I miss the bad old days and cups of so-so coffee

When I started working in Hollywood, I’d drive from the beach to Paramount Studios, where my writing gig on the television show Cheers took place.

The fastest way to get to work was to take the motorway. But this was my first job in the entertainment industry and so I chose to take the longer route, snaking along Sunset Boulevard from its start at the beach to the grittier neighbourhood of Hollywood. I’d cruise through the tree-lined and expensive neighbourhoods of Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Bel Air and wonder how long I’d have to wait to be able to afford a Hollywood screenwriter’s dream: a rambling Spanish-style home, a chilly and distant wife and three ungrateful children.

The entire drive took almost 45 minutes – on some mornings, a whole hour. The more efficient way to work was to zip on to the Interstate 10 motorway, then zip off at the studio exit, but I rarely chose the efficient route. I liked the long way. I liked daydreaming. I still do, which is another set of problems entirely.

For some reason, the route I took just felt more glamorous and atmospheric, a jolt of old Hollywood to kick off the day, which at the time – I was 24 – seemed like things worth taking the long way for.

These days, no surprise, I take the freeway. I’ve had jolts aplenty.

But here’s how old I am: on the way to the studio, I’d stop for coffee. Back then, whoever thought up the idea of Starbucks had yet to do so, which meant that if you wanted to sip a coffee along Sunset Boulevard, you had to turn into the drive-through McDonald’s at the foot of the road in Santa Monica.

Back then, the coffee at McDonald’s was about the best coffee you could buy quickly and on the road. It never occurred to me that I would ever want anything better. Drinking a McDonald’s coffee on the long, leafy drive to my first job in show business was, at the time, about all I could have wished for. The loveless marriage and the spoiled children, I learnt from careful observation, wasn’t something I really needed to aim for. Luckily, as of this writing, I’ve dodged those bullets.

A few years later, after I had achieved some success in Hollywood, someone in Seattle figured out that people would spend a little more – OK, a lot more – for a cup of coffee if it was better, so along came Starbucks and everyone else to upgrade the experience, to use the term marketers love.

You can now get a cup of excellent coffee pretty much all over this town and every other town. Hipsters in big cities all over the world are opening up chic little coffee places, staffed with appropriately withering and unfriendly baristas, offering up delicious and expensive coffee drinks with a condescending attitude designed to snap the customer right out of whatever daydream he was floating on.

It’s better coffee but the experience isn’t the same. That’s true of all of the “upgraded experiences” we’ve been served lately. It’s awfully convenient to have my entire music collection stored on my telephone, but I miss the hiss and crackle of the vinyl, the minutes I’d spend flipping through my LPs (and, later, my CDs). Also, CD racks weren’t $600 (Dh2,200), like my iPhone.

There aren’t many things more gloriously lazy than scrolling through the Netflix film catalogue, choosing a movie to watch that very instant. But it’s not quite as romantic as watching one on screen at a shabby revival cinema.

And there isn’t a chef worth his toque who isn’t “upgrading the burger experience” by stuffing what should be a humble disk of meat with all sorts of luxe ingredients, such as truffles and foie gras. Sure, it’s “better”. But it’s no fun at all.

Perhaps this is true of other cities, but right now Los Angeles is undergoing a furious upgrading all over the place. Dive taco stands are suddenly hipster-fied and gussied up. Little coffee nooks are sprouting French press coffeemakers and Fair Trade maps of Guatemala. And all of it can be enjoyed while accompanied by a soundtrack composed of limitless music choices, piped into our ears with itsy-bitsy speakers of previously unimaginable quality.

And yet I miss the so-so coffee at McDonald’s and the daydreamy drive to the office. I miss the low-rent taco and filling up the CD changer and a burger that may or may not even contain any actual meat. In other words, just because the quality of something goes up, doesn’t mean it’s really any better. Sometimes bad is pretty good.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: September 21, 2013 04:00 AM

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