Lela's Cafe

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer and Winter are announced by their declining. Yesterday, June 21, was the longest day of the year and the beginning of Summer. For the next six months the days will get shorter, yet for at least two of those months, the days will also get hotter. Summer begins when it begins ending, when the potential for Summer has all run out.

With this in mind, I would like to say that now that I’ve run out of cafes to write about, psychocafegraphy can begin (to end). The trouble is: with what? What can the subject of psychocafegraphy expand to include? (Especially when there are annoying yippy dogs squealing for their owners at cafe doors, making all thought impossible?) What marginalia do I turn to? Do I write about any place that serves coffee? Any place where people meet to talk, to sit on their computers, to read, and to write?

There aren’t many places in the latter category that don’t serve coffee. There are bars, but I can’t think of any that are consistently relaxed like a cafe. The Black Sheep, an “English pub” can be comfortable in the afternoon or early evening, but only because it’s mostly empty. Alex’s, a rather grubby downtown establishment (in the sense of The Establishment, man), is also like this, and there are probably others I don’t know about.

If there really were a pub, and not a loud bar with English pretensions, that would be enough like a cafe for psychocafegraphy. A cafe basically is the American version of a pub--a place one feels comfortable sitting around in for long periods of time without paying for anything more than a drink--without the alcohol. This is why I can’t write about the recently opened Larry’s cupcakes, or Ruby’s restaurant, etc. Supposedly, according to their newly painted signage, there soon will be a pub on A Street. It’s called The Playwright: a public house. (Yes, it’s shamelessly cashing in on what Ashland means to the world at large.) I’m somewhat shocked to discover that it will be taking over Lela’s, which I remember in my adolescence as the very inaccessible height of haute cuisine. (It wasn’t the restaurant of all restaurants, I now realize, but back then because I only went in once, it grew grand and opulent in my mind.)

Inaccessible because expensive. (I will proceed to make up a history of my family that in actuality I remember so hazily that I’m not sure of anything I’m about to say.) We would never have dreamed of spending the sums that Lela’s demanded on dinner. But at least once, outside the disapproving gaze of my father (which is funny to think of now--he is not a frugal spender) we went there for dessert. Dessert because it was cheaper than a meal and because we were not there to feed ourselves but to taste. Of the four of us in my family, only my mother and I could have shared dessert at Lela’s. (This very well could be a lie--my father might have joined us, or even impelled us to go there against our better financial judgment, and my brother also could have been there too, coming with us begrudgingly. We also may have never gone at all, only talked about going a few times on trips to the hardware store from which Lela’s was across the street.) That is, of the four of us, only her and I would’ve cared about fancy desserts. My father doesn’t have aspirations of refinement. He likes what he likes, and he probably would have been equally happy with a banana split from the ice cream shop down the street as any convoluted French sweet from Lela’s. My brother disapproves so thoroughly of the signs and cultural products of wealth that he would not have seen the point in spending ten dollars on a piece of cake. But my mother and I, we wanted to have palettes; we wanted to discern and appreciate. Once, when we were looking at a piece of art, she confided, to my Oedipal glee, that unlike my father I had aesthetic sense. I was so flattered: I could really see? This was what I had strove for.

To put things melodramatically, I grew up in a triangle (rather than an accommodating corner of a square) of morality, kind heartedness, and, well, madness. If I were written by Terrence Malick, I would now cry “Brother! Father! Mother! Always you wrestle inside me!” Cut to an undulating nebula.

Did we go? I do have a dim recollection of the interior of Lela’s, warm and cramped and bustling. I don’t remember sitting down, who was there, or even what we ate, if anything. Did we just come in to look at the desserts? I could of course ask my father about these details, but honestly I have more to write not knowing what exactly that memory contains.

The point I’m trying to make by saying all this is that Lela’s, despite not being a cafe in the ways I have previously defined it (even though it is called Lela’s Cafe), is embedded in my past in such a way that makes it a subject of psychocafegraphy. Well, at least of the kind of psychocafegraphy I used to do. Lately the posts have degenerated into depressive descriptions of cafes, without much of any personal involvement. I pose myself as simply a quirky observer, not an observer with a past and a psyche tangled up with the cafe that is my subject. Lela’s would allow me to return to form, to put the psycho back in psychocafegraphy. But Lela’s is already out of business and gutted, its red sign with white lettering and early 20th century decorative flourishes replaced by stark black and white minimalism. It will become a pub--something which would certainly make for good cafegraphy, but, being entirely new, lacks my entanglement.

But I will come here sometime when it’s finished. I’m curious how a pub could possibly work in the U.S. They say on their website that it will “become a community hub” and “a place where one can find lively banter.“ How will this be achieved? And does “community” include those under twenty one? Will it simply be closed to the under-aged after a certain hour? Will it be split into two sections--alcoholic and non?

It reopens with particular urgency the question posed by any new establishment, one over which owners anxiously fret and hope: can one engineer the way people gather? Cafes try to create cafe culture. The Playwright hopes to create pub culture, to transplant a bit of the British Isles here. And to do so the Lela’s I imagined must be uprooted. As The Playwright’s website lamely puts it, here is “the deconstruction of one idea and the construction of another.” What will the author of such phrases construct?