Monday, July 27, 2015

Writing in the Cafe of Babel

In the not too distant past, Panera opened a new coffee shop in Washington DC's Chinatown. I somehow found myself in the area one early Saturday morning and so went in and discovered it was easily the biggest Panera I had ever seen.

Beyond the ordering counter near the door was another level where sat a large number of people, even though it was so early in the day. I placed my order and was given a small electronic device to take with me. I ascended the steps up to a second level and found an open table. A few minutes later, a waiter found me--guided to my location by the electronic device--and gave me my order.

What struck me about this visit was the crowdedness of the cafe given the early hour, its unusual size, the waiters arriving at your table without knowing where you went except for the electronic homing device, and the various sorts of people there.

I saw guys in business suits, young suits of races I couldn't identify, languages I had never heard before. People from all around the world had congregated in this Chinatown cafe early one Saturday morning.

It goes without saying that "there are no Chinese in Chinatown," and I didn't see any here on this occasion. That was the one missing ethnic group.

The varieties of races mimicked the varieties of coffee on the menu. Standard coffee, lattes, espresso, tea, smoothies. And once the drink has been decided, there are the breads and bagels.

The Café of Babel, with its infinite choices of drinks, suggests a certain frustration and impossibility of satisfaction, since there are so many variations than one could never live long enough sample them all even if one drank something different every day of his life. A person could simply order a drink at random and hope for an enjoyable experience. But it's like blindly throwing a dart at a world map and expecting to hit your hometown.

I know many visitors to the Café of Babel who pick the first drink they see on the menu and then order the same thing every day, simply as a method of avoiding the chaos and nadir of the impossible menu. Others will choose something different every day and claim they are on a journey to discover the tastiest drink, but it's clear from their demeanor and tone of voice that they don't believe what they say and know it is a futile endeavor. And of course, they long ago forgot which drinks they had already sampled.

As I write in the cafe, I see someone look at his drink in a funny way, take it back to the counter, and pretend that it isn't what he ordered. He returns with a different drink but seems no more pleased with that one than the first. He visits several different cafes every day, repeating the same ruse, with the same unsatisfactory results.

I overhear a conversation among several old timers complaining of too many choices, and their plans to write a petition, to be signed by thousands, demanding that the number of drink choices be reduced to only three to avoid confusing everyone.

As for myself, I order the same drink every day, because I long ago recognized the false allure of infinite choices that are essentially the same after all, despite their exotic and enticing titles. By drinking the standard coffee, all possible variations are contained within it. By drinking one, one drinks them all.

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