Not long ago, I read a report, one of those meant to invoke alarm and despair, about the decline of the liberal arts in American universities.  The former purpose of college, it said, was to write, understand history, and philosophize.  Now, those dedicated to the humanities had fallen by 15%–or maybe it was 50%.  Either way, the news was dire.  One major cause, it lamented, was that those who pursued that path end up as poetry-spouting baristas.

Having perused numerous essays on the “death of” the arts, humanities, and of books, even, I am reminded of the lyrical gem of my alter ego, José Alfredo Jiménez, Estás que te vas y te vas y no te has ido.  It may seem surprising I would choose the brilliant Mexican Jiménez, whose interactive museum I once visited in Guanajuato, as a kindred spirit.  But along the years, I have woken up more than once with a woman whose race, nation and everything else were simply after the fact.  His country honors him precisely because he was a do-nothing with a permanent hangover who ended up writing his country’s unofficial anthem, “El Rey.” If we don’t want to take our cue from an inspired barfly, maybe we can listen to Nietzsche when he says “We artists!  We moon-struck and God-struck ones!  We death-silent, untiring wanderers on heights which we do not see as heights, but as our plains, our places of safety!”

Yesterday, sitting at my usual perch in the Urth Café, where I like to watch humanity go by, often well-dressed in curve-enhancing dresses or ego-enhancing suits and ties, I looked up toward the counter, from the diaries of Witold Gombrowicz that I was reading, and my barista, Stephanie, was spouting poetry.  Staring directly at me, she mouthed syllables I was able to read across the room above the insistent grind of the espresso machine.  They were two verses of Jules LaForgue.  Rien ne les tient, rien ne les fåche/Elles veulent qu’on les trouve belles.  They only want to be beautiful, with their Bachelors in Russian and Colonial History.   Let the 80% or whatever per cent it is be engineers and attorneys, accountants and physicians.  Let them matter more, if they must.  Some days, resistance is futile, and you must wait for a better day.  They’re going to run things no matter what, or else the rest of us must sacrifice all our gods on the altar of scientific pragmatism and enter a race which we are foreordained to lose.

Perhaps Stephanie wasn’t thinking any of these gloomy thoughts.  She was smiling, she even winked at me, her poetic accomplice, secure in her unadorned youth.  There is no cloak as magic as being 23 years old, skin and soul unblemished.  The many times over the past year I’ve given her the order for my small Americano, room for cream (superfluous since she knows my order in advance), she’s never once asked me what I do.  She only jokes that I’m neither small nor Americano.  As soon as I spoke, the first time I ordered, she said, without hesitation, “You’re French!” as if I hadn’t known it.  She announced  it to the world with a carefree insouciance, as if I’d won some prize, making all of us in the line laugh.  As a result, when I appear each day, various and sundry wave and smile at me, “the Frenchman,” calling me “Monsieur.”  Everyone is in on the game; everyone feels that suddenly we are on the Champs Élysées instead of Colorado Street.  We welcome, tacitly, the fact that we, too, have a café society, just like all those poets we’re always hearing about, the ones who are trying to write in their ateliers before climbing downstairs to smoke with their friends, or else they’re writing in the halls of the foundering liberal arts colleges.

Stephanie recites poetry for the customers, not in the least embarrassed.  It could be Roethke or Vallejo. It could be Dickinson or Petrarch.  It could be Verlaine or Laforgue.  She does it from memory.  The regulars are used to the high-spirited, “crazy” barista, assuming that she simply must be in love, and wondering what verses she will drop on them today.  But no, she never asks me “what I do.”  This social tic I find eminently and rudely American.  At every cocktail hour, dinner party, or barbecue, that is the first question asked.  We must account for ourselves.  We are identified by our work—better said, our pay stub, and there is no getting around it.  It is not enough to understand history and to philosophize while you brew specialty drinks.

What would they say if they knew that many days, I simply walk around observing passersby, and sometimes write about them, extrapolating a life from a pair of shoes and an overcoat?  I believe they’d find this activity suspiciously unacceptable, as if I were a spy.   Which in fact I am.  I’ve taken to telling people I am a language tutor for school children in Brentwood and Bel Air.  That draws a satisfied nod.  If I am not rich, at least I am drawing off the stream of the rich, as their supplicant by teaching children a language for which they have no aptitude and will never use.  It is assumed that I will soon be teaching at a private school such as Harvard-Westlake, the practitioner of a devalued profession in a prestigious institution.  This in turn allows me to be despised and patronized with the greatest cordiality.  Their offhand contempt could not be more cheerful. I don’t take it personally.  They are really thinking about which investment will make their taxes lower, so they barely perceive me, now that I have answered their first question, the only one that matters.

I turn back to my tome of Gombrowicz, that ungrateful immigrant, that irascible prophet wearing bad clothes, a host of numerous physical tics, that biter of the hand that fed him—that small god who never let anyone around him grow comfortable.  He had a maddening way with the truth.

What sort of attack can this kind of art dream of if it cannot defend itself and is already half-conquered?

 I expect that in years to come art will have to shake off science and turn against it—this clash will take place sooner or later.  Then there will be an open battle, with each side completely aware of its cause. 

Gombrowicz and the Barista—they are more alike than different.  It’s true, he is a bad cold and she is the homeopathic remedy.  He is a foreigner and she’s at home alongside the hiss of the foam.  He is a gadfly and she a butterfly.  Yet both are poets out of joint with time, singing a prophecy that won’t be listened to, or at best, overheard among the immediate din of those who await the small consolation of a warm cup in the hand, and don’t necessarily want to look further.

Perhaps the day will arrive when Stephanie no longer quotes Laforgue, or even Jacques Prévert, because she has taken two additional part-time jobs to pay off her student loans and make rent on a shared apartment, and there is just no energy, no voice leftover from asking us whether we want her to leave cream for our coffee.  Or will she rise up, not as workers do against tyranny, but as geese do from a silver lake, their secret purpose spoken to each other in a language we must strive to understand?