The International Writers Magazine:Café Culture
M. Joseph Hunt
is tough to talk about. I have been in an abusive relationship
for over ten years. As the cliché goes, It wasnt
always this way. I have become a statistic. Another victim repeatedly
frustrated by those lacking the conscience or morality to realize
the long term effect they are having on the person they hurt.
Sadly, like so many in my position, with our worlds so intertwined,
I have a hard time imagining us apart.
I should tell you,
the abuse I endure is not physical or sexual. I would call it emotional.
When its going well, there is no place Id rather be. But
the tough times are tearing me up inside. I am, for all intents and
purposes, in a Love/Hate relationship with the Café Culture.
It was several months ago when I hit a boiling point. I dont think
there was one seminal moment, but more a series of realizations from
which I decided if this relationship were to have any future, I would
have to judge whether the good times outweighed the reality of more
disappointment down the road.
I asked myself two questions I thought would help me find the root of
the problem. If I actively take part in this culture, Am I just angry
at myself for loving something so wonderfully flawed? Secondly, Why
do I have feelings for something that can make me smile and squirm with
equal ferocity depending on the circumstance?
I know this to be a Fact: I cant escape the pull of places where
management allows you to stay from open til close. Its an
adolescents dream, finding somewhere that will let you just hang out.
When you get older, you find theres an entire society of students,
college grads, unemployed, and average working people who cherish that
same desire. Many tried unsuccessfully to make their childhood home
house that place. And so began Café Culture. A common goal realized
by common people.
Websters Dictionary (1996, Unabridged) defines a café as
n: A coffeehouse; a restaurant; also, a room in a hotel or restaurant
where coffee and liquors are served.
My definition is sufficiently wordier. I define Café as a place
of leisure, providing a variety of refreshments, a conversational and
artistic stimulant. Spend a few dollars a day and you are allowed to
use the toilet. A café is like a home, with a pay as you go toilet
policy and more chess boards.
Growing up just miles from a college town, then later moving to another,
I have spent many hours in cafés. Its been the site of
first dates, study sessions, reunions, and finally, last dates.
Before I continue, Starbucks is not a café. Starbucks
sells coffee, but can barely even claim to be a Coffee House. The oversize
bookseller next door shouldve been a tip off. Theyve become
the equivalent of mobile phone and jewelry stands in the walkway at
the mall. In my classification, a Coffee House serves coffee, no alcohol,
usually offers poor excuses for pastries, and tends to spoil the fresh
air of conversation in favor of local bands and Poetry Slams.
Unfortunately, with the creation of the internet, many coffee shops
were able to hijack the word Café. An Internet Café
is merely a coffee shop with outlets and an available signal. So if
youre relating any of your café experience
off the hundreds of hours youve spent in line, waiting for a Frappucino,
then you may not understand or appreciate this rant. You may be a Café
Virgin, and Im fearful of scaring you away from the choices awaiting
As for my sordid relationship, I blame my sister. A café slut,
who moved from one café to another, sipping tea and chatting
up urban Marlboro Men before calling my father for a ride back home.
By slut, I mean she could never settle on one café.
The locations and the people changing like hot water after a newly dipped
tea bag. I love my sister dearly, and when Café Culture and I
are getting along I credit her for setting us up on our original blind
That initial blind date came one night when my father asked me to go
for a ride-along to pick my sister up. I felt like the rookie
Detective going downtown with the Sergeant on his first murder investigation.
I shivered the whole way, dressed in an odd sneaker, pajama bottom,
and winter coat combination.
The streets were calm as the car radio played a re-cap of a ballgame.
We made it within spitting distance of campus, pulling up in front of
a rogue looking place. Leaving with little fan-fair, she hugged the
guys, and waved goodbye to the girls. This was validation --in my eleven
year old mind-- that she must be in love with all the men, and the women
must accept her lifestyle as the norm for this culture of drifters and
transplants. Shortly after, I drifted off to sleep hoping this dark
underworld would be gone before I turned seventeen.
