s existenz. E-x-i-s-t-e-n-zzzzz. This is…German, man. It’s the big ‘Z’.” In another corner, a man in a very conservative herringbone suit—it would be shed around 1967, during a mid-life crisis—discusses his latest memo on “The Homosexual in Modern Society” (“It’s high time for compassionate and scientific reform in this area…”). His companion bites on his pipe—soon to be deeply unfashionable—and interjects, “This is all very well, but look at what Kinsey says here...”

The Beat sensibility was more wired than the hippies that came after. The Beats took “tea”, as cannabis was then called, but they also consumed coffee and amphetamines—they were the first generation to grow up in a fully automotive world, everything happened fast. Zowey. This highly-strung generation was intense; it was existential: the bomb, complete extinction; the teenager, death of the parents; and the post-war rubble this generation grew up among. “We’re a generation of anomie.” “Anno-me?” “No, man, like anomie; it’s French. It means, like, empty, man—empty like, like…this espresso cup. Man is just a little dark stain at white porcelain bottom.”

The hippies let it all go and relaxed, but the Beats were intense: amphetamines and coffee—non-stop intuitive typing, per Kerouac; or paranoid delusions, per Philip K. Dick—who also moved in this scene. It was coffee house Bohemia that influenced the hippies—served as their parents—but once it fused with American commercialism this coffee culture lost its continental roots and became Starbucks et al. This is why, aside from coffee’s links to the American Revolution, mass consumer coffee shops remain Bohemian in their political stance: they combine the frenetic work ethic found in the post-war existential generation with their Bohemian outlook—hence Starbucks supports transsexualism, and other progressive causes. This is mass consumerism, but it is still regarded as sophisticated and elitist; every coffee shop retains a vague hint that deep conversations might happen there—about Negro authenticity, Kinsey, and the electronic brain. Coffee shops play jazz because that was the music post-war; jazz is coffee and amphetamine music—jangled and jagged, a bit like post-war modern art.


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