Cafe Society, Sonoma Style

The café habit starts when one is young. Mine began at 14 when I was busy wrapping my snarling lips around words like existential (before postmodern and deconstruction supplanted it in the early 90s) without accidentally spitting out the Gitane I was desperate to keep betwixt my lips like a low-rent Jean Paul Belmondo.

In my cohort, where an invite’s R.S.V.P. was often followed by B.Y.O.B, the latter could as likely refer to beret as bottle. Mind you, these were the days before Starbucks commoditized “counter-culture” and finally brought Americans to the hard won realization that “espresso” is not pronounced with an X. Whereas espresso-based beverages once represented a kind of Eurocentric exotica, their sheer ubiquity these days conflates the notion into neurotica, with the desperate need to individualize one’s drink with varying degrees of foam and fat lest one’s latte be identical to another’s and one’s uniqueness within the herd of similarly different consumers called into question.

Today’s cafes are tantamount what author Ray Oldenburg calls a “third place,” meaning the one that isn’t your home or office and fosters a participation in civil society (which doesn’t occur in either my home or office). The “public house” of yore, which functioned something like a public rumpus room, was a fount of ideas and debate and drummed out art and social movements to the metronomic beat of a barista’s portafilter against the sink. Today’s third places are likewise hothouses for the next-big-thing though one’s interlocutor is less likely to be the goateed bloke next to you so much as his analog on the other side of a wifi connection, half a world away.

It’s been said that telephone was the death of Montparnasse, the arrondissement on the Left Bank known as a habitué of artists prior to World War II. After a day in their studios, the artists would congregate in cafes and argue, pontificate and conspire. Moreover, they would leave messages for one another through the district’s sundry barmen and billboards, which would require frequent check-ins to keep abreast of their communiqués. When the telephone arrived no one needed to drop by for messages anymore and after a bit nobody dropped by at all. It’s ironic that, besides the obligatory dose of caffeine, the main attraction at today’s cafes is telephony in the form of wireless Internet connectivity.

Few, however, are arguing, pontificating and conspiring face to face. So, wherefrom tomorrow’s art movements (or at least brawls over fate versus free will)? I’m putting my buck-fifty on museum cafes, where art exists as a perquisite and the coffee pumps the stream of consciousness.

In Paris, as a callow youth, I was always too hungover after running up tabs at Les Deus Magots to endure much passed the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Instead of keeping pace with the hordes of tourists invariably remarking about how small the damn painting is in real life, I’d set myself up a the institution’s terrace café and recover with a cafe au lait. Ditto the Musée d’Orsay, where I drained espressos and wrote something droll on a postcard of Gustave Courbet’s ?L’Origine du monde? to prove I’d at least made it to the gift shop (Google the painting, but not at work, unless you are a medical professional).

Though the hangovers are fewer and further between, I still adore museum cafes and am pleased to no end that one has opened at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. Albeit, I’m a member of the museum’s board, so I’m just thrilled that anything was achieved at all by a committee, let alone the acquisition of a hulking, steaming instrument of caffeine distribution. To wit, there’s hope for arguing, pontificating and conspiring in Sonoma. If your phone rings, however, don’t answer it.

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