May 31, 2018 § 6 Comments
I was in Santa Monica, ground zero for bike thievery, waiting for a cup at Dogtown Coffee. I had timed it perfectly wrong so that the massive morning throng poured in the moment I arrived.
I was riding my very bright, very orange Giant TCX ‘cross bike, resplendent with its full carbon 100% carbon disc brake FastForward wheels that are made completely of carbon and all carbon.
I didn’t have a lock, which is like going to the South Pole without a jacket, and I leaned my blazing orange bike up against one of the outside tables that line the sidewalk. To make up for not having a proper security device, I took my helmet and ran the strap through the spokes of the front wheel, figuring that whoever tried a hop-and-run would clunk over, giving me a chance to dash out and wrest my bike back.
I ordered, and went over to the front door, standing just inside while waiting for my coffee to get made, keeping my eyes glued on the bike, which was on the other side of the door no more than five feet away.
While staring at my bike, a guy came screaming down the sidewalk on a beater bike, stopped in front of the coffee shop by laying the bike on its side and dragging it to a halt. He didn’t even glance at my bike, and he burst into the second entrance down at the other end of the coffee shop.
The place was packed and he pushed his way towards me, glancing right and left quickly as he tried to figure out who owned the orange bike. Seeing me, dressed in orange and standing right next to the door, his face fell.
“Hey, man!” he said. “That your bike?”
“Yes,” I said.
“C’mere,” he said, urgently. “Gotta tell you sumpin.'” He pushed open the front door and beckoned at me to follow.
“I’m good,” I said, ready to spring at any moment. “I’m waiting on my coffee.”
“No, man, this is really important. I gotta tell you sumpin.'” He was twitchy and kept darting looks at my bike, so I followed him out the door.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“There’s a bike thief out here gettin’ ready to swipe your bike, his name’s Little Eddy, short little dude in a green shirt and a Dodgers ball cap, there he is, right down there at the end of the street!” He pointed.
I looked but didn’t see anyone.
“Aw crap, he just went around the corner. But he’s infamous, man, only swipes high-end bikes that people leave around unlocked, you know, just for a second, they’re gettin’ coffee or a coke and bam, he swoops in and he’s gone. I’m looking out for you, man.”
I looked at the dude. “What did you say he looked like?”
“Little dude. Green shirt and a Dodgers cap. There he is!” He pointed down the street again but no one was there. “Dang! He just went around the corner again.”
I noted that the guy was himself a little dude, wearing a blue shirt and a Dodgers cap.
“That Little Eddy dude is quick,” I said.
“Lightning fast, man, only swipes the good stuff. Not junk like that.” He pointed to his beater bike. “That way you got your helmet snapped around the spokes, man, Little Eddy would make short work of that. Dude uses a pocket knife, like this.” He pulled out his pocket knife and opened the blade. “Cut that thing off in a jiffy.”
“Thanks for looking out for me,” I said.
“Oh, yeah, anytime, man. I saw that sweet ride and I thought man, Little Eddy would have that in no time if you had been in the bathroom or sitting at a table or sumpin’, Little Eddy, man, he is quick.”
“Well thanks for the help,” I said, and gave him five bucks.
“Oh, you don’t owe me nothin’,” he said. “I’m just lookin’ out for you, man.” In the same breath he took the fiver and stuffed it into his pocket. He folded the blade, picked up his bike and pushed off down the sidewalk.
“See you later, Eddy,” I said.
He waved without looking back.
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April 27, 2018 § 3 Comments
Team Lizard Collectors is a pretty big outfit. It has about three hundred members, most of whom I’ve never met. There’s another contingent who I kind of know by sight but have never ridden with, or I’ve ridden with them briefly and talked to them briefly-er. Especially there’s a dude who sometimes shows up at Telo and rides around in a TLC jersey and a floppy black pair of shorts.
Last night I was at the Team Lizard Collectors Prayer Circle, which was being held in the Chapel of Beer at Strand Brewing Co. One of the dudes there was Floppy Black Shorts Dude. He was normally attired. As I nursed my craft water we started talking and exchanging the pleasantries that bike riders always do. “How’s the riding going?” “Got any carbon?” “Are we friends on the Stravver?” and etc.
