It’s embarrassing to admit it, but to this day coffee, especially ground, unbrewed coffee, smells somehow sophisticated and elegant to me. It’s been that way since I was a teenager and coffee was just becoming both necessity and indulgence. It was necessary to stay awake studying late, to wake myself up in the morning, and also to have an excuse to meet someone… and divey college cafes with apostolic baristas were a haunt. The eternal adolescent in me found it somehow more romantic to be reading or fretting about studying there than in a cafeteria or a dorm room, and also more comforting to be surrounded by the bustle of coming and going, the warmth, the scents and tastes of an eclectic but surprisingly good menu, and of course the aroma of coffee itself.
And that stayed with me long past any possibility of rationally arguing that coffee was sophisticated. In the ensuing several decades chain cafes offering a standardized, sanitized version of the already clichéd romance and refinement of my café sprang up everywhere, drove my café out of business, in fact, and themselves lost ground to a new Third Wave of coffee, of grounds weighed out on drug scales, of beans sold by the gram and priced high enough to make Pacino’s Scarface blush.
And during this time I found my preferred delivery method, an espresso maker, and have kept buying ground beans (snobs point out that grinding without immediately brewing the coffee afterwards causes the taste to degrade), and throughout the day the whiff of the ground beans reminds me of my old fantasies. It smelt elegant, the way that my immature self had thought brick sidewalks were elegant, or a tailored suit, or Champagne, or, all those years ago, Paris. I never got to the level of world-weary sophistication of the Eurotrash classmate who spoke all languages, had been everywhere, mesmerized me, and sincerely hated Paris.
Middle age is about becoming uneasily comfortable with who we are and with who we are not – that we change simply by staying the same. That is, our tastes, our very beliefs that we once thought – and which may have been – so original, so refined, so progressive, so eclectic – have now become, with our own middle age, middlebrow, stodgy, even offensive. The sneakers I loved so much that I keep hunting down boxfresh new pairs 17 years later are now, apparently, worse than #dadcore, the sort of thing middle-aged guys with strong divorced dad energy would wear to an electronic dance music concert. So I was informed by my friend Derek Guy of Die, Workwear!, but the joke’s on him: I don’t get to concerts anymore.
In short, I am basic. The very act of recognition is empowering, like the second act in a superhero movie where a villain gains his power by embracing his long-denied evil. Basic: uncreative despite my delusions; limited by my own narrow perspective from embracing a broader, more inclusive present; tied to the standards, of social success and otherwise, of generations long past. Champagne, my goth ninja classmate from the Université de Paris reminded me, is simply for ceremonies’ ritualized celebrations, not for elegant personal enjoyment. He implied it would be like wearing one of Camps de Luca’s or Lanvin’s elaborate custom habits d’académicien out to dinner at a restaurant.
Basic: set in my ways the way a bad back, like my middle-aged own, is in its muscle-spasming channel. Basic: in sum, denying the reality of the new for the simplistic delusions and snobberies of the irrelevant and old.
But I have learned in life that we cannot escape who we are, whether through accident of fate or through our own ill-starred doing. The best we can do is accept, admit and embrace it while working to adapt to and address current realities. I may never live in a neighborhood with brick sidewalks, as I dreamed of wandering college streets both post- and pre-cafe. But I can use what I have to deal with the present day, in this case my metro pass case in shagreen, the leather of a dogfish or stingray… tough as nails and about as hard, but much more beautiful. The rarefied serving the everyday of a middle-class, middlebrow, middle-aged me.