ESSAY: Getting coffee in Sacramento is like entering Hypnos' cave

By Scott Thomas Anderson

“Hypnosis” is a Greek word inspired by a god who dwelled in a dark cave the sun could never penetrate. This lonesome fate is actually being replayed in local coffeehouses all around us, but I wasn’t aware of it until a recent trip to Greece.

Consider Athens: With its refugee port hustlers, 28-percent unemployment rate, a paperless sewer system that barely works and (allegedly) more public graffiti than private windows, it’s easy to see why some view Athens as the Tijuana of western Europe. But if today’s Greeks are poor in currency, they’re rich in elan vital.

That becomes more obvious when holding up Athens’s bustling cafe culture to the urban-chic, third wave coffee hubs of Sacramento.

Walking into an Athenian cafe, you’re greeted by the sight of friends and strangers engaging in animated conversations while openly and unapologetically people-watching. If a Greek coffee-lover isn’t interspersing cappuccino with gossip or raucous debate, then they’re absorbed in a newspaper or book, the contents of which anyone is free to comment on. Greek cafes are sonorous, lively centrifuges of human connectedness.

While Sacramento’s artisan espresso houses brim with atmosphere, they’re largely peopled by customers behaving like silent automatons—their faces locked blankly onto phones, tablets and laptops. Few, if any, speak to anyone around them.

They sip coffee in isolation, hardwired to the net. I’m as guilty of this behavior as anyone, but I’m also bothered that such inventive spaces are often relegated to soundless vaults. And at least some of the personalities building Sacramento’s coffee scene share this concern:

When Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters opened its new East Sacramento location at 4749 Folsom Boulevard, it posted a sign that read: “No wifi Zone—conversation encouraged!” The idea of an indie coffeehouse without wifi is unthinkable; and yet that sign remains intact.

On a recent winter Sunday, I strolled into Chocolate Fish to see how the bold decision was playing out. The cafe’s tables were all packed with people enjoying kinetic, genuine dialogue. It was loud. It was energized. For a moment I felt like I was in Greece again, until I realized I’d stepped through a portal to a Sacramento that thrived just a decade ago, before we fell in love with an ever-connected, tech-social mode of face-to-face detachment.

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.