This morning we bring "That's the Job" to you on-location at Mama's favorite writing spot: the 'Stone, as I call it.
I first came to the 'Stone with my mom in the early 80's. What I remember about it is the smell of roasting coffee beans and the strange yet friendly voice of the fellow behind the counter who'd had his voice box removed due to throat cancer. I gathered from my mom's interaction with Lee that she frequented the place during her mysterious adult-world days. Lee may even have been the proprietor for all I know. But whether it was a place where you could sit for a coffee and pastry, I honestly don't remember. I was not a regular back then.
The espresso drink craze didn't catch on until I was in high school a few years later, and if the 'Stone caught that fever, I have to say, I don't know. I worked at one of what were considered by my peers "the two" coffeehouses: Robi's and Java City. Back then, nearly every coffee drink order we took was half a teaching experience (imagine having to explain to more customers than not, "A mocha is like hot chocolate with an espresso shot;" or "Espresso has a much stronger coffee taste than regular coffee."). We had to learn it all, too, of course. I was at Gelati Robi's, which aspired to be an authentic Italian coffeehouse -- and some of regulars were indeed old Italian men who would sit out front all day playing chess, arguing politics, making inappropriate -- if appreciative -- noises at every attractive female who passed by, and consuming vast quantities of espresso (with a little bit of lemon zest). They had no patience for American baristas who couldn't get the foam to milk ratio right on a cappuccino.
I worked at Robi's the summer between high school and college; it was an education in itself and I loved it. Robbie, the owner, was good to work for -- he expected us to know the business and to treat it like our jobs depended on its success (which they did). He could be tough, but he also knew how to give a compliment when it was earned. And he paid way better than Java City. Of course, Robi's is gone now, while Java City has gone on to become a national chain.
In fact, the 'Stone now belongs to Java City. To the corporation's credit, in my opinion, the sign still reads "Weatherstone," but it's a Java City store.
I've got nothing against Java City, anymore. Before I worked at Robi's, my friends and I were Java City regulars. The original store sits on a corner not far from here that used to be in a very quiet part of Midtown (it's now one of the hipper corners). There's a huge sycamore or elm on the corner; the roots were high enough to serve as benches. We'd stay out 'til curfew drinking our sweet milky coffees and smoking clove cigarettes pretending that we had some idea of who we were and what we were doing while internally churning with jealousies and insecurities about which of us the boys in our group really liked. I was happy to turn my back on Java City when I started at Robi's and put some distance between myself and those strangely painful yet electric evenings. With a lot of hindsight, those memories amuse and touch me much more than they hurt.
I "discovered" the 'Stone myself now over seven years ago. I had just separated from my first husband, Jeff, and was living alone for the first time just three doors down the street. I loved my apartment -- I still long for it at times. It had crown molding, built-in cabinets, and exactly enough space to feel like I could stretch, but not get lonely. And, Weatherstone became like my front porch. Whenever I needed to be in the midst of people, but not necessarily in connection, I would bring over my journal, some poems to work on, or a book to read and set up shop for hours. There were probably 20 or so other regulars doing the same thing. We came to recognize each other enough to nod or smile, but we were all using the 'Stone as public private space, so we weren't about forming friendships. All that energy went toward the baristas, who were funny, flirty and good at their trade.
At one of the uglier moments in the process of finalizing the end of our marriage, Jeff brought the woman who had been the straw on this camel's back to spend an afternoon at Weatherstone at a time I still believe was calculated to coincide with when I would be here or see them. Friends, and my brother, saw them here, but I didn't -- I didn't even know about it until enough later that it just seemed pathetic and had no power to rouse my anger, or my grief. It still galls me a little, however. While Jeff's incursion was ultimately harmless, it might very well have robbed me of a sanctuary I have been otherwise unable to replicate. I'm so grateful that I didn't see them and lose the sense of safety and belonging that I still feel here.
It hasn't been a seven year love affair, however. When Skip and I coupled up (after I'd been in my apartment a little less than two years), I moved into his house in another area of town. Leaving my apartment, I left the 'Stone, too. It's only been since the birth of my daughters that I have rediscovered it. My mom, who lives just a couple of blocks away, takes the girls three days a week, and I come here for a coffee and to journal.
It's an ideal writing place for me. If I lack inspiration, I need only look around. The 'Stone is full of Midtown characters. I'm partial to a few them: the older Hispanic man, always clean and sober, who pushes a cart around town full of cans and bottles. He comes in for a coffee, speaks to the only Spanish-speaker behind the counter, and then takes his coffee across the street to sit a stoop and sip it awhile. We are on a wave and smile basis. Is he homeless? Is he just supplementing his income? On occasion, I've seen him run into other folks who collect trash but who aren't quite as upright, and always they greet him so warmly: hugs from the ladies, big hearty handshakes from the men.
Then there's this a big bear of a man who wears an outfit that, in my ignorance, I would term casual California Hassiddic Jew. He's at least 6'5" tall and 3' across the shoulders and he (always) wears an apricot-colored linen tunic over raspberry colored linen trousers -- the tassels of a prayer shawl hanging below the tunic's hem -- and a straw fedora from underneath which long white curls hang down either side of his face, draped over his large bush of a white beard. He and his midrash partner debate the concerns of the day from theological perspectives over tea and almonds.
I also hold a great tenderness toward a trans-gender woman whose body is slight and whose mannerisms are entirely feminine, but whose prematurely balding head and dark stubble give away her biological character. She is often at work over a complicated beading project.
None of us talk to each other, and whenever I overhear conversations they are engaged in, I suspect that is for the best. We aren't the stuff of friends. But we are each other's friendly, familiar faces, and that is a treasure in itself.
The baristas here all know me by name, and my drink order (a small decaf coffee, half-full; I fill the rest with non-fat milk -- it is inexpensive enough that I can indulge it guiltlessly every day if I like), and we smile at each other and exchange kindnesses. And this is all I want and need from this place, socially. Because I come here not for the coffee, and not for conversation, but to write.
I am hard-pressed to define what makes the 'Stone so conducive to writing. It is almost always noisy -- and sometimes very noisy (like now, when the lunchmeat slicer is going). Sometimes there are as many distractions as inspirations. I often see familiar faces and am troubled until I can place the face (occasionally, I even see old Robi regulars). The music is inane and often unfortunately contagious.
I attribute the magic of this place, at last, to conditioning. I write here. I know that I write here. So, when I'm here, I write. Whatever the explanation of that mystery, I'm happy for it.
Recently, I've been wondering at what age my daughters will become aware of the time I spend here and what that will mean to them. I've watched mothers with young children here before and been reminded of how impossible it would be to do much more than attempt to rein in chaos if I brought my own. That will change as they age, of course. But as tempted as I sometimes feel to bring them into this part of my world, I also recognize that while not as injurious an incursion as Jeff's might have been, having them here could threaten a delicate thing. It is too precious to me for that. (Which I suppose is evidence that I do protect my time to write.)
My computer battery is about to give out -- an artificial, but probably none too soon, pressure to conclude. So, I sign off, sitting alongside a huge picture window, watching the wind whip yellow and orange leaves in big goofy airborne loops against a gray sky, sucking down the last of my (second) cup of coffee, and counting my blessings. Thanks for reading.
Where do you write?