A quiet counterculture is building in the world of coffee shops. You probably don’t even notice it in your neighborhood. It’s starting very modestly, and I doubt it will supplant the Starbucks model we’ve come to know and, in my case, grudgingly accept.
One afternoon my wife and I set out with our laptops, looking forward to a couple of quiet and productive hours at a nearby, locally-owned coffee purveyor on trendy Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. We had noticed this store on the corner for some time. It looked very attractive from the outside – giant, plate-glass windows that let in an abundance of sunlight, bright interior, a spare, clean look. The kind of place where you can sit quietly, clear your mind and get creative.
Approaching the door, however, we noticed very few places to sit – only benches around the walls and tiny, low, round-topped wooden tables. None of the overstuffed, comfy chairs we’d come to expect in more traditional coffee houses.
“It looks like they really don’t want us to come in,” said my wife, and I agreed. Cold and sterile came to mind.
We peeked inside the Starbucks across the street, but all the seats and chairs were filled. So popular was it was this mid-afternoon that we decided to return to the local place and give it a try. After all, I reasoned, we have each other. Do our surroundings really matter? (You come to recognize what’s enduring and fulfilling versus the fleeting and unsatisfying. Your wife is your best friend and you relish your time together.)
When we walked in, we were greeted by the type of funereal silence that always makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious. I almost turned around and walked out. Music played softly, and the energy level was low or nonexistent. If you speak, you appear foolish. Intimidating sums up the experience so far.
At first I thought maybe this is the kind of place where you get your coffee to go – so paltry was the available seating. But no, there were a few customers, occupying a long table with high stools in the back.
The clerk was cheerful in a quirky way, although I felt as if she was thinking “these people don’t know or appreciate our sophisticated blends of coffee and tea. Watch the guy order a plain drip coffee.” Which I did, with room for milk. I have no pretension about these things and refuse to order something overly gilded or contrived just to fit in with the crowd. I think my wife ordered an iced chai tea.
My wife noticed the barista, who didn’t crack a smile the entire time. Made several coffees before she poured the iced tea. (I mean, all she had to do was pour the tea. Simple.) I usually don’t let the attitudes of others – especially strangers – affect my mood, but ms. barista’s vibe was palpable. It cast a pall over the place. Sulk much?
My coffee was good, but not worth the four bucks I paid for it. I guess when we overpay for the coffee we are paying for the privilege of sitting in a coffee house for hours, sucking up the wi-fi.
About the wi-fi. We opened our laptops, searched for available networks and found they were all encrypted. I asked the clerk if they have a wi-fi network. “No, we don’t,” she replied, probably sick of answering the question for the 60th time that day, displaying little compassion. No apologies. The whole premise of this coffee format is “unapologetic.”
As Americans, don’t we have the right to free wi-fi?
“That’s okay,” I said to my wife. “We can do other things.” And she showed me the photos from her writer’s retreat in Whitefish, Montana.
I’ve since noticed this no computer policy at other coffee houses. There’s a spot on Pico near Fairfax that segregates the laptop users. Polite little placards adorn each table explaining the policy. At least laptop use is somewhat acceptable. And the place is buzzing with energy, unlike the aforementioned tomb near our apartment.
We stayed for about 45 minutes, not sucking up their wi-fi but sucking up the oxygen in the room and taking up space. I guess I got my $4 worth. And don’t bother asking for a cup to go. No paper is consumed here.
This is a classic coffee experience, accentuated by large, white porcelain mugs.
Maybe this is a new model, I thought. High-concept coffee. The anti-Starbucks. I’m clearly in the minority because most of the Yelp reviews were gushing. Do these people derive some perverse satisfaction from being surrounded by smugness and sterility?
It led me to revisit a question I’ve always pondered about the attitudes of the help and the clientele. It’s a chicken and egg thing. Does the help turn hostile from dealing with arrogant clients all day, or do clients become arrogant from being waited on by hostile help?
So many questions, which I think I’ll consider as I sip my $1.95 grande at Coffee Bean.
My friend Robb informed me Anaheim was settled by the Germans. Well, that makes sense. Anything that ends in “heim” must be German, I figure.
“Their saint was Ana, and that’s why you have Santa Ana, and then next to it is Anaheim,” he said.
We were having this discussion one evening in the parking lot of Alpine Village in Torrance.
Our high school friend Stan was in town on business and the three of us went to dinner.
Standing in the parking lot, away from the noise of the band playing a singles event, Stan observed “This place is kind of in the middle of nowhere.” Funny how it takes an outsider to notice what’s right in front of our faces.
“Is there a German settlement around here or something?” he asked. Stan is of German heritage. He has one of those names that is easily bungled and we used to find creative ways to mispronounce it in high school.
The answer is, well, no. Alpine Village is an attempt to re-create German life in the middle of a nondescript area of southern L.A. county. It’s a mixed neighborhood, with some residential, a dab of retail and a commercial enterprise here and there, totally devoid of zoning restrictions. Kind of a wasteland, really. The presence of the 110 Freeway nearby makes this section of Torrance an afterthought. The 405 / 110 interchange is just a mile away and the zillions of motorists who pass this way are determined to reach their destination – they pay no mind to the Torrance Blvd. exit.
That’s why I’m amused whenever Robb recommends we eat here. He’s a big fan of beers – even brews his own – and he’s always up for a tall glass of pilsner. Beer and knackwurst. The knackwurst on Alpine Village’s menu reminds me of the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where Ratner takes Stacy on a first date and they sit shyly, swallowed up in oversized chairs while being served by that big Brunhilda.
