The New York Coffee Bag

Coffee is a singular experience in New York. Though I have yet to experience the perfect cup of Joe here at the very least it is plentiful and there is a fair amount of independent shops — far fewer per-capita than should be but fair none-the-less. There is, however, a unique ritual to the purchase of coffee at the numerous corner stores (Bodegas in Brooklyn, Delis to Manhattanites). I don’t pretend to be an expert on East Coast culture (candle pin bowling? wtf?) so perhaps the experience is wider spread but to a transplant from the west coast it seems a New York enough thing.

First off when ordering coffee you wont find a little side counter with choices of sugar and creaming agents. Maybe its just a space issue but I’ve found even in coffee shops where space is less premium than at my bodega they insist on filling your coffee for you. This is sort of like traveling to Oregon for the first time and realizing you are not allowed to fill your own gas tank. What results is sometimes a light brew far too milky for my tastes but an experience which makes you feel like you are getting white-glove service. The delivery of sugar being in increments of 1, 2, or 3 is far more reserved and I find a much better fit as I tend to over-sugar my brew.

If the full-service coffee event is easy to adjust to the coffee doggie bag is simply odd to the out of towner. Being from an environmentally-minded town in California I’m probably more sensitive than most to the wastefulness of bags given out almost everywhere. No, thank you, I don’t need a bag for this water bottle that I’m about to open and enjoy instantly, Ms. Duane Reade. But if you visit a corner store in New York with any amount of regularity (usually meaning twice in a week) you may find the same being asked about your to-go coffee. A bag? For coffee?

What a delightfully wasteful practice! How so very much New York. Having moved here two years ago I am happy to have missed the plethora of styrofoam I would have inevitably been exposed to and forced to dispose of on a daily basis. Coffee to-go still comes in a paper cup with a sealed plastic lid like the rest of America. So what’s with the bag offer? Perhaps its an offering to the walking and public transit riding New Yorker who, unlike the rest of the U.S. may suffer convenience for lack of cup-holder in their Urban Assault Vehicle.

Despite the wastefulness, the New York style coffee doggie bag does present a nice little pleasantry I’ve not found elsewhere in the U.S. Often folded closed with care and packed up nicely-fit the bag is often full service with napkins neatly pressed up against the coffee so as to let the cup stand straight upwards and avoid spillage. Not only do the bag and napkin arrangement prevent wet clothing on the run to the subway they also provide a gratifying unwrapping experience. Its like your parting gift at a birthday that you can’t wait to unwrap and when open is overwhelmingly adequate and expectant as well as lacking the splendor of a personal gift. It’s one of the few occurrences in New York I’ve found that celebrates the mundane and whose procedure lends a bit of ritual to everyday life — even if most of the time when asked if I would like a bag I just respond with “No thanks.â€?

2 Comments on this Post.

  1. 🙂 I love this. this reminds me of my trip when we walked down to the bodega for breakfast. when i mention to people the coffee in the bag thing (and how you don’t do your own cream/sugar) people look at me like i am a nut.

  2. Monserrat

    Nate, I truly enjoyed your humor and desire to understand the culture of coffee and brown bags in NYC. My father always folded his little brown bag, when he was alive, into his back pocket and recycled it (almost)every time he visited our local bodega. It was thru him i learned the valuable lesson of ‘keeping it simple’. I have a few fav shops i can turn you onto in respects to quality coffee. Be prepared to be very well caffeinated on this excursion. Let me know when…… cheers, Monserrat

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