Issue Forty-Two - Summer 2023

I Was Born to Live in a Café

By Paul Graseck

After attending a 2018 opening of a retrospective exhibit in which one hundred pieces created by native Rhode Islander and internationally known artist, Morris Nathanson, were on display, we headed to a local restaurant to chat about the exhibit in the afterglow of its opening. His body of work—paintings, wood block prints, “found art” assemblages, and drawings—filled two rooms at a spacious gallery. The exhibited works reached back to 1955, the earliest a pen and ink watercolor, Funeral in Tatco. At dinner, our small party found itself chatting with Morris—then a probing, energetic, storytelling ninety-year-old who resembled Mark Twain. Our conversation quickly turned to consideration of his rich and multi-layered career. (See footnote 1.)

Living in a loft situated two hundred feet across a parking lot from his studio, my wife and I became friends with Morris more than a decade ago. He and I occasionally enjoyed a tumbler of scotch in his library, a few steps down the hall from his sizable urban workspace. One night, several months after the retrospective, we got together at his house with friends. Late in the evening, he and I quietly talked about books, my writing, and his career—artist, revival architect, theater set developer, and restaurant designer—vocational choices that he found mutually reinforcing. That night, I told him that I find writing in cafés very agreeable, then blurted eight words I have often uttered: “I was born to live in a café.”

Morris’ wife, Phyllis, always inquisitive, immediately asked, “Why do you say that?” I replied, “I like the solitariness a café permits for reading, writing, and thinking and the equally social experience cafés invite if one chooses to engage a patron in conversation at an adjacent table, meet a friend, or develop an agenda with a business partner for an upcoming meeting back at the office.” I continued, “Cafés have the capacity to bend, accommodating multiple purposes. I refer to the café I frequent as my office.”

In the 1980’s, when the bookseller Barnes and Noble introduced coffee bars into its giant superstores, I considered their addition a pleasing innovation. Entering college in 1968, I fell into the habit of reading for long periods in the campus coffee shop while nursing a cup of tea. Occasionally, friends would come in and join me. That union of sipping and reading in a public space continued to appeal, and so I found visits in post-college life to a Barnes and Noble or its knockoffs across the country satisfying and nostalgic, opportunities to tarry, socialize, and think, even read for-sale books while sipping tea.

Alongside the rise of bookstore-coffee shop chains, we find the emergence of the modern American café, catering to writers, readers, and warm- and cold-drink quaffers of all stripes. A café culture evolved, one loosely based on the European model, where a customer is never kicked out, even if simply nursing a cup for hours. This continental philosophy is shared by franchises and independent cafés alike, Starbucks the largest, with over thirty thousand such establishments scattered across America and other countries.

For me, the background buzz of a café exists as a superb environment for writing. The hum of certain cafés, not all, functions like a crackling fire. As with slow-burning oak, the café’s whir warms me. In turn, it kindles in me a convivial disposition, seducing me to enjoy the pulse of social intercourse without having to participate in the cocktail party. My soul ignites in café culture, at least its affable filament; in turn, its tiny blaze fuels the private affair of writing.

Writing guru Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestseller, Writing Down the Bones, recommends writing in cafés. In The True Secret of Writing, she exhorts the developing writer to leave the house: “When you’re in the house, the phone rings, the dishes need washing—there are a million excuses to do this or that instead of write. Go out! I prefer less-frequented cafés where the food isn’t very good so I can stay at the same table for a long time.” (See footnote 2.)

At dinner that night with the artist and his wife, I explained that “I prefer the busy café,” its fusion of customers ordering lattés; steam wands aerating milk; wall speakers injecting the blues of John Lee Hooker, Ella Fitzgerald, or Earl Hines into the room; tiny tables accommodating animated, intense conversations; and written-word enthusiasts filling their journals, turning pages, or gazing into MacBook Pros while reading, crafting poems, or shaping sentences. I further explained that cafés, ideally, provide space for a distinctive subculture, “It is pub and monastery, connection and reflection, and its white noise invites me to enter into dialogue in spite of sitting alone.”

