Before the Bar

after Kafka

A man came from the country to the city looking for work.

Partway through his first disheartening day of job searching, Harvey was ready for a good stiff caffeinated beverage. But frankly intimidated by the array of options along every one of the city’s main thoroughfares – to say nothing of the youthful, tattooed and pierced, laptop toting, designer headphone wearing denizens of this multitude of cafés – he didn’t know where to turn.

So he was greatly relieved when he saw a familiar sign:

CASSIOPEIA’S COFFEE HOUSE

Why, they had a CASSIOPEIA’S back home, and it wasn’t intimidating at all. It was where everyone went to have their coffee, a de facto community drop-in centre.

The fact that this one had ‘…& Espresso Bar’ appended to its name, and was located on the ground floor of an obscure office building, looking not unlike a Masonic temple, added to the mystery, but didn’t put him off. He charged in through the attractive faux-antique seating area with its wood mouldings, black-and-white tiled floor and framed turn-of-the-century photos of the city that was, and went straight up to the cash.

It was 11:20 on a Monday, a brief lull before the lunchtime crowd came in for their lattes and cappuccinos.

“Good morning, sir. What can I get for you?”

“Well, I don’t know, I…”

The selection was dizzying. There were no fewer than four artfully chalked up boards, where his local CASSIOPEIA’S had only one.

“I gotta say, I was stumbling around the street looking for a place to sit and take a load off and, well, I was relieved to see the CASSIOPEIA’S name. A little taste of home.”

The well-scrubbed young barista in the black apron wasn’t all that interested, but was well trained to pretend otherwise.

“Where are you visiting from?”

“I’m not visiting, I… I’ve just moved to the city. From Springhurst.”

‘Amos’, according to his nametag, had heard of it but had never been. He rarely ventured outside the city’s boundaries. Why would you, save to visit other similarly large centres well supplied with coffee houses of their own?

“There’s just so much to choose from…”

“Yes. The outlying stores in places like Spring-… What was it?”

“Springhurst.”

“Right, tend to be second-wave coffee bars. But this is CASSIOPEIA’S HQ.” (Harvey was too embarrassed to admit he hadn’t even known it was a chain. He’d always thought it was just a local mom-and-pop café. After all, Springhurst only had the one.)

“This is a fourth-wave establishment.”

“Fourth wave. Wow.”

He’d missed two successive waves and didn’t even know it. Maybe that was where the extra blackboards came from.

“So, what would you like?”

“Oh, I’ll just have a…”—dare he ask for something with a name so embarrassingly Italianate as an ‘Americano’? He’d never had the courage back in Springhurst. Was afraid he’d seem pretentious, like he was putting on airs. But here – why not?

“Would you like that hot or iced?”

“Well, I guess maybe I will have it iced, come to think of it,” Harvey said, wiping his stippled brow. It had been a stressful morning of pavement pulverization, resume distribution, and now coffee selection. He thought he’d pamper himself a little.

“For here or to go?”

“For here, please.”

Amos scribbled the order on a sticky note with a grease pencil and slapped it on a drinking glass. “For here iced Americano,” he called out. “Do you have one of our member rewards cards?”

“Oh, yes – actually, I do. I don’t know if it’s valid here, but…” Harvey fished out a well-worn, bent cornered paper card with no fewer than 7 (of 10) stamps on the back, each with its own die-cut impression of a coffee mug.

“Whoa, haven’t seen one of these in a while,” Amos couldn’t help noting. “I’ll have to create an electronic account for you.” As he entered Harvey’s vital stats, Amos entertained fantasies of selling the old-timey card online as a nostalgia item. The city was full of the sort of retro coffee, graphic design and brand fetishists who went in for that sort of thing.

“There,” he swiftly produced the new plastic card, “I’ve upgraded you to Silver for your loyalty and length of patronage.”

A tingle of excitement surged through Harvey, the giddy pleasure of exclusivity. “

What does Silver get me?”

