By Paul Gilmore
So walking through the Tower today—heading to my regular bar—I must say I was a bit edgy. I had had seven cups of coffee since getting up for work at four in the morning. No food. That simultaneous fatigued and wired feeling. I was keyed-up, attentive to the little things. Mostly, I wanted to attend to a beer.
But as I approached the bar, the desire for beer faded. I was distracted by my efforts to count and calculate the density of the tiny specs of dust floating through the harsh afternoon sun that spotlighted the doorway. Besides, Dave the bartender, had propped the door open to the street, airing out the bar and the fragrance was a tad ripe—you could smell it a ways down the block. It had the ordinary off but homey (for me) sour-mildew-mop-water-and-beer odor, but added to this was a fruity sweetness from those sugary drinks folks serve in the martini glasses. It must have been a young crowd last night. Not a punk crowd. I was imagining little scent molecules glomming onto the dust particles (some 42,006 per cubic foot of air), riding those particles up my sinus passages and infecting my brain. So I pressed on—to a coffee shop, Café Corazon.
Now it’s important to recognize that not all public places are the same. A coffee shop is not a bar. The pace and tenor of the banter is quite a contrast. From guys along a bar, staring at a TV and unwinding with a few stories, to the earnest caffeine-fueled barrage of chatter at the coffee shop. The difference between these scenes is the difference between lions lounging on the Serengeti and squirrels fighting on a power line.
And just as there are differences between bars, there are great differences between coffee shops as well. Some are filled with movement—the chain-that-shall-remain-nameless-here seems always to be in constant motion. They are filled with wound-up lawyers and salespeople shouting into their cell phones while grabbing their mochas-to-go from the invisible barista—the name of the game here is time and motion. There’s work to be done! Even the hipsters at this coffee shop look disciplined—hardworking artists.
I won’t disparage the other places. They’re just not my thing. I went to Café Corazon because I like it, and because I was planning an experiment. I was looking to enhance my caffeine buzz with even yet still more coffee.
The great French novelist Balzac once analyzed the stimulative effects of great coffee benders, going for days drinking enormous quantities of progressively stronger coffee—“finely pulverized, dense coffee…consumed on an empty stomach.” This was not for the faint of heart, he said. It was for men with “excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins.”
I am none of these, so I figured that if this guy was going to push his limits, he better not do it with those shiny, waxy, way-too-bitter, “bold,” burned beans he’s seen elsewhere. He needed quality—a lighter roast, “first crack”—a term he just learned and had been throwing around like he knew what it meant. (You can tell I was serious because I slipped into the third person.)
Into Café Corazon I went. “Leo! I’m on a Balzac-ian mission, my friend. Set me up.”
From behind his beautiful Diedrich IR 2.5 roaster, and over the sound of unobtrusive reggae, the voice of Leo Rios, the proprietor, piped up: “Missster Gilmore. In for a cup or in for a pound?”
“I’m looking for something that can keep this buzz going, man.” I think I sounded like a junkie.
Leo calmly said, “Well. What do you like?”
Leo has a subtle way of getting you to remember that coffee is a matter of taste. And he can talk to you about his coffees the way others talk about wine or scotch. Try a cup—he’ll describe every sip. “Notice how it starts out with the citrus, but as it cools, the acid backs off a bit and you get that hint of berries?” I know how that reads, but this guy is most definitely not a snob; the man just knows his beans and wants you to know what you’re getting. And you really can taste it.
“Well. I like the Tweaker,” I answered.
Leo saw my condition and wisely steered me away from the Tweaker, offering a cup of Sumatra, roasted just the other day, and very little acid, just the way I like it. While he ground up some beans and set up the dripper—all coffee at Café Corazon is brewed to order—I looked around at his place. There were a few folks in the front and on the couch hanging out and talking, and a couple at another table having a quiet conversation. One whole wall is taken up by industrial-looking metal shelving. On the bottom shelf are big burlap bags filled with raw beans and above this are large jars filled with the various roasts sold by the pound—Colombia, Rwanda, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama.
“So what’s this Balzac-ian mission you’re on?” Leo asked handing me the cup.
“I’m trying to up my coffee consumption—enter a new level of consciousness, if only for a few hours, ‘sparks shooting all the way up to the brain…ideas quick-marching into motion!’ just like Balzac!”
“Uh-huh.” Leo was wary.
“Inspire me!” I commanded. “Tell me about your beans. How did they get here?”
Leo proceeded to tell me about his suppliers. “This is not mass production. Quality comes from small batches, even small sections of particular small farms. You have to have producers who separate out the really quality beans. I deal with brokers who pay a fair trade price—organic too. We get stuff from brokers who deal with all sorts of these farmers all over the world, often really small operations. Sometimes we get beans from co-ops—and small ones too, even co-ops with 10 farmers with about an acre each! The end product is key for us, but a big part of that is our supply.”
I took a drink of coffee—the connections spinning in my head. “You know, Leo, this whole thing reminds of this idea of commodity fetishism.”
Leo cocked his head, warier even more now. “Yeah?” he said.
“Commodity fetishism, man. This isn’t like some sexual fetish though—some kinky thing for women’s shoes or something. No. It’s the basic idea of a fetish—some object we irrationally put our desires into—applied to the value of commodities. We irrationally misplace the source of value, putting it on the thing, or the brand, instead of the human labor that went into it.
“Everybody thinks the roasted coffee bean itself has value. When all along it’s the process—the work that went into it—that gives it the real meaning, real value! This cup of coffee right here has a price—here’s your two bucks, by the way—but it’s more than that. It represents human relationships. Relationships with all sorts of people we never see! Relationships you just told me about. The co-ops. The organic relationship with the soil. You don’t hide the labor that goes into stuff.
“In every cup, there is a chain of relationships back to the people who made it, starting with you and the Diedrich roaster over there. Production isn’t hidden here—it isn’t veiled with lying marketing crap that says that this stuff is just conjured up by money! The bags are on the shelf screaming, ‘look at my history—investigate!’ And in this place, you can! You can trace the story back to the beginning, to the extent that such a thing can be known. These beans haven’t entered the anonymous stream of commerce that forces all human relationships into mere exchanges of money—and little money at that. Like Pete Seeger’s song, ‘Business,’ look it up.
“Think about the sheer numbers of people out there, growing coffee, harvesting, trying to make a living—the ‘efficiencies’ of the market must literally kill them. And then, as an insult to injury, their meager existence, their brutal treatment, is romanticized and sold back to us as the simple peasant, Juan Valdez! What gall! To confess such a colossal crime in your very own ads! And here you are, hanging out in Fresno, roasting beans from these farmers, recognizing those relationships, before all those sacred and solid beautiful human connections melt into the ether, dissolved by those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Leo looked at me, carefully took my empty cup from my hand, and said, “Paul. You’re cut off.” I guess I don’t know coffee shop etiquette. I’ve been drinking beer at the “dark loser hole” for years, but it took Café Corazon to 86 me. I deserved it.
Paul Gilmore teaches history at Fresno City College. He tries to mean every word he says but does not always succeed. Contact him at email@example.com.