Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Coffee Shop "Character-Watching"

There is no better place than La Colombe for people watching in Philadelphia. La Columbe is a no frills coffee shop right off of Rittenhouse Square. And by no frills, I mean they sell coffee, brewed in Italy, that tastes like espresso. There’s a small display case on the far left side of the coffee bar where you wait for your drink that early in the morning features a handful of pain au chocolate. But otherwise you get your coffee in a Florentine-patterned mug or to-go cup, a real spoon perched on a plate in front of you to stir your milk (which is promptly whisked away as soon as you’re done) and some very thin square paper napkins if you want them.

And by people-watching I do not mean 20-60-something year old women wearing the latest fall rain coat or shade of orange that’s pictured in clips in the style section of the Sunday New York Times. I really mean “character-watching.” In fact I don’t think Philadelphia has the kind of people-watching you get in New York. If there’s a place to sit and watch the rich, famous or glamorous parade by, I have yet to find it. A really c-level documentary on Rittenhouse Square—made last year as a favor to someone who had lived in Rittenhouse most of his life—featured several older men talking about all the pretty ladies who pass through the square. But to be perfectly honest, in the summertime, you’re as likely to see a homeless man sprawled on a bench with his hands down his pants or a teenager with spiked hair playing hacky sack, as you are a “pretty lady.” Of course, this is part of what gives Philadelphia its unique “charm.” And at La Columbe, it’s out it full force. There are the ubiquitous students, with their Macs and books. I’m going to guess law or Wharton for the girl sitting off to my right with the black turtleneck under a v-neck sweater. There’s the young Israeli guy serving coffee. (La Columbe gets a big international crowd. And it’s very much an “international coffee shop”—as in no tacit rule that some people aren’t supposed to talk as others study and people put a bag on a second chair so no one joins them. Instead people yap, often loudly, and the “barrista”—except I don’t think the Israeli would call himself that—seems to know half the people in the room.) Then there’s this rather strange, lanky man who sat down at a table near a door and put his finger in a little hole that looks like it would open the door, except the door doesn’t open. He kept getting up, leaving his coat, stepping outside, and returning to his table. But he was just joined by a woman with a bag from DiBruno’s—the local version of Grace’s that originated as a small Italian business, but recently moved to a much larger, more brightly lit space, added produce, and raised their prices. So anyway, maybe the man isn’t as strange as I thought after all. There’s a guy who’s clearly on his way to yoga—wearing a pack with a blue mat tucked into it—who’s talking to a woman wearing UGG boots. And there’s always your share of people who look like they might not have brushed their hair in a few days.

I should probably get back to reading a book about the American Colonies.


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