The spectrum of coffee shops in New York City looks a little something like this: on the low end you have the corner store and breakfast cart coffee, which—unless you’re really lucky—is more akin to brown water than anything that might give you the flavorful buzz necessary for waking up; next there are the stalwarts in the middle, the Starbucks’ of the world, and any other chain that’s readily available and comfortably familiar; finally we have the local coffee shops, a level comprised of its own variables, with some being, say, homelier than others (see: many a Williamsburg version which tend to charge you ten dollars and a piece of your soul to sip their special brew).
For me, the sweet spot has become the former type of local coffee stop, which, yes, can be harder to find, but whose discovery, I’m convinced, is worth it. Mine happens to be The Brown Cup, an unassuming sliver of a store nestled on Second Avenue between 88th and 89th streets. It’s not cool by any means, and its lack of space renders it more of a grab-and-go spot than a potential out-of-home office. But it has its charms, one of which is the immigrant family who runs it, day in and day out. Two sisters, a brother, and their mom. The sisters are kind, funny, and a very un-contrived version of hip. It seems as if they run the show, helping their mom with her English, and lovingly scolding their boneheaded brother when he takes the coffee out mid-brew and causes brown liquid to drench the store. I’d easily be friends with these girls, whether they were my chosen coffee mavens or not. I could be wrong, but my invisible radar senses a mutual affinity for dry humor and fashion.
However, it would be naïve and, frankly, annoying of me, to pretend like our lives were totally similar. I’m not waking up at 6 AM seven days a week to run the family business, having to put my other interests on the back burner, or at least in second place, in order to do so. This is not a pity piece—these girls are, at least outwardly, some of the cheeriest and kindest people in this city. I’m sure there are numerous other facets to their life, perhaps school or night work that I’m totally unaware of. But I do appreciate and respect what they do and the attitude they appear to bring to it. It puts my very privileged life bubble in perspective—my generally ridiculous complaints and concerns in a necessarily harsher light.
There are some mornings when I have no cash, so I consider running to the Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts nearby—they accept cards. But I’ve stopped doing that, in an effort to support this local crew, and local businesses in general. I’ll even opt for the weak corner store coffee occasionally, because I really like the dudes who work there. Obviously, these are not medal-worthy decisions. They are minor choices that I make in a world filled with people making significantly harder and more important choices than “hmm, where should I buy my coffee today?”
That said, I do think its minuteness can cause us to forget the choice entirely—it’s hard to think about the larger picture when you’re half-asleep and itching for a warm blast of caffeine. Which is why I’m even writing this, to remind others to think about where you’re putting your money–who you’re choosing to support and not support when you repeatedly shell out cash to the ever-growing belly of Howard Schultz.
I’m not a hugely selfless person (working on it), obviously, since I even consider this minor gesture something worthy of discussion. But even the most philanthropic humans can lose sight of the small and easy choices that can be made to contribute a little good into the world, those which support people who could use it more than others. No, that family is not in poverty, they are simply working like millions of other Americans (well—considering the job market, perhaps that’s a stretch), but I’d rather regularly give them my cash than hand it off to a steroidal, impersonal corporation that has a much higher chance of doing just fine without me.