Southern Grounds

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I don't remember when I first visited the library where this coffee shop is located. But that library was not this library, and there was no coffee shop. That first time--it may have been to research Buckminster Fuller--must've been a kind of revelation, because as a teenager who wanted to think of himself as an intellectual, the university library was tantalizing almost like a forbidden space: it was filled with books way over my head. Where would I begin? With the Geology of Mars, of course. The ceilings were low, the shelves were metal, and everything smelled somewhat of mold. In such conditions I could convince myself that I was learning things. Today are gone the cloying dark cement and carpeting of 1969. Now the library is full of space and glass.

I do remember a particular time I came here in my last year of high school. A group of us came here to study for a Comparative Government Advanced Placement test. We met in one of its tiny, windowless study rooms in which all sounds echoed excessively. We swapped notes taken from books on the governments of France, Russia, and, yeah, I can't remember which others.

That's right, parking here is a bitch. It was seven years ago when I used to go here. Although I rarely had to park myself, I knew someone who did. It's strange that I drove here and didn't walk, and I had forgotten that you can't just pull up to the library and park. You have to drive up the hills behind SOU, past the hundreds of other cars lining the residential streets. So that much hasn't changed. During the year I took classes here, the building I now sit in was under construction. The new library was being built around and within the old one, but the old library had to remain operational during this process. So it was done in parts. Somehow the books were shuffled around as construction demanded. When I went to the library it was into an old, musty building surrounded by scaffolding inside of which there were areas blocked off with sheets of plastic, the noise of power tools there.

So even though the Hannon Library has been here for five years, it, like Mix, it is a part of the town's geography that will never be quite familiar to me. If the old library is the locus of so many memories, and the new library built around it gives only faint hints at these, then the coffee shop downstairs is as far away as one can get while still being in the same building. Not only was there no coffee shop in the old library; such a thing would have been inconceivable then, there. The building would not have allowed it. And after all there being coffee shops in every nook and cranny is a relatively new phenomenon. I read somewhere that coffee consumption in the U.S. had actually been declining slowly since the mid 20th century, hitting its lowest in the 90s. Before the great yearning for coffee that welled up, culminating in or due to Starbucks, coffee was, I imagine, just some swill you got at a diner or donut shop.

This seems like a good time to ask: What is a cafe? The question arises out of a nagging, not quite explicable sense that this isn't one. It's not that I have set down what a cafe is and is not. I don't have a checklist. But when I sit here, it doesn't feel like the other dozen or so cafes I've sat in for psychocafegraphy. I want to somehow probe this feeling and see what motivates it.

I'm tempted to argue a nasty, somewhat existentialist theory of cafeness, in which true cafes are involved in transcending themselves, and false cafes merely accept their place as cafes. What's compelling to me about this is not the valuing of what makes a true cafe, but how it defines cafeness in paradox: A cafe is that which is in excess of a cafe. Boulevard Coffee, Starbucks, and this place are content with fulfilling a preexistent image of what a cafe is supposed to be. A cafe redefines cafeness or tries to; it falls short and exceeds its goal of becoming a cafe. And precisely because it misses the mark of "cafe," it is a cafe.

Part of the reason this isn't a cafe is because it's on the university campus. I can tell when classes are released because customers come in waves. There are lulls and then a dozen or more will line up along the counter. Most of them leave with their cup in hand. There are no ceramic mugs here. Not anyone comes here. If you're here, you're almost certainly a student, a professor or someone else who works for the university. You do not generally traipse halfway across campus as I have just done to get a cup of coffee. Basically the only reason you might otherwise be here would be if you've come to the library for its books or to use its public computers. You might then, since you're already here, come for coffee or something to eat. It's in the same building. But it would be wrong to say it's an extension of the library, that it is entirely subordinate. People on campus, mostly students, come here without ever going into the library. It's a place to sit, to meet, to work. Outside there are metal tables fixed to the ground where people talk or mill about looking at their cell phones. One girl looks out thoughtfully from her seat, filling a journal.

Students are like a parade of peacocks. It is not just their clothes on display. They walk with a particular style, wear their hair, intone their voices, smile or don't in a particular way.

One student struts in with a lustrous paisley vest holding down an orange and pink striped shirt and black pinstripe pants. Just the sort of crazy thing one wears on a college campus.

Someone else comes in with an over sized sweater looking sleepy. Students often look like they just rolled out of bed.

She refuses to wake up at that hour. She refuses to bother talking with her friend anymore, so irresponsible and full of drama he is. She is sick of it all.

She never said a word. She was here before me, stoically working the whole time. She looked resigned to the world. She's not a part of the chattering students who flirt, who live in an endless stream of socializing.

One comes in quietly dressed like an updated French New Wave film: loose but not ill-fitting white trousers, a black and white striped t-shirt and auburn leather shoes. He's carrying a moleskine, a few mandarin oranges, and a book.

I can't stop watching all these people because I'm not in a cafe, I'm on a college campus. This is a cafeteria.