Bringing the Buzz Back to the Cafe

FOOD & DRINK
NOVEMBER 21, 2009, 8:01 A.M. ET
Bringing the Buzz Back to the Café

Once they plotted revolutions, now they’re typing blogs.
Today’s cafe society is a weak decaf.

By MICHAEL IDOV
The coffeehouse may just be mankind’s greatest invention. It certainly
is the most collective one: In the classic, which is to say Viennese,
form, the coffeehouse is perhaps the finest collaboration between
Europe, Asia and Africa. It is almost as if every great civilization
in the world had taken a brief time-out from trying to kill one
another to brainstorm what a perfect public space should look
like. The result was equal parts Athenian agora, Saharan oasis and
Continental court, with pastries. Modernity in its bloody splendor has
tumbled out of the coffeehouse: In January of 1913 alone, as Frederic
Morton describes in his Vienna history "Thunder at Twilight," Lenin,
Trotsky, Hitler, Freud and Josip Broz Tito were using the same cups at
Vienna’s Café Central. (Stalin was in town, too, but he was too much
of a country bumpkin for espresso.)

And yet it seems that we’re losing the coffeehouse-less to the usual
suspects like the Internet and Dunkin’ Donuts than to our own
politeness. We’ve brought the noise level down to a whisper and are in
the process of losing even the whisper: Enter the modern café and the
loudest sound you’ll hear will be someone typing, in ALL CAPS, an
angry blog comment. We’ve become a nation of coffee sophisticates-to
the point where McDonald’s feels compelled to roll out some semblance
of an espresso program=80’but we’re still rubes when it comes to the
real purpose of the place: It’s not the coffee. It’s what your brain
does on it.

An astonishing, grandiose second-floor Art Deco space looking out on
one of Europe’s prettiest corners (Alcalá and Gran Via). The crowd is
often dictated by whatever’s taking place in the building’s art
galleries, and leavened by bankers from the nearby Banco de
España. It used to be a members-only club, and you still have to pay
a euro to gain entrance.

Mayak, Moscow
Ulitsa Bolshaya Nikitskaya 19, in the Mayakovsky Theatre

The coffee’s crap. So is the food. Yet it fulfills the coffeehouse
mission
of casually squeezing together creative elites like no other place I
know.
On any given evening, editors-in-chief can be found sharing tables
with film directors, television moguls, permanently depressed
opposition politicians, at least one resident movie star and the
occasional Western tourist who
doesn’t recognize any of them.

A Brasileira, Lisbon
Rua Garrett, 120, Chiado

Admittedly a bit too famous for its own good (I may as well be
recommending Les Deux Magots), and outfitted with silly tourist bait
like the statue of Fernando Pessoa out front. Yet its intellectual
pedigree is real, and the room remains largely untouched from the
1920s.

Café Sabarsky, New York
1048 5th Ave.

A near-perfect café – if only it weren’t such a production. Part of
the Neue Galerie, it is itself a carefully curated museum piece on par
with any Klimt or Schiele that hangs upstairs. It could use a little
schmutz – I wish I could magically tow it 70 or 80 blocks south.

Café Havelka, Vienna
Dorotheergasse 6, Wien 1010

In my novel Ground Up, it’s called Café Hrabal and has fictional
owners, but the description still stands: "Compared to most others, it
looked small and cheap, cut down to more recognizable New York
proportions in square footage and budget. Perhaps that’s what endeared
it to us most, the faint possibility of such a place back
home. Instead of occupying a ballroom with 30-foot cathedral windows
and its own flock of pigeons under the ceiling, the owners managed to
squeeze the whole thing into a windowless basement and lose none of
the buzzed bustle: in fact, the cramped quarters only helped
essentialize it."
It’s telling that the people credited with the invention of the
coffeehouse tend to be rogues with tangled multinational
roots. There’s George Franz (or Jerzy Franciszek, or Yuri-Frants-his
very name holds at least three passports) Kolschitzky. A kind of
Austrian-Polish-Ukrainian-Cossack cross between Paul Revere and Ray
Kroc, he is said to have slipped out of the Turk-beseiged Vienna in
1683, disguised in a fez, to call up reinforcements. When invited
before the emperor to collect his reward, he asked for the sacks of
"camel fodder" left behind by the retreating enemy, and opened
Vienna’s first café shortly afterward. This whole coffee caper whiffs
mightily of folklore-it’s even reminiscent of one Arabic fable-and
sure enough, no historical record of it exists. Kolschitzky’s
real-life counterpart, however, is hardly less exotic: an Armenian
named Johannes Diodato, who’s been given a royal monopoly on coffee
for his services as a spy.
It’s no wonder, then, that the coffeehouse became a hotbed of a
proudly rootless culture. Psychoanalysis and socialism sprang partly
from the espresso cup. In 17th-century London, coffeehouses were
derided, in a fantastic turn of phrase, as "seminaries of sedition."
By the end of that century, they numbered over 2,000. Poet John Dryden
held court at Will’s; the so-called "Learned Club" gathered at the
Grecian, where a sword fight once erupted over the correct
pronunciation of a Greek word; and the London Stock Exchange itself
began with a newsletter John Castaing distributed in 1698 at
Jonathan’s. A bit later, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and Samuel
Johnson-with Boswell in tow, naturally-enjoyed interdisciplinary
shouting matches with actors and painters at the Turk’s Head. And then
the East India Trading Company buried the kingdom in affordable tea,
private clubs closed their doors to the rabble, and the age of the
coffeehouse in the British Isles was over.
In the late 19th century, the global nexus of café culture returned
to Vienna for arguably the greatest stretch of coffee-fueled
creativity known to man. This is when every convention of the modern
coffeehouse-the many-antlered coat rack, the marble tabletop, the
day’s newspaper spread Torah-like on bamboo holders-fell into place,
and its role as the intellectual sparring ring was cemented.
Turn-of-the-century Vienna gave rise to a generation of close-knit
"Jung Wien" writers, including Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig,
most of whom practically lived in cafés. This is not an
exaggeration. Peter Altenberg had his mail delivered to Café Central.