“A free specialty coffee on your birthday, and access to our priority online ordering service, but only between 10 am and 3 pm, so off-peak.”

Nothing to sniff at, Harvey thought. He was starting to like this place. He felt the city opening up to him, like a warm, welcoming set of arms.

“Your drink will come up over there,” Amos gestured toward the gleaming Bezerra espresso machine.

“Thanks.” Harvey shuffled along.

While he was waiting, he noticed customers bypassing the cash with a wink or a nod from Amos (“Hi, Juan”—“Hello, Veronica”—“Nice to see you today, Mr. Grimes”) and heading up a short flight of smoky black wooden stairs. A golden handrail—doubtless made of brass—curved up behind the bar on both sides, leading to an obscure door, upholstered in leather.

“What’s up there?” Harvey asked the barista.

“That’s our exclusive members’ lounge.”

“Does my Silver card allow me to—”

“No, you need a Gold card for that.”

“How do I get a Gold card?”

“Just earn 150 points in two months.”

It didn’t sound impossible. But how to get the points?

“CASSIOPEIA’S a vain and jealous mistress,” he said with a smile. “Be loyal to her. Pay her tribute, daily, and you’ll get there. Iced Americano.”

“That’s me.” Harvey amiably took his drink. Not sure what to do with himself, he hovered nearby, sipping at possibly the best coffee of his life. He was still thinking about Gold. “150 points, eh? How many coffees is that?”

“Depends what you’re drinking. Drip coffee”—the barista said it with an unmistakeable hint of contempt, as if it even deserved the name ‘coffee’—“is worth a half-point. Our espresso beverages, one point. Premium coffee preparations, two points.”

Harvey quickly did the math. It was…. well, it was about three cups of coffee a day. At $3.50 a cup, that would quickly run into real money for a guy without a job. He had to find one fast. And if he wanted to get to 150, he either needed to develop more expensive tastes or to start drinking a lot more coffee.

“Is there anything above Gold?” he asked idly.

“Absolutely. Platinum is next. It gives you access to our steam-punk inspired Victorian Coffee Salon where your preferred drink is served in a sealed and pressurized galvanized steel thermos, complete with its own steam release valve, to ensure that it’s conserved at the peak brewing temperature of 205 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Is that here in the building?”

The barista smirked. “Yes, sir. This is HQ. We have the whole building.”

“And so, Platinum, that’s the top then?”

“No, then there’s the Uranium level. Double cortado,” the barista went on creating liquid bliss by the ounce as happy customers came and went. “Uranium members enjoy one of the rarest coffees on earth – Kava Bos Mutus – made from fermented beans passed through the gut of a yak.”

Harvey didn’t know what to think of that.

“It’s prepared in a modified Turkish semaver and served in the relaxing, earthy yet refined atmosphere of an authentic Mongolian yurt.”

“My gosh. Where’s that?”

“A few floors up. There’s a dedicated elevator behind our Platinum salon. Decaf flat white,” he called out.

A bone-thin blonde woman swooped in to collect it.

“Interesting thing about the Uranium card,” the barista said in a confidential whisper, “is that it contains a tiny fragment of actual Uranium-234 with a unique atomic signature. The level of decay tells the card reader how long you’ve been a member. But you have to have had a lifetime dose of not more than 500 millisieverts to qualify – for legal reasons, you understand.”

Harvey didn’t, but in any case.

“So that’s it. That’s as high as it goes?”

“Oh no, not by a long shot. Next is Plutonium – our blackout tasting room. There’s no lighting, and no speaking permitted. Our silent coffee sommeliers select only the finest single-origin coffees, flown in that day from Africa, the Middle East, and South America, and serve them in demi-tasse flights of four. It’s a sumptuous environment of pure olfactory indulgence.”

