Flat White Long Black: A Machine That Turns Coffee into Proofs

You try drinking coffee at a younger age, imitating parents or adults in general, but it this comes with the sense of not fitting. The first time I think most people drink coffee it probably has somewhat the aspect of an inauthentic performance, of play. As a barista, I see this in younger coffee drinkers who have yet to make their "Skinny Vanilla Latte that I have to--have to--have before I get to work" routine when they order. Early coffee drinkers want something about these drinks even though it doesn't fit quite yet. I think the signifiers here are probably really primitive too, like baby-talk in the mouths of some who are practicing. It's really not clear what the first coffee drinker wants, it can be more esoteric. A Styrofoam cup sometimes; maybe just the word "skinny" or "pumpkin," as if none of the actuality of these things matter so much as their place in the broader context of the drinking does. This is why these people are invariably cute.

So I didn't really develop a taste for coffee until college. Which makes sense, college is the kind of life situation where drinking coffee is the sort of thing you do regularly. As I've said, either out of utility or out of broad social forces. In college, for whatever reason, whatever pressure, that pushed the first cute sip, falls away into authenticity. I still enjoy tea in the morning, herbal tea at night, but I have a taste for coffee now and I drink more coffee than anything else. The performance is authentic, total, in taste, and regular. That taste was in part pushed on me by what might be the tertiary goal of philosophy since the enlightenment--making philosophers teeth yellow by whatever means necessary.

I pushed hard at philosophy and the humanities for years and as I got more serious I found myself standing around with smokers in the cold, and ordering coffee long after the sun had gone down. At one point I took an advanced course in logic (I was good but not good enough) where the professor told us that a philosopher "is a machine that turns coffee into proofs." Evidently this is applied to mathematicians and theorems, physicists and theoretical particle fields, and the like. And it's true, particularly during my college years I simply started drinking coffee.

My coffee of choice for years was French press sludge brewed in great batches at the Hard Times Cafe in Minneapolis. It was literally cheap and dirty. Pours were like 8oz, cost a dollar (seventy five cents for a refill so a great way to get quarters for laundry), and had that dark bitterness that is always well countered by French press brewing adding a lot of body and the typical sludge at the bottom. Today, if I have a coffee that's too dark to be really good, I make it on French press to relieve myself from the bitter, burnt taste that would be obvious with the flavor clarity of brewing Chemex. But no small part of what really turned me into a coffee machine, one for proofs or not, was where I was drinking.

When I was really young there were two or three places that would germinate the sense of homecoming I feel in particular cafes, particularly in America. There was Gourmand, the coffee shop of my childhood complete with a smoking section (this was the 1990s) which probably did introduce me to the idea of a coffee shop as being the meeting place for the exchange of ideas. There was Medici Pizza, which etched the idea of late night, lonely academic anxiety in me like all the carved graffiti on so many square inches of tables, booths, and walls that adorned that unfinished place. And I suppose there was the parade of Starbucks or roadside nostalgeria you ubiquitously encounter just moving about alone or with others in America, which rub off on you without growing roots.

Into this fray entered the Hard Times Cafe, truly my favorite coffee house in the world. It's a unique setting which can't really be recreated anywhere, rather discovered anew in some other incarnation. The Hard Times has a vegan-punk streak, it's cooperatively owned and is patronized by the students and vagrants surrounding the University of Minnesota in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. It is graffitied. The hours are 6am-4am, like always. The art is rotating and, I dunno, coyly trippy. But this hub of ideas, of night-owls of all kinds, people of so many experiences, this was my coffee shop. Papers were revised, fights broken up, breakfasts raising me from hangovers or substituting for dinners. A meeting place.

Another haunt that embodies my ideal of the coffee shop was Bordertown, just across the river in Dinkytown. This is a college coffee shop built into an old frat house, so it is quite literally homey. This was a place graced well by the short hours of winter light through it's wide windows. This place shone in the morning. It had a more refined decor and less heavy metal on the playlist than the Hard Times, but this was a coffee shop which was good to me.

In general what I enjoy in a coffee shop is a large, fairly open floor plan where ideas can bounce around unencumbered. There's privacy in all these spaces, yes, but more than anything there's an openness that lets things mix. So frustration arrives along with inspiration. I like the fluidity of these coffee shops as a change of pace for my thoughts as a departure from the normal orderliness of my mind on its own. In this way coffee shops offer a sort of counterpoint to those other intellectual expanses, liberaries.

In high school I wrote a paper about the history of the coffee house in the Enlightenment. That's a paper complete with references and a thesis statement, the works. And it goes without saying, coffee and the places where coffee was consumed in Europe in the late 1600s up to the mid-1700s fueled a lot of intellectual growth. But the presence of meeting space as intellectual space is pretty universal. I think whatever fits in the space of "coffee shop" is a sort of necessary piece of the growing mind. I think these are sort of inevitable places.

It's as if what's really important is not that coffee shops powered the Enlightenment, it's really that coffee shops are places of genuine enlightenment period. Later I'll look at coffee an places I've had coffee as a cross roads of culture, but even in isolation a coffee shop alone is a space into which ideas can expand and be subjected to scrutiny. That's the essence of "coffee shops" as engines of enlightenment.

Genuinely I think this raises a question as to why the spaces like "coffee shops" grow up around "coffee" because it doesn't seem necessary by comparison to the function of these kinds of spaces. Rather it seems inevitable that machines that turn coffee into proofs would subject their ideas to scrutiny, that there'd be a social space for this to happen, and coffee itself is as good an occasion around which to congregate as any, but it does seem superficial.

However, bear with me, I think that there's maybe two angles along which we can see that coffee and it's ilk sort of make sense and are perhaps ideal if not necessary to this occasion of coffee house enlightenment. First, there are the real properties of coffee; it's caffeinated and often sweetened and these are properties which physiological can be said to lead people to push a little further through the night, it facilitates breakthroughs by making the engine run just a little hotter. Likewise there are real psychological factors which maybe get more complicated, but which are present none the less. Brewing coffee is often a meditative or ritualistic process (again, something I'll look at in greater depth later), but sort of having that extra preoccupation of a cup, a craving, a brew, a taste, a smell seems like it would occupy some part of the brain while something abstract is going on in another area.

Which brings me nicely to another reason I think coffee, or some substitute thereof, is really the thing around which the enlightening exchange of ideas springs. Basically there's a metaphoric world of coffee shops that corresponds to the exchange of ideas and enlightenment that goes on in coffee shops. This is a little more semiotic, but I feel that there's truth to it. People sort of exchange around these liquids--coffee, wine, beer, even water in the right circumstances--because there's an intense metaphorical similarity to the mental activity going on. Your cup is your mind; coffee something you fill it up with, pour out, serve up to others. Often I find the blackness of some coffee to take on a sort of mirror/abyssal quality. A cup of coffee something to look through, get to the bottom of, take in. All this is exactly what's going on in the coffee shop to begin with, why not on this symbolic level with the drink itself?