Finding community in cafes
From Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”
“He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” (1)
I remember reading this short story in undergrad and being struck by the story of the older waiter who took care of customers who just needed a place to be and sit as the night grew later. I’ve found a few places like this, the clean, well-lit ones, in which I feel a sense of calm and familiarity. I remember calling the owner of my favorite cafe in town, after a particularly trying day of gathering psych records and meeting with my new psychiatrist, and her offering to stay open until I could come by to pick up the cookies I promised to order. The windows are enormous there, and the owner is kind.
There’s a coffeehouse frequented by college students that I tend to go to when I have no desire to do homework, but know I need to do so. There’s a community of people at this place that do homework beside each other; I like to think that we’ve formed a club of cranky grad students just trying to get our work done. I’m not entirely sure when I became the “get off my lawn” grad student that I am when the coffeehouse plays loud rock music or anything with a strong bass sound on the patio, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one hiding from the noise. Most of us know where the good places to sit are, so creatures of habit that we are, we often find each other in these spots. It’s sort of vaguely comforting in a way — mind you, rituals and routines in general are pretty wonderful when the world seems to be spinning too quickly.
I’ve shared stories in cafes. I’ve cried in cafes (shout out to my friends who’ve sat beside me as I’ve sobbed over a variety of topics –as a person with GAD, dealing with life’s messiness can be rather exhausting). My womyn’s writing circle even meets nearby yet another coffee bar. These days, I drink tea in cafes rather than coffee. There’s a constant discussion going on in my mind: “Do you want to be ridiculously anxious or have that cuppa coffee?” “Make the healthy response there” — as I imagine my old psychiatrist eying me as I think about choosing the coffee, so I assemble my tea the English way, with a bit of milk and sugar or honey, sometimes even agave nectar if it’s available (good stuff — seems less viscous than honey — thank you college chemistry). I’ve watched way too many British sitcoms and television dramas to not love tea, and I love it all the more since I somehow became sensitized to the effects of coffee.
Cafes — the clean, well-lit ones I’ve found — are a source of comfort to me because of the kind people who make both lovely drinks and casual conversation in between our orders.