Key of C

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

There are not many cafes in Ashland housed in structures that were built specifically for them. Three come to mind: the coffee shop in the University library, the University Starbucks location, and Boulevard Coffee. The first brings up the the question of what a cafe can and should be if it’s possible to create one deliberately. Although, its construction was guided by the constraints of being a part of the larger building and purpose of the library. The second tries, as Starbucks locations do, to artificially create a sense of accidence. The third, for all its sheen, turned out lifeless and corporate, a complete aesthetic flop. It’s a paradox, deliberately going about simulating the effects of some imagined constraining circumstance. These are the replicants of the cafe world.

Everyone else, mere mortals, has to work with what they’re given. These cafes are, so far as I know, reoccupations of already existent buildings. The Beanery, I am told, was once a small grocery store. Noble Coffee emphasizes the fact that it’s in a former industrial building. Mix took the place of another sweet shop, and before that something else. A cafe’s very charm emanates from its failure to transcend its situation. The authenticity sought of cafes is not a kind of purity, but a kind of displacement. They’re authentic because they don’t quite belong where they are, because they struggle. Their alienation from themselves comforts us. We feel at home in their exposed brick walls and their awkward geometries. These cafes are not right and therefore right, offering us both constraints and histories. The cafe is bound in rigid wood, cement, and steel, and thus, to our relief, so are we.

As one of these cafes, the space where Key of C exists was not always Key of C. The cafe was arranged around what had already been here. At least this is what I assume. I would like to think that the dynamics of the room were more accidents than anything else, eccentricities that would never have been planned.

It’s on two levels with a short stairway between that may have tacked on when it became Key of C, to ease the transition from one level to the other. Maybe at one time this was two separate rooms, and the short partitions now separating them are the remnants of a wall. But now the two levels serve different functions. The higher has the kitchen, the counter, the espresso machine and the water cooler. The small floor space up there is where customers order and talk with employees, and where lines form. The lower has all the seating. It’s a neat rectangle with tall windows on two sides. The distinction of the two is accomplished without words. There has been care taken to hide the employees behind the counter above from the customers seated below. In addition to the low partitions is a slat of wood and particle board that makes it impossible to see over to the part of the employee area that lies behind it.

The largest expanse of glass looks out into a dark, covered alley, across of which is the fashion shop, Atomica, with its pink and black. Because it’s in the alley and under another building, Key of C is only ever in direct sunlight in the early morning. Otherwise it is in shadow, but the view out the windows which face the street is always bright. This is in part because the view is strangely bare. Across the one-way main street is a big parking lot, the post office, and an empty, recently demolished lot. It’s as if in one direction is the forest and in the other, the desert.

Large wooden beams form a framework in the walls and across the ceiling. These are contiguous throughout the cafe. They’re necessary, I suppose, to support the rest of the building above. But what was this place before? I am not old enough to remember.

On the wall above a stone table full of accouterments hangs an accordion, an instrument that becomes more prevalent here every Sunday. Musicians assemble with no specific plan in the morning, and play a variety of World folk to which people dance. The morning is a strange time to dance, I think. But then I would think any time is a strange time to dance. By the time I arrived here the musicians had dwindled to just three, nobody was dancing, and they were just playing around with each other and chatting about their instruments. This was a relief to me. Normally I avoid here entirely on Sundays. Although I often forget to, and come here to discover raucous, jubilant music and dancing within. I then walk by, trying to pretend that I wasn’t intending to come inside in the first place.

Two of the musicians are Europeans, one a newcomer to Ashland and an accordion player , the other named Olaf, a man who comes here all the time and seems to know half the customers. He always seems to be on his way to, or to just have come back from somewhere far away, and is always telling people about when he went to such and such place. If he is not traveling, he is thinking about traveling. He and the newcomer fall into this mode. The newcomer spent time in Romania, where he learned a song that he demonstrates on his accordion. He talks about his traveling companions whom he played music with, being bohemian as they tramped their way through Bohemia. It’s all very enviable, really. They find to their delight that someone else shares their vision of the good life that they’ve lived. They can relax and feel accomplished in such company.

A cafe, even if it tries not to, creates a way of looking and from that, a world. One fancies oneself in another place, one a bit warmer, more inviting, more social, and with more time. One experiences this more hopeful world by watching, even without experiencing it. As I sit listening to these Europeans I am comforted by a sense of community and worldliness. I think, sure, Life can be like that: hanging out with cafe friends, relaxing, catching up, sitting with the paper, working on something, or playing scraps of music. Yes, I find myself being convinced, one can be filled up. But we awkward Americans who love all this, let’s be honest, we’re not entirely comfortable with it. I know I’m not. I wish I could pop my bubble of “personal space,” thinking that beyond it lies my salvation, but it is difficult.

Across the room Olaf is chatting with one of his American friends who came here with a woman who seems like his girlfriend or wife. They have been together for some time, I imagine, as there is a quiet warmth between them--nothing urgent. As he and Olaf have their loud conversation that begins with “how’s it going, bro,” she sits drinking her soup with a spoon. She does not turn to look at Olaf, and doesn’t say anything. Her smile could very well be humoring. Some accept their xenophobia, others turn it into a desperate obsession with foreignness and foreigners. Like this man who accosts the German accordion player, saying “oh, your voice has such tenor, why don’t you sing?” The accordion player politely accept these accolades, but says he could use some voice training. “You don’t need training, you just need to sing!” is the Ashlander’s plea. I can’t help but think this worship is not for the accordion player’s “tenor,” but for his accent. At this uncomfortable moment the dream of foreign warmth falters, and their mutual otherness become locked in something far scarier.

If you order a pot of tea here you are provided with a pot filled with hot water and loose leaves, a cup that holds half the liquid, and a metal strainer. What do you do with this? When the tea has steeped, you pour half of it into the cup, leaving half the tea to over-brew as you drink your one cup of tea. Ideally there would be two cups or another empty pot large enough to hold all the tea.

Ordering a cup of tea is not much better if you are a stickler for tea steeped at the proper temperature. The cup comes full of hot water and a metal cylinder filled with tea, which has a long stick of a handle, making it impossible to cover the cup fully with anything. So the tea cools rapidly as it steeps.

The pot of tea is tea for two but there is only one cup. And if you and another ordered tea for two, the cups would end up being half the size, or the pot twice as large.