Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I'm on the Case case. I'm building a case. I bought a whole case of soda the other day, and saying so is a case of impertinence. Don't get on my case about it.

There are two young poets talking, he posing as the mentor of her. In critique of her manifesto of style, he says that the problem, no, he rephrases, the difficulty with writing in a style like that is that one has to use words whose meaning is ambiguous. If this is so, Case offers in a single word that happens to be the last name of its owners a treasure trove to a poet like her.

When this place first popped up across the street from SOU five years ago, and up until just a year ago, it had a different sign. It was bold in black, yellow, turquoise, and silver, and in the same typewriterish font that it is now. It was unclear then what its name actually was. The sign offered no typographical hierarchy for its two words. It read: “case // coffee”. (Some of the cups still bear this logo.) This was a peculiar tangle of signage, suggesting that here was both case and coffee. Case did not serve coffee, but was another word for coffee. To understand the sign it was tempting to dismiss the “//” as throwaway punctuation, forgive the bad decision of the sign’s designer, and assume the place was really called “Case Coffee”. But that would have been both too kind and too cruel. That would miss the point, like a lover who refuses to accept an aspect of her beloved that troubles her, and thus provides excuses, saying to herself that this is what he really means. But then really understanding this difference is no small thing. If she acknowledges the aberration from what she wants to see in him, what can she do with it? Who is he? This is the problem with the slashes. They clearly are the effect of some intention, but what? They cut in half and we cannot decide one half or the other. They make unity impossible, and the universe blazes from those two lines.

But Case, as we may now call it, has since closed up the rupture. It is now offered up as a something and not as a void. The sign now just says “case”, and specifies under the name and in a different font that they serve “COFFEE * TEA”. Case has made itself acccessible to the world. But there remain reverberations of the loss of uncertainty. Draped in black, the sign is in mourning and there are no more colors. Now there is only white, and its name is threatening to scratch itself out. The bottom edges of the bold white letters are crisscrossed with thin black scribbles. The sign has simplified its relation to the signified and now may be understood as a discrete entity with a single name, but this is clearly not a satisfying trade. The sign wants to annihilate itself.

Inside, the decor is in conflict, striving toward aesthetic unity, and I have to say, mostly succeeding. You sit in chairs that are black slabs of modernity set atop metal legs, and set your cups on square white tables. You are surrounded by white, deeply textured walls. The doors and the ceiling are a very pale shade of blue that is at once twee and morbid. The clock is a large black circle without marks or numbers and with two tiny metal hands in its center.

Even more than the decor or the owners, Tim and Kati, one of the employees embodies the problem of being a someone at all. He has sad eyes that turn down at their outside edges, and a twisting mouth that only ever smiles slightly. His face is a mask of poise. Even at moments of obvious pleasure he doesn’t have a goofy, toothy smile, but closed-lipped and subtle. It is all the more warm for this. The control and reticence belie their opposites. His adult manner brims with childishness held back. His good humor is tinged with sadness. His curt assertiveness is threatened by timidity. If he seems at ease it is only through effort, albeit playful. And today he informs Tim and Kati that he's going to leave their employ soon.

The truth is that if I ever got to know this person I would find that he is not so interesting. And this disillusionment would be no more true than my idealized first impression. It's possible to know someone very well and still be deceived and surprised. The void can still bubble up through a liquid opaque with the sediment of the years.

Case is still young, still hopeful, and still defining itself. Tim and Kati are my age. In 2009 Tim was quoted in the Daily Tidings saying that "it's taken three years to figure out what our vision is for the coffee shop, and we're still evolving." Two years later are they still evolving, or well on their way to ossification? They have changed their sign and have scrapped their brief, touristic romance with selling gelato. Case and its employees still seem to feel they are a part of a project. It has not entirely become drudgery yet. Customers still compliment their coffee, knowing that they're trying. What will happen to Case as it grows older? Will it still somehow let slip the titillating sense that years ago it could have been something else? Or will it be buried under the silt of its waking life, and become that grotesque person who seems to lack a death drive? Its name is a word of multiplicity. Will it settle for just one?

The way Case brews coffee is held taut in a double bind. The coffee is dripped through paper filters set in glass funnels. The hot water is poured from a kettle into the filter, and as it brews it loses heat steaming from the top and dripping several inches through the air into a cup. Brewed this way, their coffee has a wonderful taste, or at least it must. But it can’t last because it quickly becomes lukewarm. This is always a problem with mug-sized servings of coffee, but here the cooling is exacerbated by this attachment to the purity of the brewing process. It labors under the notion that the more difficult the process, the better the result. Brewing the coffee in large quantities and putting it in large insulated urns as everyone else does would ruin it and would give up what makes Case unique. Yet because of their brewing process, their pure coffee is never quite hot enough. Case's very identity is a tragic, self-defeating attachment. The customer is entreated to share in this attachment and to involve himself the gustatory aesthetics of lukewarm coffee. And for me at least, it works. Toward the end of the cup I find myself thinking dumbly that this must be how coffee is supposed to taste. It’s supposed to decay, to be tasted as it cools and sours itself out of the world.