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The International Writers Magazine
:Café Culture

A Caffeinated Relationship
M. Joseph Hunt

This is tough to talk about. I have been in an abusive relationship for over ten years. As the cliché goes, It wasn’t 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 it’s going well, there is no place I’d 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 don’t 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 can’t escape the pull of places where management allows you to stay from open ‘til close. It’s an adolescents dream, finding somewhere that will let you just hang out. When you get older, you find there’s 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. 
 
Webster’s 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. It’s 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 should’ve been a tip off. They’ve 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 you’re relating any of your café “experience” off the hundreds of hours you’ve spent in line, waiting for a Frappucino, then you may not understand or appreciate this rant. You may be a Café Virgin, and I’m fearful of scaring you away from the choices awaiting you.
 
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 date.   
 
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 don’t recall a weekend I didn’t 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.
 
I’m Anti-Business Meetings in cafés. The meeting invades a space developed for those not conferring about contracts and 401K’s. 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 don’t stay. While the café may serve wine or have a small selection of import and domestic beers, it’s 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 You’re 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. It’s 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…” whispers that fill these rooms of caffeinated strangers, scholars and wannabe’s.
 
I love the eye glasses. It’s 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-something’s, 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 neighborhood.

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.

A 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 and leisure.
© Illustration Kit Thomas

It’s remarkable 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 that’s why the proprietors come up with clever names to paint on their awnings. My personal favorites: “Sacred Grounds” (San Pedro, CA), “It’s a Grind” (Austin, TX), and “Pete’s” (Oakland, CA).
 
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 they’re 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 they’re not writing Pop Music.  
 
I enjoy watching the visual Artists because they’re often painting and drawing what they see. They’re 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, there’s 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 the diversity.
 
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, there’s no need to have that opinion written on walls for me to read while I relieve myself.
 
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. It’s 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. It’s 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, it’s 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 don’t actually dislike the individuals. I just detest the conversations these individuals have.  
 
A short synopsis: The First Daters discuss where they’re from, what they do, and what they want to do. Fine. That’s what I do when I meet someone. But around the middle of their first cup, FD’s 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 who’s really more “Independent”.
 
The PU’s spend all afternoon discussing how bad their high school friends look now, who hasn’t 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. I’m convinced I will be forever drawn into this scene. I don’t think I am worthy of an illustrators lead or watercolor, but I’ll 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
michaeljhunt13@yahoo.com 
Composed @ the International House
Berkeley, CA
2.5.2006 

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