Cafe Personale by Gordon Glasgow
All thing pass, everything comes alive and then fades again. For three weeks I drink cappuccinos. The frothy sensation of cappuccinos delights me, gives me a satisfaction because it’s simply something new, but after a little while, I’m in the mood for something else. Slowly I begin to realize that I enjoy having a bit more milk, feeling slightly more full, complete after my morning cup of coffee. I start to drink lattes.
It’s a month later now and the jittery feeling of caffeine is starting to bother me. I begin looking for something else and find hot chocolate. Hot chocolate still offers me the satisfying feeling of warm milk, plus there’s the sense of novelty, something different. But there’s one problem: hot chocolate isn’t dark enough. It’s too sweet, too adolescent, it lacks a certain edge and now I crave something new, a more embodying flavor. I find a drink called mochas. And it seems like I’ve figured it all out. I have this bitter, sexy flavor of coffee mixed with the adolescent innocence of hot chocolate. It's all in one, mother and daughter, father and son, youth and murky adulthood, sexuality and prepubescence, and perhaps even equilibrium. And when I decide to begin ordering it in decaf, I’m free from the jitter of caffeine. I’ve found the perfect answer to my daily Western dilemma. It’s reward without too much consequence. For a few weeks there really seems to be a sense of feeling complete. And then, suddenly, the heavy enzymes of whole milk start to make me feel bloated, and along with the rest of my diet, which has lost its discipline, decaf mochas start to seem like too much.
I switch to herbal tea for a while.
Herbal tea comes in many varieties; ginger, mint, chamomile, hibiscus, lavender, rose- hip, echinacea, etc. It’s pure, satisfying, kind to my digestion. Tea gives me the ability to feel healthy, light, active, and it’s through this health, combined with some yoga, light jogs and a now more disciplined diet that I feel a sort of religious contentment. Thing is, I don't live by a beach in southeast Asia, I live in Manhattan. And any sort of contentment is in contention with the non-remorseful, fast paced lifestyle of the economically and now pseudo-artistically driven city. The lack of caffeine leads me to feel apathetic, too removed from my surroundings. The tea itself doesn't give me that beautiful ephemeral fulfillment that milk-based espresso drinks once did. Herbal tea is satisfaction in the long term, and when choosing which hot beverage to drink, trading ephemeral satisfaction for long term enjoyment doesn’t seem to make much sense. I then do something radical. I begin to drink the ultra bitter, heavily caffeinated, sensational Columbian drip coffee that has spread across Western metropoles faster than pancreatic cancer. The stringent rush of fully caffeinated drip coffee once again gives me that very beautiful, ephemeral satisfaction that we all crave. It’s a right-on drug, it does me in and offers a manic energy that I’ve again come to find valuable.
And then, of course, my body grows tired of the bitter, severe, sharp feeling this South American coffee gives me. I’m far over the energy dips, I crave more consistency; something a little less like a laxative, a beverage that contains caffeine but doesn’t make me feel so goddamn unhinged. I decide to go back to cappuccinos. And this makes good sense for a while.
We all end up where we started, something like symmetry. This cycle can be attributed to a many dependencies of life: friendships, romances, cigarettes, diets, epiphanies, dispositions and so on. Does the human have the capacity to change? I think so, but only until he changes again. Progression isn’t linear.
Coffee and a cigarette, just the one, makes everything better, the two thought. They were neighbors and each day at the same time in the morning, something like 7:15 AM, they’d see each other in front of the building and casually bond over their morning cigarette, coffee mugs in hand. Daniel took it black and Virginia took it with a touch of milk, though it was always important not to put too much.
After some time, they both began to long for the day where they didn’t need a cigarette with their coffee to get the bowels moving. That’s the position they’d found themselves in, though. The morning cigarette was necessary.
Daniel and Virginia mainly exchanged pleasantries about things like the weather and political events, never anything too personal. So it was awfully peculiar when one morning, Virginia decided to bring up the fact that she was on her period. ‘Good morning,’ then, ‘good morning,’ then, by the way my vagina is bleeding. She divulged. She said she was on her period and in pain, having cramps, but she still couldn’t help but get up and continue with her routine. 20 minutes of exercise, masturbation, always after, never before, two cups of coffee, one inside, one outside, a small bowl of oatmeal, and of course, a cigarette.
She told this to Daniel on a cold morning in November, saying everything except the masturbation part. A wall had been broken. The two must have seen each other almost every day for the past year and no one dared to cross the barrier from casual to personal. And now that the wall had been torn apart, out of the blue, Daniel couldn’t help but contribute to the oversharing.
‘On the days I don’t have my morning routine, I get something like a depression,’ he said.
‘And what does that depression look like for you?’ Virginia answered, anxious that her cigarette was running out, concerned how she might look if she reached into her pocket for another. Did she even bring the pack downstairs?
‘Well, I just can’t really focus on my work.’ Daniel responded, before pausing for an awkward amount of time while Virginia stared at him. He decided to continue speaking. ‘I sometimes fall into the tendency of just sitting on the couch for most of the day while staring into space, thinking of all the worst things that could possibly happen to me. And it’s not like I can even go to the grocery store or run errands, I kind of just get stuck in place, stoic, immobile.’
