That, in itself, was not odd. Going to the cafe these days is an inherently odd experience: buying a drink and actually drinking the drink is the least of the things you have to worry about. If that were all you did at a cafe, it would be all right.
Increasingly, though, you have to contend with ideas and ideologies, with notions and hypothesis, with symbols and signs and omens and portents. Things are always skinny or lite or medium or large or two-for-one or one-for-three or free or fair or naughty or sinful or de-this or anti-that or friendly-to-those or targeted-at-them. You can barely twitch a finger without politically offending someone or upsetting a delicate environmental balance or fattening something or lightening something else or offending some other party. And that's just talking about the cups the drink comes in, even before we come to the drink.
And as for the drink... ! There's decaffeinated-soya-mocha-latte-with-chocolate-topping not to mention extra-large-skinny-affo-gatto-with-cream-topping as well as medium-goats-milk-de-sugared-honey-flavoured-chai-latte and also... the list goes on. You could enter with a dictionary and lexicon for five different languages and still have no idea what you end up ordering. You're not just spoiled for choice, you're spoiled for choices about other choices that you are also spoiled for. And as the catalogues of beverages becomes more numerous and the interrelationships between them become more complex, strangely, the difference becomes less and less discernible by any of the five senses: the difference becomes, basically, less different. How on earth can you tell the difference between a decaffeinated-soya-mocha-latte-with-chocolate-topping, and a medium-goats-milk-de-sugared-honey-flavoured-chai-latte? Is it perhaps like the difference between a four-legged beagle and that rare breed of five-legged beagle that has been, freakishly, only born with four legs?
I remember vaguely going into the South Melbourne Starbucks some years ago and ordering an iced drink of some vague, generic, caffeine-based sort. Halfway through sipping it down it occurred to me that I might just as well have been sipping down the iced beverage sitting on the other table in the hands of the sharp-suited businessman talking to the peroxide blonde. As a matter of fact, I started to wonder about it - because it looked very like the sharp-suited businessman talking to the peroxide blonde was sipping my drink after all. I mentioned this to the sharp-suited businessman as I was getting ready to go, by way of a joke, and his face immediately turned several shades of purple; he began shouting at me fiercely, and he ripped a paper receipt out of his pocket and made passionate gesticulations at it. (Peroxide blonde, meanwhile, stirred her skinny latte whatever thing and looked out of the window.) I think he was still at it when I left.
One way of combating as much as possible the nebulous complexity encountered when going into cafes is by devising a short list of drinks to buy. Here is mine:
- Milkshakes, because cafes can very rarely fuck these up. Anyone who wants a several gallon hit of lactose clearly doesn't care much about the environment or health, anyway.
- Cappuccinos, just because.
- Mochas, because they have chocolate in them.
- Short blacks, because they're short and black: there's much less of them to stuff up. (It's the small target approach to barista-ing.)
I suppose in a perverted way I envy the person who sashays into a cafe and insouciantly orders a skinny fair-trade frappucino-hold-the-sugar-with-a-light-and-zesty-infusion-of-nutmeg-saucily-shimmied-in-mountain-bear-yoghurt. It's not merely the obvious linguistic dexterity they possess, but the exoticism inherent in the names that roll off their tongue, the hint of something magic and sublime glimmering over the horizon. Envy, yes - but as for me, I'll stick to plain old cappuccino, thanksverymuch.
Anyway, getting back to the odd thing that happened to me in the cafe, and that I thought was very odd indeed at the time and seems odder now, was this. I ordered one cappuccino. And the person next to me ordered exactly the same thing. One cappuccino. One. Cappuccino.
Out of the vast swirling list of possibilities and probabilities, of coffees still to be made and combined, this network of might-haves and would-be and maybes, this giant ocean of theoretical futures, we two happened to choose the same drink. How bizarrely, extraordinarily, superbly, shockingly, terrifyingly, weirdly unlikely is that? Wouldn't it be akin to standing alone in the middle of the desert, underneath a cloudless sky, and being struck instantaneously by lightning?
This is how I reacted: I grabbed my coffee and bolted down the hill.
It was only later, reflecting upon the matter in the quietness of the office, that I was able to look upon the whole sordid affair with more sobriety and equanimity.