We no longer have a mayor at my local coffeehouse. There used to be a guy—a genial Hal Holbrook type—who filled that unofficial position. But I hear he left in a huff when management changed the seating plan while redecorating. I don’t know who might become mayor next. Maybe the retired translator who chats up college students. Or the doughnut-eating Bernie supporter. Or the lean, fastidious man who reads poetry while breakfasting on zucchini bread swimming in honey, sprinkling wheat germ from the Ziploc bag he carries with him. My own candidate would be the film professor, Bill, who’s always at his favorite table when I arrive, no matter how early. I’ve never actually seen Bill enter the coffeehouse. He’s just there, in situ, a fixture.
I’m no fixture. But I am a regular.
Which is to say I’m at the coffeehouse most mornings, either with my wife or alone. Sometimes I come by later in the day, to get out of my office. If I’m meeting someone, I like to do it at the coffeehouse. I’ve even tutored kids there.
Why? Well, it was originally a matter of logistics: from my home, the coffeehouse makes a good destination for a walk. And an iced tea costs less there than at Starbucks.
But I’ve sunk a ways into the place by now. I’ve got people I talk to, a drink I order, baristas who recognize me—or my glasses or my hat, maybe—and sometimes get me my drink even as I approach the counter. Spend enough time there and you find yourself privy to all kinds of strange and fascinating phenomena. Two twentysomething couples have broken up in my presence and a third had a catastrophic first meeting, all at the same unlucky table. When a friend and fellow regular died, he was memorialized with a display at the counter.
My coffeehouse isn’t a locus for heady intellectual exploration, like Les Deux Magots in Paris. Nobody invented existentialism there. And it isn’t a family, like Cheers. Hardly anybody knows my name. In fact, one barista went for the longest time calling me “Bruce” in such a friendly way that I didn’t have the heart to correct him.
No, what it is is my land of a thousand dances. Where Bill attracts endless well-wishers to his table. And a certain patient comes every Thursday morning to meet with his therapist. And an apparently homeless man in a knit cap sleeps over his bound journal filled with what look like architectural drawings. And two coworkers say the most appalling things about a third. And a young woman’s eyes brim as she’s being dumped. And an old lady gets a treat because who’s going to tell her no? “And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them / And such as it is to be one of these more or less I am,” Walt Whitman wrote. And I’m with him. v