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Today’s young American aesthetic zeitgeist

Weirdly, I didn’t start drinking coffee until about age 25. I spent my life up to that point in thrall to the fear of turning into either a coffee snob or a coffee masochist; I figured just one sip could trigger the transformation. We’ve all witnessed the ugly spectacle of coffee snobbery — I suspect my habit of spending entire nights drinking the coffee at Denny’s inoculates me against this — but coffee masochism spooked me even more deeply. Maybe you also felt surrounded by it in your teenage years: remember those friends who wouldn’t stop getting into pissing contests about how “sweet,” how “stupidly sweet,” or how “ragingly sweet” the coffee everyone else drank was? Or were you one of them?

(And ironically, I grew up in Seattle — I should’ve become one of them.)

Ultimately, coffee simply proved too rich and varied a drinking experience to resist. Even if I didn’t like the stuff, it remains just about the cheapest hot drink you can buy, and thus the most cost-effective purchase when reading in cafés all day long. If I come to long for anything about Santa Barbara, I’ll long for its abundance of places in which to do this: Coffee Cat on Anacapa, The Daily Grind on De la Vina (I’ll be back for another Gemini sandwich, I can assure you), The French Press on Figueroa, Jitters on State… the list goes on.

Mexico City’s coffee culture I kind of do long to return to, since all those excess employees displayed what seemed like a decent skill at brewing my Americanos right in front of me. Plus they don’t care if you hang out — nobody dreams of bringing you the check there unless you ask, and even then it can take a while — and sometimes, as in the case of “Cafebrería” El Péndulo, you can drink your coffee amid tables piled with editions from Anagrama, Sexto Piso, and Tusquets.

The Los Angeles coffee world I’m still learning, though it seems as essentially ungraspable as the city itself. I’ve made sure to hit several coffee shops of the rolled-up-pants variety that supposedly inhabit the dead center of today’s young American aesthetic zeitgeist — Coffee Commissary in Fairfax Village, Intellegentsia in Silver Lake — and found myself entirely unbothered by them. I’ve known people who would burn these places to the ground as nothing more than a blow to “hipsterism,” but, in the exact same way that I don’t want American Apparel ads to go away, I don’t want these coffee shops to.

But I live in Koreatown, where the coffee shops are… different. Allow me to explain the phenomenon of the Korean coffee shop. From the outside, they look quite a bit slicker, significantly cleaner, and — let’s not mince words — maybe slightly more garish than coffee shops in other part of the city. When you look over their menus, you’ll notice that they tend to offer not just a large selection of drinks but a wide variety of unusual comestibles, from elaborately topped pretzels to elaborately topped ice cream sundaes. You’ll also notice that a coffee costs like four bucks, and an iced tea might well clear five.

What gives? Near as I can figure, Korean coffee shops operate on this premise: offer your clientele a pleasant place to sit and study for hours and hours on end, just enough food that they won’t need to leave for lunch, at least a few (if not infinite) refills on the drinks, and — naturally — a place to smoke, and they won’t mind paying twice as much as they would elsewhere. If I had some money, I certainly wouldn’t mind, but alas. What a piece of good luck that I haven’t yet gotten hooked on the “sweet potato latte,” a beverage I’ve seen at every single Korean coffee shop in L.A., and nowhere else. Given that it tastes like a liquefied sweet potato, the possibilities for addiction are obvious. And all those classmates frontin’ with their complaints about raging sweetness? Man, they’d better prepare for a whole other universe of raging sweetness for these things.

When I don’t feel like rolling up my pants for Intelligentsia or the Commissary or dropping a fiver on a sweet potato latte in Koreatown, I catch a train to Cafe Dulce in Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village Plaza. Of all the Los Angeles coffee shops I’ve visited so far, this one comes the closest to matching the relaxed, lingerer-friendly, yet not particularly expensive sensibility to which I grew accustomed in Santa Barbara. I order one of their Vietnamese iced coffees — “Vietnamese” here seems to mean “brewed for a very long time indeed” — and a spirulina chewy roll — even greener on the inside than the outside! — and park myself at an outdoor table for an afternoon’s reading.

