Friday, April 30, 2010

Robert - Regular Coffee - Today

In September 1984, after a lazy summer in Paris, I moved to New York, where I slept on the floor of my friend Glenn's Upper West Side studio and looked unsuccessfully for my first job. I was also unsuccessful finding strong Paris coffee; although there were places that served Cappuccino, they weren't necessarily on the Upper West Side and they weren't generally open first thing in the morning. Where you went instead was a diner, there was one on every other block of Broadway, and what you drank was "regular coffee." Hot coffee with milk, no sugar. Depending on the diner -- and probably the luck of your timing vis a vis the brew cycle -- the results ranged from surprisingly savorable to expectedly ordinary. But the stuff always worked.

I probably never gave it any thought, but if I had, I would have guessed that the iconic New York coffee cup was created by an association of Greek coffee shop owners. (Although "diner" is the preferred New York term, we used "diner" and "coffee shop" interchangeably.) It turns out that it was created by one not-Greek man, whose life is sketched out in a fascinating New York Times obituary today. Leslie Buck, Auschwitz survivor, U.S. immigrant, and young professional on the rise, made a really brilliant marketing decision for a company that was "keen to crack New York's hot-cup market." And, of course, designed the damn thing himself, despite a lack of any such training.

It's a classic New York story, and although my own came later and shares nothing in common with Mr. Buck's except the ubiquity of Greek diners and blue Anthora cups, it makes me nostalgic for my first days in the city. If I were there today, I'd buy a cup of diner coffee and remember: that first cool blue October Sunday when you'd wake with a hangover, stop by a diner for a regular coffee, then walk down the street sipping greedily, breathing in the newly fresh air and coming gradually alive, growing more and more excited by the possibilities of the beautiful day ahead.

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