In Europe, Central America, and the Middle East (the only places outside of the U.S. that I've traveled, not counting Canada), one thing you notice is the number of coffee shops full of young people sitting around tables and chatting, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee or eating small sandwiches. The last time I traveled out of the country—to Israel, 15 months ago—an American expat friend of mine told me that one thing she loved about her new home was the act of socializing at coffee shops over cigarettes. It reminded me that this used to be one of the best parts of living in Chicago, a scene that in hindsight was its own little subculture, the loss of which is palpable today.
The coffee shops of the time barely resembled today's. For one, the coffee was terrible—I could never tell if people were drinking coffee to mask the taste of cigarettes or smoking cigarettes to mask the taste of the coffee. The lighting was dim, the darkness of the coffee shops compounded by cough-inducing scrims of cigarette smoke. The color choices were ugly and strange: walls were almost always the color of old tapioca, white paint yellowed and browned from decades of nicotine saturation; the carpeting was burgundy or pea green; the furniture was old and wooden. If the coffee shops had art, it was random and misplaced: a picture of a bull here, liberal splotches of oil paint there. And you never saw a laptop. In fact, a laptop was the mark of a yuppie or a square, someone who took information from textbooks and study guides instead of magazines, comic books, literature, and lyric sheets in CD booklets. The coffee shop was where we would pick up and read the Reader.
Smoking didn't make coffee shops any cooler or better, but what it did do was attract a certain type of clientele, which in turn alienated a large portion of the rest of the population. These patrons were the weirdos and misfits and eccentrics who spent what seemed like their entire days at coffee shops, smoking and drinking coffee, never eating, and making conversation among themselves or with anyone else who would enter their little corner of the world—which was also their office, stoop, corner, kitchen, and courtyard square. They didn't smoke cigarettes like Camels or Marlboros or Parliaments; instead they had Pall Malls and Kents and Vantages, the brands you could have sworn had been discontinued long ago. The regulars had names like Jerry and Sidney and Carol—not their real names, mind you, but the ones my friends and I projected onto their faces. They wore odd outfits: undershirts under black trench coats, bowling shirts, and woolly cardigans, before they were fashionable.
Their jobs were unknown, if they even had jobs; they were the kind of people who seemed like their lot in life was to play chess in the park or ghostwrite books or live off of a distant relative's inheritance. Their intelligence was voluminous and peerless—the only reason they weren't reading at these coffee shops is because they'd already read everything. They knew a ton about movies unless it came out after 1981, when Reagan took office, and if it came out after 1960, the film was almost never American. My friends and I would be going to see concerts by bands we thought were hip and smart and rebellious, like the Roots or Radiohead. But they would have seen concerts by bands we'd never heard of, like the Fall or the Mekons or the Magnetic Fields. (The Cure's Distintegration played at almost all of these places, on what seemed like a constant loop.) They despised Britpop and pop-punk; they loved jazz like a close relative. They always paid cash, usually in coins. They smiled infrequently.
My friends and I, on the other hand, were smart-asses, loud and green. We were just past the phase of calling everyone a "damn phony" but just starting to read the Beats, Fitzgerald, and Dostoyevsky. We idolized the Beastie Boys. A group of us would book it immediately after school to 3rd Coast or Pick Me Up or Atomic in Rogers Park (now closed) because the coffee shops would let high school kids smoke cigarettes there. (One establishment that I cannot name let kids indulge in weed, so long as someone would smoke a cigarette to mask the smell.) In hindsight, it's astonishing the proprietors let us do this. But hey, we paid and went all the time, and unlike the rest of their regular clientele, we ordered food. Yet it was obvious that we were a begrudged necessity, and responses from the other coffee shop oddballs tended to be curt, condescending, or both.
One of Neal Pollack's last Reader pieces, "Coffee Club Closes," also seems to be one of his most popular: the long-form writing aggregator longform.org included it in its list of "Editor's Picks." Though the piece is an affectionate profile of Don, the titular shop's owner, I read it as a eulogy for a certain aspect of Chicago culture. At the coffee shop you learned what you couldn't learn in school, not just about arcane art or inspired ephemera or useless trivia, but also about how to interact with people of all different walks of life, about language as a playground, and the way to tell a great story. I probably learned more in the coffee shop after school than in any class I took in high school.
The smoking ban wasn't instated until 2008, but coffee-shop culture seemed to be fading before that. As money poured into the city, so did new bars and fast-food chains and especially small banks and cell-phone shops opening up where coffee shops used to be. The price of cigarettes went way up, as did the price of coffee. Laptops stopped being luxury items no one could afford and became as commonplace as cell phones, which became smart phones, which only further decreased the level of conversation at these establishments. And once the smoking ban hit people just stopped hanging around coffee shops, and eventually these places started to scale back their hours. With drunks today seeming to skew younger, louder, and dumber as opposed to older, quieter, messier, and sadder, I can't really blame the owners of coffee shops for deciding to reduce their schedules, or to open early and close earlier.
I still spend some time at coffee shops, but nowhere near as often as I used to, and rarely to hang out; I usually just go to buy coffee. And now I can appreciate coffee, since I've been drinking it for so long and am now better able to discern quality. I'll go to Caffe Streets and drop a profligate five dollars on their cold-brew iced coffee because it's worth it, or I'll talk to some of the quirky characters who sit at the bar at Star Lounge and enjoy some premium espresso like a dweeb, and some days I'll go get some work done at Atomix while Funkadelic's Maggot Brain plays on the overhead stereo. But these occasions are seldom, and I don't have the same experiences at those fine establishments that I used to have at my old coffeehouse haunts. Part of it is probably me—I'm older and less inclined to want to spend my time inside a smokeless, loud coffee shop. But I think that part of it is also a side effect of restrictions like the smoking ban and financial hindrances like tax hikes on cigarettes. They block out all the outcasts and savants and unsuccessful artists that habituated the old coffee shops, and those are people I love.