Thomas Pynchon once imagined a conversation between Mason and Dixon (of the “line” fame, not the knitters, or the pollsters) that is as true in the twenty-first century as it must have been in the eighteenth. Mason asked Dixon,
How is it … that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?” To which Dixon answered that it’s because of “Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance … whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”
Coffee is the original smart drug, but like all things good, it comes with a price. The key is to be mindful of how much you drink, for the beneficial effects advance only to a certain level, after which having more coffee produces something like a living nightmare of half-truths, unfinished thoughts, and incomplete sentences.
For these and other reasons, people have blamed coffee for the Enlightenment and related revolutions in rocket science and politics. They all got started in coffee houses, perfect sites for the blending of conversation and caffeine, the ultimate result of which being a heightened desire for self-expression without, however, a commensurate acuity thereof. Or as Pynchon put it when describing the scene as Mason and Dixon slipped into a coffee house in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s—
With its own fuliginous Weather, at once public and private, created of smoke billowing from Pipes, Hearthes, and Stoves, the Room would provide an extraordinary sight, were any able to see, in this Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot’s indoor Sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well. One may be inches from a neighbor, yet both blurr’d past recognizing,— thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme, given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here, not only aloud but upon Paper as well …
Coffee sounds a lot like alcohol. Coffee houses and barrooms once upon a time shared the combination of low lights and incessant smoking that leads two or more people to make very bad decisions based on what little they can see or understand of each other, half-remembered bliss and release lifting like a fog with the clarity of morning. The poor judgment brought on by low-lit coffee conversations that once resulted in revolutionary dreams, however, now leads mainly to snark and graduate theses. Compared to alcohol, it’s more difficult to appreciate the terrible results of coffee, because they are so often taken for success.
People often combine alcohol and coffee, as if the effects of one can cancel out the other. This is a mistake. When you drink coffee while already drunk, you don’t become sober. Instead, you achieve a much more keen awareness of how incoherent you are. It’s called coffee-boarding and is outlawed by several international accords signed by everyone but the United States.
The relationship of coffee and alcohol to the truth is easily demonstrated by the degree to which various world religions have grappled with either or both. Islam banned alcohol, and Muslims became coffee addicts, as did fundamentalist Christians though their coffee is not nearly as good. AA meetings would be intolerable without coffee. The Mormons banned both coffee and alcohol, which is why they wound up in Utah, though somehow Coca-Cola escaped the ban despite its (post-cocaine) base in coffee’s essential force, caffeine. The Buddhists call for people to avoid intoxication by alcohol or stimulants, but they don’t make it inflexible. This sounds like a pretty good idea, except that it’s impossible, which is the point.
The Tea Lounge, Park Slope
The photos for this post were taken in the Tea Lounge, a venerable institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the neighborhood that everyone (else) in New York loves to hate, according to the local newspaper.
The original shop was located in the South Slope on 7th Avenue but had to close a while back due to increasing rents, leaving the larger Union Street shop (pictured here) as the flagship in the heart of the neighborhood. (Another Tea Lounge has opened in Cobble Hill, a couple nabes over on the other side of the Gowanus Canal.)
Every morning, it begins to fill up with freelancers of every type imaginable – writers, designers, editors, bloggers, people looking for jobs – who stay there all day sipping coffee and making the American economy what it is (hey, they’re telecommuting). One morning a week (which one has rotated over time) the place fills up with mommies and nannies and toddlers when Lloyd comes to sing for the kids. Those of us who’re working (including the staff) double down, shut our ears, and keep on working. The place features in Amy Sohn’s satirical send-up of (and not-entirely-ironic homage to) Park Slope mommyhood, Prospect Park West, as the “Teat Lounge,” so-called for the ubiquitous nursing of infants that goes on there to the soundtracks of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and the occasional contemporary indie-groove (think Jem).
Studious laptop users sat beside romancing couples and chatty friends and I have to say, between licking the whipped frosting off of my OREO cupcake and sipping a glass of Riesling, I was immediately at ease–especially when my friend bought me a second glass. So yes. Conclusively, I like Tea Lounge. Is it a perfect place to work? Eh. Maybe not. Is it a good place for a date or a drink with a friend? Definitely.
Notes and Credits
All photographs by the author.
Thomas Pynchon on coffee in Mason and Dixon (New York: Henry Holt, 1997) page 467 for the first quotation and 305 for the second. It’s an historical novel that follows the eighteenth century British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon throughout their lives, from their early collaborations in England and South Africa through their pioneering work to survey the border between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies from 1763 to 1768. As novels go, it’s a wonderfully comic buddy film with a touching ending that reaches deep into the emotions surrounding friendship and fatherhood.
Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008) provides rollicking imagery of the confluence of coffee, truth, alcohol, rocket science, tobacco, and the Enlightenment. The thesis is simple: replacing beer with coffee as a way to avoid bad water propelled the Enlightenment foward with clear thinking at long last. Of the London Coffee House, the meeting place of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and other men of science and revolution, Johnson wrote (p. 17)—
The London Coffee House lay in St. Paul’s churchyard, a crowded urban space steps from the cathedral, bustling with divinity students, booksellers, and instrument makers. The proximity to the divine hadn’t stopped the coffeehouse from becoming a gathering place for some of London’s most celebrated heretics, who may well have been drawn to the location for the sheer thrill exploring the limits of religious orthodoxy within shouting distance of England’s most formidable shrine. On alternating Thursdays, a gang of freethinkers – eventually dubbed “The Club of Honest Whigs” by one of its founding members, Benjamin Franklin – met at the coffeehouse, embarking each fortnight on a long, rambling session that has no exact equivalent in modern scientific culture.
It no doubt would be interesting for Mr. Johnson to survey the clientele at the Tea Lounge and find out what revolutions are brewing for the near future here.