The drink of philosophers," Uncle Tonino declared, sniffing his espresso. His refined but saturnine face---like the actor José Ferrer's, only puffier from overwork---was so suffused with pleasure that the barista behind the zinc counter half grinned. My uncle and I had spent an entire Saturday sightseeing in Rome("Ruins and fools," Tonino had commented; "what could me more instructive?") and had ended our tour of the Eternal City at this small coffeehouse by the Pantheon. The establishment had nothing to recommend it aesthetically, a shoddy affair of chrome, chipped marble, and secondhand Art Deco posters. But Uncle Tonino had insisted on coming here. The Pantheon district, he maintained, serves the best espresso in the city because all its cafés use Aqua Virgo, the soft Virgin Water flowing from the fabled Aqueduct of Agrippa. Here, he explained, one drank classicism, not coffee.
My uncle certainly seemed as poised as Horace, hovering over his demitasse. Slowly, he swirled the crema, the ambrosial, caramel-colored residue that forms on the surface of all good espresso, stirred in sugar to spite his doctor's warnings about diabetes, and savored his coffee. "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh," he said. His customary melancholy faded away, and for a moment he was content, even beatific, his face wreathed by a nimbus of steam. "That reconciles a man to his life," he remarked, then leaned forward and added confidentially: "As I said, my boy, I am a coffeehouse philosopher."
At the time, I thought he simply meant he was a man of the world. Now that I myself have become something of a coffeehouse philosopher, straining the grinds of failure from the cup of my own life, I know better. A coffeehouse philosopher is more sage than bon vivant, a connoisseur of irony and disappointment who prefers taking life strong and black. Socrates in prison quaffed his hemlock in one gulp. But a coffeehouse philosopher sips his poison little by little in public over a lifetime. He drinks what is bitter without bitterness and dies in an odor of espresso.
If anyone had the credentials to be a coffeehouse philosopher, it was Uncle Tonino. Urbane, detached, and adaptable, he is a man equally at home in the past and the present, someone who equally appreciates a Piranesi etching of the Forum and an Armando Testa poster for Paulista Coffee. Forums and coffee, in fact, define his life. A business journalist and an advertising executive, my uncle has covered or handled such major coffee firms as Lavazza, Classe Caffé Circi, and Illycaffé. He once boasted that he was the only man in Rome who knew both the exact number of saints atop Bernini's colonnade at St. Peter's (284) and the exact number of espresso cups made daily at the Nuova Point china factory (15,000). Tonino began his career as a provincial surveyor, spending the better part of his youth traversing the Abruzzi with transit, tripod, compass, and paper. Following the Second World War, however, he dreamed of becoming another Luigi Barzini, so he journeyed to America to work as an announcer at one of New York's two Italian American radio stations.
Manhattan exhilarated him with its skyscrapers, subways, and billboards. After the rubble of the war, America seemed as prosperous as Augustan Rome, and my uncle took the same pleasure charting the trajectory of the postwar boom as he had mapping the peaks of the Apennines. He liked American cars, American clothes, American movie stars. The only thing he disliked was American coffee. "Rocket fuel," he called it. He mocked people standing in line at the Chuck Full of Nuts cafeteria, upbraided my father for investing money in Maxwell House, spat in batches of percolated coffee. To this day his nose still wrinkles whenever anyone mentions Nescafé. This bête noire notwithstanding, he remains an unapologetic, if critical, lover of America and has a wry affection for the foolish American nephew who bears his name.
The hard-bitten barista, a pug in a soiled apron, beamed at us approvingly---until he noticed and scowled at the glass of milk in my hand. This was during my wholesome phase, a period of madness that lasted between my fourteenth and twenty-sixth year, during which I impersonated Mr. Rogers. If you can imagine a young Al Pacino wearing turtlenecks, cardigans, and Hush Puppies, that was me. I was clean. I was earnest. I was credulous. I was as kind and as priggish as a Methodist missionary. I had more hopes in my belly than Pandora's box, and I used words like God and democracy, peace and justice the way certain Long Island matrons use overdrawn credit cards. "So good he's good for nothing" was Tonino's judgment.
The barista also had me pegged: un astèmio, a goddamn tee-totaler! He bristled with contempt. I could see his lower lip curl. So did Uncle Tonino, who, to help me save face, took a teaspoon of espresso and placed it in my milk. The dark stain transformed my goody-goody drink ("Seventeen years old and you still drink milk!") into elegant latte macchiato. This libation appeased the barista, whose rising anger subsided into a cynical shrug. "Meno male," he said. I sat there, flabbergasted, while Tonino sipped his coffee.
"How's your milk?" he asked in English. His tone was malicious, his face impassive, and he never raised his eyes from the cup.
"Ruined," I said. "Why did you put coffee in it?"
He arched an eyebrow. "A reminder," he said.
The barista huffily began grinding coffee beans. The noise startled me, and Uncle Tonino smiled acridly. "Do you know that sonnet by Giuseppe Belli," he asked, "`The Coffeehouse Philosopher'?" I shook my head, and he began reciting in the Romanesco dialect: "L'ommini de sto monno só ll'istesso/ Che vvaghi de caffé nner mascinino . . ." Men in this life are just like coffee beans going into an espresso machine. First one, then another, a steady stream, all of them heading for the same fate. Round and round they go, always changing places, and often the big bean crushes the little bean. But they've hardly begun when they crowd each other through that iron door and are crushed into powder. And that's the way people live: soft or hard, mixed together by the hand of fate, which stirs them round and round in circles; and gently or roughly, everyone moves, draws breath, without ever understanding why, then cascades down the throat of death.
Belli's sonnet has since become one of my favorite poems. In fact, I consider it a personal present, since Belli composed it on my birthday, January 22, 1836. But when I first heard it, it appalled me. I was an innocent at the time, and my face must have turned as white as my milk. Defensively, I attributed this shock tactic to my uncle's morbidity. Despite his many accomplishments, his life always has been shadowed by a terrible disappointment: the death of his first-born son, Carlo, which cut short his ambitions in America and forced him to return to Italy. Whenever he finishes his espresso, his eyes linger at the bottom of the cup as if searching for something lost, as if coffee grinds and the dust of the dead were the same thing. I thought of the cup-shaped funeral urns in Rome's underground columbaria and shuddered. Uncle Tonino saw I was shaken but merely asked: "Why don't you drink coffee anymore?"
"Caffé," he said. "You loved it as a boy. Why don't you drink it anymore?"
His tone, so earnest, so heartsick, so reproachful, gave me pause. But I had been brainwashed by enough suburban Y.M.C.A. lectures to reply: "Well, it's not good for you."
At this Tonino threw up his hands in exasperation. "Jackass!" he said. "And since when is life about what's good for you?!" . . .