May 09, 2024, 06:29AM

Solid Grounds

“Coffee culture” wasn’t invented in the 1990s. What year is it (#492)?

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It baffles my wife and kids, but I like the coffee—iced and black, no sugar—at Starbucks. The chain has a “corporate” stigma attached to it, despite its ham-handed efforts to present itself as politically progressive, and I’ve come across some people, caught with a Starbucks llama-milk latte held furtively below the waist, who make excuses for their purchase. Beats me.

My taste is uncomplicated: I drink coffee to stay alert, get a jump on the day, a bump in late-afternoon, and don’t care much where it comes from. One dawn-cracking morning in the mid-1980s, my friend Phyllis Orrick came into work at City Paper, made a beeline for the cluttered backroom, and saw that the filthy coffee machine still had dregs from the day before. She promptly got a Styrofoam cup, and downed it in one gulp. When asked how she could drink the sludge, her answer made sense: “It’s coffee, you dope.”

I’ve never been picky about where I buy the caffeine: when I was in college in Baltimore it was always the Little Tavern on the walk from Greenmount Ave. to classes; later, whatever bodega was closest. Buffa’s near the Puck Building in Manhattan, Morgan’s down the street from our Tribeca loft. Now, my regular is a Starbucks about a mile from my house, and, despite the larcenous prices and on occasion long lines, I enjoy the banter with the “baristas” every day. One morning last week, Shelley, while sliding an order to me, called out, “Krista, cappuccino with a triple-shot is ready!” No response, so she raised her voice and futilely tried again. I said, “Where’s Krista at?” She laughed and said, “I’ve got no idea. Are you Krista?” I couldn’t resist, and responded, “I could make a joke here but I might get arrested.” Shelley let out a belly laugh,” and said, “You’ve got that right, Smith!”

On Monday, another lady behind the counter—who, unlike baristas who protest their employer and try to unionize, likes the perks of her job: good pay and free online college courses—and I had a necessarily quick (for her, not me) conversation about gardens. Like my wife, she has a vegetable patch and is expecting a growth spurt once the sun shines here. As a result, even though I pay more, the interaction is fun, and if my mobile transaction gets screwed up, my friends there will often comp the iced coffees. “We got your back, Smith, see you tomorrow.” I hated those saccharine MasterCard commercials, but here’s it’s true: priceless.

I was thinking about this after reading a Wall Street Journal article about Starbucks’ price shares falling precipitously in the past year; CEO Laxman Narasimhan tried to spin the bad news in an investor call, blaming too much demand and bad weather, but that was watery brew. At one time, I put a lot of measured faith in the Journal’s business coverage, but less so today. Could be reporter Spencer Jakab was correct, but if you chart the Journal stories over a period of six months—and the daily’s still superior to any other business outlet—the contradictions mount up. His tortured lead—where have all the copy editors gone? Dumb question, pardon me, asked and answered—pulled me in: “Pork latte, anyone? To Americans, who still get excited for pumpkin spice season, the beverage Starbucks tested in China recently sounds over the top. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the company needs any edge it can get in a market where it basically introduced coffee-culture a quarter-century ago.”

Maybe Starbucks will circle the drain, maybe not (the smart bet), but it bugs me when Starbucks, Peets or any number of “indie” cafes are credited for “introducing coffee-culture” in the 1990s. Look at any movie or TV show from before the 1970s and characters are drinking coffee at dinner, and throughout the day. My parents had coffee after a meal—that petered off when instant coffee replaced the percolator—and that was hardly uncommon, whether in cities or the suburbs. Coffee was gold, typified by this Johnny Cash lyric from his 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues”: “I bet there's rich folks eatin' in a fancy dining car/They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.” Admittedly, the 1990s/2000s proliferation of people working on a laptop, reading or chatting with friends was a “culture,” but it was a revival rather than an “introduction.” Horn & Hardart’s in an hour, sport? (Admittedly, I was in Yawn City in the early-1960s when my mom, on a Manhattan jaunt, said, “Just wait till you see the automat.” She was nostalgic; I tossed my stale tuna sandwich when she wasn’t looking.)

The accompanying picture is of my two oldest brothers, horsing around outside the family’s New Jersey home, where a pot of “Good to the last drop” Maxwell House was probably brewing while my mom made Toll House cookies.

Take a look at the clues to figure out the year: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men wins the Fiction Pulitzer Prize (when that award meant something); the first Edinburgh Festival of the Arts is held; Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival is published; Dalton Trumbo is blacklisted; David Lean’s film Great Expectations is released; Langer’s Deli opens in Los Angeles; British coins cease to contain any silver; Pakistan establishes diplomatic relations with the United States; Ry Cooder is born and Jimmie Lunceford dies; Chesterfield cigarettes were the most popular on college campuses; and Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over” makes a splash on the country charts.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023

  • Who's the girl that looks pissed she isn't riding the fire engine? I wouldn't want to cross her.

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  • Texan: the girl is identified on the back of the picture as "Gail." I think you're right that Gail, over the decades, was swift with the rolling pin.

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