It started out pretty normal but then took a hard left turn.
“I’m going pretty well,” he said. “Upgraded to Cat 4 and I’m pretty pleased with that.”
“You should be,” I said. “It’s hard to be that deranged and that old all at the same time.”
He laughed. “Well, I’ve come a long way.”
“We all have,” I agreed. “I came from Texas. I bet you haven’t come that far.”
He laughed good-naturedly. “Thirteen years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d ever come out of the ICU.”
“Really? What happened?”
“I was at work one day in my boss’s office and I felt something go pop in my head, then I felt kind of light headed, and then I sprawled across his desk, cleared it off like a broom, and collapsed on the floor.”
“Dang. I bet he was surprised. Most people just say, ‘Can I have a raise, sir?'”
“Right. I lay there and fortunately he was ex-military and in a few minutes EMS was there and the next thing I knew I was in the ICU.”
“Not the best ending to a Monday.”
“Or any day. Because I had something called an arteriovenous malformation, or an AVM.”
“I’m no doctor, but anything with ten syllables or more sounds real fuckin’ bad.”
“Yeah, it is. It’s basically a malformed network of blood vessels in the brain, and if it’s your unlucky day, a vessel breaks and you stroke out.”
“Dogdamn. I guess you lucked out then?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You didn’t have a stroke. I mean, you look fine and everything.”
“I totally stroked out. When I woke up I couldn’t move the left half of my body. The docs said I’d never walk again.”
“How long ago was this?”
“About thirteen years.”
“I said ‘fuck that’ to the prognosis and decided I’d come back, even if I had to learn everything over again, which is what I did. First day of rehab they put a ball in my hand and I couldn’t even move my fingers. It took hours and days, man, just to be able to close my fingers around a ball, and once that happened, I had to learn the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“How to let it go.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“I’m not. It was like that with everything. Standing, walking, using the left half of my face to talk, every possible use of my fingers, arm, hand, leg, foot.”
“How long did it take?”
“But I saw you out at Telo the other day, hammering like a madman. You look great.”
“I’ll never be 100% on my left side. My ankle is all messed up and never really recovered, so I have a bit of a limp and can’t run anymore. But I don’t care. I can walk. I can ride. I got my life back.”
I looked at him for a second. He had this incredible smile on his face, the smile of someone who has been where you never have, and returned from it alive. Someone whose toughness and fortitude go out to the very limits of human endeavor. Someone who appreciates the simple act of breathing in and breathing out, the true gift.
“You know the best part?” he asked.
“What?” I said.
“I work for the government, so in order to really get up into higher management, some degree of significant brain damage is mandatory.”
“You know it!” he grinned.
After a few minutes the Prayer Circle started and we all began praying to the deity of Leibert. But Floppy Shorts Dude, I’m pretty sure, was praying to something else.
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April 26, 2018 § 17 Comments
My family has a long tradition of weird names. My grandfather Frank’s first name was Nahum. How many Nahums have you ever met? I’ve never met one, and I grew up in the Bible Belt.
My dad’s name isn’t exactly weird, but it isn’t exactly normal, either. His name is Chandler, which is not too unusual as a last name, but I’ve never met another first-name Chandler. Apparently it means a dealer in equipment for ships and boats, or it means the head of the “chandlery” in medieval households who was responsible for wax, candles, and soap.
My name, Seth, may not sound too weird now, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was way weird. Like Nahum, it is an Old Testament name. Seth was the third son of Adam; he was one of those early biblical types who did lots and lots of begatting and lived to be 912. So I got that going for me.
What I didn’t have going for me growing up was a regular name like “Billy.” I wanted to be called Billy. In Texas, no one looked at you funny when your name was Billy, and no one called you “Beth,” “Death,” or said that your name rhymed with “Bad Breath.” Basically, if your name was Billy, people left you the fuck alone.
A few of the bible beaters I ran into growing up knew that Seth was an Old Testament name, which never helped. “Which Baptist church do y’all go to?”
“We don’t go to no church. We’re atheists.”
