Is there a perfect cup of coffee? And how much would you put up with to get it? For that matter, is there a perfect anything? Certainly I’m not – perfect, that is. Are you or is anything you do? If you say yes it’s likely that you’re not. Actually, it’s definite. That’s because we all have our own standards for perfect. And for me – stating that you are is an instant disqualifier.
This all comes to mind because my students have less than a month to finish their screenplays and many are freaking out. They’re awful, their ideas don’t work, they have no talent, have wasted their lives thus far pursuing their dreams and have little good to look forward to. In other words, they sound exactly like most Americans in our continual quest for the gold… something or other.
But back to coffee and perfection. Though I’m not sure why. These days I drink mostly tea. Don’t make fun – it’s freshly brewed, green and they say it’s life-extending. Who’s they? You know – them – over there… the people who know about such things.
Still, every now and again I do crave a good cup of coffee. It doesn’t have to be perfect but, full confession, since it’s not part of my daily grind (Note: That was an unintentional pun I only became aware of as I wrote this), I like for it to not taste like mud that’s accumulated at the bottom of a pot on an overheated burner.
This craving led me to the Blue Bottle Coffee emporium around noon time one day this week in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a planned trip. I had the craving, was driving by in the smog on my way to get an allergy shot from my neighborhood allergist I’ve been to a zillion times and thought – heck, there’s even a parking spot out front. Why don’t I just go on in?
It is important to note that just as perfection is rare and even rarely perfect, so is driving around Los Angeles and casually stopping your car in front of any place new in your neighborhood you hadn’t planned on stopping at that you’ve never heard of. We Angelinos know what’s in our localities backwards and forwards if only because we’re constantly frustrated with the amount of traffic we must fight daily as we drive every which by, towards and through them.
The following is not a review of the Blue Bottle, per se. The place is light and airy and a bit overpriced – a modern yet soft-hued colorful, clean sort of open concept space you’d see at the end of an HGTV home makeover show. Vaguely unaffordable but certainly not out of the question if you economize and push yourself a little. After all, what price perfection, right?
See, the problem with Blue Bottle and places like it is not how it looks but who’s there and what it’s selling. I’m going to generalize now so bear with me –- at even just before noon it’s a room full of upscale baby boomers, yuppies, generation X & Yers standing or sitting around with a few marginally millennial individuals scattered around at coffee tables with laptops. It’s not crowded like a Starbucks at all – in fact there’s tons of space. Space where you can listen to various conversations about real estate; the police busting a party the night before; someone’s latest trip to Scandinavia; and how much another one’s company is really going to pay for, well… something or other.
I suppose this would all be fine if the coffee were quick or any good. After all, the allergist closes in 25 minutes so I don’t have all day but since I’m about 4 minutes away and another 5 minutes up the elevator that should be plenty of time.
Uh, well, maybe not. The very tall, leggy brunette haired woman in the expensive top and faux jeans in front of me ordered a soy, double, almond, mocha whatever and it turns out this is a drip, drip, drip place where literally a pretty-aproned younger millennial stands at another counter slowly pouring a bit of water into just roasted beans, watches it drip, and then pours just a little more. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. No wonder they hate us. Justifiably.
After which point the stylish woman, who is probably a good two decades younger than me even though in my mind we’re contemporaries, decides that after a sip of her, err, drink, she has to have another one almost exactly the same but with one key change (no mocha? I can’t recall) for someone else. This gums up my works a bit and I fear I won’t make it to my shot. And begin cursing her under my breath, and then myself for cursing her, as I begin jonesing for my liquid black gold. Which is, you guessed it, merely a plain cup of coffee. No, nothing else. It’s now been 10 minutes and counting.
When the unfortunate, semi-smiling millennial finally hands me over my small cup of perfect I find it a bit bitter, even after the dab of half and half. Certainly, this is because I don’t drink all that much of the stuff, anymore, right? Actually, no – I had a cup I rather enjoyed last week at a hotel on a business trip. This one just doesn’t measure up. Despite the fact that after starting in Oakland some years ago there are now Blue Bottles in New York, Tokyo and San Francisco.
Perfection? I don’t think so.
Why spend all this time semi-trashing a perfectly decent establishment? Well, first of all this isn’t trashing. I could show you trashing. Trashing would be the cup of coffee I barely got six months ago with a dear friend at a hideously pretentious place on La Brea Ave. in Hollywood called Graffiti Coffee. These mother f-rs were rude, high-tech, and snickered at me for not understanding their roasting terminology lingo when all I wanted was a plain iced coffee. By the time I got it I wanted to throw it at the sign that I hadn’t noticed when I came in – the one that says they don’t allow anyone under 18 on the premises. This is not because they serve alcohol but because they don’t want people bringing their kids inside.
Okay, normally this might be a selling point for me but, well – as a gay Jewish liberal I have to ask – is that even legal? Plus, aren’t kids in school during the day? After leaving this place I go on Yelp and find scads of one-star reviews for Graffiti Coffee. Some like the brews but almost everyone agrees these are some of the most nasty, pretentious people who have ever held a cup of java, much less made some. What I want to know is – how do they stay in business given they occupy prime real estate? All I can remember is the always empty Chinese restaurant my Dad and stepmom used to take us to when we visited during the summer that they ominously joked trafficked in the white slave trade. (Note: This was not considered racist in the 70s, so please don’t stereotype my family the way we did an entire group of people. And certainly don’t bring use Seinfeld’s notorious 90s Soup Nazi as an example).
Now before you think I’m picking on Graffiti let me very briefly mention a third place I stopped into several months before that – Sqirl. No, that’s not a typo – it’s a café on the Hollywood/Silverlake border named after a member of the rodent family. Only misspelled. Which somehow seems to make it palatable and more appealing.
Well, how do you not go into a place called Sqirl to get a cup of coffee on an L.A. fall day even though it’s 80 degrees outside and they don’t have air-conditioning. After all, you’re thirsty, you’re only here to look inside a discount antique store for a marked down lamp and, best sign of all, you and your buddy pass by and see Sqirl is indeed packed and a bit kooky. This must be the perfect find only the locals know about.
Well, the iced tea is okay but my friend tells me the coffee is nothing special after 15 minutes of sweating it out waiting for the two drinks. I take a sip and agree. Unfortunately, this was after I spent $18 on two jars of cute little Sqirl jam that I knew would be the perfect gift for my jam-loving, hard-working of late, husband. Um, not so. I brought it home, he tasted it and had that nice face on he gets when he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings when I proclaim I brought home a find. The strawberry was runny, the apricot flavor was weak and even the jars didn’t look as good in the daylight of our air-conditioning. The people working there were nice but I couldn’t help wondering why everyone was sitting in sweltering heat in the middle of the afternoon eating hot breakfast food and swatting flies away.
We Americans… We’ll do almost anything for a treat, won’t we? Or what we perceive to be one. I have the answer, though. Make your coffee at home with help from an online expert (Note: just google the prefect cup of coffee). And smile to yourself with the knowledge that as bad as you might think your coffee or your work is it’s a hell of a lot better than much of what’s out there that passes for perfection. It’s just that the world has not yet discovered you or your own special brew.