The people in Kaffa want to know if I’m worried. The goat problem. They went a bit strange and I had to go and see the monks, which is never a good idea if you value stability. I asked them straightaway if they knew what it meant and they did that petulant thing with their faces which makes you feel like you’ve asked the wrong question. A sense of meaning would’ve been enough. What are monks for, after all? They held the look for a tediously long time and you have to admire their tenacity when it comes to making you feel like an idiot. After fifteen minutes or so I assumed they weren’t going to say anything; maybe didn’t know or, either way, were just wasting my time for their own amusement. My staff is basically ruined now and the flock…well. I thought I’d spend the night in the usual place and see if anything could be done to the thing. I’d tried to carve my name into it bordered with a fiery motif like the hot ball. But my knife is too big, my fingers too clumsy, and now the whole thing is structurally compromised.
Funny how your flock can just completely ditch you. I’ve been going to the same place for twenty-five years, watching as dung turns soil fertile and new shrubs grow. I stand under the hot ball as it spins around us all and new goats come and go; blue turns black, yellow turns white; then there’s shit everywhere and then new bushes with strange pips and then the flock’s gone crazy. And then the flock’s gone.
This will probably mean my death. Change always means death for someone. The monks’ answer is always death or lengthy prayer. Often the latter leads to the former. Pretty formulaic work. Maybe I’ll take it up if, by some miracle, this doesn’t mean my death. Healthy flock as well. Huge amounts of shit and bickering, but that’s goats for you.
The staff is a lost cause. I spent most of the night talking to myself and scouting around for a log or a desiccated tree that might serve as a replacement. Why? Today does probably mean my death. Well, you can’t just sit around and wait for death, can you? I found a shard that might do, needs a bit of work. If the monks haven’t lowered their collective brow today, I’ll try to find something better.
The monks summoned me late last night. They were totally wired. Wouldn’t shut up. They had a mania in their eyes. It was fully black outside and stormy. It looked like they had been awake for years. One of them was hanging out of his robe. They said they had sent boys out to bring them the berries that had driven my flock halfway around the world. They had stuffed them inside injera, kik alicha wet and tibs before just infusing them in water. They had prayed for the duration of their experiments and, afterwards, up until my arrival, when they said it was good to have someone to talk to. A few of them were still pretty out of it. They said I had furthered man’s ability to reach God through endurance prayer and that, as a result, today would not mean my death. They said my flock was almost certainly gone so I needn’t concern myself that no one had died. Death could also be symbolic. They were happy for me to continue on living.
I asked if I could try some of the new performance enhancing drink. The monks told me I would have to dedicate my life to prayer and the production of the drink if I tasted even a drop. Under a violescent sky unfurling in the wind, I began to wonder what that could mean for my life. From shepherd to alchemist in the movement of a goat’s bowel.
There is very little of this story that I am able to tell without risk of returning to the place, psychologically speaking, where I ended. This telling will be an exercise in restraint and modesty and I will aim to stay true. My walk to work each morning is a space in which I dream. I induce this dream state by tabulating my tasks for the day. My method for dream inducement is also the basis of the dream. I dream about my tasks for the day of work. I cover ground and don’t have to endure the horrors simply walking in this city can present. I usually wake at the front door. To work. On the day I am about to relate, I could not dream in my usual way. I am not foolish enough to attribute any meaning to this fact, to load it with fate-like significance. If you are who I think you are, I don’t want to insult your intelligence. It is merely a detail, an observation this tedious form seems to demand. Do keep reading. On the day I am about to relate, I could only dream about the ideology of my work: the philosophy of coffee-making. The hypnotic elixir of subconscious listing (to and fro) was nullified by meta-dreaming and a curious– No. I will stop. Let me just say that I arrived at work tired, undernourished from my lack of perambulatory– Jesus. I had a shaky mind. And a shaky hand. My delirium began a steady, dilatory percolation, a sourness of thought– Forgive me. I will get the tone of this.
One of my colleagues regularly chose to play Bach as he dialled in the grinder. Just how regularly he chose to do it I am not sure. Seventeen times a week, I would say. Depending on humidity. The writers come to my shop. They need to. It is no use to them to sit and engage with a task, like a paragraph or a sentence, if no one is there to witness that engagement. My colleague would smirk as the music played. I found that to be the most immodest constituent of his behaviour. I think he assumed I would have to look up the piece of music on the Internet in order to discover that it was Bach’s ‘Coffee Cantata’ of 1734. The assumption that we are only as smart as the speed of our smart phones works both ways. I think he assumed I wouldn’t understand the words, Du boses kind, du loses Mädchen, Ach! Men erlang ich meinen Zweck: Tu Mir den coffee web!
Every facet of his work was carried out with the writers in mind. I think he hoped they would immortalise him if he behaved with enough whimsy and flamboyance. A caricature barista intoxicated by history! Immortalised in their art? Fictionalise a barista! What a useless, pointless and vapid idea. That we might be fodder for the mere wordsmiths forever present at our shops, swine to the swill, performing their performative gesture needlessly, devoid of social function (why be there?), honesty and art. I must calm down because it is here that the retelling becomes hardest.
