Cafes and the city

I’m writing this blog as I’m sitting at a café. Cafés have character and this has one.

This isn’t a big name-brand café but a very successful one. It’s in SoHo right in the heart of Manhattan’s artists’ studios and big fashion stores. The café is fairly full of artists and fashionistas while a new breed of finance professionals whose offices have moved here are drinking coffee here too. In fact, the latter comprise the majority.

This is where my café is in SoHo. Notice the World Trade Center in the background. Photo credit: Bottledworder.

The décor is carefully rough. The tables are blocks of unpolished tree stumps placed between unpolished benches and chairs that emulate a rustic, carpenter’s workshop. Maybe. For there is also a pirate’s treasure chest that serves as a coffee table that could belong to no carpenter. On the wall hangs a painting of a winding road down a hilly slope where a solitary biker rides down amidst a lot of greenery. The only spot of greenery in an otherwise all brown décor, very rustic in its setting.

It isn’t so long ago that I moved here. I’m only still getting used to the many colours of money.

Especially the sophisticated that’s carefully crafted rustic uncouth.
The prices handwritten on the blackboard with white chalk on the wall reflect the cost of this craft.

The clientèle is mixed. Some have hurried here in crisp business suits, polished people with various accents from different parts of the world  eager to impress. They are here with discussion partners who are curiously casually dressed. Yet their demeanour and confidence imply that the dress code of power is changing to casual.

Interspersed in this crowd are a set of men and women who seem to be clearly fashion models, or aspiring models, waiting for an interview perhaps. And there are the performers and the artists, usually in groups, discussing projects. These are in shorts, with dishevelled hair or stubble, sporting confidence and engaging in exploratory discussions in closed groups.

All definitely city people in this strangely rustic setting. All have shiny, transparent, plastic coffee cups with shiny plastic lids and shiny straws on the roughly hewn wooden stumps.

The clarity of the plastic makes one wonder where the dust has gone in this rustic setting.

Didn’t take a picture of a stumpy table. So here’s a bubble. Just because. (My caption. Photo credit: zzub nik)

People are panting outside in the sweltering heat. I see them walk by through the glass. Yet I am shivering inside because the air conditioner is blasting a stream of very cold air right on the carpenter’s bench that I’m sitting on. I should have carried my cardigan with me.

A stream of East Asian people walk in engaged in a discussion in a language I don’t understand but something seems very important. They hold multiple iPads and iPhones–the sleek devices a stark contrast to the stumpy décor.

Another group, clearly New Yorkers, leave their tables. Most of the coffee in their cups are still full, ready to be thrown into the trash.

All over the rest of Manhattan, and everywhere else in the country, you have Starbucks and Pete’s Coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts and their other cousins. Huge edifices with glass walls letting in light. It’s all clean, fiber tables, chairs, angular furniture, crisp white cups with clean green motifs. Couches for the sedentary scholar. At every corner, every plaza, in grocery stores, next to gas stations on the highway. The ordinary person’s coffee shop in the middle-class American’s modernist setting. Free of the phantom of the overly colourful poor people’s Mac Donald’s and yet not as pricey as the corner coffee store which disappeared last month anyway.

I went to a Starbucks too at Houston and West Broadway. That’s my iced green tea and a free sample of a new berry drink. Photo credit: Bottledworder.

But here in SoHo I think the rustic is popular.

Across the Hudson on the other side of Manhattan innumerable skyscrapers have sprung up in Jersey City, New Jersey. The skyline reflects Manhattan’s sharp edges (I hear that that old town is now being called the sixth borough of Manhattan.) Many sport fifty or more floors. The newer the building, the more the glass. Some have pools and trees on high floors where the best technology blends with the best art our world has to offer to bring the tropics to the higher floors of these tall columns of glass in the temperate zone. The tallest building I can see in Jersey City is the Goldman Sachs  building giving a nod to the new World Trade Center building under construction on the other side of the Hudson, the latter perpetually sporting two antennae which are really cranes.

The Goldman Sachs Tower - Jersey city, NJ.
The Goldman Sachs Tower – Jersey city, NJ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lower Manhattan skyline at dusk. The tallest building is the WTC. Photo credit: Bottledworder’s inspiration.
On the Jersey City side you see a lot of new professional immigrants. No longer the uncertain, out of sync, nerdily dressed science and technology immigrant folk you’d see in America even ten years ago. These are confident youngsters, crisply dressed, carrying thin smartphones and light tablets dressed in black. Professional men and women “grabbing” coffee, “picking up” a latte or a salad in their lunch hour or on their way to a meeting. As many women almost as men. Okay, maybe not as many, but more than you’d think. The Frenchified names of the cafés are on every cup, every brown paper bag, on every T Shirt of the young girls and boys who serve at the counters, glanced at casually by the patrons.