“That’s a good Christian name, boy,” they’d say and then I’d get an ass beating, one for not believing in dog and two for going to hell.
Nor was I named Seth for any good reason. I had been born a day or so, all jaundiced and with one ear bent over, and people kept asking “What’s his name?” and my parents couldn’t think of anything, so my dad pulled the bible off the shelf that he never read and saw “Seth” in Genesis.
“His name’s Seth,” my dad declared, and that was pretty much that. My mom didn’t care either way.
My wife doesn’t have a weird name, or rather she didn’t until she came here from Japan. Over there, “Yasuko” was like “Jane,” but over here it’s like “Ozpltaxifmp.” The only people who can spell it are East Asian Studies Ph.D. students and baristas, which are often the same thing.
We carried on the odd name tradition with our daughter, Cassady Sakura. I thought I was naming her after the Grateful Dead song, “Cassidy,” but I 1) misspelled it and 2) had never read On the Road.
Our first son got a weird name too, but not as weird as my first choice, which was Wolfgang. I was in my Early German Phase and wanted either a Wolfgang or a name not Xavier that started with X. I was sold on Xenon for a while but got off of that after reading Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann. “Hans it is,” I decided, opting for the novel’s main character, and it has been so ever since. He liked the name so much that he learned German, moved to Austria, and married into a German-speaking family, where he has the best conversation starter in bars known to man:
Stranger: Your name is Hans? Do you have German family?
Stranger: Then why is your name Hans? It’s not really your name, is it?
Hans: Yep. It is.
Stranger: But why Hans if you’re not German?
Hans: My dad read a German book one time and liked it.
Etc. etc. etc. as the conversation crumbles and dies.
Then of course there’s my third child, Woodrow Shu, named after Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, the singer, along with a middle name that means “he who will be honored” but is written with the Kanji for “Takashi,” which means his name will eternally be mispronounced in Japan. However, as my friend Jeff Fields said 21 years ago upon learning of the christening, “Well, at least he has the category of presidential footwear names locked up.”
My daughter Cassady, she of the misspelled Grateful Dead song, had her first child with her husband, Torazo. Torazo is a completely weird name, even in Japan from whence he hails. It means “Tiger Elephant,” which is completely badass, and it translates exactly like it sounds: “Hi, my name is Tiger Elephant Jones.”
Whoa. Don’t mess with that dude. He’s either gonna win a golf tournament or beat your head in with his trunk.
Of course when you cross a Tiger Elephant with a Grateful Dead song you are going to get something special, which is my first grandson, whose name is orders of made-up magnitude far beyond large mammals and psychedelic songs: His name is Ringoro, which in Japanese means Magic Dragon Protecting Man. Yeah, say that three times fast backwards after a couple hours of beer pong. When people meet Magic Dragon Protecting Man in Japan, they pretty much freeze in their tracks, whereas in the U.S.A. they don’t even know how to begin pronouncing it so they just say, “Can we call him Ringo?”
I mean, being called the name of a member of the greatest rock and roll band of all time is pretty boss, right? Almost as boss as his middle name, Alfaro, paying tribute to our non-existent Hispanic heritage through the name of Alfara Siquieros, the great Mexican muralist whose work adorns the entrance to the Santa Barbara County Museum.
So I knew when my second grandson was born two days ago, he was going to have a humdinger of a name. And he does: Kohaku Marshall Davidson. The name means “amber gemstone” in Japanese, and no one has ever heard of a person in Japan having that name. But I’m saving the best for last, because his middle name was a twofer: Named after Marshall Taylor, the bike racer, and Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court Justice.
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March 15, 2018 § 6 Comments
I get all kinds of email. Letters from Nigerian princes, potions that can make my parts young again, natty neckties and charming colognes, screaming discounts on Conti clinchers, you name it. Yesterday I was lucky enough to get this email from a friend:
“Every day I get a suggestion from FB to friend you, with a prompt that tells me how many mutual friends we have. And every day that number rises. Today we’re up to 37. Apparently these people don’t know that this is the Seth who is only here to host a work-related Facebag presence.