Alpine Village is a commercial enterprise that defies easy explanation. First of all, it’s situated on a humongous lot which could accommodate an airport hotel or light manufacturing facility.
It’s a series of buildings, the anchor being a giant beer hall with dance floor and assorted party and meeting rooms. It’s Old World meets nondescript 1970s U.S.A. There are touches of German sensibility–walls of stucco and dark beams, coach light fixtures that exude a golden glow, dark hardwood floors. The servers don’t wear lederhosen or those frilly, low-cut frocks you see on the lasses at Oktoberfest in Munich. They dress like they work at Target.
The hostess on this evening was a fairly miserable young woman sporting a white dress shirt, thick black hair and trendy glasses – of Hispanic or Filipino descent I would guess – who found it difficult to muster a smile as I entered.
“I’m meeting friends here,” I said, as if to preempt her attempts at seating me. After all, that would require some effort and I wanted to save her the trouble.
“Um-hmmm,” was her response, then she returned to her smartphone.
Luckily we are adults, self-sufficient, and had no trouble commandeering a table on our own. We settled in to our beers and sausage appetizers, and were chattering with the ease of middle-aged white guys, when all of a sudden we heard a report of epic sonic proportions, one that always makes me cringe.
“TEST, TEST, CHECK, CHECK, CHECK 1-2.”
Musical equipment had materialized on the stage and a technician was prepping for a performance of some sort. We then noticed the hall was starting to fill with people of every age and stripe – in every type of garb imaginable. Large tables bore “RESERVED” signs. Clearly, something was up, and we were not a part of it.
I excused myself, made a trip to the restroom and did some reconnaissance. An organization
called OC Good Life was hosting a singles event. There’s something about putting the letters OC (for Orange County) in front of everything; it makes it sound more hip, more intriguing. Good Life in and of itself is pleasant enough, but OC Good Life conjures images of a happy middle-aged couple rolling down the coast in their convertible, hair blowing in the salty breeze.
One look at this crowd, however, and words that came to mind were “trepidation” and “anxiety.” Balding men in cheap sports jackets and too much jewelry, women teetering in exaggerated heels and makeup, eyes darting around the room as they try to adjust to the light, unsure of where to go, what to do next or what pose to strike. I felt some measure of compassion for them, because haven’t we all felt ill at ease in certain social situations?
As I walked back into the main hall to be reunited with my goulash, an overanxious woman sporting bright red lipstick and bullet-proof hair accosted me.
“Have you signed in yet?” she asked enthusiastically.
Being married and not looking for the Good Life in the OC, I said “No, I’m just here with some friends, having dinner.”
“Oh, okay,” she replied, not defeated, just in a courteous tone.
At about that time, the band struck up a Motown tune (might have been “Heard it Through the Grapevine”) and the shouting began. By shouting, I mean my friends and I were shouting to hear each other and the lead singer had a tendency to shout when she reached for the high notes. A little like nails on a chalkboard at times, but overall the band wasn’t bad. The lead singer – looking older than she sounded – was nearly expressionless even while singing the most poignant lyrics. A guy sang harmony with her and they were accompanied by guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. I wondered “Where do these people come from?” Stan later pointed out to me that the band was called “Bits and Pieces.” An appropriate name, given the fact that they looked as if they’d been thrown together moments before taking the stage.
Our attempt at making conversation over the loud music continued for about 15 minutes, then we paid our bill and decamped for the parking lot. Before we left, I noticed maybe 15 couples dancing on the big floor. I usually judge the quality of the band and the overall party atmosphere by the number of people actually dancing. There was no Midwestern reserve about these folks; they were here to party and let it all hang out.
On our way out the door, Robb and Stan asked the hostess about this event. When she replied “it’s a singles event” and they answered “Hah, we don’t qualify” I thought guys, give it a rest. She has no sense of humor.
When I find myself making conversation on a wide range of subjects in the midst of an unfamiliar and unrelated environment, I find it stimulating. Here we were, discussing old high school friends, past jobs, family and music, while standing in a parking lot in a city far from where any of us grew up, as strangers passed by. It’s surreal, and energizing. The night breeze swept in from the ocean, passed through palm trees, whisked past freeways and buildings and billboards carrying an element of magic. Sometimes I refer to it as “worlds colliding” or a “mashup.” Regardless, I thrive on this coming together of random elements as they create their own energy and momentum.
Standing outside the front door, we got to watch people come and go. While it’s an unscientific observation, I got the impression that the people who frequent OC Good Life are lower-middle to middle class, of Hispanic, Greek, Italian and mixed ethnicity. And probably some Germans who came for the Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier instead of finding a mate. The men most likely shop at Target and the women at Ross. Most were wearing their “best” outfit and most seemed uncomfortable in their best clothes. Just catching whiffs of the various colognes, aftershaves and perfumes as people breezed by was a kind of heady delight. I could people-watch all day and all night, I thought.
Observing just this one frame of the human drama reminded me that there’s no single type of LA or Orange County resident. These were the working classes of Torrance, Buena Park, Long Beach, Fullerton and Inglewood. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a lineup as southern Californians. They could be from Miami, Baton Rouge or Bakersfield.
A few weeks later I read in the L.A. Times web site that there had been a shooting at Alpine Village:
“A man was fatally shot and another was stabbed early Sunday during a fight at a punk-rock concert at the Alpine Village Center in unincorporated Torrance, authorities said.
The fight initially broke out inside the German-themed locale and spilled into a parking lot about 12:25 a.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said.”
I didn’t know what to think. Sobering, for sure. Tragic. To think we were standing in that very parking lot, feeling perfectly safe, savoring the atmosphere, blissfully unaware of the mayhem that can erupt in our midst at any time, with little warning.