After listening to my mélange of café elements that conspire to accommodate such varied activities without expectation that customers skedaddle after a brief period of seat warming, Morris asked me, “Do you know why American cafés developed that personality?” I didn’t, so he offered me a little personal history lesson on the advent of the French café in New York City.

A designer of restaurants himself, he described how the Mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay (1966-1973), after much lobbying, eventually supported a zoning modification permitting the installation of awnings over sidewalks in front of dining establishments. “That simple change,” after a protracted campaign to revise the regulation, “transformed New York,” he told me.

The multiplication of outdoor eateries began to revolutionize the city. And New York’s open-air restaurants, now imitating Parisian cafés, slowly replicated across urban America evolving into the archetype of our contemporary café—a place to linger with friends or sequester oneself for interior pursuits. Unlike Las Vegas, what happened in New York did not stay in New York; it spread and ripened.

As the café as hangout established itself, an early expansion of the Seattle-based Starbucks coffee shops occurred in the 1980s. With the proliferation of laptop computers in the 1990s, followed by the compact and versatile Blackberry smartphone in 2002, and then the advent of Steve Jobs’ iPhone in 2007, the propagation of such cafés accelerated. A vigorous café culture continued to metamorphose into the present, a culture now tolerating, even supporting, workstations and pop-up offices. Not all these cafés are equal. For me, an aggregation of particulars must converge to allow a café to qualify as monk’s cell, learning community, and social hangout as well as my office.

In addition to the atmospheric purr previously mentioned, my perfect café gestalt is comprised of worn hardwood floors, dulled through years of foot-scuffing; eighteen to twenty-two closely arranged, round tables, 24”-26” in diameter, enough surface to fit two laptop computers but small enough to bring two heads together; ample space beneath each table to place comfortably my feet; wooden chairs sporting padded seats and comfortable curved backs with vertical slats and side-posts on which to hang hats and strapped bags; several copies of The New York Times and local newspapers, all free; accessible Internet and multiple outlets for battery charging; a few bulletin boards to which customers can affix posters publicizing local cultural events, notices of apartment rentals, ads for home auto repair, wedding planners, and other services, plus alerts regarding lost dogs or cats; an unrestricted cabinet containing checkers, scrabble, and chess; a full range of coffees, teas, and lattés; an eclectic assortment of art on the walls; and congenial, efficient baristas. Such elements blend together to create a pleasurable mush of voices while fostering a feeling of intimacy.

Having sat in many cafés, I realize that the owner or manager of these establishments is central to their success. Rarely is an inviting and celebrated atmosphere accidental; it typically requires the oversight of someone possessing both a head for business and heart that pumps the essential humors of artistic expression into the enterprise. The hiring and training of capable staff occupy the top rung on the ladder of services such cafés must provide. The proprietor must also recognize that patrons populate multiple points along a continuum between introversion and extroversion and sundry intervals across a second, slightly differing one, stretching between solitary and communal.

I discovered such a café in Pomfret, Connecticut, a café well suited to my needs, both academic and social. The Vanilla Bean Café facilitated the development of a considerable portion of my doctoral dissertation during the mid-1990s. Day after day, I sat for four or five hours at the small table behind the bay window in the Bean, occasionally gazing at exotic fish in the tank next to my table, taking a break to examine the art exhibited monthly on the Bean’s walls, or looking up toward the cathedral ceiling where an old-fashioned penny-farthing bicycle is perched on an exposed beam. Friends often popped in, giving me a break from the intensity of writing. The Bean’s proprietor, Barry, assured me several times that he had no problem with me using his establishment for such long stays, saying that he preferred to have me there, believing that a busy place attracts customers.

Great cafés, like the Vanilla Bean, develop loyal customers. I qualified as a staunch, albeit infrequent, customer of Café Algiers, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, institution. I nostalgically recall meeting a close friend a couple times a year at the establishment. At first, he drove from Maine and I from Connecticut simply to talk; Algiers was our practical destination. There we talked freely about our work, families, aspirations, writing, philosophies, fears, achievements, and problems. Upstairs we nursed a cup of coffee or tea for hours. No one interrupted us in that dark upper room, sitting among Algiers’ assortment of tables and chairs.

