Why they did not go to Dunkin Donuts, which was just an artisanal-croissant’s throw away, is anyone’s guess. Mine is that they were reverse-slumming. Intelligentsia is a fine place for a good eye-roll. The baristas wear unfortunate tie-shirt combos (both the men and the women) and refuse to call coffees in paper cups “to go,” only “to take away.” Customers ask for things with soy or almond milk in them, and often sound like they are not as much ordering as cracking wise about purely conceptual drinks. Five minutes in line and five dollars for “come on, it’s just” coffee are not much to spend for a feeling of superiority.
Now, I am not above feeling superior myself—I called these dudes meatheads, after all. But I don’t mean to say they showed up in stained Urlacher shirts and Zubaz weight-lifting pants, or peppered their complaints about the middle-class-prohibitive prices with hopes that Prez. Trump will make Mesico pay for that wall. On the contrary—by diction and dress they were members of America’s highly educated class, possibly guys with graduate degrees and refined tastes in things other than coffee. They were meatheads in assuming that the expensive thing was the sucker’s thing.
Whatever their actual deal, I would have preferred if they did not gripe so loudly, since I had just grabbed a bag right in front of them and thus felt I was a target of all those sighs and adjectives. I wanted to tell them to do the math: an $18 bag of coffee is 12 ounces/340 grams. At 22 grams per cup, say, that is 15.45 cups and a mere $1.16 per home-made cup—cheaper than your jus’-folks Dunkin Donuts, and hardly too much for most Americans. And hey, wanna to talk about getting suckered, mothafucka? Let’s have a look at your cable bill, you TV watchin’ zook. That would have burned them good.
But I did not say any of that because I am not a psycho, and besides, reactions like theirs are inevitable since specialization is everywhere. You might even use a specialized vocabulary and call it “ubiquitous,” though a ten-dollar word like that may only earn you an eye roll or even a swirly in some meathead districts.
Barrel-aged microbrews; 15-year old cheddar; noise-cancelling in-ear headphones; Green Egg smokers; DIY sous-vide contraptions; $200 t-shirts; all-terrain strollers; Whole Foods (entire store); craft anything; Karl Ove Knausgaard; Radiohead; heirloom tomatoes; all these new expensive barber shops… I recently learned that socks are cool now, and that if you have the inclination you can spend upwards of $20 a foot to have fabric in between your shoe and your skin. Every category you can think of has a high-end version, someone who will swear by it, and someone else who will laugh and sigh and say “Ridiculous” not two feet from the person who just got suckered.
Of course, the aisle between excellent and fool-and-his-money is narrow indeed at Whole Foods. This year my beloved Intelligentsia began selling growlers of custom-filtered, high-end water. (“To take away” so you can replicate the experience at home.) But despite all the laughable excesses, when the war goes down between the Refined and the Meatheads I will side with the Refined. And not just because they have high-end, artisanal weaponry. I will mount their organic, free-trade barricades because I believe we have a moral obligation to support at least some better stuff with at least some of our money.
I heard a very good homily several years ago that had one key part I disagreed with. The priest was making a sound and entertaining argument against creating idols out of stuff, and gave the example of arguing with his siblings about renovating his mother’s kitchen. He insisted that his mom get marble countertops for no other reason than, well, she’s not gonna live for ever. Out of all the siblings, odds are that he would inherit the place and thus land some choice marble countertops one day. It was funny and humble (he made himself the example of meatheadedness, unlike me here), and at least somewhat wrong.
The mass production of stuff, from socks to countertops to coffee to cheddar, has begotten a marketplace full of crap. People are paid poorly so we can live cheaply, and when we live cheaply we tend to live badly. But if you get better socks, countertops, coffee, and cheddar, there is at least a chance a craftsman got paid an honest wage to ply a trade he loves, and a good chance you will enjoy something rather than simply use something.
So after mass I sought out Fr. Bill on the church plaza and shook his hand. “Great homily,” I said. “But get the marble.”