I have a couple coffee shops that I frequent. This is more a necessity than a convenience. Not that I mind hanging out in coffee shops. But it’s not a good way to see much of Bombay. But I need to work; I need coffee; and often, it is so nice to have internet and coffee at the same time. I work at home most of the day. But in the waning afternoon, when my legs need stretching and my brain needs reactivation, I trundle up my things and head for the coffee shop.
The city of course boasts many ways to hang out and imbibe caffinated beverages. Most of these are the kinds of shops I really like, dingy tea shops, filled with a an odd mix of sweaty business men and day laborers, all taking tea, the sugary elixer that freezes time for a few sweet minutes. I go to these places, but it’s no good for work. Sitting with a newspaper is passably acceptable, sitting for longer than 1/2 hour is downright strange. Taking out my computer is unthinkable.
Even better are road-side tea-stands, where a tea-wallah washes, boils, cooks, and serves with electric speed, and without moving his feet. Here, when I order tea, men stare at me, but in an amused way. The patrons of these stalls are the true working class. You drink standing up, or on a faded bench to the side.
So instead, for working, I inhabit Barista, the middle-class coffee shop par excellence of Bombay, and perhaps India; very much like Starbucks, both in the image it sells and the people it sells it to. Here I can take out my computer and work with impunity for a few hours. Four years ago I could not have done this. Now, there are always others doing the same. The Indian taste for the display of wealth works in my interest. Other people are showing off their computers, so I can work on mine.
At Barista I always have at least two things: one espresso, one piece of apple cake (the chocolate cake is atrocious). The same guys work there every day, and they know what I want. I only have to tell them what I want if there’s no apple cake. Or remind them to bring me a glass of water. They like me, I think, perhaps because I am nicer to them than your average Indian patron, and I tip, which is part of being nice.
The Barista may not be a good way to see much of Bombay. But it is a good way to see a certain part of it. There are a few kinds of people who regularly frequent my Barista. This might tell you as much about my neighborhood as the coffee shop.
Barista advertises itself as an “Espresso Bar”– the sign says “Barista- Espresso Bar”. Yet I have never seen anyone but myself order espresso (it is decent). In Bombay, the specter of poverty looms large enough that things like cake, cell phones, are still imbued with symbolic meaning: status. You New Yorkers have the IPhone. Here there is cake. (Rohit tells me about “Swiss Cake” apparently the desirable food of fashion in his youth. He relates a scene from a Bollywood from the 80’s: a wealthy Indian returns from Switzerland, and throws a party. He announces to the admiring crowd, “I have learned the proper way to eat Swiss Cake– eat half, throw half.” The crowd begins, tentatively, eating a bite of the cake, and throwing the rest of the piece out the window. Outside, a paparazzi photographer, who has not eaten for days, forgets his work, and grabs the flying delicacies. He is joined by a dog.) The espresso is a simple drink; in Europe it is a working man’s drink. But simplicity is not on the menu here. (When I go to by clothes in a shop, I have to plead with the owner– “no no show me something *simple*, single colors!” He holds up a blue shirt with purple floral tapestry streaking across it: “This is very nice, simple, sir!”)
There are a few regulars, people I see every time. There are couples. Couples regularly order long tall, creamy chocolate milk shakes, and huge slices of layered chocolate cake, coated with chocolate frosting, and whip cream or ice cream. These are deserts of luxury. You get them if you can. One man (gay, probably), talks loudly to his friends and, as far as I can tell, watches music videos and chats online on his huge-screend computer. A woman in her early thirties, with a distinctly upper class look (If it were New York, she’d be in the hamptons), arrives there at 6 pm, in her exercising gear, drinks coffee, and writes in a little book. Stoned college kids show up and order ridiculously colored cream shakes. They laugh foolishly. Drink silently. And leave. One has a t-shirt that reads: “I wasn’t born with the motivation gene.” Then there are business men and business meetings. Coffee shops are the status place to have business meetings. This is perhaps not the top of the scale. But we are in Bandra. It’s convenient.
My Barista has no bathroom. This strikes me as a huge business mistake, for a coffee shop.
My question is: will Bombay one day love the esspresso? Espresso is the drink of the industrial era– the steam driven drink. It is so fast. You pull the crank and the coffee comes out. Perfect for this crazy city. Maybe. But it is not sweet, and it’s caffeine blast too harsh. I would have thought that Expresso would inherit Bombay. But for now, chai still reigns supreme.