Time was when the only accessories to be seen with in your local cafe were a black coffee and a cigarette. There are parts of the world where this still happens, but unfortunately these now tend only to surface in war zones. Militias like a short black and a smoke. If you’re already walking a emotional tightrope with caffeine and cigarettes, this may be too much excitement for you.
Fact is, smokers tend to be the more interesting people and are naturally open to conversation. “Do you have a light?” is one of the greatest unhailed, chat lines ever. It’s pretty much gone. As has coffee. Instead we are offered the impersonation of a caffeine flavoured high-lactose solution. It is a beverage but it is not coffee. The dumbing down of cafes continued when some fool created muffins which attracted women dragging prams, nay thrones, bearing children called Persephone and Titus. That was the moment when wit began to leave the cafe.
And then came Wi Fi. Fucking Wi Fi. Like many modern folk I have it at home. It is most useful for booking travel and watching pornography, as well as cross-referencing recipes for Lime and Coconut Tart. But I do not feel the need to be seen with WiFi in cafes, more to the point Wi Fi Cafes do not attract people who are funny and clever. Quite the opposite. Wi Fi is a drawcard for frugal, bespectacled types with Cross Faces, especially men who sigh with rabid displeasure when you ask to share the table. He is busy sending Facebook messages, however there is the real possibility he is a writer because he has Word on his computer.This leads me to think I may be a hairdresser because I own scissors. Writers rarely work in cafes and most certainly do not have a shiny Mac: he or she has a ravished keyboard with a totally faded ‘A’ that has been replaced twice in six months. When a writer goes to a cafe, they go to escape the book that has come to a dead halt, to discuss NOT WRITING with other writers who are officially NOT WRITING and to figure out what they can do about it. And laugh nervously at their impending doom.
This got me thinking about my favourite writer, Dorothy Parker and her posse who spent their time at the Algonquin’s round table hazed in cocktails and cigarettes, where they discussed NOT WRITING and flirted with words as well as each other. The wit flew in all directions. Gems like Parker’s,”You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think,” emerged when Dorothy’s pals required she use the word in a fresh sentence. Today, Parker would be updating her Twitter, where her “What fresh hell is this?” would be misconstrued deliberately by women who decided she was anti-feminist and she’d be blocked. Noel Coward and Robert Benchley would be engrossed in You Tube watching cat videos while sucking on cigars. When asked by a press agent,”How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper,” George S Kaufman would not have responded with the elegant,”Shoot her” because he was Skyping. In Paris at Café De Flore, Sartre would be looking around at the shiny equipment with disdain. “But I have no choice, I need to text,” offers a punter. “Nonsense,” retorts Sartre. “You can choose to kill yourself.” Sitting next to him, Dali would be engrossed in wondering how a shark could produce words. Hemingway would be in a manly rage because he’d written a bad sentence. Annoyed by all four words, he’d throw his laptop in the bin, and immediately take out a new one because that’s what a real man does.
Aside from an ashtray inbuilt into a barber’s chair (which I once saw in Beirut) I think one of the great signs of civilisation is the café conversation that starts anywhere and goes everywhere. People arrive with no agenda, just money for coffee, ideas in their heads and the knowledge that if it’s one of those days, they’ll leave with an intellectual orgasm.