Due to a professional obligation, I’m spending a lot of time in Midtown these days. Most of the time I feel like I’ve been dropped into the middle of some sort of happy hour party sponsored by Cigar Aficionado Magazine and Blackberry, and hosted at a Cosi Sandwich shop. In other words: paradise. (SFX: gunshot, body slumping in Aeron chair)
The only pleasant part of my out-of-office experience is my daily visit with Joe. Not the person but the coffee shop which is unfortunately subtitled “The Art of Coffee.” (C’mon! The Art of Coffee? Your name is “Joe,” not “Terence.”) Joe is one of the few coffee shops in Manhattan where the employees look and act like their favorite thing in the world is brewing, pouring and serving coffee. It’s nice, and so rare, particularly in a city where Starbucks locations are as ubiquitous as bum pee, and where the baristas hate your dumb face and can’t be bothered to pretend otherwise. At Joe, there are no uniforms. At Joe, the baristas take a full three minutes to prepare a latte and when they’re finished they leave the lid off so you can see they made a pretty leaf out of foamed milk on the surface of your drink. And you fall in love, just a little bit because those small gestures of humanity are so uncommon in the service industry they are easy to misinterpret as acts of affection, and respond in kind. Like when a waitress calls you “Honey” and draws a smiley face on your check, or when an auto mechanic doesn’t force himself on you sexually. By contrast, when you order a drink at Starbucks it is delivered to you with its lid secured, as if the contents within are something to feel ashamed of. (They usually are. MORE LIKE FOURBUCKS! AND ALSO LIKE CHARBUCKS! STARSUCKS! STARCROOKS! FARTFUCKS! I agree, I’ve probably gone too far.)
I haven’t really been drinking much coffee these days, ever since I quit caffeine for a couple of months at the behest of Charles Atlas, but I still frequent Joe for green tea and fresh-faced good times. So, when a couple of co-workers invited me to join them for an afternoon coffee at “the best coffee place in this neighborhood–so much better than Fartfucks”–I jumped at the chance to pay an encore visit to my old friend Joe.
BUT WE WERE NOT GOING TO SEE JOE. In fact, when I inquired after Joe I learned Joe was a stranger to them. “Who’s Joe?” “JOE IS A DREAM FLOATING ON A HALF-AND-HALF CLOUD!” “Is he cute?” “THE CUTEST.” They remained unconvinced, and I was curious about this so-called best-coffee-ever so, as they say on Generation Kill, I was “Oscar Mike” vis-a-vis getting coffee. (Sorry, Joe.)
Turns out, according to them the best coffee ever can be found at a place on 44th Street called MACCHIATO. We entered to find the coffee shop buzzing (there’s some of levin’s rapier wit!) with Midtown semi-professionals dressed in Terminator Casual–shirts, ties, khakis, Bluetooth headsets firmly implanted in ears. They were drinking it up like it was coffee-flavored Kool Aid. The decor of Macchiato is stainless steel and overly-sleek white, possibly purchased from the properties department of Band of the Hand. It immediately struck me that nothing in the shop was handwritten–everything was communicated according to some kind of invisible style guide favoring an elite selection of icy sans-serif typefaces. All the employees wore fitted black “Macchiato” t-shirts, and hustled through orders with an economy of gesture that was so robotic and fascistic it made me want to put on a pair of Dolfins and swing a sledgehammer into the menu board. While his co-workers attended to customers, one employee occupied himself with a length of rebar, apparently attempting to rescue something that had fallen through an open counter seam near the register. He had the vaguely threatening look of a mini-boss thug in a Luc Bresson-produced action film–compact, muscular, shaved head, Teutonic facial features–and was not the kind of person you wanted greeting you as you stepped up to order your Espressochino Arctic Foam Blast. (As I typed that a siren sounded, indicating that I am officially the one-millionth person to invent a funny-sounding coffee beverage name for the purpose of pointing out the ridiculous nature of coffee beverage names.)
Joe would never hire someone who looks like he should be holding a clipboard and velvet rope instead of a carton of Soy milk. Joe’s employees embrace you with the warmth of a hand-me-down cardigan sweater. Joe names its coffee beverages normal things like “coffee” and “iced coffee,” and has the decency to include simple syrup at its milk-and-sugar station. (For my less effete readers, simple syrup is a combination of water and melted-down sugar, designed for beverages that are too cold to dissolve crystallized sugar. It is not an especially laborious or costly service, and it is the barometer by which I measure the quality of any coffee shop. To provide simple syrup to customers is more than a courtesy; it is an act of understanding and compassion. Its exclusion is like a softly whispered “fuck you,” and tells me a lot about a coffee shop’s priorities vis a vis customers vs. profits. Not surprisingly, Starbucks actually charges customers for simple syrup. They call it “Classic Syrup” which is kind of like calling tap water “Dasani.”)
Apparently, the midtown crowd doesn’t care much for the human touch, because the line at Joe is usually pretty manageable while the line for Macchiato was nut-rageous. (please look for “nut-rageous” in Juno, Too: Back to the Womb.) The thirsty customers queued up so deep that the rear of the line pressed against the storefront’s outer wall, and dozens more other Blackberry-sniffers hoisted Macchiato-branded espresso cups in the noisy, packed “cafÃ©.”
I refused to drink their swill, but after we left Macchiato I told my co-workers I had to run a quick errand before returning to the office. Once they were out of sight, I rode my old-fashioned three-speed Schwinn back to Joe’s, tears in my eyes, and made the employees listen to a Shins song on my oversized headphones. The song changed their lives, just like it had changed mine. Then we lay down on a grassy hillside, our bodies radiating out from a central point where our temples touched, and we drew Sharpie tattoos on each other’s bodies and named every cloud we saw. We have plans to meet back at that meadow tomorrow and every other day, too. I’m gonna bring my Super-8 camera and we’re going to shoot a mumblecore film together.
[Update: I decided to check out Macchiato a few days later, on my own, because I am curious and weak and always feel as if I'm missing on out something. Also, I own an iPhone. It all makes sense together. My iced latte tasted like milk with a coffee-flavored "Nips" candy accidentally dropped into it. Sometimes, Joe, hurting you hurts me even more.]