“As I was cruising around the golf course yesterday I was thinking about how, as you have observed, people come into and depart from the local cycling scene. They also come into and depart from the somewhat similar cycling #socmed world. The entries into these worlds can be temporary or intermittent, or in some cases lifelong, like a really bad prison sentence.
“And these people’s presence can be loud, with lots of contributions, being outspoken, driving the front, posting lots of selfies from coffee rides, or quiet, sitting in, sucking wheel from the posts of others. Their contributions vary as their cycling or #socmed time and emotional illnesses ebb and flow. And of course some of these “contributions” are not positive, those who glorify unsafe riding, being a dick, racing triathlons. Thankfully you still pillory such people, such as Rider X, whom you described in a blog post a few months ago. I hope the defamation suit comes out okay.
“But there way more good eggs than rotten apples. EA Sports, BoozyP., the Chocolate Rocket, Mr. and Mrs. Hair, Manslaughter, Smasher, Wily Greek, Surfer Dan, G3, Shirtless Keith, The One And Only Michelle, the French Connections, Skier Girl; enough to fill a madhouse. They all show up on occasion for bike rides or #socmed rides, sometimes they are consistent, but they can be gone for months or years. For me, when they’re around, I like it. They add a lot to rides, two-wheeled as well as the rides made exclusively from 1’s and 0’s.
“In the #socmed cycling world, some show up and can add a lot, and it’s generally a positive influence. Like JZ. For some reason Team Lizard Collectors really pulls people in, where people are so suddenly and addictively a part of this scene that it’s almost like a drug. They feel accepted and part of a group, a group that has common interests (lizard collecting, chasing down teammates) and often they discover new interests such as Strava, riding in PV or along PCH, Strava, enjoying beautiful scenery, getting fitter, carbon, 100% carbon, pure carbon, Strava, and getting to hang out with Greg Leibert, or at least claim to. (Please don’t let Yasuko join Strava.)
“Team Lizard Collectors isn’t like a club of IT support employees or an AA group; there’s too much exertion involved, so people get excited about it and go whole hog. It’s a common pattern, and it’s generally not sustainable, like doing intervals past the age of 50. You can’t spend four hours a day doing rides and taking pictures from the lookout on Del Monte as well as from Yellow Vase, and then three hours more on Facebag uploading and liking and commenting and emojiing. We’ll call that a verb.
“Toss in hours spent hitting the gram and more hours working the Twitter and pretty soon you are flat out #socmed overtrained.
“I say you can’t do it, but some people apparently can. However, the candle, not very long to begin with, shrinks quickly, burned as it is with a blowtorch on both ends. So eventually people get to a more sustainable place, or at least they gyrate to a sine wave with lesser amplitude. And that wave may be a large amount of ride time with minimal #socmed, or less-to-hardly-any ride time with bagsfull of Facebag. Or neither. I mean, there are other things in life like family, work, hobbies, and other interests. I’ve been told this by people I trust, even though I googled “other interests” and frankly FOUND NOTHING THERE.
“So does that mean that you, Wanky, have found your right mix, with a healthy amount of riding and no #socmed? Maybe. Or maybe for now. But it can change. You are nothing if not predictably unpredictable. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In your case, you departed with a bang, a grand announcement and some pretty impressive blogfare, moralizing, chest-thumping, and grand pronouncifying. So does that make your return rather shameful? I hope not. I for one wouldn’t think any less of you if you were to have some #socmed presence, and let’s face it: Hardly anyone thinks anything of you to begin with, so what have you really lost? If a Wanky vanishes from Facegag and no one cares, did it really happen?
“Is it possible you could Facebag in a non-binary way, more measured, kind of the opposite from the way you ride, write, talk, travel, read … live? I don’t know. You’re a pretty big character, and you tend to throw yourself into things fully, even though it does sometimes seem that you don’t always recognize the difference between a swimming pool and a septic tank until it’s too late. But I don’t see you often, and I wish I saw you more. Maybe your “new old new Facegag” presence will give me a little bit more of the Wanky that I crave. I’m not really a stalker, but I think about you a lot. I think that’s what they called a friend way back when.
“My other point is the old “out of sight out of mind.” In the case of your blog, I fear that it is out of people’s minds if they don’t see you on #socmed. Of course, you have the data, and are probably aware that with only seven readers, an additional three or four aren’t going to put you on the list of America’s billionaires. You know how many page views you’re getting. I hope. Of course, you also are intelligent, your blog notwithstanding, and you walk the walk as a cyclist, a racer, a lawyer, and an advocate. And your financial support of the local racing and cycling community is exceptional.
“So would some #socmed involvement for you be better than none? Maybe. Can it fit within the jet-setting life you live, hopping from one desolate hellhole and a cheap motel to the next, always flying coach? Maybe. You’re the best judge of that. But if you do flow back a bit into #socmed world, it might not be all bad. My $0.02, which you can add to my $2.99. And with that, it’s off to PV for some cycling.”
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March 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Surfer Dan lined up at the table, squaring off against Boozy P. and Smasher. Surfer was undefeated in ten consecutive food crits at Chez Davidson, having always left capable of eating more than he was served. Boozy P. was a Cat 2 eater and definite underdog, as his calzone sprints were going to be undermined by his propensity to beer dope, which took away valuable appetite and stomach space. Cat 4 racers Olive and Stanley were not considered a major threat.
The gun went off and Surfer came up on the inside on the appetizer laps, eating half a tub of hummus and slaughtering half a bag of helpless, mewing baby carrots. Boozy P., who was only on his fifth IPA ten minutes into the race, snagged an edamame prime as Surfer sat up to catch his breath and down another two bottles of San Pelligrino.
Olive and Stanley shuffled around at the back, spending the appetizer laps nosing around in the garbage can, dragging out paper towels sopped in olive oil and pieces of sausage, and staying generally unfocused on the race. Smasher opted to save his bullets for the calzone, and appeared unconcerned while Surfer polished off the hummus and the squalling carrot babies.
Suddenly the homemade calzone came out of the oven, next to a giant green salad with feta cheese and avocado, which appeared next to it on the table. Smasher attacked, hacking off a piece of calzone bigger than his head, and choking it down his gullet in two mighty swallows, one of which included a half-chew. Boozy P. sprinted hard for the end pieces and wolfed them down. Surfer followed Smasher’s attack, which had gapped out Boozy P., and countered Smasher by inhaling a double-slab.
The calzone’s homemade crust had been stuffed to popping with Italian sausage, pepperoni, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, grated parmesan, mushrooms, and basil. Stanley and Olive sniffed around the edges of the table, but were repeatedly denied by the Surfer/Smasher breakaway, and were unable to bridge up to Boozy P., who was stuck out in no-man’s land.
Just as it looked like the two-man break was going to stick, Boozy P. made a superhuman effort by stuffing his entire salad into his face with his fist, and making it across to the break. Olive and Stanley couldn’t follow his wheel, no matter how hard Stan thought about the taquitos he’d stolen off the table at the 2014 Davidson Taquito Crit in an unforgettable come from behind victory.
In the twinkling of an eye, a calzone the size of a small paper shredder had vanished. The last piece went into Boozy P.’s mouth. As the competitors eyed one another, out of the oven popped calzone number two, and Boozy P., now on his tenth IPA, suddenly found himself in difficulty despite digging deeply into his suitcase of courage, which was unfortunately filled only with dead soldiers and bottle caps.
Surfer attacked first, shearing off a calzone slab resembling the calving of an Antarctic glacier. The gap was big, but Smasher smashed the calzone with his fist, squirting copious piles of cheese and meat and crust onto his plate. In one deft move he had seen Surfer’s calzone and raised him a double slab.
Coming into the final lap both riders were cross-eyed and queasy as the cheese and meat took its ugly toll. Huge rivers of sweat poured off their faces. Everyone stank of olive oil. Surfer and Smasher began playing cat and mouse with each other, nibbling on salad, sipping on water and baby carrots, and throwing cagey edamame moves with their elbows as they jockeyed for position.
But lo! As the two experienced pros locked onto the last piece of calzone, preparing for the final lunge to the line, Stanley somehow managed to come across the gap! While Surfer and Smasher eyed each other, Stan made his patented table-grab, snatched the last piece of calzone off the table and took home the spoils, scoring another daring win for the South Bay’s champion chihuahua!
Afterwards, Stan went out onto the balcony and pooped in satisfaction.
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February 22, 2018 § 2 Comments
A good book makes you do something, and reading about the old coffee shops in Vienna made me want to go to Austria and get some coffee. With the exception of full carbon that is 100% carbon and made exclusively of carbon, few things are more important to underwear bicycle riders than coffee. But Vienna is far and Los Angeles has lots of coffee shops, so why cross the ocean for something you can easily get right around the corner?
The answer is long. #sorrynotsorry
The Vienna Coffeehouse
Once upon a time, the legend goes, Vienna was the world’s center for coffeehouses. The greatest writers, artists, actors, politicians, and financiers of Europe could be found at their favorite coffeehouse, conducting business, arguing, reading, romancing, discussing, holding forth, snorting cocaine, observing, in short doing anything but drinking coffee. This was the Viennese coffeehouse, a place for the “vagabond and footloose nomad who didn’t like to leave home.”
As I read through the book I jotted down notes that captured the essence of the people and the times better than anything I could regurgitate or plagiarize.
- One famed writer always refused to move outdoors when the weather warmed and his favorite coffeehouse opened its garden terrace. For years his friends begged him to leave the hot and stuffy indoors during the summer months, but he never budged. Then one day a man hurled himself from the fifth floor of the hotel above the coffeehouse, crashing onto a table in the garden and nearly killing a guest. “See?” said the famed writer. “That’s why I never take my coffee outside.”
- “The only pleasure I ever gave my parents was nine months before my birth.”
- “Words are never so right as those written for the eyes of one.”
- “You’ll be my guest at the Royal Hotel tonight! Assuming I can find someone to invite us.”
- “I’d never do him the honor of sponging off him.”
- “When your last name is ‘Cow’ and you want to be taken seriously, you’d best act like a bull.”
- “It was his incomprehensible fortune that made him a beggar.”
- “It was the laboratory of the destruction of democracy.”
- “He was divorced, like every educated person.”
- “And it ground the mass of humanity into soulless materiele.”
- “She was like a burned up piece of paper made entirely of ash but retaining its shape, waiting only for the tap of a finger to crumble into formlessness.”
- “Nothing makes a renegade quicker than money.”
- “Man accustoms himself to nothing so quickly as comfort.”
- “He sat there forced to do what so many before him had done, the choice not his but the Muse’s.”
- “This is the place where Karl Kraus used to sit and so studiously read the newspapers, which he hated.”
- “If you’re in a coffee shop the coffee is the goal, but if you’re in a coffeehouse, the coffee is the means.”
The Los Angeles coffee shop (cyclists, take note)
A couple of days ago I did Intelligentsia the dishonor of insulting its atmosphere and clientele. I made fun of its ridiculous customers, its jangling atmosphere, and its inhospitability.
The fool, however, was I, because a coffee shop is not a coffeehouse, just like a strand cruiser is not a time trail bike. Unlike the coffeehouse, whose existence has little if anything to do with coffee, the coffee shop is all about coffee. You buy it, you pay too much for it, you drink it, you pose a bit, and you get the hell out and make way for the next patron. Plus, you have somewhere else to go pose. The coffeehouse is a state of mind; the coffee shop is a state of mindlessness with a profit motive. In fact, if you are staring around wondering “How does this shabby place possibly stay in business?” you may well be in a coffeehouse, although you may also simply be in a crappy coffee shop about to go under.
On reflection, no place could possibly be better for cyclists than the Center of the Known Universe, the Starbucks on Highland and Manhattan Beach overlooking the pier and the Pacific Ocean. Where better to preen, flex, gab, and look at the people who are also looking at you? Where better to quaff an espresso or, better yet, a quattro? And where else is it 65 and sunny in February?
