April 25, 2011

Just Tamp

This is a play, somewhat inspired by Tom Stoppard's Travesties. Though one of the principles shares my name, this is fiction, so I made a lot of stuff up.

There is a bar, the sort you might see in any coffee shop. The counter is decorated with plastic wrapped baked goods, some of which are, of course, vegan. There are four coffee pots, one flavored, two single origin, and the requisite decaf. They are specked with something that might be coffee stains, the name tags bent and withered. Beside them, somewhat incongruously, is a laptop computer, barely open. Behind the counter, there is an espresso grinder, and of course the machine too. It is a La Marzoco, has two group heads, two steam wands, and looks to be the the neatest item behind the bar. It certainly has the appearance of being more well kept than the man tending it, who looks slightly out of sorts, with hair that must have been left as it was upon waking. His jeans don’t fit especially well, and neither does his shirt; both are severely dusted with espresso. He is detached, aimlessly wiping the counter, but looks up, as if the audience has approached.

Barista: Hey. We don’t wear name tags here, which is cool, or aprons either, which I like even better. But to the first point, my name is Alex Beecher.

(A pause, as if the audience might respond.)

Right. Anyway, aside from the lack of name tags and aprons, there are other perks to this gig. There is coffee, first of all, which I like altogether too much. If you get a chance, you really should try the Indian Malabar. It’s the only fermented coffee I’ve ever tasted, and the result is interesting, if a bit astringent. There is also a certain craft to preparing espresso drinks that I enjoy. I’m probably the most enthusiastic milk-steamer you’ll find. But mostly I enjoy the customers. Coffee bars attract all kinds; but they also attract interesting, opinionated kinds. I mean - latte art.

(Alex stops, both for emphasis and to gather himself. He does clearly care about milk steaming.)

Okay, so, latte art. Yesterday, this girl shows up - which she does most every day - and she gets her drink. It’s a soy latte - soy! - so I only manage a halfway decent rosetta. The leaf looked a little shriveled, but it’s soy, so whatever. Now, I’ve talked to her before. Not outside of work, but plenty of the usual customer banter and small talk. Her name is Lauren, she’s an English major with a focus on creative writing who loves hand-rolled cigarettes, Lady Gaga, and PETA. Mostly, she’s so over it, whatever it happens to be at the time. But she’s cool. Anyway, I make her drink, and comment on the emaciated rosetta; she does too.

Alex looks up at the lights, expectantly. When nothing happens, he throws his hands up, mutters assorted profanity, then strides over to the light switch, turns it off, waits several moments, turns it back on. He quickly tries to look busy, as if he were caught in this moment. It is at this point that Lauren enters. She is of average height and build. You can especially tell about the latter, since her black jeans leave little to the imagination. Her shirt and hair are jet-black too, both of which offset her decidedly pale complexion. She has a large cotton shoulder-bag, with a number of left-leaning political stickers on it. Sticking out is the cover to Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and a pair of earbuds. Alex moves to the center of the counter, behind the register, and leans over. Lauren, however, meanders a bit.

Alex: Hey.

Lauren: (To the tune of Bad Romance by Lady Gaga) Ra ra ah ah ah, roma roma ma.

Alex: Excuse me?

Lauren: Gaga, ooh la la.

Alex: (Who clearly, at this point, has not seen the earbuds.) Do you want your usual?

Lauren: I want your ugly, I want your disease. I want your everything as long as it’s free.

Alex: (In on it now.) I’m afraid I only do that for a more substantial tip than anyone has yet offered.

Lauren: (Removes earbuds.) Huh?

Alex: Oh nothing. (Like he’s been thinking it for a while, and just can’t resist.) You know, I have to say, I find it a little odd that someone who frequently wears Fugazi t-shirts likes her.

Lauren: Why is that?

Alex: Well, aside from the obvious genre gap, there is -

Lauren: She’s totally punk.

Alex: I’m waiting for the sarcasm.

Lauren: Well then you’ll be waiting for a while, because I’m being serious.

Alex: But she’s the most popular thing in music right now; she practically is the Zeitgeist.

Lauren: (Like she’s got him.) Do you even know what that word means?

Alex: Could I define it? God no. But I can use it. And regardless, you’re evading the issue. Namely, you’re evading attempting to salvage your punk credibility.

Lauren: First of all, I’m not interested in whatever credibility you’re imagining. But here’s the deal: Punk isn’t about the same three guitar cords played over and over; it’s not about tattoos or spiked collars; it’s not about Danzig or Rollins or whoever; it’s an attitude. She’s punk because she rose to the top of the pop charts by not giving a fuck, and having the balls to say whatever, play whatever, wear whatever, do whatever. Basically, she became the biggest pop star on Earth by embracing and exploiting the nonsense inherent in the genre.

Alex: Right. Because no female pop star ever rose to fame and fortune by writing dance hits and turning herself in to a larger than life character. (Says it with a cough.) Madonna.

Lauren: (Notices that there is a laptop creaked open, off on the far side of the counter.) So what does the tastemaker have on his iTunes then?

Alex: Oh nothing, really. I don’t even have an MP3 player. Honestly, I’m not even sure what’s there. Just some stuff.

(Alex and Lauren both narrow their eyes, tense, then dart for the computer. Lauren gets there first. She flips it around, begins clicking and smiling.)

Lauren: You can get started on my drink, by the way. I’ll find something good.

(Alex pauses, but thinks better of lunging for his computer. He turns slowly, but before he can start, Lauren finds something.)