Harvey couldn’t even begin to imagine. He was almost finished his Iced Americano, getting weaker and flatter as he neared the bottom. Those treacherous ice cubes, like his pathetic Silver card, were only diluting the experience. “After that it’s Einsteinium, our super-elite coffee laboratory, where you become the barista, and our internationally certified coffee cupping technologists lead you through the creation of your own exclusive CASSEOPEIA’s beverage. Members draw from our global bean repository, including cryogenically preserved green coffee beans from all the best region-specific growing years of the past three decades.”

“It sounds… decadent.”

“Oh, it is. But the best part is: once you’ve selected your beans, your roast, and your serving preparation, half of the resulting brew is flash frozen, chemically decomposed and analyzed, hard-coded on disk, and reproduced to your exact specifications on subsequent visits.”

My god. Harvey had no idea that coffee could be so… spiritual. As his mind ascended to contemplate each more refined level, his heart sank down to that of ants and grubs, where his Silver card had left him helpless, shapeless in a pool of green envy.

“But surely that’s it,” he insisted. “There’s can’t be anything beyond…”

“There is one more level, but we are forbidden to talk about its privileges. In fact, no staff member below the Uranium level has ever even seen it. Caramel macchiato.”

“Can’t you at least tell me the name?”

“Of course. Californium.”

Californium. Elysium. Paradise. Coffee’s Mount Olympus. Could Harvey dream of one day scaling its heights? Goddammit, he would try.

 

Within three weeks, Harvey had found himself a job where drinking coffee was an absolute necessity: a telemarketing sales rep – carpet cleaning by the square foot. The portion of his wages that didn’t go to rent and food, and the bare minimum of the latter, went to CASSIOPEIA’S.

Soon Harvey knew the difference between a latte, a café-au-lait, a macchiato, and a ristretto blanco. He could distinguish between the more acidic terroir of East African coffees and the nuttier notes of their South American cousins. He knew an Arabica bean from a Robusta. He knew a Bodum from a Moka from a Chemex. And he learned to despise the office Keurig machine with all the blackness of the thickening coffee deposits on his myocardial fibres.

One day he let a CASSIOPEIA’S cast member talk him into trying a pour-over iced coffee, and it became, for a time, his go-to drink. Of course, it didn’t look much different from the plastic cone and paper filter he’d used back home to make his own single-serve coffee. But there was something about that hourglass decanter, the sinuous curve of the gooseneck kettle, the patience it took to wait for the water to saturate the coffee grounds, drip through, and then to saturate them again. The climactic eruption of flavour on the front of his tongue, and the faintly bitter finish as it washed over the back, was the closest thing he’d found to… well, there was no time for such complex affairs. Coffee was his passion, Gold Status his dream.

As time passed, he forgot all about Platinum, Uranium, Plutonium, and the rest. If he could just reach Gold, get into that exclusive members’ lounge, all doors would be open to him – he had come to believe – not just at CASSIOPEIA’S but in life generally. He went to bed every night vividly picturing the lucrative social connections he would make, the deals done over ristretto shots, frothier than the créma on your morning espresso.

As the two-month mark approached, and he broke 100 points, he could barely contain his excitement. Nor could he contain all that coffee. Through the ten-day home stretch he drank an unconscionable five cups a day, racking up those last crucial points. He’d already been sternly reprimanded by his boss for his too frequent trips to the washroom. If he drank any more coffee, he would not only explode but probably lose his job as well. This called for extreme measures. He had to get his hands on a Gold card before his finances, or his kidneys, gave out.

Finally, it occurred to him, he might be able to just buy a Gold card on the secondary market. He took to the Internet and found someone selling theirs for the rather steep sum of $200. That’d buy a hell of a lot of coffee. He’d also never carried out a peer-to-peer Internet transaction in the big city and was worried about getting mugged, shanked, or otherwise ripped off.

No, he steadied his resolve. To achieve by deceit a reward of merit was beneath him. He would do it honestly or not at all.

 

A little more than a week later, he presented himself at his local CASSIOPEIA’S dressed in his best suitjacket and ordered his new favourite – the Peruvian flat black.