The arrangement was hardly idyllic. The Jung Wieners steadily went
through a limited pool of girlfriends and came to blows with each
other over reviews. Yet out of the friction came the kind of humanist
thought that still reverberates throughout literature, design,
philosophy, even architecture. And once again, a cosmopolitan,
slightly alienated attitude permeated the room: Most of the writers
were, after all, Jewish, including Schnitzler.
It was Vienna’s postwar generation that grew tired of what they now
saw as an irredeemably quaint antebellum lifestyle. In the early
1950s, dozens of famous coffeehouses-some of them centuries in
operation-shuttered one by one. The Viennese had a special word for
this phenomenon, as the Viennese tend to: kaffeehaussterben,
coffeehouse death. Some placed the blame on the more casual "espresso
bar," with its new and blasphemous practice of selling coffee to go,
but many suspected a deeper malaise. Critic Clive James, in his
collection "Cultural Amnesia," logically blames it on the decimation
and scattering of the Jewish civil society and the lost art of Jewish
conversation. An even likelier culprit, I think, is the Germanic
postwar self-loathing jag. "The truth is that I have always hated the
Viennese coffeehouse," Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard wrote in his
memoir, "because in them I am always confronted with people like
myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted
with people like myself."

Compared to the passions that roiled London and Vienna, the American
coffeehouse was always genteel and, dare I say it, elitist; the only
surviving art genre our café society has birthed is coffeehouse folk
music=80’sensitive-guy or -gal tunes that fade almost eagerly into the
background. Sure, we love the idea of the coffeehouse because it
dovetails with our idea of urbanity in general: That’s why a
coffeehouse is the first harbinger of a gentrifying area, and the last
stand of a neighborhood in decline. As with a hospital or a bookstore,
we may not even go there but feel better knowing one is near.
We’ve also used it to balkanize ourselves. The Viennese coffeehouse is
a communal exercise in individuality: As an Austrian friend noted
recently, his compatriots don’t go to cafés to socialize-everyone
goes to watch everyone else. This phenomenon doesn’t quite work in
America because cafés here tend to draw specific crowds: a hipster
café, a mom café, a student café. With the exception of the
ubiquitous Starbucks, where slumming and aspiration meet, we use our
coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes.
Don’t get me wrong-any coffeehouse is better than none at all, and
their second, post-Starbucks, wave of proliferation is a fantastic
phenomenon, bringing jobs and the pleasure of good espresso to
communities across the country. The only trouble with the new, proudly
bean-centric places that keep popping up is that they tend to be
austere obsessives. There’s barely anything to eat other than a
perfunctory pastry, and never, ever any alcohol. You’re supposed to
contemplate your coffee, top notes to finish, in worshipful silence, a
notion as wrongheaded as a caramel frappucchino.

The coffeehouse experience is inextricably linked with newsprint:
Coffee and a paper are an even more powerful pair than coffee and a
cigarette. Early London coffeehouses used to have "runners"-people who
would go from café to café to announce the latest news; there’s just
something about the intake of data tidbits from many sources that goes
well with coffee. Same goes for writing in cafés. Hemingway nails it
down within the very first pages of "A Moveable Feast": the author
alone with his café au lait, shavings from his pencil curling into
the saucer, and, of course, a girl with "hair black as a crow’s wing
and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek" at the next table.
Which brings us to the laptop. At any given moment, a typical New York
coffeehouse looks like an especially sedate telemarketing
center. Recently, there’s been a movement afoot to limit the use of
laptops. The laptoppers hog
the tables, but they do the coffeehouse experience an even deeper
disservice. They make it a solitary one, and it’s a different kind of
solitude from the stance sung by Hemingway. You’re not just
alone-you’re in another universe entirely, inaccessible to anyone not
directly behind you.
Perhaps the economic downturn will untie our tongues and restart the
conversation. With rents going down, the next Café Abraco or Café
Regular may be able to afford a larger space and have some money left
for tables and chairs. And the new Lost Generation of creative
strivers is already here to fill these chairs. In Los Angeles, friends
report, where the lavish business lunch is no longer the industry
standard, the café society is in unexpectedly full swing. Somewhere
in the caffeinated ether, the ghost of Schnitzler is
smiling. -Latvian-born Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New
York Magazine and author of the novel "Ground Up." He lives in
Brooklyn and will be doing a panel on coffeehouse culture at the
Austrian Cultural Forum in New York on Dec 4.

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“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS