When you walk into a coffee shop, you rarely see everyone drinking or eating. Mostly, they’re all occupied with their work; laptops, notebooks, textbooks open, pens in hand. There will be a cup or a mug or a plate beside them, half-full or untouched, definitely ignored.
Sometimes you find people sitting next to or across from each other, conversing, their hands will be wrapped around their cups, or their fingers will play with the rim, and they’ll take a sip when the silence stretches awkwardly, or when it seems like the other person has become enamoured of their line of thought or their own voice, at least for now.
But the cups, the mugs, stand there, on the tables, sentinels and wards against having to leave. As long as the cup remains, so does the patrons right to stay. Who hasn’t felt uncomfortable lingering after a server at a “bus your own plates” coffee shop has come by and picked up their ceramic?
I’m a fairly dedicated drinker. I like the flavor and the smoothness of my coffee, and return the cup, compulsively, to my lips, constantly looking to reaffirm that, yes, that was how it tasted and that was how it felt going down. Unless I get to talking (the only activity that I get drawn into and become unable to disengage from, every time), I finish speedily and then have to find ways to linger. I love the music (no matter what its nature) turned down just low enough that it can be tuned out. I love the warmth, temperature always set to “cozy” (even when the temperature is too high). There is a distinctive hush in these places, like libraries, except less strained and complete. It is the quiet murmur of voices and shifting bodies, doors opening, that vague, forgettable soundtrack, people ordering and the sound of people laughing.
It sounds like life, except life when it has been given time to sit down and reflect. There is no high energy, no euphoria or despair, only the feeling of strangers breathing and thinking and finding each other; remembered strangers and forgotten friends.
This is the sound of my childhood, sitting across from my father with a notebook, trying to emulate his state of serenity and contemplation, yet never quite managing because the lives of the people around me, their conversations and movements, were too fascinating. The push to find appeal in the flavor of the dark, too bitter brew blossoming from those weekend afternoons near the smell of roasting beans and the familiarity from every morning in my parents’ house. Coffee: the beverage of fascinating, clever intellectuals (it was only later that I was introduced to the bohemian thinker’s fondness for hard liquor).
Here and now, in this coffee shop, I see the ghosts of a thousand memories from here, from other places, other cities, other months and years and decades. And I speak in broad strokes, painting an image without specifics upon which you may project your own coffee shops, your own people, building a palace in which your own memories might shape the rooms and your own ghosts may wander, a palace, a coffee shop already familiar to you, because it was built in your mind with your hands.
To appropriate Calvino:
To distinguish the other coffee shops’ qualities, I must speak of a first coffee shop that remains implicit. […] Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing that coffee shop if I speak of it. Or perhaps, in speaking of other coffee shops, I have already lost it, little by little.
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.