But if Starbucks isn’t your fancy, then Intelligentsia or Zinque or Nikau Kai or Dogtown Coffee or that place in Santa Monica where the coffee is made with butter should be. These places all define themselves based on what they sell and how it tastes, and they provide a venue to strut your stuff, or at least to hide in a corner and watch while others strut theirs, but please don’t do it for very long even though we do have wi-fi.
But what if you want a coffeehouse? And what is a coffeehouse, by the way, really?
What a coffeehouse is, really
For starters, and for most folks enders, a coffeehouse is a place with mediocre coffee. No one goes to a coffeehouse to drink something out of a cup with this description:
As the cold air rides in on the north wind Borealis and settles in for the season, warm yourself with our new winter blend. Our inaugural Borealis blends three sizzling coffees from Africa and reminds us of butterscotch, candied ginger and plum jam. [That’s a real description from Intelligentsia, by the way.]
People go to a coffeehouse to scrounge around. To lay about. To waste time and while away the day, and perhaps to talk with an acquaintance or, best of all, to wash down the taste of the mediocre coffee with a cigarette or three.
Nothing, however, defines a coffeehouse like books. In short, if books are not strewn about, or if someone isn’t lounging on a broken sofa reading “Dianetics,” then you’re not at a coffeehouse. And if everyone is hunched over a phone or iPad or laptop, you’re not at a coffeehouse either, unless it’s clear that most of the people are looking at each other or, better yet, the walls. In Los Angeles, the true coffeeshop has at least one patron who’s never written a screenplay, book, or poem, never acted, never played guitar, never developed an app or had an idea for a new social media app, and never tried to surf, but who looks like he might have done each of those things professionally before he stopped shaving in 1983.
The coffeehouse close to home
It didn’t take long for me to find a coffeehouse, and better yet I didn’t have to fight the killing traffic on the 405 to get there. No sir, right down the hill was a place that fit the bill to a “T.”
I walked in and noted that the place actually smelled like coffee. It was quiet, old, worn, and dumpy, and my “here” order came in a permanently stained mug that, with a little effort, could easily have been chipped. But what told me in no uncertain terms that I was in a coffeehouse were the books. Hundreds of them were lined up in bookshelves, and as you’d expect they were books of the worst sort, old, pawed through with ratty covers, and left behind only because donation required less effort than tossing them in the trash.
More than the overflow of bad books, however, were the actual human beings reading them. What could be weirder than people reading books in public, unashamedly?
In the background Wes Montgomery slid up and down the guitar neck, and muted, first-class mediocre jazz standards ensured that you wouldn’t have to leap out of your chair at the first lyric of a rapper fucking his girl. A big, algae-stained aquarium made splishing noises that further drowned out the mindless conversations that no one was having, and if they were, that you couldn’t overhear.
Deep leather chairs and ugly velour sofas, long past their expiration dates, sucked the patrons in like quicksand; uncomfortable and mismatched, they were hard in the wrong places and not soft in the right ones. Commanding the generally degenerate scene was no barista, perish the thought, but rather a part-time dude in a t-shirt “making coffee.” And however sketch his coffee knowledge was, he knew the names of the customers and, more impressively, was able to make their drink without even asking. He had a vaguely foreign accent that sounded like “no work visa.”
Bad photos from local photographers were interspersed with ugly artwork from local artists, all overpriced, and none appeared to have been purchased in years judging from the geological strata of dust along the top edge of the frames. The bathroom was washed in graffiti, none of it obscene. A woman was giving French lessons to a Japanese student; scroungers were smoking outside on the terrace; strange looking old men hunched over their coffee while scrolling through Facebook … but best of all was the dumpy fellow with the smell of stale armpits who sat on the couch and stared out the plate glass window for more than an hour, unmoving.
This coffeehouse had Stammgäste, regulars who plainly loathed human contact but who craved the society of others, nomads who preferred to stay home. In sum, a coffeehouse is a place where you can go in with nothing but a book and some pocket change, although I dare you. A coffeehouse is vaguely tattered in all its particulars, made uncomfortable by everything that has passed from broken-in to simply broken, but it exceeds anything you could possibly lounge in that is new or comfortable.
