In Defense of Hipsterism.
The word itself belies anachronism. Vague, equivocal, a borderline ethos, but innately evident whenever it’s encountered.
A cultural artifact of the 1940’s that always leaves me wondering whether or not it’s earned its re-installation in a contemporary setting. Which, I guess, seems to be the point, irony being its defining characteristic. When it’s mentioned, people roll their eyes, as if its mere acknowledgement holds some strangely urban-mythic taboo.
It’s boring, by now, one of those givens we’ve learned to live with, while the rest of us jump on the bandwagon of man-buns, Goethe-esque attire, and an infatuation with –isms. One thing, though, is for certain: writers hate writing about them. Readers hate reading about them.
Whatever the hipster movement was — or still is — trying to tell us about ourselves, and however it defines itself, there is something uniformly pervasive about its ability to flourish in Millennial-dense Vancouver.
I’ve always been of the opinion that any culture-jamming trend must be correlated to some underpinning anxiety, something cognitively dissonant in the makeup of the world one finds themselves in. That was certainly the case for the Beat Generation, but what could possibly be our rationale for exhuming its ideological precepts now?
Is there any contextual legitimacy in donning the libertine sensibilities of Kerouac and Ginnsberg? Or is it just a pedantic fashion trend? A rhetorical attempt at cultural revolution by a bunch of slacktivists?
Well, shit. So, hipsterism gets a bad rap for touting irony as a fad. It gets shot down for embracing nihilistic affectation. It holds itself to a distinctly faux noveau flair, which pings on some cerebral radar. But most importantly, it’s here: Timbertrain Coffee Roasters.
A line of patrons are already bunched into the narrow café, the noon caffeine rush of next-gen yuppies in black pea coats, collared sweaters, and Oxford shoes, and a buzz of private conversations barely rise above the meticulous staccato of baristas going to work on an assembly line of gourmet coffees.
The man in front of me is poring over the titanic volume of a secondhand cookbook as he waits, absently tapping his chin as if to draw attention to a short laser-cut beard that looks like it’s been penciled in. A dark handknit scarf squids around his neck like some 20-foot-long woolen cephalopod, emphasizing overkill in half a dozen ways that would have made even Jules Verne squirm.
At the window table, a woman stuffed into a Victorian trench coat and too many shades of indigo lipstick occasionally flips open a cardboard journal littered with aphoristic calligraphy like “Take a breath, You are breathing” before fumbling in her leather satchel for a $1400 camera to take yet another picture of her dwindling coffee cup in a macroscopic series I can only imagine is entitled: various stages of emptiness.
Obviously, I reflect, the patrons here have opened me up to new and exciting forms of cynicism when it comes to the pretension of my generation.
A friend has recommended this place to me in an attempt to enculturate me on some of the finer things in life (or failing that, at least something a bit classier than the prevailing cop-out of hitting up a Starbucks). The establishment is small, easy to miss or overlook, like an afterthought on a blasé stretch of Cordova.
The smell of coffee is volcanic and as caustic as the analogy, evocative of the obsolescent era of the artiste. The bronze amalgamation of machinery and filters might as well have been hijacked from a steampunk novel. Likewise, reminiscent of 17th century implements borrowed from the Inquisition. Perhaps, I think, the coffee needs to suffer first.
At last, I’m at the register. The menu is grotesque with its descriptions of each coffee. As I order whatever an Ethiopia Lomi Tasha is, a sudden fear sparks, and I pray the woman behind the counter will sense I am a neophyte in all manner of coffeehouse etiquette and resist the urge to embarrass me in front of the fleet of Macbook-wielding clientele behind us by quizzing me on additional nuances of how I like my coffee.
Indeed, at this point, I’m simply praying that Ethiopia Lomi Tasha is, in fact, coffee.
Social anxiety notwithstanding, the hellish nightmare realities of looking like I don’t know what I’m talking about are assembling like Lego. But I’m worried for nothing.
The barista simply smiles and asks what I’m up to today as she stacks a filter on top of a glass pot and encircles the filter with a stream of hot water from the spigot of a narrow kettle. Next the beans, delicate and freshly ground, are added with a frank twist of the wrist. A single dousing, and she empties the diluted liquid, then continues to work the boiling water in circles as she talks.