Fast forward to my High School years. I dont recall a weekend
I didnt start or finish at those same places my father picker
her up from. In my case, I never got on a first name basis with the
employees, but I had favorite corner tables, and places I knew I might
run into friends. For better or for worse, I had my place to hang.
In the Café, time passes as slowly or quickly as your intentions.
Keeping to yourself, getting lost in your favorite book, time may pass
quickly. Or you may feign a look of intellectualism, hoping everyone
notices you, making time tick slower than high school Algebra class.
Im Anti-Business Meetings in cafés. The meeting invades
a space developed for those not conferring about contracts and 401Ks.
Cafés are designed for pleasure and relaxation. Not the place
for people worried about their retirement. The café is retirement.
Retirement from the day, the week, from Television.
The Entrance. Long before you look at the menu, you should be scanning
the room for a free table. For Café Culture veterans the menu
is obsolete. And If there are no seats, you dont stay. While the
café may serve wine or have a small selection of import and domestic
beers, its not a Bar and there can be no standing around or stalking
of tables. Rule Two of Café Culture Etiquette: No Stalking
of Tables. Rule One: No Time Limits Once Youre Seated.
Getting beverages To-Go from a café is fine. Maybe something
to enjoy on a stroll. But leaving is unnecessary when a café
willingly offers a lifestyle to be enjoyed. Its the difference
between, say, a Country Club and going to a Gym.
In duality, I love and hate the wandering eyes. I love and hate the
casual Excuse me, Pardon me, and most of all,
the Can you watch my things while I
fill these rooms of caffeinated strangers, scholars and wannabes.
I love the eye glasses. Its as if sight diminishes upon arrival.
Everyone looks chic wearing glasses, seated at the window of a café.
It would make a person with perfect vision get fake lenses for fake
frames--for moments and places just like this.
I hate the mess. Without a code or policy in place, people bring their
own protocol to each café. Most versions are not unlike the way
that an individual may act in their living room. I hate nothing more
than the sight of a ring of moisture on an un-wiped table, or finding
used sugar wrappers strewn about the floor. In Café Culture it
is misguided to blame the staff, as you might if you were at a restaurant
and the server were doing a poor job. On the contrary, a messy café
is the fault of the patrons.
If I could recommend one neatness clause to implement in Café
Culture it would be this: When a customer opens the bulky local Sunday
paper, he or she is obligated to find an immediate receptacle for the
coupons. The glossy financial aid pages have no place there. In fact,
coupons come dangerously close to falling into the category of a banned
conversation topic: Business and Personal Financial Matters. Good or
bad, there is a time and a place for everything. Coupons belong on sofa
cushions and kitchen counters.
I love the Kings and Queens of café counters. Often a motley
crew of idealistic twenty and thirty-somethings, the counter crew
is skilled at turning beans into steam, and waxing prosaically on matters
of literature, music, or film. To insure continued pleasure, I see their
duties as requiring two fundamental tasks. They must promptly prepare
enjoyable beverages. But more importantly, they must play stellar music
at a reasonable volume to maintain the intimacy of the atmosphere. An
atmosphere nurtured by the patrons, the décor, and the surrounding
I love café
people watching. Like any bar or bookstore, people watching is a great
alternative for those not reading, chatting with friends, etc. The viewing
in a café takes on a different life because of the variety of
activities that people partake in while there.
common indulgence, for many, is to pen a letter. Café written
letters are almost always to old friends or a past or present lover.
Café written letters always start the same way: I am
writing to you from the most charming little café in North
Beach. My time in San Francisco has been exquisite. The words
charming, quaint, and picturesque
often get thrown around when describing institutions of enlightenment
© Illustration Kit Thomas
how the phrase Coffee Shop got the short end of the stick
in the name game. There is little romance in this non-descript title.
I suppose thats why the proprietors come up with clever names
to paint on their awnings. My personal favorites: Sacred Grounds
(San Pedro, CA), Its a Grind (Austin, TX), and Petes
When someone says coffee shop my mind drifts back to Boston,
where a coffee shop meant Dunkin Donuts and a recap
of the previous nights Red Sox game. But upon hearing café,
one is magically transplanted to Rome, Madrid, Paris, with thoughts
of romance and summer walks after the theatre.