I pulled my book up over my nose and sipped my brackish brown water, lightened with a bit of foam, as I read the Gothic letters: “It began to rain softly, quietly, like silent tears.”
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February 20, 2018 § 9 Comments
I pedaled over to the Intelligentsia coffee shop on Abbott-Kinney because with a name like that I was sure I could snag a nook, grab a cup of coffee, and nurse the espresso for a couple of hours while I read a book.
Just to make sure I’d blend in, I checked Wikipedia before I left to make sure I was going to the right place, and lo:
The intelligentsia (/ɪnˌtelɪˈdʒentsiə/) (Latin: intelligentia, Polish: inteligencja, Russian: интеллигенция, tr.intelligensiya, IPA: [ɪntʲɪlʲɪˈɡʲentsɨjə]) is a status class of educated people engaged in the complex mental labours that critique, guide, and lead in shaping the culture and politics of their society.
Imagine my surprise when I got there and saw not a single person reading a book, and not a single person who appeared to be engaging in any mental labors at all, much less complex ones. Half the people were boring into their phones, half were boring into their laptops, and the third half was looking at the other two halves and hoping someone would notice their casually thrown-together, perfectly mismatched artisanally grown jeans and poncho with orange Converse All-Stars.
I got my espresso, wedged into a corner, and took out my book. I could feel the eyes rolling. It’s okay to be pretentious in a pretentious coffee shop with the most pretentious name ever, but a book? Really? There. Are. Limits.
No one in Intelligentsia was intelligenting with anyone else, and it seemed that no one could stand to be there for more than about twenty minutes, eighteen of which were spent waiting in line. Delicate coffees that elegantly attired baristas who had trained for ten years just to make minimum wage pulling that one perfect espresso shot were inhaled, the cups clattered aside, and the impatient patrons stomped out.
After a couple of hours the space next to me opened up again for the fourth or fifth time. My espresso was still only half-drunk and cold as the chill outdoors. A very pretty woman and her jealous girlfriend waltzed in, foppish boyfriend in tow. The jealous girlfriend had eyes on the boy, who only had eyes for his girlfriend.
The intelligentsia began to discourse.
He: “This coffee is so awesome and this place is so cool.”
GF: “I love it here. Oh! Look at those shoes!”
JG: “Look at my Instagram!”
He: “That’s so cool!”
GF: “Let me see! Oh, cool! Here, look at this one I just posted. It’s got all our feet!”
He: “That’s so cool!”
JG: “I love that! Guess who just texted me?”
GF: “He’s so hot. Are you dating him?”
JG: “Look at his IG.”
He: “This place is so cool.”
The place was now so packed that people were backed up against our little bench-nook, squeezing by and jostling the tiny table. Girlfriend reached into her purse and pulled out a beautiful, petite leather strap with a gold key ring on the end. “Look what I got at the leather shop! On sale–$150!” It still had the tag on it, and she hadn’t transferred her keys over to it yet.
Jealous Girlfriend handled it, stroked it, and her eyes sparkled with greed. Then she laid it back down on the table and the three of them hunched back over Girlfriend’s phone as she scrolled them through a mutual frenemy’s IG feed. “She’s such a bitch!” the two women cackled.
There were so many people and there was so much noise that I had fallen into ultra-concentration reading mode, where I read and comprehended one word at a time.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jealous Girlfriend palm the leather key ring as the three of them mooed in disgust at another execrable post by the frenemy. Then, like the practiced thief she probably was, Jealous Girlfriend slipped it into her purse.
Another fifteen minutes went by and the crush finally thinned out. The three of them got ready to go and Girlfriend noticed her key ring was gone. “Oh my god! What happened to my key ring?”
The three of them searched frantically beneath the table and around the bench and stools. “Somebody must have swiped it while we were looking at my phone!”
Girlfriend was outraged and aghast.
At that moment the boyfriend stared at me, who was clearly the most suspicious person in the whole place, reading a BOOK and not even finished with a thimbleful of coffee. Plus, I was an old man, and likely a dirty one at that, and even more disgusting, clean-shaven. I ignored him.
After a few more minutes of suspicion and scorn and dirty looks, they left.
Eventually I did, too.
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