A Street Cafe

Thursday, July 14, 2011

It is becoming traditional to begin these posts with a broad, somewhat self-deprecating statement of what psychocafegraphy is. Glimmers of these were in the very first two posts--in which Noble Coffee (the new) was interrogated with paranoia and The Beanery (the old) was romanced--but only now have they become explicit. Recently I said psychocafegraphy is hysteria about change. Inevitably, such a failure to accept the present ends in a declension narrative. With every post I in some way announce the oncoming decline of the blog itself, and things, according to a psychocafegraphy post, are getting worse. It’s easy to find confirmation of this here, in what has become of La Baguette and Hardware Cafe unnervingly soon after the owner’s death, where there now is literally less than before.

A Street Cafe would like to think that less is more, of course. People like myself who bemoan gentrification believe that this really is true. Over ten years ago there really was hardly anything on A Street. A few blocks of quiet houses was enough to separate it from downtown. Its businesses hadn’t even begun promoting the concept of A Street as hip extension of downtown that today is at least half reality. All I can remember is that there was the hardware store, and the Grange Co-op, which remain.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but there was no Ashland Food Co-op. Well, there was, but it was a tiny place full of bulk food bins. located downtown where the Outdoor Store is now. Hordes did not self-consciously browse aisles of raw, vegan, organic, gluten-free and natural foods there. There were no homebums and punk kids hanging just outside the doors. The building Ashlanders now know had in fact not even been built yet.

There were not restaurants (or perhaps only Lela’s Cafe) nor were there spas and yoga centers.. There were galleries, but not as many as today. The old steel works was just that--an abandoned industrial building.

Then construction began. Things are always worsening, but I evidently distrust my distrust of the present, because at the same time I can, believe it or not, be excited by the future. I remember the building under construction was an object of fascination, cynicism, and excitement. The girders rose into the damp, dreary winter, and we photographed them, my oldest friend and I, sometimes at night when they were orange and under streetlights and seemed from some other era. The giant clock taking shape at the top seemed then tantalizingly anachronistic. I was excited about what it would all become, yet we would say to each other how lame it was that they were doing anything at all with the building. Of course, we would never have noticed it before construction began. The reconstruction revealed the building as (having been) a ruin at the same time that it transformed it into something new.

When finally what turned out to be an ugly green clock and its surrounding facade was finished, businesses flocked to rent space, as had been intended. It was a bold attempt to turn A Street into a thing. It was, we can say now, too much too soon. Perhaps the idea was not untenable, but not there or then. There was a cascading cast of eateries which came and went over the next five years or so. At the apex of this over-hopeful venturing (this was, after all, before the economic bust) there was a gourmet waffle shop, a Mexican cafe which sold itself on the basis of its “freshness,” a pizzeria, and a bar. The bar served a large, open space in one end of the building where performances sometimes took place. Its dark, shellacked cement floors stunk of deliberation: This was how the building was built to be used, someone’s plan realized.

Now it houses the offices of Plexis Healthcare Systems. The original premise, though, like people talk about spirits of the dead doing, still floated about. Entrepreneurial dreams and spirits wander. If there’s anything left of La Baguette’s owner’s spirit, it’s elsewhere, haunting, waiting to inhabit the will of another entrepreneur. Here in A Street Cafe there is no trace of the residue crusted onto dough mixers, the silt of flour, or the funk of before. Octogenerians do not gather here in the early morning to gab about their peers.

One never lives in any era, or at least, never in the era that afterward will be designated “now.” This cafe is 2004 stretched into the present. The cupcake bakery that just opened a month ago downtown rides a trend from two or three years ago (or more?). But when I say two or three years ago: Where? Whence does the “now” unfold, always pointing outward at all that is not “now” and calling it “then”? The quintessential always emanates from some other imagined time and place.

There is something of what the remodeled steel works once were in the dark, stately minimalism of this interior. But unlike that bar and venue of years ago, these small, square, wooden tables are arranged in orderly rows, not in ornamental disarray. Whereas Bloomsbury, and many other cafes, try to make customers feel at home with clutter and decor--needful distractions to fall into, buffering and lubricating the intimacy between people--here all attention, without anywhere else to go, lands entirely on the people. Conversation is supposed to beautify the place. A lofty goal.

The dishes follow the same aesthetic. Tea comes in simple little white pots and little straight-sided teacups, showing off the amber liquid like the interior design does clientele. Nothing is fun or cute or charming. Even the coffee cups somehow bridge the gulf between the self-consciously simple heavy, slightly hour-glass-shaped mugs that Noble Coffee uses and the hand-painted clay cups of The Roasting Company.

Someone, whoever he or she is, has gotten what they always wanted. Though densely packed, the tables can be rearranged to accommodate music, comedy, a lecture on a diet consisting entirely of air, or a man in a tutu balancing a lime on his nose--whatever it is one attends these days. Deux Chat, a new and highly regarded local bakery down the street, provides all the cafe’s pastries. It’s all rather idyllic, at least for someone. Maybe I’ve gotten what a nostalgic supposedly wants, too: The future (of one person) has, given way to the past (of another). I would like to cast this transaction as cold, uncouth opportunism, as if the new owner was waiting for the old owner to croak, or arranged for it to happen himself. But this is not a black comedy, nor a thriller, and who knows, the old owner, tired, might have just sold the thing if he’d been given the chance.