Monday, March 16, 2009

Cafe Society

I love coffeehouses and outdoor cafes. It seems you have to don a persona for most activities, like sports fan, concert goer, bored shopper, polite wedding guest... but the cafe demands nothing of you. Just show up. You might spy an intriguing couple about whom you can spin a story, or you might hear something. If you're lucky, good music and not radio jabber will be playing. It's quality entertainment, even if nothing happens except you reading the paper, and it will cost you about $2 (Mom and Pop shop, not Starbucks).

Like opportunistic weeds, they're the first thing to pop up if a place is developing into a diverse, walkable neighborhood (see my FB post from YouTube on Suburbia dying -- yay!). The first one I found, as Richmond woke up from its deep sleep from 1865 on, was the cleverly named Coffee House on Cary St., opposite the Golden Buddha, probably the most repellent, greasiest Chinese restaurant on the planet (which we patronized, since it was also the cheapest). It was on the second floor of a narrow wooden house; they had live music and served only cider and tea. That resulted in its short and memorable life, economics being what it is; but it touched something in me. The only other place I had found that felt good in my short and unmemorable life up to that point was the main library. Then I found the delicious funkiness of Shafer Court and RPI when that time suck known as high school was over. Three for three.

Then came decades of too much work and not enough hanging out. I rediscovered the seductive aroma of coffee and the ambience of the cafe right at the source, Pikes Place Market in Seattle, where that original Starbucks is, while there attending a conference. Now, weather permitting, that's what I do most mornings -- head out for one of the four places I can reach on foot, and read the paper, do no harm, hardly make a ripple.

I spent the last two Augusts house-sitting for my brother and sister-in-law in Santa Barbara, and that, gentle reader, is a wandering cafe man's Nirvana. Down the hill -- always sunny and cool in the morning -- and left to Goleta Coffee (and straight for their Mexican Organic), or down and right, across the creek and to Hollister Avenue and the Java Station. Once a gas station, its doors are all completely open, fans turn patiently and so slowly high in the rafters, bicycles and scooters and Mercedes in the lot, palm trees by the sidewalk... Someone whose name has probably appeared in TV and movie credits earnestly addresses his laptop, elegant ladies of a certain age sport perfect tans and sandals just as they did 30 years ago, regular guys in pickup trucks sneaking a break into their day, the staff probably UCSB students working on their doctorates, cinnamon and honey to add to any of the dozen brews, and a display case of 8,000-calorie muffins the size of volleyballs... and yes, my favorite yellow table outside is available, just a shelf attached to the planter full of succulents, with its wobbly plastic chair nested under, never disturbed by soap and water.

Someone just departed has left two of the local papers in the seat. I'm $2 poorer, but am rich.

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