This is the 9th installment of the ongoing essay series at Ecotone: Writing About Place. The current topic is Coffee Shop As Place. Please drop by and read other contributions, or feel free to submit your own essay.
Gathering around the water hole to share each other’s thirst must be as old as time itself; nearly all communal creatures do it, from willows crowding the river’s edge, to ants at a strip of spilled water on a baking pavement, giraffes and elephants stepping to the swamp’s edge, to moose at the forest boundary and brown bears swiping for salmon. Water is life and water is the common denominator. We humans have perfected the art of carrying the water off and slaking our thirst in relative safety.
Coffee shops, tea shops, bars, pubs, taverns, beer halls, all promote the drink, and like our thirsty savannah ancestors we flock to them as if bidden to partake of the fountain of youth. There we sit bantering, flirting, watching, spilling our hearts and ideas, contemplating, laughing and crying together while the essence of our lives trickles down our throats. Sitting in a coffee shop you get the impression that in spite of the time occupying a chair, the human drama unfolds right before your eyes. You can sit for hours watching, just simply watching, and the time seems filled with meaning.
Three coffee shops in particular have made impressions in my life, the Beanery in Eugene, Oregon and Cafe Algiers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both in the U.S., and Ben’s Cafe in Takadanobaba here in Tokyo. They each harbored times in my life during which great changes were taking place both in my heart and in my outlook.
The Beanery was a college coffee shop, located right outside the University of Oregon campus. I passed by it every morning when I headed to my undergraduate English courses and later, in graduate school, on my way to architecture studio. Altogether it accompanied 9 years of my life, and as I matured from a wide-eyed eighteen year old straight off the boat from Japan to a 26 year old man who was transformed by the wild mountains and trees around the town, I also watched the Beanery change from a remnant of the hippie movement into a popular gathering place for yuppie bohemian wannabe’s.
My years at the University of Oregon were some of the most memorable in my life, with hordes of friends filtering by each time I stepped out of my dormitory room or apartment. And yet they were also filled with apprehension and self-doubt as I struggled with my place and identity coming from a childhood growing up in Japan, where I intensely disliked the humiliating arrogance of the Americans I went to school with. I was living in the very country that bred the people who forced the 75% of students in my international school who didn’t come from America to study seven years of American history, one year of world history, and half a year of Japanese history, to play American football and basketball when most wanted to play soccer, to take secondary roles in the musicals that the school held every year because the main roles had to feature white characters, and even to have our non-Anglosaxon names made fun of because they happened to sound funny to the Americans. I carried all these resentments and cautions with me when I went to America and was struck quite dumb when I found out that people in America are not like the Americans I knew back in high school. It took a number of years to realize that I could actually relate to a lot of Americans and even become intimate friends. When the first white American woman actually professed that she was in love with me, I couldn’t believe my ears; me, a dark-skinned, skinny half-Asian, who in the first few years in America just didn’t get what Americans were laughing at so hard at the dinner tables because the jokes seemed so black and cruel, loved by a white American woman? It didn’t seem real.
The hours that these friends and lovers spent with me at the coffee tables, hours and hours of talking until the secret places of my heart and mind, that I had never shared with anyone in my life before, no longer seemed so unusual or vulnerable, mingled with the stories that my friends shared with me, and the friendships became bonded. Coffee and tea ran with humanity, with messages of understanding. The caffeine brightened our recognition of one another.
Boston brought all that glittering camaraderie down. Out of work, nearly penniless, with no friends, I spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Boston and Cambridge, looking into shop windows and sitting along the banks of the Charles river, watching nighthawks dive and rowers slicing the shining waters. After rent and food, what little change I managed to save I used on books and for cups of precious coffee at some of the coffee shops around town. I especially savored my time in the dim, smoky warrens of Cafe Algiers right near the center of Harvard Square. All sorts of characters gathered here, and the nooks and crannies allowed you to hide for hours engrossed in a book. I met various people here, some of whom became valuable friends who made Boston easier to bear. One time a woman wearing a white shawl noticed that I was reading Peter Mathiessen’s “The Snow Leopard” and she took a place next to me to discuss why she thought Mathiessen was a cruel, irresponsible man for leaving his son alone back in America just after his wife died. It was a long, stimulating conversation that to this day I have not forgotten.
Cafe Algiers helped nurture a certain boldness and willingness to be a bit tougher as I struggled to survive in the city. It countered the great anger that overcame me at times when I continued to fail to find work as an architect. It was one of the places that helped me realize that perhaps I wasn’t really cut out to be an architect and that the desire to write, which had always pushed its way into the forefront of my ambitions since I was a boy, might better serve my bent. In the cafe I met the kind of people I enjoyed working with, spending time with, talking to. They were the people with whom I could scheme and plan for the future. As coffee splotched the napkins upon which we jotted our ideas, the limitations of the lighting of the place curbed the early rush into becoming an architect further and further into the demands of my scribblings.