As I said, I’m only getting used to the many colours of money in this little global village.

Many cafés on this side of the Hudson are elegant in the classic sense, all wine glass and candle and beautiful, self-conscious women.

The other day, in a bizarre moment, as the spectacular 4th of July fireworks went off over the Hudson, I overheard a young woman exclaim: “Just  like it was at my wedding”!

I was in India this winter.  A country not that different any more. Maybe.

Many cafés have sprung up in the new swanky malls all over the city of Kolkata, where I was, in the posh parts of town. They have the glass walls, the fiber chairs, the clean look, the reflective floors. Nothing “Kolkata” about them. Nothing, really,  according to my dated idea of the city. I didn’t find a single old pal who would suggest going to the old “Coffee House” on College Street which had housed the storms in the coffee cups of the Calcutta intellectuals when the city shone in all its glory.

Memory serves me well. I’ve had a lot of this iced mocha.

I’m at a big mall in Kolkata. It looks the same as the Jersey City mall from inside except that some stores are different. I’m at a café. Every table is full with eager middle-class Indians for coffee. There is a slight difference in the kind of gathering here though from the cafés in New York I was in this morning. These Kolkata Starbucks-like cafés seem places for family gatherings, with kids, dating places for young couples as well as work places  for the loners with laptops. The prices of the coffees are their dollar equivalents, very much out of proportion with expenses outside the cafés’ precincts in the city. But the tables are all full.

It was Christmas eve in Kolkata the day I visited the first cafe. Photo taken at Park Street. Photo credit: Bottledworder’s inspiration.
I suffered from some confusion at one of the big coffee chains though. Franchisee 1 at a very elegant, old Kolkata street was completely self-serviced. I remembered feeling a bit foolish waiting for someone to take my order at the table like at most places in the city. Franchisee 2 though, was completely serviced. At another end of the city, at Franchisee 3, I was thoroughly confused when I discovered that the system was that a server came to your table and provided the menu. Then you walked up to the service window, you ordered yourself and then someone came and served you at your table where you were sitting. A traditional culture used to providing great hospitality and cheap labour adjusting to the new Starbucks-y coffee culture from a country where labour is expensive and hospitality is rationed at cafés.

We spoke  to the very Bengali looking server in Bengali. He answered in English. We spoke in Bengali again. Again he explained in English. When we spoke Bengali again, he started grinning. We had known the whole time what was happening. Yet, the swanky, upper-class squeaky-clean space (especially compared to the city) expected a certain behaviour. We both knew what it was. We also knew that you could either go with it or resist it but you couldn’t ignore it. Hey, you could sell it.

English: South City Mall, Kolkata
English: South City Mall, Kolkata (Photo credit: Wikipedia). There are a few cafes I went to here.

Nothing rustic about either décor or language in that Kolkata café.

Outside one of the huge malls of the city, on a huge thoroughfare, the other people of the city have their cafés too. Not cafés. Tea shops. Open spaces on the sidewalks covered in tarpaulin with wooden benches and gas or kerosene stoves where the tea boils and pieces of wax paper wrapped colourful cakes and savouries look like they’ve been there for several years. I’ve had them as a child and never ever had an upset stomach.

The road-side tea stall at Kolkata
The road-side tea stall at Kolkata (Photo credit: nehasingh7)

The chai boils and boils and boils again for people who work and don’t work around the city. The water from the washing of the utensils runs into the drain next to the tea shops as buses, rickshaws and three wheelers whiz by. The only spot of greenery, a real tree, is covered in dust.The rustic earthen pots of yesteryears are mostly gone replaced by drinking glasses or disposable cups. Occasionally, the shop owners’ toddler might run out threatening to jump onto the busy road. People sit here in earnest conversation or just kill time. (A thought crosses my mind for no apparent reason. The rich people would be drinking the tea in New York, I think, but not in the malls, and the ordinary folk would be drinking the coffee, mostly without the privilege of benches on the sidewalk.)

Killing time. That’s what I’m doing too under my green photograph with my laptop on my wooden bench in SoHo, New York. I’ve been sitting and killing time myself for the past two hours. Here, in this air conditioned rustic setting.

In front of me, two people from the fashion industry have decided to meet. One is a young girl with a British accent getting her resume critiqued by an older, impeccably dressed woman who sounds very New-York-fashion-world-American. The girl is very nervous, waving her hands too expressively and too often as she explains her background  (very uncharacteristic for a  Brit, I think, in spite of myself). Her resume, it seems, will not fit into exactly two pages and she is very worried that it didn’t. She sips her coffee to fill in the awkward silences as the older woman speaks. Behind me, I overhear a well-dressed young man complain that he hasn’t been getting a job for several months. So he’s here designing flyers on his shiny white MacBook Air. I noticed when I came in.