My colleague has said, to my face, that “beards are unhygienic and make people look like pricks.” I have told him not to debase himself, and the rest of his colleagues by association, by behaving for the writers. I told him again that morning, the seventeenth time I had done so. But with each reminder I strengthen my position. I say this, write this, in order that others in a similar position to me in the world of coffee may take note. If you don’t belong to the world of coffee, in a professional sense, then I suggest you stop reading now. You will not understand any of this.
We don’t use that grande, tall, venti schematic you find on the highstreet. We use ounces. Residue – yes, residue – had been a problem that morning. Fines. The writers had complained. “If we can’t have our bowl of coffee three times daily, then in our torment we will shrivel up like a piece of goat meat”, I think they said. A strangely antiquated simile. Theirs is a crude art, if that is what they said. Yet, they are my audience, the people who come here to be seen to be writing; the writers. The performative writers to whom I perform. Though I make no concession to their ideas of taste. They must come to me. I’m sure they will.
It takes immense courage to produce temporary pieces of beauty and social function for people who neither value nor understand them. You know this, if my instructions were obeyed. If not, then I realise I am powerless to stop you reading but I would firmly suggest you pick up something else, leave us to contemplate what we know. Is there anything more wonderfully temporal than the look on a colleague’s face as they see the rosetta they painted onto the surface of milk, preserved now at the bottom of a drained cup? These words don’t work, they don’t show it.
The series of incidents preceding my descent are very difficult to think about. My hands begin to shake, my mind– The writers chose the day of my preoccupations on which to log a number of complaints. Don’t ask me how many. Ah, I’m writing and you can’t. I would guess seventeen. The complaints directly questioned the quality of my work, the actual nature of my endeavours in coffee. From what position of authority they chose to do this, I have no idea. Does the alcoholic advise the brewer? No. Special Brew is not a drink for the discerning palate. The thing is things change. Things are always changing. That’s the best I can offer in a state of calm. They asked if my microfoam was appropriate for the size of cup I had provided. They poked it, mutilated the dual fern, pierced the veneer. “Is this usual?” I scratched and took a step back from the counter. I gazed at all of them. “Guys. I work within prescribed creative peripheries. Nonetheless, the prescriptive consensus is fluid, ever changing in its idea of qualia.” I sighed. “You need only concern yourself with the quality of the cup you have received. Is it well made? Honestly made? Does the coffee embody aesthetic purity and fulfil its social obligation to the body? Until you have tasted it at length, these crucial and only worthy factors will evade your comprehension.” They just mumbled something like, “Forfucksake” and walked off. The adrenaline, brothered with the caffeine in my veins, sent me into the dark. I’d tasted for two hours that morning. The eyes fixed me hard and what was I to do? In under a minute I had revealed the face of me that is the face preserved for me. It seemed, after the event, that authenticity was no longer a retreat from the mandatory pretence of the workplace, but the very medium through which I had let my work and my art begin to squeeze the life out of me. My face was no longer mine. I had whored myself. The room had me, all. It knew me, all. My enemies, the people on whom I relied for a living, now knew me, all. The three M’s with which I forge on in art – Miscela, Machina, Macinazione –were now soiled by association with a fourth: naked, shamed Man.
The space behind the counter, where my colleagues and I work, is shaped like a kidney. I spent the twenty minutes immediately following my outburst at the opposite end of the coffee house in a small dimly lit area we call the Brew Bar. It is where we fiddle with dose measurements, extraction times and decide which origin and variety of bean best serves which method of infusion. We mess with AeroPress and filter down there. I contemplated brown. What shades of brown there are! My life shade is undoubtedly brown. It felt black crouching that afternoon behind the Brew Bar. I could feel it darkening. Intensifying. I would call it honey slick or oil liqueur. There is no other vocation that requires or relies on consistency so much. Expectation. You know this if you are who I think you are. I began to hyperventilate, I think. The psychic shakes took a greater hold. Sadness traipsed across the day.
At twenty minutes past two I returned to the kidney and pretended to do things. These hideous tools. I thought of Ethiopia as I dodged the work I have known. Try explaining that to the writers. I have no idea what they would do with it. As I walked through the shop I was in this keyboard, recording for posterity. I was living in immediate retrospection. My tone stately. Brandy and cigars made treacly the depths of my rhetoric. I lived my legacy live. This, I believe is called the mythological present.
Ethiopia or Kaffa is the home of cof– Managerialism is applied neo-liberalism. Do you think I like that? No. No more unanswerable questions. I am struggling. I was struggling. From the kidney, my perspective on the writers became… They moved as one, as always. They did their tapping but with a renewed fervour. They had gained it from my outburst. They were using me. I don’t know. They never stop reading, interpreting and that obligates the rest of us. My colleagues addressed me frequently, but I was unable to respond, so preoccupied was I with the writers and their ostentations, probably negotiating onomatopoeia.
