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New York, New York

Photograph by Christopher Smith

Still a Terrifically Bad Idea

A morning, a bicycle, a macchiato. Or five? This time, a sensible coffee shop tour. But in the end, it still may be described in only one way.

This time, we will learn from our mistakes. We will be sensible. We will mature. Last time we may have overdone it: 10 macchiatos at 10 cafés on one morning bike ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, an experience that left us feeling giddy, then gloomy, then giddy again before a long afternoon of hunger.

This time, we will only do five: five cafés, five macchiatos. This time, we will eat. This time we will bring a friend, for support. But there are new cafés opening all over Brooklyn, and we like coffee, and we are curious. We must go.

My accomplice, then and now, is Toby Cox. Toby is the spectacled and mild-mannered owner of Three Lives & Company Booksellers. Our new accomplice is Flash, Toby’s best friend, a gregarious and good-looking photographer with a shock of blond hair that makes him look younger than his forty-odd years. Flash is bringing his camera, the witnessing effects of which will keep us from doing anything foolish.


* * *

We start at Café Regular du Nord, in Park Slope. It’s an attractive place, with beveled mirrors, newspapers on wooden racks, a rosy reproduction of a 19th-century Flemish painting that takes up nearly an entire wall. Even the barista here, with her barely fitting white T-shirt, is attractive. She takes our order under the bust of a bull.

Our macchiatos come. They are delicious. Flash snaps photos, Toby charts our route on a map, and we eat almond croissants until our fronts are powdered with sugar. I share that I was almost doored on my ride to the café (calamity averted, plus hot drinks, equals happiness). We’re off to an excellent start.


* * *

We cycle north toward Fort Greene. Toby leads the way on his black one-speed, then me on my battered hybrid, then Flash on a borrowed women’s cruiser. It’s a blustery fall morning, with leaves swirling in cyclones around our wheels, and our voices get lost in the wind.

I shout: “I have a theory about dooring! If you swerve to avoid the door you’ll get run over by traffic! It’s better to dive right into the front seat with the driver!”

“What?” shouts Toby.

“I have a date!” shouts Flash.

He does. She’s 30 and cute. She has a bike named Lola. Flash shouts that he needs to buy a bike so he can ride with Lola.

“Where are you taking Lola?”

“The bike?”



* * *

We stop at WTF, in Fort Greene. That’s right, WTF. A mat with a scripted “WTF” welcomes us through the front door. The inside feels like a stylish high school chemistry lab: Shelves on the walls are lined with curvy-glass coffee-contraptions that look as if they were designed by Dr. Seuss, minus color and humor.

A chemist (barista) with a lip ring is in the middle of giving a lesson to two students (customers).

“You want to create a nice even bed,” she says as she pours boiling water into a coffee-ground-filled bunsen-burner-thingy.

Everyone nods.

We order three macchiatos.

The chemist continues, telling her students about the flavors they will soon experience: “Chocolaty. Earthy. With a hint of nutmeg.”

A chemist (barista) with a lip ring is in the middle of giving a lesson to two students (customers). “You want to create a nice even bed,” she says. Everyone nods. I start taking notes.

Our first macchiato comes. I pass it to Toby. He lets it sit in front of him as he waits for us to get ours. The other chemist—thick black frames on his nose, wool hat on his head—nods at Toby.

“You’ll want to drink it right away, preferably. If you don’t, the consistency breaks down. The acids break down. It’s just not the same.”

He nods again, starts frothing milk. “So, yeah, right away is best.”

I sense something frothing to my right. Toby.

“I think I know how to drink a cup of coffee,” he mutters under his breath.

Toby is upset. Toby—mild-mannered Toby—is upset!

“When people come into my bookstore I don’t tell them how they should read their books,” he sputters. He’s speaking with his mouth against his cup and saucer so only Flash and I can hear him, sort of like a football coach holding a game plan in front of his mouth so that the other team can’t read his lips and steal the play.

“Maybe you should!” Flash and I whisper back, holding our saucers in front of our mouths so no one can read our lips either.

We consider the possibilities.

“You’ll want to start with the first chapter, preferably,” I say.

“If you don’t,” Flash says, “The plot starts to break down. The narrative breaks down.”

“You’ll also want to start with the first page. And the first sentence, not the second.”

“You’ll also want to read your book right side up.”

We finish our macchiatos, only raising our voices as we head back across the WTF mat.

“That was annoying,” Toby says. “What the fuck!”


* * *

We pedal over Clinton Hill past grand stone houses. We’re cycling three abreast, which lets us argue. Flash argues that cafés like WTF are important because their coffee-cognoscenti ridiculousness helps us understand what we actually like. That we appreciate things by comparison. Toby argues that annoying is just annoying. I argue that we should go to another café, to refine our argument.

Honk. Honk. Honk.

A car forces us into single file. Toby takes the lead again. He’s got all the correct hand signals: left arm out for left turns, arm bent for right turns, hand down for potholes. On one street, a red-and-green oil truck thunders past, almost clipping Toby. What’s the hand signal for “I almost got run over by an oil truck”?

The wind picks up as we roll northward.

“When do you move in with Lola?”




