Sunday, March 17, 2019

Coffee Caste 

"In this rare image of a 17th-century coffee-house, wigged men sit on benches with newspapers and cups of coffee, while a maid serves behind the bar." the British Library.

On a sunny, refreshingly crisp Saturday morning when I had just successfully completed a simple bit of grown-up financial business, I decided to treat myself to a milky coffee and maybe a sweet pastry. I stopped at a pleasant Starbucks on the corner which had a great window seat for people watching. Thanks to Thorstein Veblen I began to wonder if I was implicated in a plague of societal inequity. Thanks Thorstein.

There’s a strange class politics to coffee that everyone recognizes but no one talks about. I guess that’s because no one has to. We all know and understand this market driven social experiment. I like to think I’m a wonderful magnanimous egalitarian who always only thinks the best of his fellow man. If you’re laughing right know, then you obviously know me well. Of course I’m not that person. I don’t feel too bad about it. Not even Ghandi was that kind of person.

I felt comfortable in that Starbucks partly due to its cozy surroundings and beams of sunlight, and partly because I felt safe in the knowledge I was amongst my socioeconomic peers. Black, white, brown, big, little or small we all feel safe amongst our class. Whether a $5 coffee is your daily drink or your once-in-awhile splurge we all feel we belong here. No one is making us feel like we don’t. Near my home is a Tim Horton’s where many other people feel welcome and comfortable but I don’t, not because it’s a Tim’s necessarily but because I feel entirely self-conscious about being there. These are the locals who come from all over God’s Earth and speak any variety of languages having any variety of arguments. Described one way it sounds like a lively, vibrant, metropolitan cafe, but that is definitely not the vibe. I’m no better than these folks but I am definitely better off. Whenever I’m in there I’m sure someone is thinking, “Hey man, this is our place - you shouldn’t be here.” There is also an element of anxiety based on past interactions. There are a lot of folks with substance abuse and mental health issues that frequent this location and as such it always feels like an explosion of personal conflict could be triggered at any moment. Here’s my turmoil. I genuinely believe a pluralist society full of diverse faces and voices and there's no better place to see that than somewhere like Tim Horton’s. I also really believe the only way for drug users and the mentally ill to become integrated into a healthy life is for everyone else to think of them as “normal” people and a way to normalize their lives is to go to coffee shops but here’s the rub: should we expect all of these groups to do all of this in one place at the same time? I mean I want everyone to get along mostly so no one starts yelling at me or vomiting on me or pissing on me. Let's face it, it really is about me.

This is the kind of coffee house Starbucks is hoping to evoke when you go into their shops. Image via Wanderlust

The problem with that particular Tim Horton’s and my anxiety about it is that anything could happen at any time. An inter-racial argument that may verge on violence (seen it); someone with social interaction issues getting overwhelmed (seen it); a strung out drug user completely melting down in the middle of ordering a drink (seen it). Yet at the affluent Starbucks I never feel any of that even though there are people of all manners of statehood and race and no doubt there are people with mental health and addiction issues but there’s just less yelling, fit-throwing or public pooping. Presumably we people of the same economic strata have decided on the same rules of behaviour and engagement. In fact I’m willing to go so far to say these types of coffee shops (the kind that offer a “flat white” or a “cortado” versus a “double double”) are even an oasis of a kind. It’s like a not-so-restricted club where the membership is defined by your willingness or ability to pay a 500% markup on coffee and milk. While the wealthy have their private havens, the broad “middle class” has fancy coffee shops. And while the middle class have Starbucks and gym memberships, the disadvantaged have overcrowded free pools and regular coffee shops. And despite it being 2019, we still don’t like being out of our element or others being out of theirs.

One of Toronto's first Tim Horton's coffee shops. Image via BlogTO

The weird thing about all of this is how far it extends in our culture, from schools, businesses to public parks. Residents of my neighbourhood never seem to take advantage of the waterfront. Who could blame them? The city has allowed overpriced condos to make it appear as though the waterfront is their private space which is absurd. At the same time the free swim programs intended to give better access to city services are overrun by out-of-neighbourhood families because the facilities are so damn nice which causes animosity from the families who need them and for whom they were intended.

Another strange example is cycling. It can be expensive to own and maintain a bicycle but it absolutely does not have to be. For some reason I’ll never understand, a lot of community advocates see cyclists as entitled and affluent gentrifiers causing unaffordable housing. Yet there is no cheaper way to travel. I could afford a car and the parking, insurance and maintenance that go with it, but it would be money flushed down the toilet for the pure lack of utility of a car in the downtown. With the money I save from transit use alone, I could buy a brand new bike every year and still come out ahead. My own calculations for car insurance make up my budget for renting a car when I need one (for the record, it works out to renting a car for 3-4 hours at a time, over 60 times a year). The question shouldn’t be why do I own three bikes but why don’t I own more? So I have to wonder why would people who struggle to pay for a metropass not consider riding a bike? Even a year long membership to Toronto’s BikeShare is less than a single month of a TTC pass.

This comfort or discomfort with one group or another isn't new or even a human creation. The term for it is homophily. I guess I’m talking about Java Homophily. I'm sure in the past, cities such as New York, London, Toronto or Vancouver seemed strange rather than accepted and it's pretty common to discuss any one of a city's sub-cultures. Speaking of sub-cultures, there's even a noticeable divide between small-city Tim Horton's versus big-city Tim Horton's or downtown Tim Horton's versus highway Tim Horton's. Which is to say our homophilic (is that a word?) view of the world won't change any time soon but I'll keep in it mind whenever I find myself paying more for a coffee than I think most people would be comfortable with.

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