The Beanery

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sometimes one doesn’t want smiles, performances, or to perform. One wants to be treated gruffly. One wants grim surroundings and to drink one’s battery acid from a chunky mug in peace. At The Beanery, the butch man of coffee shops, one can pretend not to pretend. One can be blue.

(Don’t get me wrong. It’s lovely battery acid.)

Culturually, geographically, and perhaps grosstopically, Ashland has at least two poles, if not three or more. There is the downtown pole centered at the Plaza which organizes itself around the tourist’s gaze. On the other end of town and across the railroad tracks, a second pole rises up with the giant flagpole upon which the contentious giant American flag flaps. It is there that big box stores may be found, conveniently located next to the interstate onramp. The possible third pole, which would thus break the status of all three as poles, is the university.

At the convergence of the latter two poles is The Beanery. From out here at the corner of Ashland Street and Walker Avenue one can see signs indicating where to get onto the interstate. In the outside seating with the noise of the traffic is where people come to smoke. This is one of the many ways in which The Beanery forms an opposition to downtown Ashland. Here the alien and the past converge. Closer to the University and the I-5 onramp than it is to the glittering, self-consciously touristic plaza with its shops and restaurants that change hands and names so frequently I can’t keep track, this place is a bastion of, well, itself. Not only has it been here since as long as I have lived but it has not deigned to reinvent itself. Here one gets a waft of the 90s. The music often drifts in that direction, subject to the often nostalgic whims of its employees. Inside and out it is painted a deep but not dark blue taken from the branding of its parent company, Allann Brothers, that pervades the building’s very being. It is not a cheery sky blue or a sombre navy blue, but simply blue. Yes, I dimly remember that long ago the furniture may have been changed from dark wood to light wood with synthetic tabletops. And yes, suddenly there are now two comfy-looking leather chairs in the back. Does it matter? The exterior makes a minor concession to the present with a newish burnt umber paint job that tries to render the blue excitingly colorful, but it does not succeed. It remains somehow drearily solid. In contradiction to any color theory I can imagine, the perception of this particular blue is not changed by its surroundings. It cannot be framed. It is that philosophical vulgarity: something selfsame.

As I write, an employee sits outside wrapped in his coat and listens to music with his eyes closed, savoring the five minutes he has before he must work. It’s okay to let your pathos hang out here. There is not a sense that anybody is watching. One feels anonymous in the impassive grit of aged furniture, paint, and aspirations. Here is a strange island of urbanity. This is sometimes but not always welcoming. In summer overzealous air-conditioning vents blast from the ceiling straight at the tables below, threatening to turn their occupants the signature Allann Bros. color. When someone grinds their own coffee using the machine in the back, an infernal whirring noise fills the cluttered interior. Everyone tries their best to ignore it. This is not a manic utopia, but somewhere that the noisy silence between people is all too apparent.