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Compensatory Consumption

There 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 tastes.

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 fragile.

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.

Total crap.

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 properties room.

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 versa.

And we will supersize and indulge like emperors.

—John Rodat 

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