Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.
– Patti Smith, “M Train”
I’m excited this week, for what I’ll admit is kind of a dumb reason: I’m getting new glasses on Saturday. I’ve been wearing my current pair since 2009-ish (thank you, Facebook profile picture album), and I’ve been needing a slight change in prescription for at least the last few years, and these new ones are pretty snazzy (they’re progressive lenses and transition lenses, both of which are necessary) – but I’m excited mostly because I’ve been wearing glasses since junior high school, and they’re as much a part of my self-identity as my hair or my physical frame, and so getting new specs means that, in a sense, I’m getting a new version of me. This is the me that’s going to be photographed in my brother’s wedding in October; and not to be too dramatic about it, but it’s probably true that this is the me that will feature more prominently in my son’s memories of his father.
As noted yesterday, I am now reading Patti Smith’s “M Train” in which, among other things, each chapter takes place in and around various coffeeshops. I am reminded of my own coffeeshop years, back in my undergrad and post-undergrad years, back when I lived in the East Village and played in bands and, most crucially, hung out with other people in places that were not my own apartment. The coffeeshop hours were a special part of my day; they were almost always very late at night, and I always had my journal, a good pen, and a new pack of smokes, and it was generally understood (whether in my group or just by myself) that those hours were for serious reflection and conversation. It sounds awfully pretentious when I describe it that way, and it probably was, but it’s also true; those coffeeshops were where some of the most important and life-changing conversations I ever had took place.
A lot of these places simply don’t exist anymore; Starbucks has more or less taken over the coffeehouse market, and I can’t imagine that any of my old Greenwich Village haunts could ever pay their rent now given that the average check back then was for maybe 2 cups of coffee consumed over 4 hours. And that’s really the thing – I go to Starbucks every day (and I must say, the Starbucks in my office building is a super-deluxe fancy-pants Starbucks) but I never hang out there. I order my iced coffee when I’m still on the ferry, crossing the Hudson River; the entire time I spend in the shop itself is between 30-60 seconds, depending on if there’s a line by the milk and sugar.
I must admit that I miss those days, when I actually had 4 hours to do nothing except drink coffee and write down weird poems in my notebook and just think. Not to sound too much like an old man, but these were the days before smartphones and wi-fi; if I wanted to be alone with my thoughts, I actually could be alone with my thoughts, and I didn’t have to worry about what I was missing on social media or how to properly photograph my cappuccino for Instagram and such. I could just enjoy being in the moment; and if, in the moment, I felt disquiet, I would open my notebook and try figuring it out, and if I was lucky I had a new set of lyrics for a song I didn’t even know I was writing. But even if I simply ended up doodling weird shit, I never felt like my time was being wasted.
There are some very nice little coffee shops in my very nice little suburban town, and on Saturday mornings I’ll leave a little early for my therapy session and hit one of them up, and I’ll sit down for a few minutes and reflect on what I might be about to say. Or else I’ll just stare out the window and allow myself a few minutes to be quiet and not have to think at all. There’s two places in particular that serve a very nice gluten-free banana bread, actually, and that’s a perfectly fine way to spend a few morning minutes in and of itself.
Of course, there’s going to be a Starbucks opening up there within the next few months and I’m a little bummed, to be honest; I’d hate for these local places to get pushed out. And yet there’s only so much I can do; I don’t really have the time or the inclination to hang out in these places the way I used to, either.
In any event, I miss those days. “M Train” is really good and it’s reminding me of the writing project that I was working on back in November of 2015, when I thought I was going to fool around for NaNoWriMo and ended up working on a new album and also having a sort-of mini-nervous breakdown. That project was also about my own coffeeshop days, and the people I was with, and what we used to talk about in the very late hours.