No, I will not have coffee with you.
I hate the Coffee Date. It is the most generic...generic....generic....I keep looking for another word, but yeah. Generic.
Look, I get it. It's the Age of Internet Dating. We want to meet in safe, public places. We don't want to invest any precious time with someone with whom there might not be chemistry. We don't want to spend money if we don't have to. We don't want to saddle the other person with expectations, longings, or glances that may not be returned. We don't want to risk rejection.
So yes, coffeehouses. Safe, clean, well-decorated, hip, conveniently located. Smart people who like books and "good" conversation hang out in them. If you hang out and drink coffee or write on your laptop and read books, then you are urban and hip and cultured and smart and Bohemian. I mean, I am all those things, and I love a good coffeehouse. There is one in Rogers Park that has great turkey rice soup just like my dad's, and they host an outdoor jazz festival every year. In my neighborhood alone, there is the aesthetically pleasing gay coffeehouse, the bustling corner coffeehouse with great ice cream, and the dinky struggling coffeehouse that mostly attracts clientele from the nearby halfway house. I can think of coffee (or tea!) houses in cities all over the world that I actively miss when I think of that city, because they so defined my experience there.
Undergrad, my class were sophomores when the local coffeehouse first opened. You could always tell who was on a date on weekend nights, because you'd see them playing board games with each other. My friend Tom wrote his first novel in the corner, and my baby cousin fell in love with him there on a visit once. My friends Kevin, Jonathan, Jeremy, and Chuck would sit there discussing politics and religion until the place closed. Molly, Jill and I would wander there before rehearsals, drinking iced vanilla lattes on the way back to Copley Formal Lounge.
Prague is a total cafe town. Dobra Cajovna, a tiny tea house on Vaclavske Namesti was my second home that year. I'd sip exotic teas and eat pita bread toasted with cinnamon and butter and candied ginger with Madhavi. I went to The Globe when I wanted books in English and to flirt with expats. There was another tea house on the long road down to the Charles Bridge from Strahov that we didn't find until January of that year. I once had tea and cake with members of Vaclav Havel's security detail at Cafe Milena. They corrected my Czech homework for me, and I watched the president drink at the next table.
I thought Prague was a cafe town, and then I hit Budapest. One word: Gerbaud. Faded, elegant, amazing. I've sat there in backpacker's rags on the way to a jazz club and in a backless black dress on the way back from the opera. I've never been there with someone I loved, but I still dream about that someday.
I thought Budapest was a cafe town, and then I hit Vienna. When you visit Vienna, go to some cafes. When you sit in a coffeehouse in Vienna, it is like every other cafe you have visited was in some dusty, remote, provincial outreach and it is only now that you have returned home, to civilization and Linzer torte. Drink up!
I returned to DC, and I discovered more cafes. There was a Kenyan place on 18th street I used to go after teaching at Academy of Hope. Cafe Des Amis Du Cafe downtown had the usual coffee & sandwiches, plus $5.00 homemade Ethiopian lunch specials that the owners brought from home every day. When Dos Gringos opened up on Mt. Pleasant street, I think I parked myself on that porch for an entire summer. I tell everyone - male, female, straight, gay - to go to Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Dupont Circle when they need a book, a good fancy coffee, and all the eye candy in the world.
Chicago is not exactly cafe-free. Uncommon Grounds. Julius Meinl. The Black Cat. The Chopin Theatre. Filter (which used to be something else..something with "Grind" in the title?). The Daily Grind. The Local Grind. The Grind. Cafe DeLucca. Pause. Coffee Chicago. Kopi. No Exit. Intelligentsia. And how could I forget, The Bourgeois Pig? I am not even scratching the surface -my ex has an entire superpower devoted to being able to locate coffeeshops effortlessly wherever he goes, and we spent many afternoons playing cards or Scrabble or reading books across a table.
As you can see, the coffeehouse and I - We are friends. But I hate the "Coffee Date."
On our date, I want to see you eat something. I want to know right off the bat if you are one of those "delicate eaters" who has to inspect every bite and scrape it around on the plate in an elaborate food Kabuki. I want to see you laugh at something or enjoy something or hate something. I want to see if you can hold your liquor or if you order 9 beers to my two in a 2-hour period. I want to know if agreeing on what movie to see is going to take up half my week. I want to learn something about you that you couldn't have just told me in an email. I want to see what you look like swaying to the house band in a dive bar. I want to see what songs you pick out on the jukebox. I want to see if you are game enough for karaoke. Look, I will watch you paint fucking pottery if it tells me something about who you are. Let's bowl. Let's go to free Tuesday at the Art Institute. Let's eat sandwiches on a park bench and watch people walk by. Let's fly kites. Let's ride bikes. Let's hop on the eL and try to see how many stops we can hit in a day. Let's play poker for pennies. Let's go to experimental theater or the Uptown Poetry Slam. Let's listen to terrible Mexican bands in the basement of the local anarchist collective. Let's go to the Observatory and look at the stars. Not everything has to cost money, or be weighed with Great Emotional Significance.
Because sitting across from you over a cup of coffee is not working. You never want to call me again. I never want to call you again. It's too forced. The light is too bright. The people around us clack away on their laptops. We can't even commit to an hour in each other's company, we're hedging our bets already. You talk, and talk, and talk about your job until I glaze over. I pull out all my best stories and try too hard to be funny. We are bored from the get-go.
So, boys of Chicago, are you listening? No more Coffee Dates the first time out. It is the path of least resistance. It is emasculating you. It is part of the culture that says "be safe, be detached, don't be too needy or geeky or freaky, keep it all on the surface, don't make a move, don't meet in a bar (that's sleazy), don't talk about anything controversial." This is an amazing city, full of life and things to do, and I know we can do better.