I thought of moving to China after my father died, not long after my graduation. He had lived to see me graduate. And afterward I was living in a bedroom in my aunt’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, under a bed with an Afghan quilt. The sidewalks were covered with a kind of young person who was like me, but not really like me: hipsters in glasses thick as goggles, who wore clothes my aunt would say didn’t ever fit right. She would watch them from the windows that looked out onto the street. It was a vinyl-sided apartment building and she had lived on the first floor for thirty years, since my uncle had left her. These hipsters were like me because they pretended at reading books, in all of the cafes, and I would overhear them talking about Kafka and Kant and Kerouac. They all had good educations. I had also had a good education, though I’d hated getting it – had done it in many ways for my father – and had sort of escaped it, its classes and dances and so on, by entrenching myself in the school paper which would always send me out of town to football games in the green hills, where I’d write down what had happened and buy a sundae at some local dive. Anyway, thanks to that, I’d graduated and gotten a quick job as a reporter for a local newspaper, covering business and transportation issues and reporting on the elementary school events of the local polish community, and I was sent to some kind of coffee shop that my editor thought would make a good story. We had a column going where every week, we profiled a new business. There were a lot of new businesses, since the neighborhood was changing – “gutting out,” my aunt would say. “Gentrifying,” my boss, the editor, would say. I went there asking to interview the owner, and introduced myself. There were two owners, actually, two older gay men who maybe had been in love with eachother, once, or perhaps were only ever friends who quibbled. They were mirrors of the same absent man, and sat across from me at one of the café’s old marble tables as I took in the atmosphere – twenty or so hipsters, in slouchy cottons, sitting at the cool marble tables looking deeply into their laptops. We had a conversation about the neighborhood, and the economy – this was when the economy was good, and we all thought everyone could get a job doing whatever they had ever wanted to do – and one of the owners who had a thin face and a white moustache said, “You should see the applicants that come in here.” And the other owner who had ropy arms, and wore a tank top said, “They’ve gone to Harvard. And they speak Chinese. And they want to pour coffee.”
At dinner I told my aunt about that, because I thought it was sort of funny. After all, I had gone to Harvard and I could speak Chinese – only a little. I had taken a year of the class, as a kind of escape. I thought if I hated school, a good way not to be in it would be to live in a kind of China of the School – its opposite place. She thought the thing they said about Harvard and China was funny, too, but she didn’t really think it was funny in the same way, because when she was done with her little laugh she said, “Why would you want to pour coffee?”
I didn’t want to pour coffee. That wasn’t the point of the story. I found myself thinking of what the point was, then, while I was under the afghan, while we were watching What Not to Wear together on her basic cable. The point of the story was that kids who had gone to Harvard and spoke Chinese were trying to get jobs at coffee shops because of this whole hipster invasion, gentrification pattern that my editor was so gung-ho on covering. And the whole point was that it was such a waste. I mean, they had worked so hard at Harvard and at speaking Chinese that they should be doing better things, and I began to feel disappointed in my life, because I should be doing better things. I could hear my father’s voice in my head and it made me want to cry. I wanted to cry, watching a chubby woman on What Not to Wear say she had only ever worn leggings because she couldn’t feel beautiful in anything else.
The point, the problem, was that they were all doing this series of vapid, meaningless gestures. And I wanted to do something that would be the opposite of pouring coffee, which can always be poured, which is always being made, which is the very definition of inefficiency and which made me think of a parable in The Autobiography of Malcolm X where in a cop car, Malcolm X cries at the sight of a black man in Harlem washing an alley with a hose, because the alley was never going to get clean, and it was the black man’s job to clean it, forever. Anyway, pouring coffee felt like that. And so did writing articles about gentrification. Everything felt like that. Maybe everything since my father’s death had felt like that. And college, too, had felt like that. And I had to look at what I had and think about what I could do with my life that wasn’t pouring coffee.