As I walked past High Point Coffee on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, a heavy bag of groceries in each hand, I was surprised, even alarmed, to see that the windows were dim. It wasn’t even eight o’clock yet on a warm April evening. However, I reflected as I approached, I am High Point Coffee’s only customer, so perhaps they had closed early for the day.
I usually pass by and pick up a cup of coffee on my way to the subway, at about ten o’clock most mornings. The cavernous space is always completely deserted. There’s a large, wide-open counter area where various pastries and bags of High Point brand gourmet coffee are displayed, and an enormous adjoining room with dozens of empty tables and chairs. The radio plays strange old songs, like “Somebody’s Watching Me,” by Rockwell. Behind the counter stands one of two men: (1) A friendly, round-faced, round-bellied African who is usually on his cell phone when I enter, but who’s also courteous enough to put it down right away and say hello, or (2) a laconic Hispanic man, who smiles at me and averts his eyes slightly when we speak and moves very slowly about his business, as if everything around him is a dream.
I always order a large coffee, dark, then ask if I can have the thermos of milk. (Since there are no other customers, the milk is always in the fridge.) As the only customer, I feel especially obliged to be friendly, which is good, since that is sort of a project of mine. "Practicing to be a person," I call it—and I want to put on a convincing show. I always say hello and speak confidently, then thank the man as I leave, sometimes even being so bold as to say, “Have a good day,” or “See you later.” He always reciprocates in kind. Sometimes, if I am feeling giddy that morning, I almost feel like crying. I feel a bit guilty, like maybe I should buy more. One cup of coffee a day is not much, especially in such an enormous coffee shop, but it’s all I want.
I have heard other people disparaging High Point, anecdotally. Once, when I suggested to a friend of mine who also lives in the neighborhood that we go there, she said dismissively, “Oh, I heard they have really bad coffee. Plus, it’s always so weird and empty in there.”
“But you don’t drink coffee,” I smartly pointed out to her. “And I don’t actually understand what people mean when they say 'bad' coffee. I am not able to evaluate coffee objectively like that, or even subjectively—this is 'good' coffee, this is 'bad' coffee, this is just 'average' coffee. I don’t drink coffee on those terms. Plus, I like that it’s weird and empty in there! That’s why I go there. Come on, let’s go!”
What a snob everyone is, I think to myself, as I stand on the subway drinking my tall dark coffee ... which always tastes fine to me. One day, however, as I was sipping my coffee, I glanced down at my shirt and saw several drops of coffee spreading out across it and felt my chest immediately constricting in annoyance. Dammit! How had I managed to let that happen? I began to sip more carefully, but noticed drops of coffee were still falling from the cup—into my beard, onto my jacket, all the way down to the floor. After a few minutes of investigation, I was able to determine that the coffee was actually dripping from the back of the cup, from along the top rim. Apparently the lid did not fit tight enough! Somehow I must have gotten a dud. I was annoyed, of course, but also soothed by having found the source of the trouble.
The next day, when the same thing happened, I became even more frustrated. Two dud lids in two days—that’s really a stroke of bad luck. On the third day, a pattern had been established and I could no longer attribute this misfortune to “luck.” I had to admit that, amazingly, there was a coffee shop with lids that did not fit the cups. Such an essential thing. And such a frustrating problem. I couldn’t go to work day after day with coffee running down my hands and onto my shirt because of the crummy lids at my coffee shop! But as their only customer, I couldn’t just stop going there either. More than that, as I said, I liked going there. It was such a relaxed, easy way to practice my “being a person” routine ... I couldn’t just give that up. I wondered if perhaps they had a suggestion box. That would take care of the problem nicely. I decided to do another day or two of reconnaissance as I tried to determine a solution. I could deal with sticky coffee-hands that long.»
Photo by Dean McCoy
Not surprisingly, there was no suggestion box. Just a long table lined with mysterious flyers for events that probably no one ever attended. On the fourth or fifth day, I almost felt bold enough to tell the African man about the problem with the faulty lids—but as I was about to speak, I suddenly became too shy. I felt that my words would not be understood, and not even because his thick accent suggested a communication barrier, although it did, but rather because the problem was so trivial, so absurd, and yet so important, that I did not feel I would be able to express it. I often think life is like this—that the most trivial things are actually the most important, and therefore the hardest to express. I knew that these simple words, “These lids do not fit,” once uttered, would become hopelessly complex and incomprehensible.
I needed a few days to think this over. Perhaps I could just write them some kind of note? That had an appealing element of mystery to it! In any event, in the meantime I still needed my morning coffee, so I started stopping off at the bodega near my apartment instead. I felt somewhat guilty, as if I was “cheating” on High Point—but I told myself this was just temporary, until I could figure out a solution to the lid problem.
So then, on that warm April evening, as I passed by with my groceries and saw that the windows were already dark, I was immediately concerned. I rushed up to the window and peered in, but I already knew what I’d see. The place was completely empty. The counter, pastry display cases, tables, chairs, everything—all gone. The floor even looked dusty and ragged, as if even it had been stripped away. A note on the window said:
Marshal’s Legal Possession
Civil Court of the City of New York
County of Kings
The Landlord has legal possession of these premises.
For information, contact Landlord or Agent immediately.
I didn’t fully understand the words—but I knew I had done this. I had been their only customer, and I had deserted them, just because the lids didn’t fit right, and now the whole place was gone. This was a problem I could have done something about. If I didn’t learn to speak up soon, I realized, to be a person, or at least a better approximation of one, eventually there wasn’t going to be much of a world left ... and trudging home, my bags felt very heavy indeed.
Rob Williams is a mercenary copywriter and copy editor who currently lives above a meat market in the East Village.