Virginia looked at Daniel as if he’d overshared. She kind of squinted in an uncomfortable way, like someone trying to hold in a fart. He thought this was unfair and manipulative, she had started this more personal, less conventional conversation, after all. He began to not like her.
But here’s what Daniel didn’t realize: Virginia was not a cunning, calculating person. She was just socially awkward. She wanted to start these conversations with strangers, to get to know all the anonymous people she’d always pass on a daily basis, but she just didn’t have that particular quality, the art of conversation, or whatever people call it. She was always just more comfortable with her work, her family, her coffee, her cigarette.
She mustered up the strength to continue the dialogue she started.
‘I’m the same way.’
Around 30 seconds had passed since Daniel had last spoken, but to him it felt like a thousand years. He was now a bit too uncomfortable to speak, he didn’t know if what he’d say would get him in trouble. He responded to be polite, more than anything.
‘You also don’t feel like a real person, maybe a little depressed, when you skip your morning routine?’
‘I don’t know if depressed is the right word. It’s more just ennui, a state of dread, like I’m caught in a bad dream.’
Both were finished with their cigarettes. She offered him another, he accepted. They were indulging, they both felt naughty, yet this wasn’t something they would speak about. They took their first puffs of the second cigarette and both found it weird how they began to synchronously exhale and lower the cigarette from the lips to their waists, like dancers who perfectly time their movements.
‘Do you have a way of getting out of this state of dread?’
‘By not missing my routine.’ Virginia responded.
‘No,’ she continued. ‘I actually don’t have many methods. Exercise helps, but when you feel that way it’s hard to motivate yourself to move. I suppose I should get into meditation, but I haven’t found the time.’
‘How many cigarettes do you normally have?’ Daniel asked.
‘Usually one in the morning and one in either the afternoon or evening.’
‘And now you’re having two.’
‘Yes,’ she laughed.
‘So won’t this fuck up your morning ritual? Have I just ruined your day?’
‘I hope not.’
Daniel laughed before realizing, from Virginia’s look of uncertainty, that he might actually have messed up her day. He began to question the situation. Could it be possible that the structures of our lives are so flimsy, that such a thin foundation is holding it all together? Are we all so close to actually falling apart? Or, on the contrary, were they both just particularly unstable, two walking matchsticks in a pool of gasoline.
‘I’d like to think that having one more cigarette than normal might not change the trajectory of my day, but it’s all those little moments that end up making the difference. So, who knows? Maybe it’ll make my day that much richer, I might have new ideas and thoughts I would have otherwise thought I was incapable of. Impossible to say.’ Virginia remarked.
‘Well, perhaps you can let me know tomorrow,’ Daniel said. He wasn’t trying to be flirtatious but that’s probably how it came off. In fact, he knew that’s how it came off.
‘I will let you know, as long as I’m still here.’ Virginia responded.
She now felt that she overshared, the balance tipped once more, Daniel taken aback.
‘What?’ He responded, picturing her slashing her wrists over the guilt of having one too many cigarettes, the shame of an uncomfortable conversation with a neighbor.
‘Was just a joke,’ Virginia answered. ‘I’ll be here tomorrow.’
Daniel didn’t say anything.
‘I will.’ She added, somewhat manically. Her cheeks began to flush.
‘I know you will be,’ Daniel responded lightly.
Their cigarettes were both out and it was now clear it was time to go back home.
‘Well, I hope your day is productive,’ Daniel said.
‘And I wish you all the same.’
Daniel tossed the cigarette to the floor and stepped on it lightly, overly conscious of how all his movements might be perceived. She did the same a few seconds later, with a similar sense of self-awareness.
Daniel nodded goodbye and began walking away. His plan was to walk around the block slowly so that they didn’t have to go into the building together. But after a few steps, a force he didn’t understand compelled him to turn around and say something.
‘I always feel performative, smoking cigarettes. Like I’m acting, even lying!’
He smiled as he said this, he lifted his head, but she was gone, already inside the building, the course of her day awfully unclear. He realized that he didn’t even get her name, what she did for a living, why she also seemed to work from home. Or did she? He had never seen her in business attire on the way to some place stressful.
Daniel did end up having a good day, writing a lot, finishing two short stories. Virginia, not so much. She was, however, able to make it to the grocery store and run some errands.
Until Daniel moved out 10 months later, the two hardly ever spoke again. They both began to smoke on their fire-escapes, more frequently, usually listening to music or a podcast, all in the attempt to avoid an awkward conversation with each other. This is actually what got Daniel evicted. Well, not exactly evicted. The landlord received complaints about the smell of smoke coming from his apartment, and began pestering Daniel with threatening emails, the kind that only a New York landlord would feel emboldened to send. Daniel decided it was time to move out anyways.
Somehow, Virginia came away unscathed. Daniel was probably blamed for her smoke as well. They never came to realize that they lived on the same floor on opposite sides of the building. After Daniel moved out, the two would never meet again.
