are comforts in the economy of scale to which I, with some
misgivings, submit. You scoff and remind me of the trundling
beast of corporate America, how it grinds all curiosities
and peculiarities of region and temperament into an undifferentiated
paste to be slathered evenly across the landscape. Yeah, I
know all about it. I know about the homogenizing effects (to
say nothing of the exploitive practices) of these profit-maximizing
engines. But, at the same time, I understand the appeal of
the promise of consistency. I, too, feel its tug, the lure
of predictability—particularly when steeped in a consideration
that might part me from my dear nickels. My ethics, I admit,
are situational and don’t always prevail over my more selfish
So, I confess: I was out of town over the weekend, and wandering
as I was in ignorance of locally owned vendors, I spent a
lot of money at Starbucks.
I am in the throes of a gradual—like, glacial—caffeine detox.
All the steaming savor of my habitual five to eight cups must
now be compressed into an efficient, miserly three to four.
These are important cups of coffee, see? They need to be strong
and rich and teetering on the edge of way-too-hot—and they
need to be that way every single time, because I don’t have
many more of them left today! Psychologically—and biochemically—speaking,
I can’t afford the possibility of a lousy cup of joe. I’m
In my neighborhood, there’s a quirky old-fashionedy coffee
joint (no other word would do) with a quirky old- fashionedy
Chock Full o’ Nuts kind of name that I kept meaning to investigate.
Finally, on a day when my car was in the shop and I had to
walk to the bus stop, I ducked in there, rather than into
the nearby chain bagel place for my morning cup.
Thin, watery, bitter—about as satisfying as licking an old
teabag. And really no less expensive than the predictable
cup across the way would have been. The day was shot. I won’t
court that risk again. Shitty coffee for the sake of kitschy
novelty is a luxury I can’t afford.
It’s just those little defeats—the poor compensations for
larger and seemingly insurmountable obstacles—that really
demoralize. The bad cups of coffee and the haircuts gone horribly
awry, the damp cigarettes and the French bread unknowingly
purchased moldy that really dim the spirit. I know, I know:
For the price of a cup of coffee a day, a neglected child’s
opportunities would be dramatically increased. I know it,
and it weighs on me. But also for the price of a cup of coffee
a day, I can get a cup of coffee a day. And, if that cup of
coffee is all that it should be, for those 12 minutes or so
my own opportunities seem dramatically to have increased.
It’s a fiction, but I feel entitled to it. My car’s brakes
still have not been sufficiently attended to; my finances—it’s
an overstatement to refer to them as such, but you know what
I mean—remain a gruesome tangle; there are all those various
and vicious interpersonal issues still humming and comfy as
a hive, etc. But, oh, man, is this a good cup of coffee.
Or it’s a flattering haircut. Or a bottle of California red
just as good as a famous Italian vintage at five times the
price. Or a knock-off cocktail dress indistinguishable from
the brand-name real thing. Or a diamonelle as big as the Ritz.
Or whatever. It’s the accessible evocation of the lifestyle
we wish we led. It’s a tolerable simulacrum from late capitalism’s
These are the stop-gaps that plug the holes in our souls where
the joy leaks out. Briefly, yeah. But this is a zero-sum game:
Into every space where joy once was, seeps malaise. This is
the nature of the consumer-culture scramble for many of us.
You’ve gotta stuff yourself with available and serviceable
products as insulation against the miserable feelings fostered
by your inability to get the better things, the platinum-card
things, at the far end of the spectrum. You ain’t Jennifer
Aniston, sweetheart, and I’m not Brad Pitt by a far-freakin’
cry, but I’ve got a folded-up page from a pictorial in Esquire
that I’m taking to my barber, and with the deft employment
of his art and a little $12 pomade, I’m going to give it a
try. And I’m going to hope in a vain and pitiful way that
any glamour conjured will plug that hole where the frustration—the
frustration that unlike the real Mr. and Mrs. Pitt, I will
never exchange SUVs with my sweetie as tokens of affection—would
settle. Nor will we jet to Corfu on a romantic whim, nor any
other whimsically jetable locale, and yes, that bugs me.
These are preposterous expectations, and shallow. But I feel
them nonetheless. I will never comment sagely on the difference
in the quality of light at sunset on Montserrat as compared
to that over the refurbished boathouse behind my mansion on
the Avon. We will not sit around the massive oak dining-room
table (which once graced the common area of a Franciscan monastery
in Spain) discussing the remarkable Chateau Cheval-Blanc St.-Emilion
(nor will we clarify that we mean, of course, the ’98, which
rivals even the classic ’82). We will not sample the ever-more
rarefied pleasures of the lifestyle-magazine spreads; we will
not blissfully flit from the exquisite to the sublime.
We will have our favorite coffee drinks, in our favorite Starbucks
(the Americano at Coolidge Corners, the Grandé Mocha at Stuyvesant
Plaza, the soy latte in the East Village). We will discriminate
among them, even. We will miss the old TGIFriday’s menu (remember
when?). We will prefer Burger King to McDonald’s, or vice
And we will supersize and indulge like emperors.