A False Claim

Had one of those baffling retail experiences that in some prompt an outburst or a scornful Yelp post. I don’t do Yelp, so this will have to suffice.

A little background. Where I’m staying, there is dearth of good cafés—a real problem for a coffee addict. (I might brandish “connoisseur,” but if I’m going to decry false claims, it’s best to lead with bald honesty.) Nearby is a place called Primrose Café. It’s a cramped garden-level café in a building currently shrouded in scaffolding on a primarily residential block, so it’s triply shielded. That means available tables, a criterion which tops the list for a dude getting around with a laptop for a living and prone to cabin fever. Chief complaint about Primrose: several of the tables are elementary schools desks with the attendant 1.5-foot-high chairs. You suddenly feel like Shaq in a talk show chair. Classic Brooklyn. On balance, if you do nab one of the adult-sized seats, which is often possible, the coffee is good, they don’t nag you to spend more, and the music is sane.

The other decent café in the hood is Bedford. World-class coffee, but small, and internet time is limited (1 hr for every five dollars spent), and their signage alerts patrons to the laptop restriction past 7 pm. Their prerogative, but the effect is a less-than-inviting feeling. Two occasions of too-loud, too-awful music combined with too perniciously vapid table-neighbor talk have relegated Bedford to the back bench indefinitely.

Anyway, as for cafes, there is a place on the corner of my block that I pass several times a day. To the vexation of this coffee addict (and I suspect others in the neighborhood), it is a tea place. “Into Tea.” That’s the name. Did you get that? Into Tea. It’s a name which approaches cleverness, and just prior to a handshake falls on its face. It looks up sheepishly, shrugging. It is flaccidly literal. Usually you go out of your way for a pun, but this name embraces clumsiness for the sake of plainness. “Into Tea” is neither rhyming nor alliterative nor punning nor assonant. It’s not even sexually suggestive. Into Tea. The name stinks. Strike one.

Strike two: what they serve most is tea.

A friend (imagine a somewhat cynical, black, Frenchwoman, a NYC-transplant) explained as we walked by once: “Yeah, tea. You know, I went there, just to support the neighborhood, you know, but, eh. It’s tea. What’s the fuckeen point?”

I agreed, though I was willing to try it. I could get down with some Earl Grey if I could work. I had to admit, the booths did look sumptuous. The whole place was newly built with bright signage and a handsome wooden bench out front. At night, with the interior lit, it looked like the condo of a monied art lover, with blown glass vases on a tall shelves, a shaggy rug, and chrome appurtenances atop the sales counter brimming with delicious things. The sidewalk sandwich board often listed avocado sandwiches and salads. Maybe even there’s an espresso maker back there that I can’t quite make out?

So finally the day came to give Into Tea a whirl. That morning I had already trekked around the city, burning up time and calories. Now what I needed most was to get some work done, and have a bite. I went in. Two men stood behind the counter (this is the Yelp-y part), both black men (incidental?), one with a cheery smile and bright face who wore a hat in the colors of the Jamaican flag. The other was very Denzel Washington looking—tall, handsome, trim build, clean cut, unsmiling and severe. (Do all handsome, stern black men look like Denzel to white people? This is a question for the ages.) He wore a tan cap with the shop logo on it and seemed angered, like he was a teenager and his hat’s contention that he was “Into Tea” was a shaming sign he’d been made to hold after missing curfew or cussing at the Thanksgiving table. The cheery chap greeted me, and Denzel glowered at a gadget in his hand.

There were many delicious things on the menu. I read it thoroughly, noticing as I did that Smiley (I’m going with that nickname) was pointing a remote control at a television across the room. It was a large flat screen, probably 50 inches, mounted on the wall. It looked to me like Transformers or something like that was on. There was a woman and a young boy up at the front of the store, and they seemed to be, if not watching it, proximal to it in that way that is sometimes necessary to a child in a room where a television is playing.

“I’ll try the salmon sandwich,” I said.

“Okay,” Smiley said, sunnily. “What kind of bread—bagel or whole wheat?”

“Whole wheat.”

“Would you like vegetables like cucumber, tomato, lettuce, onion?”

“Yes, please.”

“How about cream cheese for a spread?”

“Yes, also that.”

“Okay, just be a few minutes.”

I took off my coat, set it and my bag in the sumptuous empty booth. In the neighboring booth, facing away from the room and away from the TV, a white woman read the newspaper or a book by herself.

The sandwich came, and was it excellent. Fresh bread, nice bright salmon and shimmering white cool cream cheese. Crispy fresh green cucumber. A small side salad with capers and a thimble of balsamic vinaigrette that seemed homemade. Diced red onion. All fresh as can be and lovingly presented, or at least made with care. I opened my laptop, and dug in. I hadn’t been in a booth that spacious by myself in New York City ever, I don’t think. I was really feeling into Into Tea. I felt I had chosen wisely.

That all changed.

A bite or two into the sandwich, Smiley, wielding the remote, stopped Transformers and navigated the Netflix menu. In a moment, a studio logo thing played.

“What’d you put on?” Denzel grumbled, still standing where he’d been when I came in, still dourly prodding a gadget.

“Daddy Daycare,” Smiley chimed. (The purity, brightness and sustain of his reply really was like a chime.)

“Daddy Daycare?” Denzel said.

Yeah, I thought. Daddy Daycare?