“It gets rid of the bitterness from the tannins, you want to coax some of the more subtle flavors from the mix,” she explains, “this has a twist of blackberry, a little smokier, but it’s one of my favorites.”
Very slowly, it begins to drip. This cup of coffee will take several long minutes of careful focus on her part as she balances the variables of her vocation — water level, temperature, and process.
There’s a certain ritual in her movements that hints at something representative of what hipsterism might now represent in its current incarnation. Not the self-assuredness of quasi-intellectualism or sartorial idiosyncrasy, but something else. Let’s call it what it is, an aesthetic.
Something, I think, proverbially Japanese.
In the Western milieu of North American society, there has always been — and remains for the most part — a busyness. The kind of urban panic which connotes the movie stereotypes of businessmen and women amid some corporate determinism, streaming ant-like in apparent chaos to their respective buildings, offices, and cubicles.
Which isn’t to say that Vancouver doesn’t have its share of that. But in between the hustle-and-bustle endemic to the lifestyle of the eponymous city-bound Generation-Y’er, something else has been evolving.
On the surface, something we might label as a globally informed conception of leisure. A more profound sense of appreciation when it comes to nuance, a penchant for locating beauty and precision in the everyday mundanity of life. Even if the object of that mundanity is nothing more than a hot beverage.
We might not reach the cultural providence of Marseilles or Kyoto, but there is an attempt to emulate the same attentiveness to style and to a ritual of earnestness. In a word, art.
And what’s more seditious than art? Even as my tribe of young professionals inject themselves into the workplace, we remain suspicious of the cold, impersonal patina of career. We’re ashamed to be the progeny of Manifest Destiny. We’re scared shitless of political demagoguery.
So, this will sound like a leap. And maybe it’s another example of armchair revolutionary tactics, but at the crossroads of coffee and hipsterism seems to exist an informal rebellion against the systems (of technology, culture, or the Starbucks zaibatsu) that our demographic has inherited and assimilated.
A polite mutiny against the economic and political bondages we embrace in order to fulfill some modernized Hobbesian social contract. An hour’s reprieve for lunch or a coffee break at a gourmet beanery, like the Greenhorn Espresso Bar on Nicola Street or the infamous Revolver just south on Cambie, becomes a form of reconciliation with our own souls.
A way to slough off The Man while still remaining in his employ. To retain a sense of individuality and self-determinism by aligning with sub-culture, its denouncement of the fast-paced and easy consumerism. In a sense, what aspires to be elitist sets itself apart from the cookie-cutter pre-fab model of capitalist pipe dreams.
“Here it is, very hot, so be careful,” my coffee artisan replies, and places a lacquered clay cup off center on a heavy wooden slab with the Timbertrain’s logo cattle-prodded in one corner. Something, in another time and place, I’d expect to see high grade sushi served on. A matching clay lid covers the top, and the sub-tropic scent of the drink wafts up when I remove it.
Outside, a group of girls my age wander past, each a split personality subdivided between a vapid conversation about fashion and the blue Amytal glare of an open iPhone. Behind me, the insect-like clicks of fingers on laptops. The great uncertainties of post-teenager-hood swamped around us in the philology of texts and social media.
A great distrust of the mechanisms we feel have disenfranchised us, and a swelling compulsion to revolt against them without isolating ourselves in the process. Ah, the quandary of a quarter-life crisis in 21st century Canada.
So, perhaps this coffee fixation is merely a symptom of the hipster phenomenon. But if so, let’s call it a necessary one.
That, just maybe, what appears as pretentiousness and surface vogue is a defense against conformity with a previous generation that has left us — economically, culturally, politically — high-tided on the shores of adolescence. Adrift in the wilderness of our 30’s. Functionally impotent in the affairs of the world they will bequeath to us one day.
I let out a sigh, a sound like a punctured tire, and take a sip of Lomi Tasha. Crisp, dark, whole, seemingly exempt from my pessimism. Well, bully for that. At least, I think, we’ll never want for coffee.