The Best Coffee Shop in the People’s Green Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz, California

At nine, two flows of humanity cross each other in front of Lulu Carpenter’s, the upscale coffee shop at the top of Pacific Avenue. Pacific Avenue is the main walking commercial thoroughfare, surprisingly well re-designed after the destruction 1989 earthquake. It’s nothing like the collection of cheap motels leading to the Boardwalk that greets the casual tourist entering Santa Cruz from high-traffic Ocean street.

Down Pacific comes the cortege of the houseless, walking from the shelter toward breakfast at the Salvation Army, a mile away. I don’t call them “homeless” because ownership of a house does not guarantee a home, and because it’s possible to make a home without a house. Also, I am sick of the sanctimoniousness of the word. Most of the houseless carry a large backpack. The smart ones also carry a guitar, or a guitar case, one of the best weapons against the city’s repressive ordinances. (See below.)

It would not take much to convince me that some of the houseless have a hangover. They are mostly silent. Those who are not harangue loudly society at large, or God, or no one in particular. One talks into a cell-phone she does not have. I know for a fact that one houseless woman in her thirties can speak perfect French with the (to me) quaint diction of what is probably a Swiss finishing school. (Trust me, I don’t have the talent to make up a detail like this.)

Up Pacific Avenue from the bus depot march Mexicans on their way to work. They converse loudly in Spanish. Many laugh or guffaw. The Mexicans all wear thick sensible jackets in dark colors, black, navy blue or gray. The houseless tend to be elaborately dressed, layer upon layer. It’s not all about the morning cold: Many women, and quite a few men, wear colorful Indian, or otherwise “ethnic” dress on top of jeans and sweaters. Every single one of the houseless is an Anglo. Perhaps, race matters, after all.

Much of residential Santa Cruz is littered. (I believe my own street is never swept by the city.) Pacific Avenue, however, the showcase artery, is cleaned every day or nearly so. There are two distinct street crews. You can tell which is coming from afar. The first crew is large, youngish, noisy and enthusiastic. It’s composed entirely of mentally handicapped people and of their minders. They make noise because they are invariably in good spirits, kidding one another endlessly and throwing good-humored insults around. When they are through, hardly a single cigarette butt has managed to conceal itself in a crack.

The other crew comprises mostly people in their forties and fifties in green uniforms who work slowly, with the dignity befitting their status as tenured city employees. They are said to be the best paid municipal employees anywhere in America. I think this is probably fair because, I suspect, most of them hold a Master’s in Comparative Literature, or of Fine Arts, from the University of California. They contribute to the gravitas of the community.

Lulu’s, the coffee shop, manages to maintain a steady truce between environmentally militant, abstemious, vegetarian types who hate tobacco, and smokers. I think this is because almost all the smokers are alternative lifestyle youths with pierced body parts, and existentialist graduate students from UCSC. No one really wants to find out how tough the pierced ones really are, and the graduate students earn respect by appearing to be in possession of profound truths that don’t even have a name in English.

By and large, the smokers are pigs: They throw cigarette filters with a half-life of twenty years on the ground although they are only ten feet from a litter box. Nobody ever complains about the littering because neatness is a bourgeois virtue incompatible with the community’s revolutionary spirit. (I think most city elections are disputed between Maoists and Trotskists, who have been in the closet elsewhere since 1971, and a few left-leaning liberals, all prosperous shopkeepers.) Besides, Lulu’s owner, who runs a tight ship, makes sure most of the butts are swept from his vicinity every night.

Shortly after nine, people come in for take-out coffee. The young ones are mostly workers from neighborhood shops who got up too late to fix their own coffee. (The result of a recurring epidemic: The young believe something tremendous will happen if only they stay up late enough.) A few customers sit down to read the paper in solitude, or they chat in groups of two or three to kick off the day with conviviality. No one knows what they do for a living. The young are probably students; the middle-aged may be teachers (like me), or independently wealthy. (Santa Cruz’ own dangerous secrets: Who is a trust fund baby? Who made a real estate fortune in the seventies?) One can easily tell the well-off from the poor because, for the former shabby clothing is de rigueur.