Boston never really panned out, in spite of the keen friendships and sublime bicycle rides on those cold, winter nights. When a drunk roommate broke down my bedroom door one evening and threatened to bash my face in, and the police came swarming all over the apartment threatening to bring us all in (and even my girlfriend refused to come over afterwards to offer some comfort), I felt that it was the last straw. America was just too unhinged, too accepting of unacceptable behavior. My brother had recently been hit by a car and the driver had refused to apologize (which was all my brother had asked for), and she had had enough money to hire a better lawyer than my brother could afford, so she didn’t even have to pay my brother’s hospital bill. My mother had been mugged, twice. My uncle lived homeless in Brooklyn. My brother was attacked by some teenagers, beaten, and his bicycle stolen from him. I bicycled along the Charles river one afternoon and watched, helpless, as three teenage boys accosted a woman on her bicycle and demanded that she hand it over to them. When she refused, they moved in to beat her, only to be stopped by two huge, football-player-like men, who warned the boys to stop. The boys sneered at them and said, “You can’t touch us. We’re juveniles. If you touch us you’ll get time. If we go to jail, we’ll be out tomorrow.” One night, while working a part-time, graveyard shift job as a giftshop clerk at the Park Hotel in downtown Boston, a character, a young white man, came sidling into the store and started furtively shoplifting chocolate bars. When I asked him to put the bars back, he slipped a pistol out of his pocket and pointed it at my nose. “Ya gonna do somethin about it, punk? Why don’t ya fuckin’ Ayrabs go back to where ya came from, huh, mother-fucker!” He ran off, leaving me so shaken I collapsed to the floor. When my helper, a black woman two years older than me, returned from the toilet, all she said was, “Man, you sure ain’t got no street smarts, kid.” There wasn’t even mention of calling the police. And behind all this was the Gulf war, cheered on by most of the people I saw around me, and so little thought of that on the day that America attacked Iraq, while working part time in a bookstore, hearing the announcement over the store’s intercom radio, I dropped the books I was carrying for a customer and whispered in shock, “They actually attacked Iraq. They actually started the war.” The customer kicked one of the books and growled, “I don’t give a shit about any goddamn war! Pick that shit up and finish getting my order for me.” And mumbling to the side, “Goddamn Arabs think they own the world.” Words like that tend to stick, no matter how misguided you know them to be.
And so I returned to Japan, left my girlfriend behind, my friends, my hopes of being an architect. When reaching Narita Airport in Tokyo, the broken connection hurt so bad that I immediately grabbed a phone and tried to reassure myself of my girlfriend’s faith in me… she had no words, no assurances that she would be waiting for me to return. And what right did I have to expect that? I broke down sobbing in the middle of the arrivals area, hundreds of strangers staring at me in puzzlement. It was perhaps the most humiliating moment in my life. And an ignoble return to the country that had imprinted itself upon my childhood and adolescence.
I settled down, got married, eventually finding a place to live in Tokyo. Architecture became a distant dream. I began to spend lots of time up in the mountains, walking, thinking, living close to what I had always imagined I understood best. I started and finished my first book. That book was born in the third great coffee shop of desire: Ben’s Cafe in Takadanobaba, a student dominated area in west part of Tokyo proper. I went there nearly every day, sometimes for hours, to sit and write and write and think and write some more. Three thick notebooks were filled with hand scribbled words. After finishing the writing for the day, I would sip a cup of cocoa and converse with the New Yorker owner Ben or with the two Japanese waitresses who were both studying art. It seemed I was making a few friends here in Tokyo now.
Then in 2001, a week after a personal tragedy, while sitting and talking with the owner, the news hit over the radio. Ben didn’t react at first he was so shocked, but when he recovered he turned up the volume and the distinct words, “At roughly nine o’clock this morning a plane flew into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.” We sat listening, speechless, neither the bite of the words quite real, nor the bright lights and drifting cigarette smoke of the coffee shop. Ben began to babble with another American in the room, repeatedly scrambling over to the computer installed in one corner of the room, to check the news. But I didn’t hear much of what he said. My only thought was of my mother, who lived in midtown Manhattan and my brother in Boston. I rushed home and fumbled with the telephone, dialing the number several times, but each time getting only a busy signal. I got my brother right away and he was okay, but I couldn’t get through to my mother, and my brother hadn’t been able to contact her either. For five days this lasted before I could get through. When I finally did, her voice was shaken and so full of fear that a great, great rage awoke in my heart. At all people who would either cause or influence events that would make my mother so fearful and and so overflowing with tears. To find out what was happening I stopped by Ben’s Cafe every afternoon before work, and asked Ben what he had heard. The place was abuzz with ex-patriot Americans trying to make sense of what had happened.
As the buildup toward another war began and the world seemed as if it was on the verge of coming to an end, the fear and anguish of all that was happening seemed about to burst out of me. One evening, while sitting with my Japanese students out in the terrace of Ben’s Cafe, one of the students, a young woman who had a difficult time comprehending all the to-do that Americans were inundating the world media with, asked me why I was taking all this so personally and with such conviction. “You’re much too serious.” she said, much too flippantly. I turned to her, and before all the students all the apprehension melted into grief and sorrow and helplessness. I had a duty to be their teacher and to protect my position, but just being human was all I could manage. I broke down, once again in public in front of many people I didn’t know well, and it seemed as if the tears would never stop. My student, the woman, held my hand and comforted me, and sat just saying soft words, as did the other students. It was their first experience of a foreigner in pain.
And so the coffee shop protected me and healed me. The draw of the watering place and its power to remind you of life. The place where the community gathers to remember that all that matters is that life goes on and that it is beautiful enough just to watch.
In the final half hour at Ben’s my student friend stood up and went into the shop. She came back with a new mug of cocoa, set it down in front of me, and smiled. “Maybe this will make you feel better,” she said. Perhaps language is a barrier that is often difficult to get past, but the magic of a warm drink between the palms, a sip or two of elixir, and no words need be spoken; we can understand each other perfectly well.