Thursday, July 15, 2010

Coffee Shop Culture: A Diary

There are four coffee shops I pretty much live at. (Well, five, really, but the fifth one is kind of a duplicate, so I won’t mention it.) They are as follows: Caffe Ladro in Lynnwood (north of Seattle), The Spotted Cow in Mill Creek (also north of Seattle), and two coffee shops in Seattle’s University District: Cafe Solstice and Sureshot Espresso. The differences between the four intrigue me. True, they are all manifestations of typical yuppie Seattle coffee culture, which I am definitely guilty of indulging in. They all serve lattes and organic or fancy loose leaf teas. But each one is shaped by the unique culture of its neighborhood. Here are my impressions:

Caffe Ladro: It is 2PM. I am killing time here while I wait for my pal Arugula to get off work at the bookstore down the street. Ladro’s manager is discussing the day’s trivia question, written on a whiteboard at the register, with the customer in front of me. The trivia topic: “Name a U.S. president who was NOT born a U.S. citizen.” (No, the answer is not Obama.) When it’s my turn to order, I ask for an Earl Grey (in a “for here” cup, of course). As she prepares it, the manager tells me that business is slow during the summer. This is because Edmonds Community College students are their main clientele base, and not many students take summer classes. I manage to not spill my tea as I walk to my seat, thinking of how much I love the manager at Caffe Ladro. We probably have nothing in common, but I love her because she seems to have a sincere sense of honor. This is hard for me to explain, because I have met very few people like this in my life. One of them is my friend Cassiopeia, whose ideas of honor have been influenced by martial arts training since she was a child. Caffe Ladro’s manager reminds me a lot of Cassiopeia. I can FEEL that she tries to always be fair to people. I can see that she tries her best in whatever she does. She is helpful and pleasant with her customers, even when they make outrageous demands. Even when I can tell she’s having a stressful day. I also like her because she doesn’t care what people think of her music taste. She hooks her I-Pod to the Ladro speakers, and customers are treated to Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, Pavarotti, Madonna, The Wallflowers, Josh Groban, and that “Waltzing Matilda” song. Some of the music makes me cringe, but I respect this woman so much that I develop a sort of fondness for it, so I stick it out. I sit there until 4:45PM, typing up math homework for my students. Then I pack up my things to go meet Arugula, smacking my head, as always, on one of the the low-hanging light fixtures, which look like gigantic clusters of heavy glass grapes. (Someday I will remember those things are hanging there?)

The Spotted Cow: It is 8AM. I have just finished working out at the gym and am now undoing all my hard work by eating an Affogato (ice cream with a shot of espresso poured on top) for breakfast. This coffee shop is very much a family place, selling both coffee and ice cream (including bubble gum flavor). Generically quaint local artwork is for sale on the walls. Baby pajamas by a local designer can be purchased as well. Cherubic toddlers shriek for their mothers’ attention from behind the gate of the indoor play area. One child is especially shrill, and her mother does nothing about it. The kid screeches like an angry buzzard every time Mommy speaks a sentence to an adult. I sit there scowling, wondering if there is something wrong with me for not finding this kid to be the slightest bit cute. Up at the counter, a little boy has just walked up to place an order. “I’m alone!” he announces to the barista. (Man, don’t let that child near a kidnapper!) At the large table behind me, a college youth group is having a Bible study, and they pray loudly over Shakira singing, “There’s a she-wolf in the closet…” Meanwhile, the obnoxious child in the play area has not stopped shrieking. I finally lose patience and walk up to the mother. “Can you do something about your kid?” I ask. Mommy blinks at me daftly, as if she’s been wearing earplugs this whole time. Then she realizes what I am talking about and does a half-ass job of hushing the little newt. I sit back down, and a man at a nearby table thanks me for saying something to the woman. Apparently I’m not the only one who isn’t charmed by the brat.

Cafe Solstice: I walk in at 10AM. Grad students and professors wearing “Ivy hats” are diligently poring over their scholars’ books. I try to decide if I want a Mate Ole (yerba mate tea mix) or a Whipper Snapper (peppermint and hibiscus mix). I am camping out here all day. I don’t think the staff minds since I buy something every other hour, to my husband’s eternal annoyance. (“Why can’t you just go to a library?” he asks. "It's about the ATMOSPHERE," I say.) This is the coffee shop where my friends and I hold our weekly writing group. Write Club doesn’t start until 6PM, but sometimes I show up hours early and work on typing up tutoring materials for my students. Solstice is a comfort place for me. It is just one block west of UW’s campus, so when I was still in school, I would come here at 6:30AM on exam days to study frantically. Espresso and anxiety gave me the adrenaline rush needed to memorize 100+ Chinese characters in the span of two hours on those wretched mornings. My favorite morning barista from those days happens to be working now. He is a guy that I actually thought hated everyone on the planet when I first started coming here. He impresses me because he manages to complete transactions without uttering so much as a grunt to his customers. He always looks tired and in need of a shave. His hair is kind of shaggy and his eyes are piercingly observant. In his presence, I feel like a worm. So it might seem a little surprising that I’ve had a crush on him for years. But he’s just so bristly with everyone that I have never bothered to talk to him. (The afternoon baristas tell me that he’s just shy.) Above his head, a string of red chili pepper lights hang, contrasting beautifully with the brick-red and olive-green walls. The oh-so-Seattle ambiance is perfected by the current month’s art show on the walls. The photographer is Amy Godfrey, and she has created a wonderful series of photos with captions. Her grandmother is the star of the images. Here is my favorite from the series, with its caption below it.

