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On the Coffee Shop
An ode to a public space in Old San Juan.
I was standing on line at the coffee shop this morning when the barista called out my name. My daily black iced americano was on the counter, along with my husband’s oat milk cortado. I hadn’t ordered; I was behind someone, dilly-dallying on my phone, giving out a half-hearted “buen día” to the other regulars as they trickled in (it becomes whole-hearted after a few sips of the coffee). I’m committed to standing on line despite knowing that she knows my order, that because we’ve been coming every morning for years, she also provides Benny with his biscotti bucket filled with water first thing. Being a regular provides special treatment but one should never become too comfortable, is my view.
There are many coffee shops in Old San Juan—perhaps too many. The ones I like, I try to frequent, but the only one we go to almost every single day is a kiosk called Cuatro Estaciones in the Plaza de Armas. You’d be forgiven for not knowing it even has a name—many locals seem to forget, to not know what we’re talking about when we refer to it—but everyone knows where and what it is.
They’re open from about 7 a.m. to midnight, which is the right amount of hours for a coffee shop, if you ask me, and it’s a no-frills operation. They have oat milk, of course (from Costco), and they have syrups; I’ve heard them call out an iced lavender oat milk latte, which shocked me. (More, I think, for the audacity of the order itself outside the safe environs of a minimalist third wave operation than for the completion of it.)
What’s so special about this coffee shop is that it's a place that brings together the neighborhood: The folks who work at the drugstore and the guy who runs a television station; someone who’s the head of a globally renowned nonprofit and the secretaries in city hall. Everyone comes for their morning espresso and bochinche. It’s a space to sit, calmly, before the day begins. Its promise keeps people arriving with enough time to be a human before morphing into a laborer, even the ones without dogs waking them up.
If we’re really early and the chairs and tables aren’t set up yet, regulars will help out. We’ll be trusted with the key while the barista continues to set up for the day. We know the layout, which tables get three chairs and which get two. I always enjoy this, for the perhaps deranged reason that I love the satisfying actions of hospitality work even though I can’t deal with the customers.
In last week’s essay about the schlepping necessary to keeping our house stocked with food, I complained a lot about San Juan’s car-based infrastructure. What I love about San Juan, though, is this space, this ritual for beginning every day. It is a priceless, special space, one that reminds me of the uniqueness of living somewhere small and walkable. I’d always wanted a regular coffee shop like this one—the dream of a ‘90s child—and I don’t take it for granted. It teaches me about the ways in which public space such as a plaza can be used to facilitate conviviality, the role of affordability as scaffolding for that conviviality, and how it changes the tenor of a day to start it from such a place.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen will be a guide to all of my holiday baking recipes in one place—plus a very easy vegan pumpkin spice panna cotta. I know that the Recipe Index has gotten unwieldy, so I’ll be trying to add some more categories to make it more clear.
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My small capsule jewelry collection with By Ren, whose designs are handmade to order in Philadelphia, is live through the end of 2023. There are cocktail picks with a pearl on them, which are my favorite thing ever! Perfect gift.
I’m doing a lot of re-reading to be inspired for a new project, but I will say I’ve adored the Chris Kraus collection Social Practices, which invites hopping through.
Nothing special, honestly!