Water Street Cafe

Thursday, August 11, 2011

You need a guide in the realm of the dead--someone to open it up, to make what is invisible, visible. Without a guide you may not see the dead, and without a guide skilled in the obfuscations of storytelling, the dead would burn out your eyes, destroy you--you would be become dead. Without explanation the realm of the dead is impossibly incoherent; it must be explained away. It must be walled off, yet illuminated. To walk there the path must be opened, but it must be carefully closed off. What is a path, after all, but boundaries on either side? A path is limited openness, largely consisting of that which cannot be walked upon, whence the view from the path, the thing made beautiful because impossible to walk to without deviating from the path.

A cafe is that kind of path--walls here, windows here. A window creates the very condition of a view: it is a solid wall that blocks passage but through which you can see. Water Street Cafe eschews this definition of a cafe as it eschews windows.

Here the only shelter is from the sun, and their sign advertises "open-air dining." It is open-air dining in a rarely intended sense: This isn't dining in the open air of a courtyard or a garden, but open to the busiest street in Ashland. All that's between me, sitting on one of the wooden stools, and the traffic are some hanging potted plants and the thin beams holding up the plastic greenhouse roof.

The whole establishment has no indoor space. Even the food preparation and storage takes place in a tiny shack of wooden slats, metal screen, and a doorway covered with a flap of mosquito net. Like we're in the tropics. The music confirms this beach resort feel, oscillating between worldbeat and new-age, voices from warmer climes sampled into euphoria with a beat. (Which, what can I say, is a bit too appropriate for this psuedospiritual droning on about "realms of the dead.") Perhaps it's the music that forms the "window"--I'm indistinguishable from one of the people outside, except that I'm listening to this ridiculous music--"enlightened nature," runs one of the choruses--that to them is only a low murmur.


Let's be honest, I write these posts in two parts, occasionally more. For this entry what feels like a morning routine has developed that will end after today, its second iteration: after breakfasting on cereal, I leave the house to grab another breakfast of yogurt and fruit from the food co-op, which I eat on the bright blue picnic tables at the Oak Street Center. I then pop over here to get coffee, but their coffee machine is broken so both times it has actually been an americano, which is a perfect name for the most tasteless idea for an espresso drink. I write here for about half an hour, and go home. My life is so hard. (Maybe this nascent routine isn't one that should end with this post. I am shockingly productive here at ten thirty in the morning, at least in sheer volume of masturbatory crap.)

The two employees are in the throws of adolescence, experiencing that quintessential part of high school that I never did: the summer job. About the coffee machine one asks the other "when are we going to get that fixed?"

"Whenever he can figure out how to fix it without calling anyone or spending anything, I guess."

This morning the music has switched to an energetic oldies station: CC'n'R, James Brown, Bob Dylan. It creates the illusion that it fits the sunny street, as if everyone out there (which really isn't distinguished from here--there is no "in here") is moving to the same music, is part of that music. The man across the street with a cane and a knee brace who smokes and spanges has a movie soundtrack of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain Gonna Fall". He's the age who might have grown up listening to Dylan. So obviously it's his song; he's in it. The music, as I said yesterday, is my window that appears to constitute the scene.

Let me be (not terribly) clear about what I mean by the realm of the dead. Without some kind of window, downtown Ashland is all surface: sun and breeze glancing off inscrutable faces, cars on unknown errands, and green leaves swaying overhead impassively, blank blue sky above them all. Without a window a countless fray of presumptions fly wily-nilly through everything, though never still enough to see, or, most of the time, even to notice. A million Subarus and Priuses drive every which way. A thousand Chaco and Teva sandals bending rhythmically against the pavement and the balls of feet.

Sight is by its very nature sight of that which is already dead. This is obviously some of the most daft metaphysical fuckery. The thing in itself is defined as that which cannot be sensed, what lies beyond perception. By the time you see the thing the sight has already been taken from it, little deaths peeled off like automatic gunfire. You need a guide, then, to see beyond the realm of the dead to the realm of the living, that impossible place.

The cripple on the bench is getting more desperate. People are disturbed by his shamelessness: He yells at them from thirty or forty feet away, asking for monetary help. Something in his manner suggest that he finds it ridiculous that people are unwilling to help.

His story is that the VA Hospital in White City (twenty miles away) has kicked him out. He was injured ("got hurt") in '71 in Vietnam ("fighting for our freedom"), and now he's "reduced to begging. But I got no choice. People look at me like I'm some kind of drug addict, some kind of pariah, but it's not true." Thus the indignation foreign to people used to beggars not filled with pride.

I wish I had some personal story to tell about Water Street Cafe. In the summer I had burned my feet on the asphalt while I was waiting for one of my brother's friends to order.