The Cry Bus would leave at 10:30AM, three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It would circle the city for a couple of hours before returning to drop everyone off at the same place they were picked up.
I decided to have a couple cups of coffee before going on The Cry Bus. It wasn’t really a calculated decision, I just didn’t sleep so well the night before. I went out with a few colleagues from work and had a few drinks, got home late and then couldn’t get to bed — probably because I was nervous about not getting up in time, about what the next day’s experience on The Cry Bus would look like.
The Cry Bus left from the South Street Seaport. I lived in Yorkville. Luckily I got up in time, not without a subtle migraine. After downing both cups of coffee naked in my kitchen, my mind and heart both began to race, to start thinking of new ideas, of work, family, all the errands I had to take care of, bills to pay, all that shit. It wasn’t exactly the best frame of mind to be in before going on The Cry Bus. I rushed out of my apartment.
Aside from the bus driver, who had a very melancholic expression on his face, there were only five people on the bus, which gave it an uncanny feel. It was a big bus, after all.
‘It’ll be $17.50, if you have it,’ the bus driver said, sadly.
I realized I didn’t have any cash on me.
‘Do you take card?’
The bus driver began to get nervous, shuffling around his glove compartment. Eventually he found a card reader and was able to charge me.
‘I really, really thank you.’ He said.
‘It’s no problem at all,’ I replied.
I passed a couple who had already began crying on each other’s shoulders, they clearly had a lot to resolve. There was a sign in the back saying that conversation wasn’t allowed, with a long disclaimer underneath that I wasn’t able to read. Maybe there were instances where conversation could be deemed appropriate. The couple would have to accept that for the next two hours, only hiccups and tears could mediate their woe.
I found a seat toward the back of the bus. There was a large man with a beard three rows behind me who wasn’t crying yet, but he looked like he was about to burst as soon as the wheels got rolling. There was something about the way his eyes were shaking, I’d never seen eyes shake before.
10:35AM, it seemed pretty clear after a five-minute grace period that no one else was showing up on that cold Friday morning to have a cry on wheels, so the glum driver shut the door and took a right onto the west-side highway. Two or three minutes later, a collective wail of shrieks and misery began to filter through. It sounded like there were more than five people. And even though I was sure I would be able to, I couldn’t cry. I tried hard to get in the mood. I thought about my ex-girlfriend for a while. All the promises we made to each other, the hopes and dreams for a future that never materialized. I thought about my father on his hospital bed, the weeks before he passed away. I attempted to consider all my own personal objectives that I had failed to grasp, aspirations that weren’t realized, illusions lost.
As far as I could go in my own personal wormhole of misery, I kept getting distracted by all the things I actually had to take care of that coming weekend, the people I was scheduled to see, the parts of my apartment I had to clean. I hadn’t watered my plants for three and a half weeks, it was important that I get to that. As we took a right-turn from the highway toward 42nd street, I noticed the cries beginning to dim. It seemed like most people on the bus, though I tried not to look around, were just holding their heads in their hands. They’d moved away from catharsis toward grief.
‘This bus is for crying.’ The large man three rows away whined at me. ‘What the hell are you even doing on here.’
‘I’m trying to cry,’ I said back. ‘It’s not as easy as I thought it would be.’
I nodded with shame.
‘It’ll happen.’ He said back, burying his hand back into his forearms.
I couldn’t help but think that what prevented me from crying was the fact that I was heavily caffeinated. It wasn’t good to be in this mindset of productivity when trying to look back in the past and release whatever I’d been holding in. It would have been better if I started the day with two shots of whiskey. Coffee is a drug that allows you to build a future. I wasn’t trying to build. I was trying to break down.
The bus began making its way back toward South Street Seaport. The couple toward the front began whispering to each other lightly. The man three rows behind me somehow heard and yelled at them to shut-up, pointing to the sign with his finger. They fell silent. And it was his big, fat finger, this man’s miserable sense of vanity and and self-absorption, something about his egotism and solipsism that fucked with me in a particular way; I began to cry. That cry led to a deeper cry. The ex-girlfriend, the one before that one, my father on his death bed, my writing career that never panned out, it all hit, each one after the other, like songs on a disjunctive album.
‘There you go.’ The man behind me said.
I nodded that he was right and then just kept on crying.
‘We got a first timer hitting twenty-two forty-four!’ The bus driver exclaimed over the little microphone. All five of the others went, ‘wooooh,’ and then continued with the last of their cries until the end of the journey.
‘Twenty-two forty-four?’ I asked the man behind me, my voice desperate with misery.
‘Oh yeah!’ He said back.
When we got back to the Seaport I didn’t want to get off the bus. I had started crying too late. It wasn’t fair. It felt like I didn’t get my $17.50’s worth. But off I went.
‘It’ll pass,’ the bus driver said to me as I exited that strange, large capsule of relief. ‘See you soon, I’m sure.’
‘Yes.’ I responded, surprised at myself.
An hour later I was back at the office.
‘Doctor appointment went well?’ My boss asked.
‘Yep, all’s good,’ I responded, turning on my screen and opening my emails, getting up from my desk to walk to the kitchen. It was time for another cup of coffee.