My usual seat in the front corner of Intelligentsia on Randolph was taken. I retreated to a tiny table in the back of the café, under a barrel light fixture with vintage bulbs. The glowing filaments gave off a deceptive warmth.Behind the bar, the fashionably bored baristas I've come to recognize (one I lovingly refer to as "hipster Jesus") spend five minutes making one cup of coffee and carve out intricate designs in the foam of the lattes. I order plain coffee, take it without milk or sugar, in large part because I can't imagine disturbing their art by taking that first sip.
People get lost on their way to the bathroom. This is not a big café, but it's easy to be intimidated here. If it's possible for a space to be aloof… I appointed myself to the post of bathroom-key director: They're next to the pastry case, attached to the ends of wooden spoons.
The view on the world from that corner was simply wonderful: Hipsters in shabby clothes I can only assume they bought to offset the cost of their iPhones and MacBook Pros. Tourists lugging their carry-on suitcases and bags full of purchases from a day on Michigan Avenue. Business people gossiping under the guise of a quick meeting outside the office. Ambitious Columbia students getting a jump on the semester, studying hastily scrawled note cards and jotting thoughts into spiral-bound notebooks.
A little girl in a full-length, cotton candy–pink jacket and matching earmuffs, preened her younger brother, retying his scarf and smoothing his hood, while their mother ordered her latte.
Two employees, one buffalo plaid–clad and another Sinead O'Connor–buzzed, interviewed a barista hopeful at the bar along the wall. Coffee dreamer was describing the most recent coffees he'd tasted: like biting into a blueberry; creamy and juicy like peaches.
A man bundled in a long wool coat and purple scarf, fresh out of the office for the day, walked in with a homeless-looking woman. If she wasn't homeless, she was at least from a far different walk of life than his. He bought her a latte, chatted as they waited. He walked out with her, like they'd become friends during their short time together. It's not the sort of thing you see happen here. There are panhandlers lining the sidewalks that border Macy's on State Street, knowing they'll collect at least a bit of change from the wide-eyed tourists clamoring to see the holiday windows and famous Marshall Field's clock. But there's rarely any interaction. Refreshing.
Two music students living on opposite ends of town — Jonathan's at Northwestern and John David's at St. Xavier — met in the middle. They were comparing latte art, conspiring over YouTube videos on a tiny iPhone screen, talking about trumpet fanfares and composing new works. "I'd take Berlioz over Wagner any day." I butted in on their conversation; Jonathan used the word "sanguine" in casual conversation. We're Facebook friends now. As I packed up my computer to leave the shop for the day, they were talking about movies from childhood: Rockadoodle and The Brave Little Toaster.
The coffee wasn't good today, though it was made with love: It was bitter; it tasted nothing like biting into a blueberry and had none of the toothsome, sexual qualities of a peach. And I got none of the work done I'd intended to do; my wandering eyes and curious ears got the best of me this time. But I got my three dollars' worth in caffeine jitters and people watching. Work can wait until I'm alone in my apartment, now a bare-walled maze of heavy moving boxes; today wasn't a day to let the world pass me by.