The Coffee Mill (Oakland, California)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

This is so California: To the side of a wide, four-lane street saddled on both sides with bright, dingy shops, a freeway overpass would, at a later time of day, cast a shadow onto the cluttered windows of a cafe called Day of the Dead Coffee. But it’s noon; the cheery sun bounces off bleached palm trees swaying in the breeze and throws everything--pavement, potted plants, awnings, tiny people on the plane of the metropolis, trees, red tile roofs--into the dereliction of the open sky. The blankets have been thrown off the city and it lays there exposed to the full, underwhelming force of laxity. Noon is not a time for sunbeams, color, or shadow. The Day and The Dead face each other. But inside Day of the Dead Coffee, the Day is given to the Dead. It’s ours. I can’t think of a better name for a cafe.

But I am not here to tell you about Day of the Dead Coffee. It’s closed. Appropriately, it doesn’t open until two in the afternoon. Because the Dead only begin waking up in the afternoon, and then must retreat from the garish “day” (as some call it) to the dark Day steaming in a mug, ensconced in the equally dark interior of the cafe.

Nor am I here to tell you about California. Really, it is nowhere to be found. As much as I look around for the quintessential, it comes only in misguided postcard flashes. Some places I have no iconography for anyway. While San Francisco can be glimpsed when one nears the crest of a hill and looks to the other side, down into an undulating cityscape and the ocean, I have no idea what Oakland is supposed to look like. So I rely instead of a broader geography of notions, California, where it is supposed to be sunny, where the economy must eternally boom, and where movie stars are governors. All vague enough to situate oneself within just about anywhere, even carrying only the knowledge that I am inside its political boundaries.

I have come to one of the least imaginatively named cafes I can imagine, The Coffee Mill. It is, as its sign claims, the oldest coffee shop in Oakland. I was heartened to come here by four friends who crossed the street with me and came here for lunch. As I often (erroneously, I assume) assume of people I see in cafes, I assume they come here often on their lunch breaks. They seemed at ease in their outside seats, watching people walk by as they ate and chatted. They left promptly, presumably returning to the workplace they came from. The Day of the Living. In their wake, dry, neglected nasturtiums vining their way from pots to trellises shiver and droop almost to the sidewalk. Their pale yellow, anemic flowers reach in every direction but down.