Lauren: Oh my god. How loud can this go?

Alex: What?

Lauren: Nothing. Soy latte. Go. Make it happen.

(Alex begins making the drink. When he gets to the espresso grinder, Lauren clicks emphatically. Lady Gaga’s Just Dance begins to play.)

Alex: (Eyes widening in realization and horror.) Wait. No.

Lauren: Can’t this thing get any louder? But no, no waiting.

(Alex turns on the grinder, the noise of which mostly blocks out the song.)

Lauren: (In time with the music.) Just tamp, gonna be ok, da da do-mmm, just tamp, pull that crema babe, da da do-mmm, just tamp, gonna be ok, t-t-t-tamp, tamp, tamp, j-j-just tamp.

Alex: (While still working on the drink.) Wow. Really?

Lauren: Impressive, right?

(Alex doesn’t respond; he is too bust pouring the soy milk. He tilts the cup with the espresso in it, pours a thin stream of soy, then rocks the pitcher back and forth before finally pulling a tight line through the middle. He examine his work, and doesn’t look satisfied.)

Alex: More impressive sounding than this is impressive looking. I can’t manage decent latte art with soy; I’m beginning to feel like Sisyphus, trying this every day.

Lauren: Eh. It’s whatever. It tastes the same regardless.

Alex: True on the last point; but it is not whatever. Good latte art requires thick, rich crema, which is only yielded from properly tamped espresso. And of course, it requires correctly textured milk. Finally - and most importantly - it requires a skilled, attentive barista.

Lauren: Ok. But my point remains; in fact, you granted it straight away. The drink tastes just as good regardless. So you don’t get to show off. Like I said, it’s whatever.

Alex: Sorry, I got a bit side-tracked, waxing romantic about coffee.

(Lauren nods with far too much gusto. Alex pushes on regardless, either not noticing or not caring.)

The point is this: Latte art requires all the elements that it takes to make an exceptional drink. It’s a signpost that says “Hey, this drink is awesome.”

Lauren: No, it says “Your barista is so impressed with his own skill at pouring milk in a cup that he insists everyone else pay attention.” It’s totally masturbatory; no one but the person doing it gets anything out of it.

Alex: That’s not true at all. I have customers comment on my latte art fairly often.

Lauren: Fine. But they aren’t commenting on it for the reasons you mentioned. They don’t know or care how you made it; but they know they get to be part of your super cool coffee intelligentsia if they recognize it, and pretend to be impressed.

Alex: So you find it totally unbelievable that someone might be legitimately impressed by a decent rosetta?

Lauren: Never half as impressed as you are for making it.

Alex: Well, at least we’ll never have to worry about that then, since yours is a soy latte, and thus un-latteartable.

Lauren: I won’t have to worry about that, and I won’t have to worry about any of the other things that come along with dairy either.

Alex: Like? We can’t milk dead cows. I thought you vegetarians were all about that sort of thing.

Lauren: Vegan. And we do have a problem with confining animals, pumping them full of hormones, forcing them to gorge on an unnatural diet, contributing to global climate change via factory farms-

Alex: (Interrupting.) You’re saving the world, one latte at a time.

Lauren: It’s much easier to be cynical than productive.

Alex: And it’s easier still to drink milk, like a normal, lactose tolerant person.

Lauren: Oh I was wrong then; you’re not just cynical, but lazy too.

Alex: Maybe. But this is hardly the best evidence to support that point. Putting self-deprecation aside for the moment, I’m mostly aware of the pro-vegan arguments; but I'm also aware that soy steams like shit.

(Lauren removes Eating Animals from her bag, and sets it on the counter.)

Lauren: You should be made aware of this one. Have you read any of his stuff?

Alex: I read Everything is Illluminated for a book club. I’ve actually read that too.

Lauren: So you, a non-vegan-

Alex: Non-vegetarian.

Lauren: Whatever. Why would you read a pro-vegan work if you aren’t interested in converting?

Alex: For the same reason that I read The Hobbit, but had no interest in becoming one; it struck me as a good read, so I read it. That’s what books are for.

Lauren: If you’re only after some base level of amusement, maybe. But books have changed the world, and certainly changed minds. Plus your comparison is way off; this is non-fiction.

Alex: Prose is prose; entertainment is entertainment. It’s not unlike your latte.

(Lauren looks down at her drink. The foam has settled now, firming up the wispy rosetta.)

Lauren: What?

Alex: You don’t care about the message of the latte, the focus and the craft and the care-

Lauren: Spare me.

Alex: You don’t care about the message of the latte; I don’t care about the message of the book. You only care if the latte tastes good; I only care if the book reads good - excuse me, reads well.

(Alex and Lauren both narrow their eyes again, as if this is the old West, and they’re waiting to draw. Lauren shoots first.)

Lauren: Be that as it may, right now my drink won’t taste good, because you haven’t given me a chance to touch it, so it’s getting cold. I think I’m entitled to another.

(Alex doesn’t budge, until Lauren flips a dollar bill in to his tip jar. That spurs him to action.)

Alex: Fine.

Lauren: (With a smile.) Da da do-mmm, just tamp.

(Lauren steps over to the computer again, clicks, and re-starts Just Dance, modifying the lyrics as before.)

Alex looks up at the lights, wistfully, then anxiously. When they do nothing, he throws up his hands, and mutters assorted profanity. He strides purposefully for the light switch, and flips it off.


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