A New Lifestyle
by James Tate
People in this town drink too much
coffee. They’re jumpy all the time. You
see them drinking out of their big plastic
mugs while they’re driving. They cut in
front of you, they steal your parking places.
Teenagers in the cemeteries knocking over
tombstones are slurping café au lait.
Recycling men hanging onto their trucks are
sipping espresso. Dogcatchers running down
the street with their nets are savoring
their cups of mocha java. The holdup man
entering a convenience store first pours
himself a nice warm cup of coffee. Down
the funeral parlor driveway a boy on a
skateboard is spilling his. They’re so
serious about their coffee, it’s all they
can think about, nothing else matters.
Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly
This catalog of frenzied coffee-drinkers, comical in their obsession, brings to mind an old movie favorite, It’s a Mad Mad Mad World. If you haven’t seen this 1963 classic, find a way, post-Blockbuster, to watch it. Jonathan Winters riding a little girl’s bicycle is not to be missed. Winters and an all-star cast including Spencer Tracy, Ethel Merman, Terry Thomas, Peter Falk and Sid Caesar race down the California coast to find $350,000 buried under a mysterious “Big W.” The characters become increasingly nuts as the chase ensues. Their money monomania leads them to the top of an out-of-control fire truck ladder and eventually to the hospital.
Recapping the movie, I’m struck by how modest the buried treasure is by today’s standards. $350,000, really? At first “A New Lifestyle” seemed similarly dated. Is obsessive coffee-drinking new? I assumed that the poem was written pre-Starbucks. When I discovered it was actually published in a 2002 collection, I read the poem a little differently. It’s not a straight-up tub-thumping. It’s also gleeful exercise in the pleasures of tub-thumping. Tate invents a character, a Rip Van Winkle sort of man, who observes modern habits with a crabby and comic eye.
Clearly Tate has a lot of fun creating characters and listing silly coffee-drinking situations. His list begins credibly, with pushy drivers stealing parking spaces. But as the speaker gets wound up, the list gets increasingly crazy. Vandalizing teenagers in a cemetery drink coffee, not beer. Burly trashmen sip from dainty expresso cups. By the time we arrive at the dogcatcher racing down the street with his coffee, we know Tate is as intent on amusing as he is on complaining. When was the last time you saw a dogcatcher anyway?
The speaker’s tirade operates on a logical fallacy, Post Hoc, as I remember from a rhetoric class, or maybe it’s Hasty Generalization: drivers are drinking coffee; these drivers are rude: therefore coffee-drinking causes rude behavior. Whatever the name, this kind of false reasoning is common to anyone ranting and raving on the ills of society.
“A New Lifestyle” would be a fun poem for an imitation exercise. Substitute “coffee” with television, plastic water bottles, Facebook, ADHD medication, the internet, smart phones, or whatever a bile-eyed observer might deem harmful. Invent characters. Create absurd incidents. Make a hasty generalization. End with a killer statement that shakes up the whole poem and makes the reader shudder with recognition:
Everyone’s wide awake but looks incredibly
I couldn’t resist re-writing those lines for a poem about cell phone usage, a vice of mine (cell phones, that is, not re-writing):
Everyone’s connected but feels incredibly
Today being the first day of Lent, a season of giving up certain habits to make room for more important behaviors, it’s a good time to consider obsessions. “A New Lifestyle” makes me think how sad and empty obsessions can be. How we move from one obsession to the next. How we define ourselves by our obsessions. How what we seek so desperately can end up thwarting what we desire most. But mostly how darn hard it is for me to give up sweets and Facebook and what I would give for a chocolate chip cookie right now.
Of course I left the poem at Starbucks, that mecca for all obsessive coffee drinkers. Interesting that the name “Starbucks” comes from Moby Dick. After rejecting “Pequod,” Starbucks’ founders chose the name of the Pequod’s chief mate, Starbuck. They wanted to suggest international commerce and coffee trading. The speaker in “A New Lifestyle” would say they chose well. Nothing says “obsession” like an allusion to world of Captain Ahab.
Poet James Tate was born in Missouri in 1943. His father, a pilot in WWII, died in a plane crash when Tate was five months old, and never met his son. Tate has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and teaches at the University of Massachusettes, Amherst. In a wonderful interview with Tate in the Paris Review (which you can read here) poet Charles Simic calls Tate “one of our great comic masters.”