Caffeination / Joseph Dunphy
March 23, 2017

A sad bit of honesty



The experience you're going to see portrayed on this blog probably doesn't exist anywhere, any more, and it almost certainly doesn't exist in the city of Chicago. One might say that it never really did in the first place, because what I'm giving is an idealized version of what existed in the good old days, just a few years ago. So recently departed, but so thoroughly dead, so maybe you shouldn't go looking for it? It's not there, at least not in the neighborhoods I've been in lately.

That observation might say more about the life I've been living that it does about the world. Money has been very tight, lately, tight enough that I hesitate to spend the money needed to board the El or the Metra Electric (a commuter line in Chicago), which has limited me to the neighborhoods I can easily reach on foot and has kept me out of Hyde Park (home to the University of Chicago) and Evanston (where Northwestern is located). While I could walk to either (and back), in either case I'd be walking for a few hours each way, and who has time for that? Lincoln Park and the DePaul campus are (sort of) close by, but as one can see by just looking at the class schedules, DePaul (while not a terrible school) just doesn't represent the sort of intellectual presence one would find at the U. of C or Northwestern. That I was ever able to find decent conversations in the coffeehouses I've mentioned in the past was a fluke.

The problem is a common one with open meeting places - since anybody can walk in, sooner or later, anybody does. The Burgeois Pig and Kopi in particular both had highly intellectual clienteles, with a lot of younger professionals and graduate students, for a long time, a surprisingly long time, and those clienteles attracted more of the same (for a while), but then we started getting the "characters." Like the fellow who parked himself at my table, after he found out what I was studying and what my background was, and decided to explain Physics, Engineering and Judaism to me at the same sitting. He was going to throw out a fisherman's net, catch the neutrinos as they flew by, and use them to drag his spaceship to the stars. There was no escaping this discussion.

There is no barrier to entry at a coffeehouse, other than the cost of the refreshments, so when the prevailing level of intelligence to be found in one greatly exceeds that of the surrounding community, and the surrounding community has such a thoroughly anti-intellectual culture that stupid people don't feel at all uncomfortable with the idea of dragging the discussion down to their own level, that difference in intellectual level becomes an unsustainable one in the long run. The crowd I went to these places to find dissipated, and instead of finding companionship, what I found was a selection of overpriced beverages, which I would slowly sip while trying to read and enjoy the ambience, which was fading away.

When I stopped really being a regular, the music being piped in (which we, as customers, were not allowed to mute) was no longer an eclectic, hand picked mix, softly played, but was simply whatever came up on Pandora. No effort was made to made in choosing that which was forced on us, it was just programmed music one could hear online. Where once I could meet artists who would show me the work they were doing, talk with my friends about the books we were reading, now I could sit with one of the few friends still showing up, our jaws gaping as we listened to somebody talk about her sex life in great, graphic and stomach turning detail, peppering her blow by blow account with a steady, stream of consciousness racial attack on the population of the neighborhood we were sitting in at that point. We weren't even sitting next to her. We could hear her for the same reason everybody else in the sidewalk cafe could hear her - because she was very loud. Attempts to reason with her, and ask her to just please hold her voice down so we could enjoy our meals in peace, got nothing out of her but a lot of attitude, and no help was to be had from the staff.

What some of us have come to see is that these "characters", these people who have no idea of how to behave, are valued by the staff members at these coffeehouses in a way that the writers, scholars, scientists and other intelligent, decent people they're driving off aren't - what the staff wants is the freak show. Maybe they think that's what keeps the tourists coming back, even though their coffeehouses were steadily getting emptier before we gave up on them, or maybe they just like being more tolerant than thou. We both were left with some uncomfortable thoughts about the people we had brought to that establishment in the past - older relatives, clients, faculty advisors - all people who could have ended up with a front row seat at the circus the coffeehouse was becoming.

Maybe, if tutoring picks up again, after the students discover that the low grade tutoring they're getting online is helping them get low grades, I'll have more money, and be able to spend time in better neighborhoods. Maybe, in two of those, I'll find that coffeehouse experience I miss is still there to be found, but I doubt it. Times do change, sometimes for the worse. One thing I've noted online is that reasonable people serve as a buffer between belligerent people, the latter turning on each other after the reasonable people leave, and those they leave behind find that they no longer have anybody that they can safely abuse. The old coffeehouse crowd had many horror stories about experiences in bars and why they wouldn't go back. What I'm thinking is that the bar crowd, having lost its more worthwhile members, turned on its remaining self, and now some of its more pointlessly aggressive members are looking for less threatening places to hang out, with the result that the bar culture is spilling out into places where people had gone to avoid it. Looking at the people I've been meeting in the near north side coffeehouses, that would seem to explain what I've been seeing, from abusive barristas who act like bartenders and keep talking about "bar drinks" to bizarre patrons, like the middle aged woman we saw pleasuring herself while talking to her imaginary friends upstairs. The same barristas who ejected the philosophy discussion group, finding it to be too much of a problem for some reason, had no problem with her.

If what we were getting was a mix of good and bad, if there were still interesting people to meet and decent conversations to be had, maybe some of us would overlook a lot of the strangeness, but that's all gone. Perhaps for the sake of their emotional safety, the people we see in those places these days have their heads buried in their laptops, talking to nobody, conversation of the non-psychotic variety seeming to have died shortly after Wifi showed up. Meanwhile, going into what used to be the room for discussion groups, we could find a collection of older men sitting around and planning the abduction and rape of college girls at some unspecified campus. The staff didn't have a problem with that, either. Classy. One might ask why we didn't call the police, but with the frequency we run into talk like that, there hardly seems to be any point. We can only hope that most of the talk is just that - talk. Otherwise, welcome to the Purge?

I wonder if I should see that movie. Would I find its commentary on modern society fascinating, or too much to take? No, eras end and the one I would have celebrated on this blog, had I started it much sooner, is almost certainly over. Where can one go to have the coffeehouse experience? I'm thinking, the home of a friend with a large living room. Forget about the local venues and roll your own. Making tea, coffee and conversation is not that difficult, and that living room can offer a more positive experience at a lower cost than the venues usually will. If we don't have those wonderful meeting places, any more, we still have our memories and our daydreams. Even if there are no good public venues left, we can pretend that we're at one, letting our imaginations take us to where our feet and cars no longer can. It's less than we should expect, but better than nothing.

That fantasy shall be the heart of this blog.







{ book } Les Misérables
{ mood } melancholy

Written by josephdunphy at 10:13 AM.

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Underemployed Applied Mathematician / Electrical Engineer paying the bills by tutoring all knowing freshmen in Mathematics.


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