Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Don't bank on it baby

Painting by Tamara Vandevender

A few people I know and used to know - once and future friends - began to reminisce about an enterprise that I used to be part of, a coffee house, and now I can't get it off my mind. I have barely thought about that place for fifteen years.

It was just a place, we had an espresso machine and cold drinks and muffins that got moldy if you didn't sell them quick enough. Tables and thrift-shop chairs and lots and lots of ashtrays. It was in an arty part of town where nobody would go unless they lived there or drank there or possibly were busting a crackhouse. The day the DEA came for the house two doors down was a good day for us. Cops drink coffee.

My ex-boyfriend Joe started it with some money he had inherited from his grandmother. I helped with the paperwork at first, and painting - lots of us helped. Our friend Chris did all the carpentry.

Our first customers were the resident artists down there. We had a guy who did decorative ironwork, we had glassblowers, a puppeteer, an arborist, mosaicists, a milliner, and the florists from two blocks away - the only people who bought the four-dollar mocha lattes. Loved those florists.

Before too long, the poets and art students and musicians found the spot. Young people. Young young young people, some of them just out of high school. I was all of 26, 27, but still - those people were young. The place turned into a clubhouse. I lived upstairs for a while, and I would come down still in pajamas to drink coffee and see who was there.

SoWeBoHemian festival, 1993

I worked behind the counter to help out. When it was busy, I poured coffee like a river, pivoting from carafe to register, my hands hitting every mark. That kind of physical proficiency is intoxicating: it feels like dancing. And I knew everyone who came in. I gossiped, I flirted: that felt like dancing too. When it was not busy, I hopped up on the counter and read, or daydreamed, or sat at a table and talked. The CD player was on top of the drinks cooler. To change the CDs we'd have to climb up on the counter. We'd put in The Pixies, Mozart, My Bloody Valentine, Meat Puppets.

Did people hook up, fall in love, break up? They did. Meaning compounds when you've had seven cups of coffee and have run out of things to say. Things ran at a pretty high pitch.

(For example, I am writing this at a coffee house, and three people, two men and a woman, are having a conversation about estimating weight. Woman: "Guess my weight. [First guy] was way off." Second guy: "Stand up. Huh. I'd say 106, soaking wet." She: "You guys are crazy! I weigh 138 pounds!" And these people are full-on adults.)

It bothers me that after I took over, the business did even worse. I was working full-time at a publishing company, 4 ten-hour days a week, with one weekday to get all the coffee house business done. Bank, icehouse, wholesale club, payroll, schedule. That was actually great. I loved having the day to myself, barrelling around town, carrying heavy stuff. I just didn't understand that we were losing money - I never saw the bank statements. I'm still embarrassed that I let Joe down.

We closed the thing down right around when I left town for New York. Late 1994 or maybe 1995. My chronologies for the early 90's are a mess: I try to date my few photographs by cross-referencing boyfriends, haircuts, tattoos, apartments. All of which there were too many of.

Polaroid Land camera photo by Katie O'Meara

Maybe that's why I get so blue when I think about those days. All that flux, all that running around, all those crushes and jealousies... it seems pretty pointless fifteen years later. Especially since the relationships I had have all but turned to ash. None of the people in the above picture speak to me, although it's mutual in the case of the tall guy. And towards the end, heroin hit our neighborhood pretty hard, and people died. Died or left town.

On the other hand, the ones who are still talking to me and are still living are some of the highest-quality people I know. Maybe the others are too, but I am not likely to learn of it.

Here are the things I learned:
  1. I am a crappy manager
  2. The correct amount of ground coffee to make a pot is .28 pounds
  3. French presses are not worth the trouble
  4. Poetry is not to be trusted
  5. The eleven-ounce C-handle ceramic mug is one of the most durable items ever manufactured

photo by Joshua McKerrow