Allow me to spare you a trip to IMDB, in case you are mentally getting the spinning wheel on this film gem. Eddie Murphy, Jeff Somethingberg from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Rated G, premise baldly apparent in the title. The first ten minutes feature, I wager, more shrieks per frame than Psycho and Halloween combined, and such a thorough sequence of scenes demonstrating Murphy and Somethingberg’s fatherly incompetence that their scheme to open the titular business enterprise could not possibly be construed as anything but ill-advised. They whack their own thumbs with hammers, they are kicked in the nuts and roll on the ground yelling, brats blow raspberries in their faces, young girls shriek in terror because of something or other, and there is a boy dropped off at Somethingberg’s character’s porch who throws a high-decibel, upper-upper-register tantrum, which every child knows is the only kind worth throwing.

How can I report all this? Wasn’t I enjoying a sanny and clacking away on a laptop like a fifties beat reporter? I can report all this because really awful loud noise—grating noise especially, distressed child noise especially (even when it’s acted)—is like a natal forceps on the head of our crowning attention.

I grew incredulous, disconsolate, vexed. Smiley was really Into the film, though. In fact, its humor had riveted him mid-sweep at the front of the store, where he stood now in the rather comic-film-like pose of broom in hand while gaping doe-eyed up to the TV. Denzel however was oblivious. And both were completely unreceptive to the frequency of my astonishment, which surely simmered on occasion into annoyance of the blood-boiling kind. I must have looked to them like a man happily noshing and occasionally pecking at a keyboard with his least cream-cheesy finger. That is, if they ever looked at me, which I don’t think they did, even though I threw a few glances around—dismayed, aghast, put-out. But our eyes never met. Neither did they inquire how my food was, if I needed anything, etc. They were pretty deaf to the customer service frequency.

Smiley was so pinned to Murphy’s antics, in fact, that I had to ask Denzel “Can I pay up?” after standing at the counter ignored for a short spell. With a motion clearly meant to signal resentment, he put down his gadget, shuffled two steps to stand before the mounted iPad, and sighed while he tapped it. Without saying a word, he turned the iPad towards me for a signature. That was fucking it.

Now, I’ve worked in restaurants. I know the air of an owner in his shop, one who wants to be there to see the drawer count at close but doesn’t otherwise lift a finger and is sometimes in fact ignorant of the nuances of how his shop’s appliances are best cleaned, the names of his clientele, how to turn the faucet just so to stop the drip. I can’t verify it, but it was my impression that Denzel was the owner. I could only wonder what in the hell business he had opening a business, if he intended to take no apparent interest in it, or anyway allow its ambiance to be sabotaged by an egregiously shit film. Isn’t there something so blatantly obvious about this mismatch? What do we associate with tea? Ceremony. Tradition. Calm. Tea and company. Tea and conversation. Tea and sympathy. Near the top of the list of things that don’t pair with tea are Shrieking and Juvenilia.

I don’t know what to say. It is just a mystery. Sometimes you go away from a situation without knowing, without being able to say for sure. This was one of those cases. You zip up your coat, sling that strap over your shoulder again, and move on down the road. You make what conclusions you can, if you can at all, or you drop it. Here I can only conclude that the guy was making false claims. I just don’t think he is all that Into Tea.

Jobs

Steve Jobs pulling off five masks on his hospital bed, complaining that they are poorly designed, is the pinnacle of buffoonery. Isaacson wrote the bio, and now Gladwell has synthesized it in The New Yorker, adding his own thoughts on the man who surely will receive the 2011 Posthumous Lionization Award. I happen to agree with Gladwell’s assessment. Innovator, perfectionist, narcissist, visionary—there’s certainly no denying Jobs’ drive and uncanny disregard for whether or not he is liked. And it would be hard to overstate the enormous breadth of the i-ing of the technological universe that began with the iMac and has no end in sight.

But one word that I have yet to see applied to Jobs is aesthete. One whose pursuit and admiration of beauty is regarded as excessive or affected. With Apple’s products, Jobs made a cult of aestheticism, and it’s a cult that functions on the same circular logic that has isolated the individual aesthete since long before there were mp3s or even Walkmans. Oscar Wilde, if one can separate his effeminacy and strained erudition, seems to be a classic example. He would have been helplessly drawn to an Apple Store’s sleek facade. The logic is this: Beauty is inherently good, and an object’s beauty rates higher than its functionality; a person who doesn’t get this has a failing that invalidates whatever material preferences he does have, since a flawed person’s tastes are themselves imperfect. The aesthete’s belief system rests on the tenet that not everyone is capable of detecting the divine in the material; this weights beauty with even more false, precious value, which entrenches the aesthete in the notion of having uniquely refined abilities, justifying his fickleness and necessitating the censure of his opponents.

It’s a nauseating form of bigotry, second only to racism and sexism. How many of us have encountered someone lacking technical knowledge who nonetheless found it fitting to join the Mac camp based on the purity of its tenets? The least informed of them will literally tell you that Mac’s are better “because they just are.” Think Different was an Apple slogan. No doubt, rampant aestheticism takes all the thinking out of it.

I contend that functionality has driven the iGadget revolution more than Jobs would have admitted or even allowed. Case in point. In 1999, I bought an mp3 player. I believe it was made by Creative Logic or some such. It had 128 mb of memory and was about the size of a full coin purse (I’m dating myself with that). I loaded an album on it, put it in my shirt pocket, and began to do dishes. Within moments, playback skipped. The problem was, the player used a disc drive, with a spinning platter. These platters are not much more stable than a turntable. I returned the player and for two years searched for a portable digital player with skip-proof technology. When the iPod appeared, I bought one because of how it functioned. Aside from its role in performance, I didn’t otherwise care about its design.

I get the idea that this might have angered Jobs, like it angered him to have a second-rate breathing mask protecting him from infection. Alas, in the end, there is no protection from this most asinine, and human, of vanities.