It’s Sunday morning and I just got back from Intelligentsia coffee in Silver Lake. I’d spent the night at a friend’s in Echo Park and I stopped on my way back to East Hollywood. I parked across the street and got in line and when I got to the front, I looked at the menu and began to wrestle with my coffee choices: Doyo from Ethiopia for five dollars or Kangocho from Kenya for six?
Rattled, I thought to myself, “Why are these guys forcing me to choose between two coffees I’ve never heard of, whose characteristics I couldn’t begin to foresee?” And then I thought, “I could not care less which of these two I drink. All I want is to order a ‘cup of coffee.’”
Of course, though, I did care, and I was lying to myself in a flagrant and terrible way. I did want that choice, or, at least, I wanted to be in a place that gave me that choice, that presented and contextualized coffee the way Intelligentsia did. Otherwise, I would’ve stopped at La Conchita or Starbucks or one of the two hundred other options I passed on the road. I didn’t want to order a “cup of coffee” at all. I wanted to order a cup of Intelligentsia coffee, and this choice here was a part of it.
I’ve long held that Starbucks has done better than its competitors because it encourages us to embrace our neuroses; we can go there and be as neurotic as we want. Four-and-a-half shots of espresso with mostly skim milk plus a dash of whole? No problem. That wouldn’t fluster them at all. Somebody might write about you on a Starbucks gossip blog, but really: you’re safe. Here, at Starbucks, your deepest, darkest, most repressed neuroses are free to emerge. You are invited to feel no shame.
I would argue that Intelligentsia is different only insofar as it’s refined how it nurtures our neuroses. No, you cannot order a four-and-a-half shot, much-skim, some-whole frap here. But, your neuroses are nurtured in another, equally pernicious way.
The lady at the counter wipes down the espresso tray-spill-catch-lattice-grid before she rigs a new shot. The espresso machine has some valve on top of where the pod of ground beans gets affixed. This valve is unusual. La Conchita does not have this, and from my vantage point, I can’t see whether or not that valve has any meters on it. But I suspect that it does, so that the barista will know to abort if the water temperature or the steam pressure begin to fluctuate dangerously.
And those beans in the espresso pod? They are the result of numerous baton passes. You see somebody—maybe the roaster, maybe the roaster’s assistant—pour new beans into the top of the grinder. She pours slowly, her hand guarding the flow so that no beans will spill over. Now, the grinder prepares your pod. And while you notice no spill of any kind, before making the pass to the valve operator, the grinder wipes the top of the espresso pod anyway. Because, I guess, if you have some spare grounds on the lip there, they may mess with the seal on the valve machine, and the pressure, or heat, might in fact fluctuate and throw everything off.
The employees act as if they’ve been coached to move extremely slowly. To move and act like surgeons with forceps, like scientists with atomic particles between atomic tweezers. And these slow movements, the oddly mechanical grace to the whole performance, reassure you that nothing will go wrong, that your coffee will be the best conceivable coffee, that it has been watched over, midwifed into your cup and mouth and esophagus with as much care and precision as possible. And you think to yourself, “This is how coffee should be. This is only right. I am vindicated in my frustration with a world that, in other departments, does not midwife itself for my benefit.”
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.