I know that as I walk back to the underground train station on ninth street away from SoHo I’ll pass a Mac Donald’s. I’ll see the other city there too, people drinking giant mugs of soda, sitting at colourful fiber chairs and tables, under bright neon lights (for it’s evening already), while the clown laughs silently as I pass by.

Clown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

58 thoughts on “Cafes and the city”

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  4. Thanks for stopping buy my blog-smog. Here, we have many coffee shops, which, from my travels, I know are similar to your cafe’s. But I prefer the comfort of my own leather couch when blogging. That, or admittedly, I am just to damn lazy to pack up the ol’ laptop and drive into town. Plus – here where I am, the coffee and food is for free. And I make a cupcake to die for!


  5. I particularly love this post as I visualise your writings ….I am venturing into the city this weekend as a tourist would definitely visit some of the places you wrote about here..


  6. A very original post about a cafe. Unfortunately, I haven’t found my unique, inspiring cafe yet. It seems like in the city of Chicago I am constantly surrounded my Starbucks and frozen yogurt shops.

    I loved the detail about the girl and her resume. Very realistic and heartwarming in a familiar sort of way.


  7. Wow, that’s quite a coffee shop post! I blog a lot about sitting in coffee shops, but it usually gets no further than how the coffee tastes, a snippet of overheard chat and if the waitress was cute. Big-ups for the extended musings, bro.


  8. I really enjoyed this – especially the quality of your writing. Something to aspire to 🙂 You might get a kick out of one of my ‘cafe-oriented’ pieces, here:
    I go to this cafe every morning – have done for 17 years, but now I blog here. I love its unpretentious decor and people from all walks of life, races, etc. I often mention it in my other blog too ( Your cafe sounds a little “New York” to me 🙂 Funny….


  9. Cafés are the better places for introspection, thinking writing, studying. I agree absolutely with you. Youmust visit Buenos Aires, Argentina. We have a strong culture of cafés.


  10. Hey! Nice entry. I work in an independent cafe so I can relate. A very interesting environment albeit a transitory one where people from all walks of life pass through or stay for a while. I always found the patrons who hold conversations face to face over their coffee or tea much more interesting than those glued to their laptops or Iphones. Thanks for checking out my poem by the way!


  11. Strange to think of the Jersey City skyline and of how much has changed since I lived in Lower Manhattan. Thanks for glimpses into places that are both familiar and unfamiliar, traveled and untraveled.


  12. I live in the English countryside now (Shropshire Hills) and absolutely love it; but I’ve lived in and around English cities for years. A couple of weeks ago, I visited London and felt the urge to spend more time in ‘the thick of it’. Since then, I have found some lovely writing about cities, which a beautiful way of experiencing the different and far away. Thank you x


  13. I just wrote an entry on not being able to write in cafes and this is essentially the anti-thesis, as it were.

    “I’m writing this blog as I’m sitting at a café. Cafés have character and this has one.

    This isn’t a big name-brand café but a very successful one. It’s in SoHo right in the heart of Manhattan’s artists’ studios and big fashion stores. The café is fairly full of artists and fashionistas while a new breed of finance professionals whose offices have moved here are drinking coffee here too. In fact, the latter comprise the majority.”

    I’m not even going to paraphrase, because that paragraph is everything I’ve been lacking. My coffee shops are a reflection of my city, a cultural wasteland, where even the culturally optimistic get depressed. Our cafes are ‘baby America’ with Starbucks here there and everywhere, and as unfortunate as it is, rustic cafes with character have almost been completely obliterated by the comercial names. Our cafe culture is a Starbucks culture – bad coffee and sterile thought plains.


  14. Good piece! Yes, cafes have a character. If you have the opportunity, the ones in Amsterdam are a breed apart (and no, I don’t mean THOSE coffee shops). I find the faux naif rustic look a little hard to stomach. One of the ways it’s expressed here in Brasil is through exposed brickwork. I’m old-fashioned enough to find it unpleasantly unfinished. And thanks for the like!


    1. Lots of exposed brickwork in Manhattan too. For example, there’s an Afghani restaurant built like a tent on the inside as though it’s propped up on a wall with the brick exposed! One man’s necessity is another man’s aesthetics.


  15. Thanks for stopping by my place Bottledworder…I hope that I didn’t offend you too much with the NY City comment. I too have pictures of the World Trade Center. Taken of my two kids from ferry on the way to the Statue of Liberty * Ellis


      1. I work with a team of women in the NJ/NY area. I love to read about and see their surroundings. It makes me feel a little closer to them even though I have never met them in person. With direct sales its not uncommon for such relationships to form. In many ways I connect more with my business mentor than people geographically close to me and we have never sat at a cafe for tea/coffee or got to each other’s children’s school events. Thanks again for allowing me to put on your blog as a pair of binoculars.


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