"Your grandfather might have been good to you but he was a RAT! He was a mama's boy. His mother hated me because I wasn't a Jew!"
(You can see the rest of the series here.)

Music marks the passing of hours at Solstice. By my third Mate Ole, I have heard The Beatles, Quasimoto, Fever Ray, M.I.A., Beirut, St. Vincent, and Neko Case, and the afternoon baristas have arrived. On one barista’s arms, beautifully tattooed silhouettes of crows and tree branches wind enchantingly over wiry muscles. I could stare at him for hours. Another barista is a stout guy with an impressive mustache. (Yes, if you haven’t figured out by now, I am kind of obsessed with mustaches. But only the really amazing ones.) The third barista is a tall and twig-thin girl with hair dyed sangria red. I suspect she has a cold and delicate handshake. The fourth is a pleasant fellow who often wears big stocking caps, and whose photography is also sometimes on display at Solstice. (You can see his website here.) I am pretty sure he thinks we Write Club folks are crazy, but he is nice enough to pretend he likes us!
By 5:30, my Write Club buddies start filing in. This is the high point of my week.

Sureshot Espresso: It is 9AM, cold, and rainy, and I am ordering a warm, creamy white-coffee latte—made from coffee beans that are only partially roasted and taste nothing like regular coffee—from one of the long-haired, black t-shirt wearing baristas. The music shuffles between Sonic Youth, Mazzy Star, Cocorosie, and dark industrial bands I’ve never heard before. Even though Sureshot is just a few blocks north of Solstice, it is a totally different kind of place. While Solstice attracts all the scholar and artist types that hang out on the south part of University Way—known for some reason as “The Ave”—Sureshot’s patrons are chess players and the comic book reading goth and punk kids that hang out on the north part of The Ave. People less naive or more fearful than myself might classify some of Sureshot’s patrons as “Ave Rats”. Many are rough-looking kids in their teens and twenties who congregate year-round in front of nearby Pagliacci’s Pizza with their pittbulls, joints, and cigarettes. I don’t know if it’s Sureshot that sustains the Ave Rats or if it’s the Ave Rats that sustain Sureshot, but they seem to live symbiotically. Personally, I have no problem with the Ave Rats. My pal Augustin avoids them at all costs, but I think they’re probably harmless. A little boisterous, sure, but I’ve never seen them do anything worse than make catcalls at passersby. (However, Wikipedia more or less calls them criminals.) On this particular day, one Ave Rat sits at a public computer checking his email. He is wearing a long black coat and his pittbull sleeps at his feet. The walls behind the computer are painted a dark maroon. On the couch beside the computer, a middle-aged homeless man sips a drip coffee and tries in vain to engage other customers in conversation. Two men in their late thirties play chess at one of the center tables. I set my bags down on a small side table, which has an old arcade game built into it. (The tabletop is a piece of glass placed over the game’s screen.) I walk up to the counter and ask one of the baristas for the restroom key. As I walk through the back room, I see an older man playing one of the pinball machines. I swear, that man lives next to that machine. He is there every time I go to Sureshot, no matter what time of day it is. In the restroom, the walls are black with wild cartoon murals painted across them. I imagine the cartoons are like L.A. graffiti. A big empty cartoon speech bubble on the wall next to the sink has been left blank, and there is a bucket of sidewalk chalk for people to write a message inside. Someone has written: “Two options for BP executives. 1. Life without parole. 2. Skinny-dip in The Gulf.”

Yeah, I support either of those options.


  1. This is absolutely fascinating.

    Four different cafes (or coffee shops, I suppose a cafe would be more of a lunch room?) but they're totally different in character.
    I've never really developed a taste for coffee, but I do like a hot chocolate or a nice tea, so if I ever come out your way feel free to lead me on a grand tour of Seattle's finest!

  2. Write Club is the high point of my week, too. I hate my job for taking so much of it away from me.

  3. Reading this has shamed me into looking around San Francisco for the coolest little hole-in-the-wall cafes! I'm doing the research today and when you get down here, we'll take to the field together!

  4. Cafe Ladro: never been there. Per should be right, Washington; of course while I am not up on colonial law, it seems like any President born before the country was formally founded would have been born not a US citizen, so that's like two generations worth to choose from.

    Cafe Solstice: I understand how your husband feels. The cost of coffee (and related items) is why I avoided the coffee craze. But I doubt you'd have as much fun in a library.

    Sureshot: I love those tabletop arcade games. I wish I had one. I wonder if I could build one out of a Super Nintendo...