There are some old codgers who have probably been awake for hours. I avoid them like the plague because I suspect them of wanting to induct me into their mutual misery society: You let me tell you about my colon; I will listen about your arthritis. Among those who sit alone, reading a newspaper is common. They read the local give-away sheet (surprisingly good though uneven), or the Santa Cruz Sentinel (bad spelling, good local coverage, bad international coverage), the San Jose Mercury News (there are a few techies left after the debacle), the San Francisco Chronicle (for bottom feeders like me), or the New York Times, of course. No one has the cojones to read the Wall Street Journal in public. (There is no free lunch; there would be a Hell’s worth of shunning to pay.)

The serving staff is young, friendly, and sunny. Most of them nurture a creative sideline: painting, writing, music, the pursuit of esoteric beliefs. They are all avid readers, making Lulu’s a much better literary café than Saint Germain-des-Prés ever knew. By the way, one young guy reads big post- Modernist books of French origin. I am dying to warn him. (Bad French never translates into good English.) I resist the temptation because youth must be allowed to make its own mistakes. I think the young people on the staff worry sometimes about what being the butt of customers’ jovial moods and gracious thankfulness is going to do to their long-term creativity which requires a dose of misery, as everyone knows.

There is a punk rocker who works in the kitchen. His temples are shaved and a silver stud pierces his upper chin. He is a real conservative who works two jobs so his wife can stay home and take care of their child. He is against drugs, except tobacco. I swap him stories for cigarettes. What a deal!

For months, I have been trying to devise a sociologically valid taxonomy of beverage choices. It’s tough going. The green tea drinkers are probably followers of Buddhist mysticism, and hypochondriacs to boot. The chai drinkers would like to travel; they are sure they love India because they have never been there. Once, I forced my brother-in-law, a tea-trader visiting from Calcutta, to taste Lulu’s chai. He told me that what we call “chai” in America, “tea” in most Indian languages, is a good beverage for those allergic to tea.

You can tell the hard-line leftists by the fact that they load every beverage with prodigious amounts of sugar, or often, of honey. (Self- indulgence has a way to assert itself in roundabout paths.) I can’t figure out those men who order espresso or complicated Italianate coffee drinks. (Raspberry latte? Menthe mocha?) The women who do so require no explanation: All heterosexual women are naturally chi-chi (and many who are not). Hot honey and milk is probably for those who coddle their inner child. I can’t begin to tell you how many are hairy, 200 pound, rugged-looking guys. The presence of soy milk on the menu is not surprising though: It’s the politically correct accompaniment to organically grown coffee. The drinkers of regular coffee are probably solid citizens who ended up in Santa Cruz by happenstance. I suspect they have regular jobs and pay taxes regularly; the brew helps them stay regular. A few might be closet conservatives. You never know.

I have been marveling at a classificatory mystery: Lulu’s offers simultaneously, caffè latte, café con leche, and café au lait. I believe the three sets of words mean exactly the same thing. I could try each concoction in turn, of course, in a spirit of scientific experimentation. I refrain because I am charmed by the reliable mystery of three perfectly parallel universes neatly delineated by three mutually intelligible languages.


  1. On poverty and famine Frances Woolley, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative
  2. Lessons from 1918 Michael Shurkin, War on the Rocks
  3. A history of capitalism via coffee David Pilling, Financial Times
  4. Urbanization and its discontents Timothy Taylor, Conversable Economist

Government Programs, Coffee and Bread

I have been vexed for years by a simple problem: How to explain to young people who were not taught anything of substance at school why free markets are desirable. You would expect this to not be much of a problem is this overall still capitalist country. When, I try, most of the time, I end up making their eyes glaze over although I am captivating speaker overflowing with charisma.

The difficulty is that the concept of market is counter-intuitive. In everybody’s personal experience, good things generally happen because someone makes them happen: Mom, Dad, the boss, God. The “invisible hand” of the free market is just that, invisible. To understand our economy takes an effort of imagination.