Every third person opens a laptop in cafés these days. I have
no problem with them, as long as theyre not being used for business.
Writers and Graphics Designer-types are the exception to this rule.
Art is an acceptable café activity. Writers create stories, so
they fall into the artist category, provided theyre not writing
I enjoy watching the visual Artists because theyre often painting
and drawing what they see. Theyre capturing, with brush or pencil,
a fascinating place which unfolds by the minute. They may offer a new
creation to the counter guy with plans for a new tattoo. They may draw
their snack. They may have the only record of a first date for couples
still frequenting the place where they first laid eyes on each other.
I am amused by the clothes. People dress in all kinds of threads in
Café Culture, and this makes for wonderfully bizarre viewing.
There are Gents in jeans and t-shirts and Chicks in skirts with high
boots. For every pair of slacks and a sport coat, theres a tank
top and a belly button ring. Torn-up khaki pants with sneakers is normal,
as sundresses over jeans with flip flops is the standard. I respect
I am bothered by all the chalk. And in Café Culture, I am surrounded
by it. The menu is in chalk. The artwork outside on the Welcome board
is in chalk. The sign for the restroom is in chalk. The bathroom walls
seem to invite the customers to write any political statement they choose
on the walls-- in chalk. I despise ill-timed and seemingly solicited
political statements, in any artistic medium. Political statements are
best made when un-solicited. In Café Culture, there seems to
be one consensus political opinion so, in effect, theres no need
to have that opinion written on walls for me to read while I relieve
I love the smell of cafés on lazy Saturdays or a rainy Tuesday
night. Or when I have nothing to do but sit and taste the day away.
In those moments, I can taste it all. I can taste the raindrops racing
down the windows. I taste each piece of stationary on the tabletop of
a traveling stranger. I taste the flowery tattoo on the back of the
shy girl tying her shoelaces. I taste every pastry behind the glass.
I avoid tasting the chalk. There is a scent in cafés which seems
to hypnotize people. Its enough to inspire people to question
their regular choices, before eventually sticking with their usual.
A good café will reek of intellectual stimulation, yet very little
pretentiousness. You can smell the pages of dusty classics and ink from
newspapers piling up all day. Its the way I remember my college
library, only without the disproportionate number of Asians and all
the talk about This weekend
. In the café, remember,
its always the weekend.
I am bothered by some café conversations. Most of this exhausting
chatter comes from the First Daters, the Post
UNIversity Crowd, and the general population of Café
Virgins. I dont actually dislike the individuals. I just
detest the conversations these individuals have.
A short synopsis: The First Daters discuss where theyre from,
what they do, and what they want to do. Fine. Thats what I do
when I meet someone. But around the middle of their first cup, FDs
get into politics and past relationship before the compulsory first
bathroom break. Get married and you can talk about the stuff forever,
without me getting uneasy at the table next to you wondering whos
really more Independent.
The PUs spend all afternoon discussing how bad their high school
friends look now, who hasnt Instant Messaged them, who is the
real voice of Liberals, which foreign country they may spend the next
year in, and how bad the traffic was getting here.
The Café Virgins are the youth movement. Some may mature to sit
peacefully in these dwellings I love. For now, they discuss Prom, their
new car, and the afternoon matinee. For lack of a better explanation,
these people are Me when I go to a Starbucks; Careless, a little loud,
and not interested in the House Rules. Does Starbucks have House Rules?
I fear my comical and sometimes fatiguing love/hate relationship with
Café Culture will never end. Im convinced I will be forever
drawn into this scene. I dont think I am worthy of an illustrators
lead or watercolor, but Ill continue to treasure the ability to
watch adoring couples, the steam rising from a mothers homemade
mug, or the older man, seated alone with his distinctive hat and book,
who knew how to retire long before he ever stopped working.
© M Joseph Hunt Feb 8 2006
Composed @ the International House
The Places in between
the ticket, take the ride'
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