Boulevard Coffee

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring is like this: it's freezing but the light is blinding. It’s not the same light as in Winter, and the days are longer, but I had forgotten that until now, waiting to cross the street. It's disorienting. I can't actually comprehend that everything is this bright, that it could be getting warmer.

Spring does not come all at once. It is not so much a country as a contested territory. On one side is Winter, on the other, Summer. In a single day swaths of Spring are captured, lost, and re-captured. One moment it's snowing on green grass and the next one is stripping off layers in the heat of the sun. Today, however, Winter is clearly winning. The hills have gone white like the blood has gone out of them, and I can see my breath as I walk through downtown. I want to distance myself from all this; it’s too close. I am walking away from the Ashland of Percolate that looks in at itself, away from what the tourists come to see, to the drab places they stay.

Walking around town, I feel like I understand Ashland. Cars go by with snow, and I think they just came from the Greensprings. I see a bicyclist and, recognizing her, I know that flowers will soon show up at someone's door. Having lived here for most of my life, I am familiar with it, but I'm far too much a part of it to really understand it. Or am I? What is this notion of a detached observer who understands?

It strikes me that the true scene of Psychocafegraphy is not the cafe at all, but walking to it. The cafe is where I assemble and record what walking there has brought about. The germ of writing happens in anticipation. I am always writing these things before I write them, trying to find a frame before surrendering to the flood of quotidia that awaits inside the cafe. I think, in addition to fear, that there's a good reason for this: because the interesting things happen where expectations and reality crash into each other. They never quite do.

I come to coffee shops to defamiliarize myself with my surroundings so that it becomes possible to love them. My own experience is no longer my own, and becomes interesting. This only works if there is in fact anything there. Although one sits down in Boulevard Coffee, it is not a place; it's just more transit, like my walk. One comes here to be somewhere other than here. Cafes are supposed to be invigoratingly distracting. This place isn't. I come in here and I yawn, wondering when I can leave.

I don't understand how to write about this ostensible place. I have been here three times in the past week. I have sat at a table, in a booth, and at the bar in front of the windows. Everywhere I am stuck. If I'm not looking out the window I find myself staring at the wall or the ceiling. My thoughts drift toward nowhere in particular and I listen to the screams of children echoing from the hotel pool and the drone of the refrigerator. I thought that sitting at the window would be the place to write in here. I was wrong. It's no different. All I want to do is leave.

One does not feel a part of anything here. In Noble there's the hustle and bustle. At The Beanery there's a regular crowd and a street corner to watch. In The Roasting Company there are high schoolers. In Bloomsbury there's a community and books. But here, nothing. Rarely any comforting noise of conversation, no buzz. Just a spacious place to sit on your computer with a cup of coffee.

Maybe people come here because one doesn't feel like one is in the presence of anyone, any recognizable mess of intention and haplessness. I don’t feel that any one took care to create this place, but rather that it fell, pre-fab, out of some corporate ether. It feels like an oversized Starbucks with unusually impressive windows. Everything is very coherent, and mostly very dark. There are attempts at comfort: a central lounge area with a low coffee table, a couch, and two soft chairs, and in one corner two arm chairs next to the window, in a sad imitation of a suburban living room. The music is too loud not to be heard, and too quiet to be heard. The room, in other words, does not exude a distinct persona.

Under these tall ceilings and cold, impersonal decor, the employees, too, seem to have been plopped here by some scheming, uncaring hand. There is a mustached boy with huge black-rimmed glasses who always seems to be here. He is (dare I say it?) a hipster, in possession of that posture of savvy whateverness. There always seems to be one girl working at the counter at the same time and he's always joking with her. I can never quite hear what they're saying, but she occasionally laughs, and he occasionally smiles. It's a familiar mode of sharing the misery of work. They joke around in the recessed kitchen until someone shows up at the counter, and they always seem itching to get back their kitchen haunt. I know they have worked here for some time because I've seen them here months before, but they seem like they could have just started. Not because they seem nervous or incompetent, but because beyond the establishment’s bare status as employment, they remain uninvested. It eludes such attachments. It is, after all, attached to a hotel.

I must clarify: Boulevard is not a void like Case’s primal typography. Language does not bend and break around it, no, language gets apathetic. And by “language” I mean I do. Nothing about here sounds right because everything sounds adequate. I use tired vocabulary, dull sentence arrangements, uncompelling arguments that go nowhere. Take, for instance, that previous sentence. "Uncompelling" isn't even a word, "arrangements" isn't the right word, and "tired" and "dull" are tired and dull adjectives.

But yes, Boulevard is something else: It is that which doesn't excite intensities. There are people like this, whose company is sometimes sought after because one wants to be in the presence of someone whom one is not at all interested in even if one tries to be. Perhaps such company does not actually exist. Family, for example, is not like this. It might, depending on one's family, be possible to sit with one's family in silence and to be comfortable, but family brings about no shortage of intensities. They might, in fact, be the prime example of what I mean by "intensities." Family is familiar of course, but it never ceases to get under the skin. In a family everyone is caught up in each other. However well one might understand one's family, one is never free from it. (I am not, of course, speaking of "family” in a biological or legal sense.) To be free from family is to not be; one would dissolve only to be precipitated into another familial arrangement that might again imbue definition. In the sense that Ashland, having lived here for most of my life, is one of my families, the idea of Boulevard is appealing because it is not here, I don't understand it, and my only reaction to it is to get away from it. Incapable of engendering attachment, in theory it is a place in which to be relieved of attachment, to feel detached. But this is how it actually is possible to be attached to Boulevard, by becoming attached to detachment. That said, I don't think I'll ever want to come here again. I'm impatient here. I can't think.

I often see groups of locals meeting here. Perhaps such a soulless establishment is appealing to locals because it feels like an escape from the little dramas of small town life. One is constantly running into people one knows, and it seems like here in a hotel would be free of that. Of course many locals seem to have the same idea, and thus run into each other anyway. But here perhaps we make more of an effort to ignore each other. I just overheard a lengthy conversation between an acquaintance's partner and a friend of hers. If I hear one more word about how African women "still" have "the essence of the earth mother" in them, I might, I don't know, pass out. This latte already has me halfway there. It gave me diarrhea and has made me lightheaded.

Boulevard is filled with ways to not be here. On all sides are large windows that look out at Grizzly Peak, Safeway, and its namesake, Siskiyou Boulevard. In one corner is a television which is sometimes turned on to the news or a sports game. Receipts come printed with the password for the wireless network, because apparently that's largely the point of coming here. One is not an Ashlander here. One looks out at the hills. It's much like an airport, where a sense of place emanates from the horizon.

Its orientation outwards is way to understand its name. A boulevard is just an expanse of asphalt. What makes it interesting is what it allows those who travel on it to be near and to leave. “Boulevard" refers to Siskiyou Boulevard, the arterial street to which it is adjacent. But I think this is just for lack of a better name, belying a disorientation with its surroundings. It fails to understand its place in Ashland or even what it is. It offers nothing; it is only here because someone (Jim, apparently) realized it might be profitable to put a cafe next to his hotel. It does not want to be anything but a place to ensnare people staying in the hotel. And as a happy side effect, sometimes locals come here.