Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

My Gripe

Posted in awareness, perception by Jason Gray on July 31, 2010

America is a consumer-driven culture, okay, I get it; to say anything contrary would be to lie.  However, given this “virtue”, something doesn’t add up about our culture’s latest obsession with quality and *cough* ethics, when we are not also considering the delivery systems for these goods.  For instance, we can walk into a store/farmer’s market/etc. and now choose between many products that are organic, or otherwise ethically derived (what the hell does that even mean?), and also artisanal (that word has sure flowered), but why we make the trip in the first place is seldom thought of.  The cream of the so-called crop is becoming more and more widespread; there is a huge push to simultaneously make the best product available, while also offering some pleasing distraction to our conscientious souls.  Advertising words like “organic”, “local”, “green”, and more have replaced the humor or glitz or glam of age-old product advertising (see above).  This is not a bad thing; after all, who’s little consumerist-heart does not flutter at the opportunity to do what’s right (buy local/green), and be rewarded for it with the richest prizes available (products that are artisanal/organic)?  No doubt about it, the push to quality and the pull of accountability are positive steps for the American consumer to take.  So, what the hell is my gripe?  My gripe is with the overall “why” of it.

More after the jump–>

Once upon a time, people communed out of bare necessity.  In that time, a need existed to be near other people and share a bit of common experience.  In other words, the advancements in any given activity have woefully gone from justifying the need for the activity to justifying the activity itself.  This is not progress; it’s commerce.  For instance, take a look at the history of communication.  Over time, the reasons why people need to communicate have been overshadowed by the advancements in, and plethorization of, forms of communication.  To emphasize, imagine that an idea from one person needs to be expressed to many persons.  At an earlier point in our history, the person would travel and meet with all of the other persons individually or speak to groups of them en masse.  At the next stage, the person would reserve time on a radio program and broadcast their voice.  Moving on again, the person books an appearance on television and now their image and their voice can be broadcast.  Finally, the person uses the internet to reach all of their audience, all around the world, simultaneously.  It looks, superficially, like things have improved, progressed even, doesn’t it?  However, just as the communication activity has experienced proliferated technological advancement, in terms of scope, the need to listen and involve oneself, on the part of the receiver, has evaporated, a movement diametric to the activity’s advancement.  To broaden, the listener who received the speaker’s message in person, or as part of a group of listeners, was engaged to the activity in complete, first-person.  They felt the wind passing through the speaker’s hair just as the speaker did, and they felt personal to the moment of the speaking.  The receiver listening to the radio lost the immediacy of proximity, but could still feel involved in some other activity (due to the nature of the delivery system), such as gathering with neighbors on a porch to hear the message and discuss its implications.  The next listener, however, for the first time in communication’s march of advances, became sedentary and removed from most other experiences.  The family that gathered around the television to hear the message delivered was sucked in to the image of the delivery, and lost context of the world around them.  But, at least they were still together in a room, that family, because the family members of the internet generation all diverge to private recesses inside their universal living space to receive the message being delivered, individually; a loss of all outside experience.  So, as the advancements in communication technology grew, the focus migrated from participation in the experience of the message being delivered to a more streamlined, yet isolated, reception of it.  If you still think that Facebook, et al, makes you connected, I suggest printing out that last paragraph and taping it over your computer screen.

Anyway, I am digressing, for communication technology isn’t alone in terms of activities that have pushed people-participation out.  I started out typing about food, and that is what brought this diatribe about in the first-place.  Hartford Coffee Company, on Hartford Street in St. Louis, is one of those the “end does not justify the means” examples for me.  I have a long resume of cafe work from my life lived in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and so I think that I know a thing or two about what makes a quality cup of coffee.  But, that’s not so much my gripe with Hartford.  Hartford is one of those establishments espousing the newfound descriptors illustrating the “advancements” within the culturally significant commodity, or in this case, coffee.  Therefore, it would really be a tragedy for them to ride the crest of the ethical (fair-trade/organic) and qualitative (artisanal/craft-roasted) movement, and not deliver a decent cup of black coffee.  This they do, but they fail on behalf of understanding why someone might want to visit their establishment (other than to feel a part of consumer advancements).  The best cafes that I have worked in realized that cafes exist not as a platform to deliver a product, but as comfortable communes where people exchange experiences.  I understand that that doesn’t sound like a practical business model (in that the physical product is secondary), but it is more successful in practice than you might imagine.  Follow it, cafe owners, and you will stay afloat; I promise.  Maybe the rude employee, who rushed to prepare my wife’s terrible latte was having a bad day, or maybe she herself invested too much into her establishment’s seemingly impenetrable, ethical/quality product facade to see the actual disservice that she was committing upon her employer.  Or maybe, despite the fact that the coffee beans are carefully selected in a manner that best sustains local economies in far-flung regions of the world (or so we are led to believe), the Hartford Coffee Company is a crappy place to work, and it shows in the employees.  Just for levity, I found this review online (thank you, advances in communication) to corroborate my experiences there:

“I’ve been here a lot because I live down the street. I really wanted to like this place but the service is terrible and the coffee is too. It’s so watery and flavorless.The people who work there act like I’m inconveniencing them when I order and are not helpful or friendly. This place is right by my house and I’d love to just be able to stop here for my morning coffee but because of the bad service and bad coffee I’d rather drive out of my way to go to Starbucks. I’ve also had a problem with them charging me different amounts every time I come in. I always get the same thing but some times it’s $3.84, or $3.57 and other days it’s $4.39!! I really wish they could get it together and make it a great coffee shop, but from now on I’ve got to find a better coffee place.” (written by “Kassie”)‎

Dear Hartford, it’s not that Kassie or I need you to sell the best tasting and most ethically-derived coffee on the planet (just “good” will do), we just want a place to go where the need is placed at a premium over the activity.  Find out why people want to visit cafes, what being in a cafe offers up in terms of experience, and make that the essence of your mission statement.  Hint: products won’t get you there, but people will.  Gripe over.


One Response

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  1. david michel said, on August 24, 2010 at 1:23 am

    people are stupid

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