Coffee House Blues

The grinding roar of the espresso machine yanked Remy out of his reverie like falling in a dream. Not that the café had been particularly quiet before, but it had been filled with so many small sounds that had melded together into a perfectly soothing white noise. Tearing his eyes from the window out of which he had been staring with glazed eyes, Remy took a sip of lukewarm coffee and looked around. In the corner two old men with beards, professorial in appearance, leaned over their small table so as to better hear each other through the tangled white hair that obscured their dried apricot ears. On a couch by the far wall two girls sat side by side, behind matching pink-cased laptops, glancing down at the screen of one of their phones, giggling quietly, suppressing their mirth until their bodies shook. Up above the three ceiling fans created a throbbing hum that was felt more than heard, pulsing through the café like the subwoofers of some underground dance club. The actual music came from the twin speakers set behind the pastry display, turned down low so the crooning female vocals were barely audible over the calming sound of acoustic guitar.

To Remy, cafés were the perfect place to think. He was sure of this conclusion because he had thought about it often—in cafés. The way Remy saw it, ever since early man had first stopped in a forest clearing—to rest during a particularly tiring antelope hunt, or something—and had discovered the clarity of mind that is achieved by such tranquility, we as a species have been searching for the perfect environment where we can allow our mind to explore and grow unfettered by distractions. Meadows, caves, and the rocky shores of alpine lakes were the original locales of self-reflection. These were then improved upon by the construction of shelter that protected prospective ponderers from rain, snow, and mosquitoes: teepees, cabins, huts, and lodges. These primitive refuges also progressed, developing alongside the rest of society. The Ancient Greek philosophers paced down the cool stone passageways of great temples and Shaolin monks of Ancient China sat in immaculate courtyards on top of mountains, all on the quest for the perfect reflective environment. The first cafés appeared in Europe when Mediterranean traders brought coffee beans from Ethiopia, but it was the French in particular who realized the full utility of the coffee house. The perfected the café atmosphere while plotting revolution in hushed tones and this model has been reproduced around the world, albeit with a noticeable drop in revolution-conspiring.

Like most first world inhabitants of the 21st century, however, Remy was unable or unwilling to be content with all that had been achieved before him, and was able to find fault with even the most advanced inventions of his time. He had become a coffee shop snob—as evidenced by his exclusive use of the term “coffee house”—and was unable to properly enjoy himself in all but a few obscure locations. Obscurity was not the reason, Remy claimed, but the ambiance and it just so happened that truly popular coffee houses (or chain cafés, god forbid) never had pleasant ambiance. Ambiance, Remy’s friends would remind him, was just atmosphere that appealed to pretentious people, but he would turn his nose up to this insulting accusation. He certainly was not pretentious, he would refute, when it came to the quality of coffee. Remy did not drink coffee that often or in that great of quantities and had only enough pride in the matter to scoff at coffee that came from a tin. He was not a coffee snob, he insisted; he was a coffee house snob—if he had to be a snob at all.

This café—coffee house—was Remy’s favorite. The music in Le Chat Noir was always good and never too loud, it was rarely empty but never crowded—as if they employed a bouncer at the door or paid a large group of actors to cycle through in optimal numbers—and of course, it had been the site of his first date with Jennifer. This last fact was one that did not factor into Remy’s conscious reasoning for his love of this place, but it was an undeniable bias no matter how hard he tried to ignore it. In fact, Jennifer had chosen the place—who knows how she had first discovered it; maybe she had been one of the paid actors?—and Remy had hardly registered how idyllic the one room corner shop was the first time he visited, being completely lost in the complicated beauty of his first college crush. It was only after they had broken up and Remy went back by himself—for no particular reason, he told himself; certainly NOT because of the sentimental value it held and how badly he missed Jennifer—that he realized the true value of Le Chat.

It was his sanctuary, his ashram, his Shaolin temple for introverted thought. His best work was done at the little wood tables with chipped red paint pushed up against the glass front of Le Chat, listening to the murmur of people without hearing a word, watching passersby on the street with voyeuristic delight. It did not matter what he had come to do; here it was easier. Words flowed faster when he was writing, prose made more sense when he was reading, and the muddle of his mind had more clarity when he got to thinking. Leaning back in the old wooden chairs with a steaming mug cupped in his hands was true bliss: it felt like his soul was being recharged.

While Remy was not particularly concerned with the quality of his beverage—nor was it the primary reason for holing up in cafés nearly every day—coffee itself was singularly important in his mind. He viewed it—correctly—as a drug, albeit a mild one, and his low tolerance was the main reason that he limited his intake of the beverage. Drinking coffee was a multi-sense experience: the comforting warmth of wrapping your hand around a fresh mug, the rich smell that wafted up in visibly silky strands of steam, the bitter taste that was so foreign to his taste buds and therefore all the more exciting for its uniqueness. All this on its own would certainly make for a distinct and valuable beverage, but the crowning feature of coffee was its ample supply of caffeine and its almost instantaneous effects: the stimulation that spread out from his stomach through his whole body, traveling through his veins like lava filling the subterranean tubes of a volcano, spreading an almost deadly warmth to every part of his body, seeping into every crack and crevice of his brain until it finally controlled him like a neurological parasite.

With alcohol and weed Remy always knew his limits and rarely liked to push them. He despised losing control and feared blacking out or doing something regretful; but with caffeine he completely let himself go, giving in to the temptation of endless energy. One of the most exciting feelings in the world was the first tug of caffeine—sometimes on his mind, sometimes on his body—that was the warning sign of the impending tsunami of energy that would come crashing down, obliterating his usual state of mind and flooding his brain with ideas both realistic and fantastical.

When caffeine took over his brain anything seemed possible. To a delicate creature like Homo erectus, that lives safely bounded by its own mental regulations, the elimination of limits is a daunting proposition to say the least. When anything seems possible but your capabilities are finite, how do you decide what to do? Where will you draw the line? Do you risk it all by giving in to the temptation of limitlessness or do you bow to moderation and lose out on the possibility of great accomplishment? Caffeine allowed Remy—forced him—to confront the boundary between his abilities and his doubts.

He enjoyed the challenge. With the enthusiasm for adventure of a 15th century European explorer, Remy eagerly jumped into the sea of endless possibilities and swam among them. Closing his mind to the rational conclusion that limitless of the mind would not necessarily translate into infinite effects for his corporeal being, he reveled in the thrill of discovery, allowing the excitement of each possibility to take over his mind and seeing where it would lead him. Many times the energy got the best of him and he would be overcome with the urge to leap up and start running; to just go somewhere, anywhere, far from where he was. During these times the coffee house was of particular utility, for the relaxing ambiance—and the powerful eyes of strangers in a public setting—calmed Remy and transferred his energy from uncontrollable physical impulses to the realm of his mind, where he could rein it in.

When his energy was properly contained he would turn his vision inward as well, triggering the self-reflection that this coffee house was made to facilitate. The murmur of many hushed voices was replaced by the beating sound of his heart, until from those feelings he could articulate words of his own. Oftentimes the truths he discovered would not leave the coffee house with his body; once in the fresh air and loud noise of the outside world, they would seem trite, or ridiculous, or even false. Sometimes it made Remy sad to think that the nirvana he experienced at those little red tables was fleeting, but other times he was perfectly content with that condition. Life was harder to live when confronted with so many “truths”—they got in the way of dealing with all the practical aspects of surviving, especially interacting with less-enlightened people. Maybe it was for the best that he knew himself in the coffee shop and only in the coffee shop. And if he later decided to dedicated his life to such pursuits of knowledge, then he would just have to build a coffee shop on top of a mountain and go live there.


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