193 Meserole Avenue
It had never seemed like a good idea. It had, in fact, always seemed like a terrifically bad idea. But with climb-the-mountain-because-it’s-there logic, we kept talking about the idea until it became inevitable and the inevitable formed into a plan: 10 cafés, 10 macchiatos, one morning, by bike.
So here we are. Me and Toby. Sitting in the morning light of Café Grumpy, waiting for our first macchiato, plotting our route on a map from Brooklyn into Manhattan.
Toby Cox, mild-mannered and spectacled, is normally the owner of Three Lives Books in Greenwich Village. But today he’s my accomplice (accomplice, n.—someone who helps you forget why you decided to do something in the first place).
Our macchiatos—espressos “marked” with milk—arrive in demitasse cups. We drink them down. As we walk out to our bikes, I take some notes in my notebook.
The macchiato: creamy & delicious
Our mood: expectant
495 Lorimer Street
We cycle south though Williamsburg. Toby’s bike is an old black one-speed with an appealing rattle. My bike has a bell that sounds nice this spring morning.
At gimme! we lock up and enter. The baristas wear wool hats and surly expressions. We give them big smiles. They give us macchiatos.
We taste and try to note the differences between our first drinks and these.
“Less cloying,” Toby says. “With a hint of earth.”
We have no idea what we’re talking about.
“I think it’s hotter than the last one?” I volunteer.
The macchiato: less cloying, with a hint of earth
Our mood: enthusiastic
Back on our bikes. We roll into Ft. Greene, talking about books and writers and brownstones. A bug flies in my mouth.
You know what would make that bug taste go away?
318a 11th Street
Our macchiatos come in elegant porcelain cups. Everything in Café Regular is elegant and small, from the stamped-tin walls to the wood seats. The biggest thing in the store may be the owner’s ears, which jut out from either side of his head like saucers.
He’s dour (how can he not be as cheerful as we are?). We hound him with questions, asking about the black-and-white photograph on the wall of a team of men holding strange clubs.
What sport is that?
“That’s what we’re going to be doing,” Toby says.
The macchiato: robust with a touch of trepidation
Our mood: elegiac
652 6th Avenue
The weather switches. Gray clouds looming to the west, a few raindrops. My arms pucker with goosebumps. Are the goosebumps from the macchiatos or from the weather? No idea.
Southside Coffee is warm inside, packed with locals on laptops. I recognize the barista from a café in Chicago. He’s excited to see me. I’m excited to see him! We’re both excited! We tell him what we’re doing! Our drinks come!
The macchiato: potent, with an aftertaste of fear
Our mood: Oh the Glory of It All
We pound our drinks, jump on our bikes, race up and down Cobble Hill.
We are shouting, hearing only fragments.
Me: “My daughter asked me this morning ‘When are you going to throw up?!’”
Toby: “When are you going to grow up?!”
Why is everything we say in exclamation points?! It’s not clear if it’s the wind or the fact that we are on bikes or the fact that we are biking so very fast, but we are shouting at the top of our lungs and not understanding each other and speaking in run-on sentences and sharing intimate details about our lives that are possibly untrue and attaching vital significance to ordinary things!
We bike over the Brooklyn Bridge. We bike over the Brooklyn Bridge!
The bridge is crowded with pedestrians.
I clang my bell. Toby yells, “Hup, hup, hup, hup!”
We barrel down the other side of bridge, scattering tourists like pigeons.
Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee
222 Front Street
We take a deep breath, and drink our macchiatos.
Toby buys a bottle of water. I take notes about the café’s fishmarket and snowshoeing motif. My handwriting is shaky—like that of someone trying to write on the deck of a boat in a storm.
The macchiato: bitter, followed by bitterness
Our mood: glurg
As we bike north through the South Street Seaport, the cobblestones rattle our bikes and make my voice come out funny:
“Hey, To-o-o-o-by. How’s your be-e-e-e-lly?”
228 Mott Street
HELLO! We are shouting again! WE ARE SHOUTING LOUDER!! People in this standing-only café can’t help overhearing us, like the guy with the dragon tattoo behind his ear. He tells us that he once drank eight espressos and got caffeine poisoning.
Toby points at me and laughs. Macchiato foam is bubbling on my upper lip.
The macchiato: full-bodied and !@%#*
Our mood: Diego Maradona
Is the foam still there? What are you looking at? Are the macchiatos making us paranoid? What?!
What cures paranoia? Maybe cured meats.
Ballarò Caffè Prosciutteria
77 Second Avenue
Toby orders some Italian meat thing. I try ordering the macchiatos in Italian but say something in French. I don’t speak either language.
We eat and drink in silence, sitting alone at the long wood bar.
Do you know what the saddest thing in the world is?
I don’t either.
The macchiato: forlorn, with a spot of irony
Our mood: East Rutherford, N.J.
Ninth Street Espresso
700 East 9th Street
We stare at the macchiato in front of us with no fondness. With a little animosity, in fact. Is the macchiato looking back at us? If it were, what would it see?
Toby and I are sharing the macchiato. Two is too much. Two is too expensive. What were we thinking.
The macchiato: hello, enemy
Our mood: Poland, 1953
As we unlock our bikes we overhear a man and a woman talking underneath the café’s black awning.
“I’ve known you so long and have been calling you Shakira,” the man mumbles, “and only just now you corrected me.”
The woman who is not Shakira stares at him.
We stare at them both. We desperately want to intervene and help make this situation right. This is the saddest thing in the world.
We bike up along the East River. Across the water we can see Brooklyn, where we started. In a more innocent time—about three hours ago—I never could have imagined that we would be feeling what we are feeling now. Of course, I also never could have imagined what it would be like tasting oysters, or having children, or sledding naked. Some things you can’t know until you know.
224 West 20th Street
We stumble inside. The light is dim, the ceiling low. When we tell the barista what we’re doing she gives us macchiatos on the house. As we talk, we discover that she worked in Chicago with the barista we met in Brooklyn.
“We came out to New York together,” she says, with a knowing pause that leaves Toby and me wondering, concocting someone else’s intrigue.
We share a brownie. We drink our macchiatos.
The macchiato: creamy & delicious
Our mood: expectant
Is it the free drinks? The fact that someone else made a decision they came to regret? The accumulation of elements? Whatever it is, our world improves. We have caught our second wind, if wind were caffeinated.
One stop to go.
We speed down 7th Avenue, peddling fast. Toby is in front, spinning with no hands, arms spread upward in victory.
He’s shouting, “I AM INVINCIBLE!”
Yes, Toby, you are invincible. But, that crosstown bus does not know you are invincible. Toby!
We dodge, dart, and weave through traffic, shooting into the Village.
Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee
138 West 10th Street
We burst through the door. Our bikes, which we forget to lock, stay outside. We order quick, drink our last macchiato, take no notes.
It’s early afternoon. In a moment, Toby will walk down the street to Three Lives, to hole up with books in the cool dark of his store. I have no idea what I’m going to do.
Right now, all I know is that we made it. We climbed this mountain, this hill of beans.
And maybe because of this I am grinning. We are grinning. We can’t stop. We slam our cups into our saucers and head for the door.
“We’re fine. We’re fine,” Toby says. “We are still. It’s the rest of the world that’s shaking.”