Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Bottomless Cup of Coffee on Life Support

On a piece of spiral notebook paper, a makeshift sign was recently posted on a refrigerator at my favorite Bronx diner, a greasy spoon as cozy and as reasonably priced as they come. The notice simply read: “Coffee small, $1.25; large, $1.75”—an increase of a whole quarter in both instances. Now, what these sudden and considerable price rises revealed—from a place ever-slow in raising its prices—is that ordinary people inflation is spiraling out of control. Forget the government’s Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is cup-of-coffee clueless and has been wrongly telling us for years that inflation is under control.

I should first make it clear that my diner’s flavorful and aromatic Cup of Joe is still a bargain at $1.25. I fully understand why the place has to raise its prices on everything from the Burger Deluxe to the BLT. And I suspect the new Starbuck’s, just a few short blocks away, doesn’t have much of anything on its menu for $1.25, and certainly not a cup of coffee.

In a neighborhood with $4.40 per gallon gas prices and commercial landlords regularly running longtime businesses out of business, the $1.25 cup of coffee assumes higher meaning. The same man who sells the $1.25 cup of coffee remembered what it was like when he first assumed ownership of his little diner in the mid-1970s. When all the bills were paid back then, he said, he always had extra money to “play around with." From his perspective once upon a time, it was worth working seven days a week. But nowadays, he barely survives toiling the very same seven-day weeks, which are not surprisingly more physically grueling for a man of sixty than a man of twenty-five. And the only reason he has been able to remain in business, he wistfully added, is because of his fair-minded landlord—a notable exception to the area rule and a man who values loyalty and stability above all else, even maximization of profits.

I am happy to report that the bottomless cup of coffee still lives where I, on occasion, ingest and imbibe, but I gather that it is on life support both there and elsewhere. The bottomless cup of coffee and indeed the American dream have gotten awfully expensive. Somebody's obviously got money to play around with these days, but it's no longer the greasy-spoon owner and the preponderance of his customers.

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