Latte art is a subject on which there is now no time to expand. The writers, as I looked at the clock above the milk temp gauge, dropped three bone-china cups simultaneously (at exactly two seventeen) and my anxiety peaked. No. I can’t communicate like this anymore. I am not in these words. In these words is what is left after what they did. This is a ludicrous form for expression. I have tried everything I understand, everything I know about Greek tragic structure. No. It doesn’t work for this. It hasn’t worked. The tripartite…the way they fucking stole from me. Testing. ‘Do you know, meek barista, to what text we allude when we smash three of your cups on the floor at the same time?’ I do! Of course I know. I don’t covertly hate the things I desire. I love coffee, why else would I drink so much of it? I believe it. I purge. I purge. I purge the wand everyday – the wand on the Marcotti. I sound manic, but I am less manic. I am illustrating the symptoms of the terrific fight that I have waged inside of myself. They smiled bashfully, as one, as always. They smiled and implicit in their smiles was the suggestion of my ignorance, but I understood their allusion to Ohio Impromptu.
I think I mumbled, I may have shouted, but I can’t remember what I said. Probably, it was, “Have you read?! Have you read Everything is Illuminated? Have you read The Corrections? Have you read Pale Fire? Have you read As I Lay Dying? Have you read Shoplifting from American Apparel? Have you read Just Kids? Have you? Have you read Good Morning Midnight? Have you read 1Q84? Have you read Atomised? Have you read The Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel? No. I Haven’t. I don’t read the same things as you fucking cunts. You all read what you’re told. You won’t have read what I’ve read. But I know you, I know you all. It’s easy. You celebrate your conformity. You are the most boring fucks I have ever encountered. You’ve emptied boredom. You are self-elected, unwitting advocates for pseudo-classic comatose acquiescence.”
It was probably a mistake. It was for their benefit. They pretended not to hear. They heard. There is no other art form that requires and relies on consistency more than the art of the true barista. Have I said that? It is a life of pressure and resistance. All day I manipulate nine atmospheres of pressure through eighteen grams of finely ground powder puck. I manifest aroma, body and taste to demand. I do this in twenty-one to twenty-three seconds. I control atmospheres across time so that prayers can be finished, the Penny Universities increase their fees, the French Revolution happens. The cups looked like teeth; fractured, scattered, tragic. I can’t handle cups at the best of times. I went to the Brew Bar and made new coffees, added a slug of my whiskey to all of them.
The writers are tyrants. The structure of this has to fissure like those cups, like my mind. Hey, in order to impose a new ideology you need an environment of trauma! I have tried to put Parados and Stasimi in this. It doesn’t work. The Greeks know nothing about modern life. That bit about the shepherd? I wrote that, obviously. This is my account, who else could have done it? Sixth century Ethiopian shepherds can’t speak from beyond the pale. The writers would tell you, if they could speak, that it’s far easier to seem a thing than to be it. I can’t read anymore. I’m feeling my way through, looking at stars in the snow.
This is tragic. Well, it is supposed to be Tragedy but these are no ‘events’, are they? You know why I tried to fit myself into words rigidly structured. You do. The effort required to make it seem like nothing is happening is steadily increasing. I don’t know where I was at this point. On the floor with the teeth, I think. No. Can’t be sure. I think I felt like water running across a tiled floor. I stuck mainly to the grout. I was crying, but in such a way that no one could tell. The writers were accidentally drinking the drink that I had forced them to drink. Behind the Brew Bar, a milky lane frothed into view and wound its way through the streets of Melbourne which were next to those of Portland and Vienna and Taipei. The greatest baristas of all time were there. Tim Wendelboe, clad in navy v-neck, asked me to marry him; Fritz Storm gargled my espresso as his salty tears plopped onto the crema, but obviously they didn’t; trumpets were brought out and they weren’t really, either. It all just seemed that way. I wanted to join them all there, would’ve liked nothing better, but none of it existed, did it?
Reality, in the sense the writers would have you believe, is comprised of cinders. It is burnt up, exhaustive and exhausted. But this is my account. I should stop affording them a voice. Proclivity of platforms, scarcity of significance. That’s their predicament. The cinders are airborne, aglide on the momentum of thought. But, thought is rendered feeble in contrast to action. The writers seek ointment for their chaffing desire to act in a tactile capacity. Making, in and with the mind, is never enough. The handcrafted idea must be tangible, too. They no longer bind their own books. They cultivate species of paunch, futile dexterities and avatar habits. I am one of those whose art soothes these narcissists. It is because I know this that they will never confirm my appraisal.
The writers sprayed their cocktail. The floor was a soup. They looked, all of them as one, as ever, angry and confused. The cinders of reality could not take flight if the thought were weighed down by poison ballast. They all (was it ever otherwise) approached and began to shout. I leaned back against the window at the rear of the kidney. I began to dream. They gestured. I dreamed. Lucidity clacked through me like a falling Venetian blind. I needed to order more cups from the supplier, check the elements for limescale, delete the ‘Coffee Cantata’ from the playlist. As clarity descended, I looked at my hands. The writers sat down. Nothing had happened really. Nothing will ever happen again. But then nothing ever happened anyway. You’ll vouch for that, I hope.
Jake Elliott is a writer, living in London. @jm_elliott
Image: Jonathon Robson