When a coffee cup is more than just a coffee cup
Most bodegas, delis, and coffee carts in New York City offer an unphotogenic array of khaki-wash cups, occasionally featuring words like latte and cappuccino scrawled at odd angles in faux-handwritten fonts. But every once in a while, you’ll run across another variety, one with a faux Greek border, a cartoonish urn, little stone-cut lettering, and you know you’ve found it: the Anthora cup. Introduced in 1963 to appeal to Greek immigrants and coffee shop owners in New York City, the cup has become a classic symbol of ubiquitous disposable convenience.
In the post-Bloomberg New York era, the Anthora is as much a staple of the MoMA Design Store as the corner deli, but what it represented for me when I first arrived was the quotidian, ordinary New York City—not the landmarks, but the people who ride the subway to work and know their local delis better than their neighbors. In television and movies, the Anthora is a visual shorthand for New York City, as much as the Manhattan skyline. And much like the skyline, the Anthora isn’t quite what it used to be. But it still represents something, even if all it represents is, really, its own representation.
I spent every lunch break of my first summer in New York scouring the coffee spots near my job for the signature blue of my site-specific urban dream. With a cup of coffee—an iconic cup of coffee—I would prove my place here, to myself if to no one else. My Anthora coffee was the holy grail of Midtown. More than signing a lease or barfing between subway cars, drinking coffee from an Anthora cup would make me a New Yorker. My Anthora would be a secret password, an NYC ID, a small graffito on a subway seat—JOHN SHERMAN WAS HERE. What I didn’t know was that, as of that summer, the original Anthora hadn’t been printed for five years. Leslie Buck, the Anthora’s original designer, died at 87 in 2010, four years after his iconic masterpiece went out of circulation, five years before it returned, and one year before I began what would turn out to be, at least temporarily, a fruitless search.
The Anthora cup is a signpost of aspirational New York living—like a surprise view of the Chrysler Building looking north on Bowery, it’s a sight that ought to remind the beholder of just where he is, and what it is he’s doing here. The privilege of seeing these things in person instead of on Instagram or in syndicated reruns of Sex and the City is participation in the IRL fiction of New York, the unconscious retracing of everything any of us has seen or read or heard about this place in hopes of reaching some authentic core. We are always reaching for the earnest awe that compelled us to come here. We live with the most potent symbols of New York City as ordinary objects—the skyscrapers are just office buildings, the bridges are just roads, and however lovely or symbolic, the to-go cups are disposable vessels that last twenty minutes or so before landing in the trash on some auspicious corner. The ordinariness may be habituation, or generalized weariness over singing “Another Hundred People” quietly to yourself on 34th Street every morning, or it may be the dangerous awareness that this is just a place, albeit one most people have heard of. Most New Yorkers can tell you how much their coffee cost, but few would remember what the cup it came in looked like.
It took me all summer and probably $40 to find an Anthora, drinking $1 and $1.50 cups of searing hot black coffee every morning and at lunch in the fickle shade of playground trees on Tenth Avenue, but I have no memory of where the end of my personal rainbow turned out to be, only that it was somewhere west of the A train and south of 31st Street. I sort of wish I could, if only for the sake of thoroughness here, but the complete non-memorability of wherever it was is the point, kind of.
What I ultimately found, though, wasn’t an Anthora at all; it was one of the sorry imitations of the classic design that proliferated in the vacuum left by the classic cup’s quiet death. The impostors are convincing, and fairly indistinguishable from the original without a side-by-side comparison: blue cups with cheap Grecian motifs and phrases like WE ARE PLEASED TO SERVE YOU, or SERVICE IS OUR SPECIALTY, nearing without quite hitting the mark of the original, WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU, in a Hercules-esque Greek font.
That the most reliable source of Anthora cups is now the gift section of any city institution, from museum shops to Oren’s Daily Roast, is a fitting afterlife for the once-ubiquitous New Yorker. Even more fitting is the continued proliferation of imitations, in a city sustained by self-imitation. Every fresh New Yorker arrives in a city that has shed its various skins countless times since whatever piece of art or literature has drawn them here, be it “Here Is New York” or The Devil Wears Prada. That any place could be at once permanent and impermanent, and so thoroughly both, is a part of New York City’s magic act. Where else could a paper cup no one makes anymore signify a city so strongly that it inspired imitations no one noticed were imitations? As of December 2015 the real Anthora is back—the new real old Anthora—but it’s hard to tell the real difference.
A few blocks from my apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn, is a 24-hour Indian grocery store that sells sleeves of imitation Anthora cups—these ones say IT’S OUR PLEASURE TO SERVE YOU with a drawing of a woman, possibly one of the Fates spinning yarn, possibly Aphrodite at her mirror, possibly just some lady. At the sight of so many Anthoras, even imitation ones, the New York transplant inside me nearly plotzed. I bought myself a sleeve, and now on my way out the door every morning I have my very own Anthora cup of New York City coffee, unlike anywhere else in the world.