“Today is my birthday,” he said, beaming, as he handed over his card.

“And a very happy birthday to you,” said Tina, the pleasant afternoon clerk. “Your drink is on us.”

“I still get the points though, right?”

“Absolutely. You’re at… oh, I see. This is a happy birthday. You’re entitled to an upgrade.” He’d broken 150. Harvey was almost bursting with joy.

She dipped into a drawer below the cash and from a silky velum envelope unsheathed the glinting metallic Excalibur of loyalty cards. She ran it through the scanner with a sensuous swipe.

“There you go,” she said, presenting it with both hands to a positively vibrating Harvey. “Your new ‘Legacy Gold’ card.”

‘Legacy’ – that sounded good. That was what he’d come to the city to create: his very own LEGACY.

“Now I should tell you…” she started to say, reaching over the cash for a pamphlet, and finding the holder empty.

But Harvey, anxious to enjoy his new privileges, had already collected his drink and was on his way up the black staircase, barely touching the burnished bannister. He was not the same man who had come to city a mere eight weeks ago. He was a fully initiated urban sophisticate and this was his graduation day. He was Gold now. He would have no truck with brass.

As he approached the portal, a large man in a uniform not unlike a tuxedo held the door open a crack. In all the hours Harvey had spent gazing fixedly at that door, waiting for the merest tantalizing peak inside, he’d never noticed a greeter – a concierge? a security guard? – standing there before. This too seemed to be… new.

“Good afternoon, sir. Can I see your member’s card?”

“By all means.” Harvey proudly presented his Legacy Gold.

The guard swiped it through a portable card reader attached to his branded CASSIOPEIA’S smartphone. There was an annoying beep and a look of disapproval on his face.

“What is it?” Harvey asked.

“I’m sorry,” the guard handed the card back to him, “but this doesn’t grant you access to our member’s lounge.”

“But it’s Gold!”

“Yes, Legacy Gold.”

Harvey shook his head, bewildered.

“It’s a bit difficult to follow, I know, but our member rewards program has changed.”

“When?”

“This morning.”

“How is that possible? I was just here last—”

The guard simply shrugged. Wasn’t his problem.

“So what does Legacy Gold entitle me to?”

“It’s equivalent to Silver in our older rewards programme.”

“What?!” He’d drunk a Hudson River’s worth of coffee for nothing? “Then what do I need to get in there?”

“You need a Platinum card now.”

“Platinum!” he shrieked. “How do I qualify for that?”

“You need to collect 250 points in two months.”

No Hudson, this—it was the Amazon in full flood. His bladder, his ego, and his employment would not survive.

“So Gold is now Platinum?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“What happened to Uranium, and Plutonium?”

“Uranium is now Plutonium, Plutonium is Einsteinium, and Ein— well, you get the idea.”

“What about Californium?”

“Californium is now Californium+X and is the exclusive domain of our CEO and a small circle of his personal invitees.”

Harvey was ready to die. Crestfallen, his new confidence sapped, the country boy in him was too polite to insist on anything. “A-hem,” someone cleared their throat behind him.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the guard said, “but I’m going to have to ask you to keep this area clear. Other customers are—”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Harvey, in his good jacket, stepped aside as a better-dressed couple were admitted without so much as a wink. His outrage turned to humiliation. It was, after all, still his birthday.

“Sir,” Tina bounded up the stairs, pamphlet in hand, “I found you a copy of the new…” – but she could see it was no longer necessary.

Harvey sulked and slouched past her without saying a word, and on his way out took one last glance over his shoulder, just in time to see the security guard finally closing that door.


P.D. Walter is an author of novels, short stories and screenplays based in Toronto. His most recent novella, ‘Adultescence’, is a hilarious and moving tale of intergenerational conflict and maturity delayed until it’s almost too late (available from Amazon.com). He makes his home on the web at:pdwalterbooks.com