Lack of understanding of markets opens up people, especially young people, to the direct, unsophisticated emotional appeal of government intervention. In many minds again, especially in the young’s, government solves problems and when it does not, problems go unsolved. There is a good reason for this misapprehension of reality: The many good things that the market does, it does undramatically, almost imperceptibly. Its achievement tend to be taken for granted. By contrast, government interventions are nearly always thunderous, even and especially, if they turn out to be completely ineffective.

Below is a micro-essay question that illustrates this phenomenon. (No grade and no reward except the pleasure of discovery.) Continue reading

The Boy Who Has Everything

I am taking a leisurely drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco back to Santa Cruz after dropping off a friend at the airport. (For my friends in Tennessee: Highway 1 in California is simply the most beautiful coastal road in the world. In central California, where I live, the shoreline on which it runs is mostly undeveloped except for a few artichoke farms and some dairies.) It’s a sunlit but windy day. I stop at Waddell Creek to watch about fifty kite surfers. Behind me is a small swamp and beyond it are the redwood-lined slopes of Big Basin.

In the parking lot, a hitch-hiker waves at me. Now, I have a complicated relationship with hitch-hiking. On the one hand, that’s the only way I had to get to school my first two years in this country. On the same hand, I crossed this country hitch-hiking twice both ways when I was in my twenties. Yes, that’s about 12,000 miles total. Of course, I didn’t not know this the first time I started. In addition, I hitched from San Francisco to St Louis, Missouri in the middle of the winter to be with a girl. My journey gave her a lot of face. She showed her appreciation accordingly. On the other hand, I have no doubt that today, a good percentage of hitch-hikers are dangerous by reason of insanity. Moreover, for me, living in Santa Cruz, there is an existential dilemma in picking up many hitch-hikers: Do I want to help reach their destination transient people I consider undesirable flotsam once they have reached that destination, down the street from my house?

But, this hitch-hiker is different, I can tell. He is trim, muscular and handsome. It turns out also that the quick part of my mind has noticed that he is wearing a “hiking hat” that must have cost $40 in the L.L.Bean’s catalogue. There is another guy next to him similarly well-outfitted. Both are in their late twenties. I stop my pick-up truck (my pick-up truck, an important detail, culturally). The first guy explains that he and his buddy just finished their two-day hike through Big Basin State Park and that they need to call their ride but that there is no phone reception where they are standing. Continue reading

A Good Society: The Coffee Proof

We still live in a good society. I keep forgetting this and life keeps reminding me.

I have a younger friend who graduated with honors and with a major in Philosophy. I liked him just for that. It sure beats a major in”Psychology,” or one in “Management.” Incidentally, I know that some of my readers know that I used to teach from a “Management Department.” My excuse is that I tried very hard never to teach whatever you think is “management” and that I pretty much succeeded overall. (This story will have digressions. It’s one of those days. Go with the flow.)

Anyway, my friend takes care of several coffee shops. He has become the owner’s right hand by din of being hard working and just plain reliable. Two things happened to him as a result. The first is political. My friend went to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where Stalinists communists are considered conservative. So, of course, he used to be kind of a left-winger. (That would be the honest kind, the kind that does not knowingly make false statements.) Nowadays, though, the closer the he gets to the books, to the actual accounting of the coffee shops, the more he moves to the political center. Who ever said philosophy is “useless?”

The other thing that happened to my friend through his work is that he became a coffee connoisseur. One day that he inquired about a present for me, I said, “ Surprise me with coffee.” He did. He brought me a small quantity of a variety I had never heard about. “How did you like it? “ he asked two days latter.

Well, I stopped lying – except in emergencies – at about the time I stopped lying to women. And, incidentally, there was never much reason to believe that I ever, ever deceived a single woman. Mostly, they listened to my lies smilingly because they liked the poetry of them.

At any rate, I replied to my friend that his gift coffee did not paint my particular town red. He had this superb response I have not been able to get out of my head for days now; he said that that particular coffee was “divisive.” I am so lucky! I live in a society so peaceful, so prosperous, so fulfilling that here, expensive coffee can be considered divisive!