Regarding “The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee”

By Duke


the working class at herkimer coffeeYour picture of the corner café says it all. First off, I think you’re too hard on the harder generation. Your posit—that things have only gotten worse—is arguable. Hitler and the Fascists were taken down, along with the Iron Curtain. Today, more people live on the planet with more individual rights and dignity than at any time in human history. That, because of courageous folks like MLK, Gandhi, Dorothea Dix, Walter Reuther, Mandela, etc. When I locked myself in my San Francisco apartment for one year in 1983 to study the philosophers, I came across an ancient Greek or Hindu God who believed in the cosmic duality of all life. That for every negative there was its dialectical opposite: a positive. Thus, to put it plainly, for every tragedy—at the same exact second—a wonderful creation blossoms, whether it’s falling in love, holding your baby for the first time, or just chuckling wordlessly with a old friend. (I think this is where Nietzsche was before that fateful day in Milan when he lost his mind). And this is how I stayed centered.

Secondly, when I look harder at the younger generation, so welded to their tech gizmos, with nobody talking or looking at each other, I feel only the loneliness of a crowded NYC subway car. When my generation returned from our poverty-laden Grand Tours of Europe in the mid-70’s, cafés almost immediately sprang up all over Berkeley and San Francisco’s outer suburbs, mirroring the café culture of Paris, SF’s North Beach, and NYC’s Greenwich Village. What was striking was the community one found there with political and cultural conversation. At times, one found friendship. One didn’t have to join a formal monthly book club because all the important books were being discussed—informally—at the café table. It would’ve been rude to bring a typewriter to a café, not because of the noise but because it would be such a Private Action in a place of Public Interaction. Now I only go to a café when you and I meet every once in awhile, because I know I’m promised a public interaction, or to put it plainly, a conversation. Otherwise, I seek conversation in other locales or do without. I think Johnson and Boswell would have a stroke if they saw how their tea/café culture of public interaction has disappeared into lonely, private computer cells. As Sartre would say, “It’s nauseating.”


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Editor’s note: PNA Village author Dick Gillett’s most recent post, “The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee”, generated the above response from a reader friend. Dick’s numerous articles for our Village blog include, “Martín’s Journey to the White House”“Johnny Cash & Global Warming”, and “Monthly Book Group at Couth Buzzard”, and we hope to hear more from Duke in the future!

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The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee

The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee II (
By Dick Gillett

Stephen bent over his loom, quiet, watchful and steady. A special contrast, as every man was, in the forest of looms where Stephen worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of machinery at which he labored.
—From Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

It’s 9:01 on a Wednesday morning as I enter Herkimer Coffee up on Phinney Ridge for my usual caffeine fix. Along the shop’s left wall, an array of people sit at tables, coffee cups within reach, laptops open, heads down—as if the factory whistle just blew and the working class had filed in and bent over their machines.

In contrast, as a “retired worker” I mosey in and take my “work station” in front of barista Chad, who sees me and reaches for the macchiato cup; he knows my drink.
In casual conversation, he and Sean, the other barista on duty, both reveal they grew up as only children, which was my also my situation. (Naturally we understand this makes us special).

This brief palaver serves to lighten me up a bit after reading the print edition (I’m afraid I’m a print news junkie) of The New York Times. The paper continues to tell us about the unending crisis of refuges flooding into Europe, Putin’s Russian jets now in Syria, and the latest special absurdity of much of our domestic political news.

The Working Class at Herkimer Coffee (

Of course the laptop “working class” image above is my fantasy. But in my mind, it serves to separate me from my fellow human beings of the succeeding generations. (For instance I don’t have a laptop and only clumsily use instant messaging.) But as it frequently does, the sight of younger people at Herkimer’s—busily working away (or goofing off)—fills me with a certain longing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have an intergenerational dialogue? An honest-to-goodness dialogue about our insane world, inasmuch as we are all bound together as citizens traveling on Planet Earth?

On the other hand, there would be those who with much justification—seeing as how we of the older generations have screwed up pretty much everything—would say, “And what do you, old-timer, have to tell us to our edification?” My response might be, “And how do you, one or two generations removed from me, see yourself and your families, especially your children, in relation to our current and future world?”

Could a starting point be a reflection on Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S.? I hear that there are intergenerational dialogues going on here and there on such topics, some even within reach of our Phinney Neighborhood Association. Might our own PNA Village be a catalyst for such?

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Author Dick Gillett is a Member of PNA Village and a retired Episcopal priest. He has written numerous articles for our Village blog including, “Martín’s Journey to the White House”“Johnny Cash & Global Warming”, and “Monthly Book Group at Couth Buzzard”.

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