* * *

We stop at Oslo Coffee Roasters. Is Oslo in Norway? Sweden? Williamsburg? Right now, our brains don’t know. We’re hopping from foot to foot. The meticulously unshaven barista in the porkpie hat starts making our drinks; the only sound in the “coffee is being made here” quiet is the click-and-whoosh of the espresso machine. It’s making us nervous. Our macchiatos come.

“You’ll want to drink that right away!” barks Toby.

We do.

“Am I right that this tastes like nuts?” says Flash.

We read the café’s mission statement on the door. Artisanal this, artisanal that. We decide the word “artisanal” should be “composted.” Our bouncy mood clearly doesn’t match the sepulchral mood here.

So we pound our drinks, head outside. Flash mentions that an ex-girlfriend used to live nearby. She, too, was a little nutty.

“Flipped out. Went to ground.”

“Was she a woodchuck?” asks Toby.


* * *

As we unlock our bikes, Toby shares toffees he brought back from a recent trip to Japan. We chew, and bike.

Now we’re flying. Toby’s scarf is blowing behind him like a wind-sock. Flash is steering with one hand while snapping photos of us with the other. I’m thinking of an addendum to my Theory of Dooring.

One summer years ago I worked out west in the Forest Service. I worked on a trail crew, bushwhacking trails in the mountains along the Montana and Idaho border. Because of the threat of rattlesnakes, there was an unspoken superstition among the crew: Since a rattlesnake would strike and miss the first guy in line, but get its timing down and nail the second guy, it was best to position yourself either first, or third. Never second. I wonder if the same could be true for car doors. I start biking in front.

I notice Toby and Flash staring intently at one of their macchiatos, their eyes hovering inches away from the foam eddying at its top. “I see a galaxy,” Toby murmurs. Screeeeeeeeeek.

A squeal of bike brakes as Flash, in third, swerves to avoid an opening door. So much for my Rattlesnake Addendum. The door belonged to a police cruiser and diving into its front seat probably would have been a mistake. So much for my Theory of Dooring.

But Flash is OK, breathless and grinning. We speed north in a whirlwind of mishearing.

“So when are you and Lola getting married!”

“Today! The honeymoon is in Aruba!”

“Great bike lanes in Aruba!”


* * *

We blow through the door of Blue Bottle Coffee. Blue Bottle is the new import from San Francisco. Their roastery on Berry Street is pleasant and airy, its front a roll-down glass garage door. Feist plays in the background. Lights the size of barrels hang from the ceiling. On the counter is a La Marzocco espresso machine as shiny and big and red as a fire engine. We order three macchiatos, and three cheddar-and-chive biscuits.

“You’ll want to eat these right away,” Toby hoots as he hands out the biscuits. They’re crumbly, tasteless. We devour them.

Our macchiatos come. I drink mine. It’s strong and good. I notice Toby and Flash staring intently at one of their macchiatos, their eyes hovering inches away from the brown-and-white foam eddying at its top.

“I see a galaxy,” Toby murmurs.

That is the big bang,” Flash murmurs back.

“That is the big bang,” Toby agrees so quietly it sounds as if he has, at long last, figured out the meaning of life.

Flash snaps pictures of The Big Bang. I’m having trouble focusing. But then my macchiato kicks in, as does the biscuit. I confess to Toby and Flash that I was biking inconsiderately (calamity averted, plus hot drinks, plus admitting one’s faults, equals happiness). They accept my apologies, or don’t hear me. Feeling unburdened, I drink the rest of Toby’s macchiato by mistake. Goodbye, galaxy.

Hello, Williamsburg!

We’re back on our bikes, cycling fast through low streets: Roebling, Havemeyer, Grand. We’re three abreast again, cutting parabolas across the pavement. We’re able to hear each other as we talk about books and welding and women.

Then we make a quick right and we’re on the Williamsburg Bridge. We climb out of the warehouses and ascend into the air. The East River slides below us; we’re up with the birds. We sprint with full lungs down the other side and into Manhattan.

We come to ground at Bluebird Coffee Shop, on First Street. Our last stop.

A pretty blonde with pigtails is reading at a corner table. She looks up as we order. She looks up again when she sees Flash.

“Did you see what that girl was reading?” asks Flash. “Is there anything worse than seeing a cute girl reading Ayn Rand?”

“Maybe if she was also smoking a cigar?” says Toby.

“And drinking a decaf espresso?” I say.

Flash buys a ham sandwich. Bits of ham speckle his chin. We sit outside the café, our macchiatos untouched in front of us.

And for the first time today, we don’t say anything. We’re not giddy, though we have felt giddy this morning. Or gloomy, though now we are quiet. We’re not happy, or sad, or especially hungry.

So maybe it’s something else.

We’re just here. In this moment when we are aware of this moment. This time, this place. A time when we were not so young, and just a little bit reckless, and a little bit in love with our own foolishness. When foolishness could be celebrated, if only for a morning.

Toby breaks the silence. He’s heard there’s a new café opening in Brooklyn, by the same guy who started Café Regular. We must go. Not now, but soon. He raises his eyebrows at us. Who’s in? Then he stands and goes inside to get all of us water.

He returns with three brimming glasses and passes them around.

“You’ll want to drink this right away,” he says, but I’ve already started.