01 May 2010

The Meaning of a Coffee Cup

The original Anthora design (foreground), with a few of its imitators

If you haven’t spent much time in New York City and have not been initiated in its mysteries, you may not appreciate the significance of the Anthora cup. The name is a corruption of the Greek word amphora, and on the original design you can see a couple of Grecian urns. The blue-white-and-gold paper coffee cups, with Greek motifs and the legend “WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU,” have long since become a symbol of daily life in the city. For years, if you ordered a coffee to-go at any deli, bagel stand, or diner, Greek or not, this is what you’d get.

Now The New York Times has reported the death of the cup’s designer, a Holocaust survivor named Leslie Buck. In the early 1960s, he realized that many New York coffee shops were owned and run by Greek immigrants; his design is therefore a celebration of a culture. In the melting pot that is New York, it was adopted (and adapted) by people who never went anywhere near the Aegean.

Especially in my early years in the city, I often ate in coffee shops. This was a practical policy, since I was largely incapable of cooking for myself, and New York diners typically offer a bewildering variety of foods at low prices. But that’s not why I rejoiced to drink from an Anthora cup.

The soprano Teresa Stratas grew up in a Greek coffee shop in Toronto. Her parents were immigrants from Crete, and, as she explained it, opening a coffee shop was what you did when you came to North America from that part of the world. Teresa sometimes waited tables, and one night when a customer didn’t have cash to pay for his meal, he gave Teresa and her brother two tickets to the opera. It was La Bohème, which would become the vehicle for one of Teresa’s most compelling characterizations, as well as her professional debut. Prior to that night, the idea of singing opera hadn’t crossed Teresa’s mind.

For me, moving to New York would mean getting to meet Teresa Stratas, getting to know her and to work with her. For the first time, I would see her live onstage, instead of on television. I’d fallen for her — hard — when I was 15. Now she would sing for me. Sometimes she telephoned me (always in the morning, approximately 30 minutes before I was ready to wake up), invited me to her home, lectured me and advised me and held me by the hand.

Every time I drank coffee from an Anthora cup, I thought about Teresa. The Greek design came to represent my connection to her, and the possibilities of life in New York. This was a city where my muse — a kind of Greek goddess, after all — could become my friend.

And for all I knew, while I was buying my coffee at the counter, somewhere in the restaurant was a girl like Teresa, with music in her soul and magnificence in her destiny.

Of course, I never dared to offer to pay with an opera ticket instead of cash. New York is a tougher town than Toronto. But I did feel that I was contributing, indirectly, to a bright and hopeful tradition.

The Anthora design and its many imitations are scarcer nowadays. New Yorkers have learned to drink faster, perhaps, because their cups have gotten taller, and those cups are emblazoned now with the names of national chains. Every day, the city loses a little more of its distinctive character. If I ran Starbuck’s, I’d order up a series of Anthora-style cups today, to give back a little of what the company’s been leeching away.

I daresay there are eight million Anthora-cup stories in the naked city. This is mine. Evkharisto, Leslie Buck.


(av)Uncle(ular) Peter said...

Bill -

Since I heard of Leslie Buck's death, I've hoped for a piece from you on his creation, since it represented a slightly emotional melange of issues and feelings from both our early days in NYC.

Needless to say, the beautifully wistful inclusion of your recollections of the great Stratas and coffee shops......well, the cockles (sp?)of my adoptive New Yorker, former Upper West Sider, free-lance musician's heart have not been so warmed in quite a period of time. And, as I continue to maintain, your writing needs much greater circulation.....a sensibility sine qua non. (As opposed to Bleu Nun) Bravo.

William V. Madison said...

Evkharisto to you, too, Peter.

GilrFromTexas said...

Just another small, seemingly inconsequential, yet beautifully perfect thing to love about NYC. Great article in today's NYT about hand-forged basketball hoops in the city's many bball courts, and the old fashioned blacksmiths the city keeps on staff to make them...one by one....by hand. Incredible!