I strongly recommend sitting outside, since it affords a superior vantage point on the comings and goings of all who pass under the bright blue plastic roof tiles of the JVP. You can watch whole groups tentatively gather and sign their names on the waiting list for the shabu shabu place across the way which, even though it doesn’t present itself like anything special, certainly must be. (Not an unusual contrast in this neighborhood, I find.) Other people have fascinating-looking meetings at the Joy Mart Restaurant over in the other direction. And the woman who runs the arts-and-crafts shop between those two certainly seems to keep busy. If any of these sights stops being entertaining, I like to walk through the nearly deserted bottom floor of the nearby Little Tokyo Mall. That tobacco store has really hung in there!

One governing factor on how long you can spend hanging out at Cafe Dulce: no obvious bathroom. I mean, they might have a bathroom, but if they do, I haven’t seen it. I bet if I asked, they would tell me it’s just off-site and hand me a key or something. I don’t think it would be a problem, but for whatever reason I’ve just felt hesitant about asking. Maybe I fear disrupting the delicate balance I’ve got going: an iced coffee, a chewy roll, my books on various cities of the world, the local proprietors and passers-by on display, and, of course, the hotels Miyako and New Otani Kyoto Grand in the background. I take great pleasure in sitting where I can see both of those aging hulks of the near-colonial Japanese prosperity of the seventies and eighties at once. Defocus your eyes a little, and you almost feel like the Bubble never burst.

Now, I don’t mean to come off as a loner. Let me assure you that it’s just as much fun to read at coffee shops with other people. But if you want to go the route of the loner, you could do no better for an example than Thomas, the alienated fashion photographer at the center of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I caught a screening of the film right after Mexico City and wanted to find out more about David Hemmings, its then-25-year-old star.

The year after Blow-Up, the (also 25-year-old!) Roger Ebert wrote a profile on Hemmings in which he mentions an intriguing idea for an art show. While Antonioni’s film, set in “swinging” mid-sixties London, went on to emblematize that place and time, I got from it on this viewing a serious and unexplainable L.A. vibe. It so happens that L.A. fascinated Hemmings even then:

“You take Los Angeles, now. London is supposed to be the swinging city, but Los Angeles has the opportunity to become the next great city of the world.

“What Dennis Hopper and I are going to show in our ‘Los Angeles Primer’ is, we hope, an exhibition of what is happening in Los Angeles. Some of the artifacts that make the city a work of art. Cheap restaurant glasses that, in a century, will be collector’s items. Street signs. Buildings. And the people.”

Will he and Hopper use photographs?

“Yes, where they are appropriate.”

And the actual objects?

“Yes, the actual objects in some cases. And the people, too, who are the real artwork of this city.” But surely you aren’t going to put people in an art gallery?

Hemmings smiled enigmatically. “Just you wait and see.”

Over 35 years later and just months before his death, Hemmings spoke again about this idea in a profile for The Age:

“Once, Dennis Hopper and I proposed this wonderful exhibition called A Los Angeles Primer. We took two coaches of dignitaries from the Ferris-Pace gallery in La Cienega to Malibu and back. On the way, Dennis got out of the front coach and signed the Beverly Hilton and the Beverly Hills Hotel. At Malibu, he went into the water and signed a wave. And then the coaches were driven back to the gallery where, behind a huge screen, the Mamas and Papas played California Dreamin’ constantly. Cards were given to the dignitaries saying, ‘You are the art of Los Angeles. Look at each other carefully’. Blank walls all around the gallery, of course, just music playing. That was the exhibition. And that was the swinging ’60s.”

Did that really happen? “If you wanted to report that we did, Dennis would back me up.” The answer to the question seems to be no.

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