Sadly, Café Algiers closed its doors in 2016, when its proprietor, Emil Durzi, fell ill; his café had a forty-five-year run. A few weeks later the owner’s close friend, Sami Herbawi, rescued it from a permanent shutdown. But, a year later, its demise became certain; the landlord and Durzi, who had since recovered, unable to negotiate a satisfactory contract. An upscale bar moved in. In a 2019 article, “Café Algiers: A Hidden Gem with a Long History,” Ruth Hobeika describes its patrons and the place, located at 40 Brattle Street, just off of Harvard Square:

“How many businesses have a history that is so deeply interwoven in the lives of their patrons? Ask around a bit and you will find married couples who had their first date at the Algiers and come back every anniversary; a mom whose six-week-old’s first outing was here; people who wrote a college thesis, signed closing documents for a first home, or just observed, decade after decade, the Square’s great characters who came and went.

“No one talks about this place without highlighting its ambiance. The decor, like the food, is eclectic Middle Eastern with a bohemian flair. Vaulted wooden ceilings, a circular staircase, vintage copper cappuccino makers, framed Arabic scripts, old books to read or buy, tiles and teapots everywhere. The top floor has cozy alcoves for students to curl up with books, and everywhere are hexagonal wood and copper tables for friends to sit and schmooze for hours. No shooing anyone away.” (See footnote 3.)

When I travel, I look for comfortable cafés that will allow me to take up temporary residence. At home, in Providence, Rhode Island, I spend long hours at the Coffee Exchange on Wickenden Street. It incorporates every one of the characteristics I have outlined as important to me. Charlie, its proprietor, tweaks its decor occasionally, adding a bookcase or making a minor addition to the menu. He sometimes hands out samples of a new drink or sweet he is considering selling, but changes at the Coffee Exchange are typically minor, rarely disruptive, and generally infrequent. Charlie talks to his customers, plays chess with them, offers easy Internet connectivity, and maintains a clean bathroom. He has an outdoor deck with an awning he can roll out to protect customers from the sun or inclement weather.

Three years ago, my wife took ill while we were visiting rural, northern Arizona; it was an appendicitis. She had her appendectomy at the Verde Valley Medical Center in Cottonwood, a small, working-class town of 12,000 on the high desert. Confined to the medical center overnight, she was released the next morning. Fifteen minutes later, we were sipping lattés in a full-service café in unpretentious, out-of-the-way Cottonwood.

Perhaps historians and economists will discover a wealth of early rivulets leading to the conditioning of American society to accept the flood of cafés that have shaped a vast and distinctive café culture. I am compelled to acknowledge that scientists, typically hard-nosed empiricists, have demonstrated the theoretical possibility that a process leading to a weather event as harsh as a hurricane may be set in motion by the flapping wings of a diminutive butterfly. Such dramatic natural outcomes attributable to tiny initial events are now referred to as The Butterfly Effect. If my artist friend was correct about the impact of sidewalk canopies, that they contributed to fostering the emergence of modern American café culture, we might fittingly dub future noteworthy cultural developments, if traceable to small societal changes, as examples of The Awning Impact.

In college, I valued the opportunity to walk out of my dormitory room at any time, day or night, and seek someone to talk to about things that matter. Taking a break while writing a paper, I might step into the corridor and find myself talking about one of Plato’s dialogues, discussing the meaning of a poem, or creating with others an existential song. A residential college is a culture of convenience, a place where people can easily discover others with whom to share a confidence, idea, story, joke, disappointment, or achievement. Upon leaving college fifty years ago, I remember vowing to reproduce the “feeling” of college for the rest of my life. The proliferation of coffee shops and cafés has made it rather easy to fulfill that vow.

1. Morris Nathanson died in 2022, age 95.
3. Ruth Hobeika, “Cafe Algiers: A Hidden Gem with a Long History,” in Cambridge Historical Society, November 29, 2019.

Copyright Graseck 2023