You can hear the World, in a coffee shop.
It is shapeless rumbles of noise that emanate from all corners and they crash into each other and I think the human mind learns how to drown it out without knowing that’s what it’s doing, dismissing it all as dreary, though it is anything but.
I sit with a book.
Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’.
It’s a quaint little book that reminds me of Paris, and Michigan and I read it with the desire of a wealthy traveler but the wallet of a beggar.
I first drank a Mocha in Michigan. I’m drinking one now as I write this. I drink one in the coffee shop. If I drink two in the coffee shop, I wont sleep much that night.
But I feel as if I am being judged, if I only have one, yet expect to be in there for an hour or two. So I buy two. And then I don’t sleep much that night.
… and then there’s 37 rue de la Bûcherie.
With its Tudor-style beams overhead, and its drooping book shelves under the weight of so much genius. The staircase has books running up it. There are old typewriters too. Quintessentially Parisian, with a nostalgic charm, as you climb the little wooden ladder to your chosen book.
Hemingway knew it when it was on rue de l’Odéon.
Joyce stayed there. T.S Eliot. D.H Lawrence. Larbaud.
We owe this to the wonderful Sylvia Beach.
On a step, you read “Live for humanity“.
A wonderfully simple yet beautiful command.
It reminded me of Aeschylus, the Greek Tragedian:
“To tame the savageness of man, make gentle the life of this World“.
Parisians don’t like you paying with notes. They like coins. Notes seem to offend them. I don’t know why. The man at the Eiffel Tower, selling crepes huffs and puffs if you hand him a note. Maybe they don’t offend him. But they seem to bore him. Bank notes are boring. I’m huffing and puffing just talking about it. Pay with coins. But always buy a crepe on the cobblestoned lanes of Montmartre.
The walls are thin and cracked and the tiny balconies with the black metal frames of the hotel rooms are the beautiful lookout of millions of lovers in the morning, passing through Paris on their way.
She has pale skin, and freckles, and reddish hair which she often brushes behind her ear and she smiles as me. I smile back. It is easy to fall in love with a smile. You can fall in love on a train station platform three or four times before the train arrives, all for a smile.
And then forget it all by the time you sit down.
Even on warm days, I choose to sit inside the coffee shop.
I seldom contemplate sitting outside on the terrace, as I stand in line.
Because when I do contemplate it, I exaggerate the significance of it.
I am convinced that it is reserved for Macbook clad, cigarette’d business people.
The ‘yar…. yar, like… totally‘ people.
And that the busy shoppers walking by would look at me in disgust if I were to sit outside.
And they’d all stand still, in shock.
And they’d cover their children’s eyes.
And they’d go home and recite to their friends, that the man without the Macbook, who didn’t sit cross legged, smoking a cigarette, was sat outside the coffee shop, and their friends would recoil in horror as thunder crashed dramatically over head.
And then I’m back in line being asked what I’d like to order.
So I seldom contemplate sitting outside, as I stand in line.
Because when I do contemplate it, I exaggerate the significance of it.
You can sit outside the coffee shop in Paris though. It is almost necessary. At least it feels necessary. And I like that. You are surrounded by lovers in their romantic dream, and a faint sound of an accordion player. You are surrounded by cafes and shops with dirty old verandahs, and nuns walk by on their way to Mass. You are surrounded by the shading trees and bicycles with baskets on the front. You are surrounded by Paris.
The soft light of sunset that glistens the Seine, and that hugs the Pont Neuf, makes it hard to place the terror of Robespierre’s reign, or the riots at the Bastille, or the Napoleonic era, in such a serene city. But it happened.
Hemingway speaks beautifully of the Jardin du Luxembourg before reminding me of Chicago.
But as hard as I try, I can’t focus in a coffee shop on the book.
The people are too distracting.
But people are fascinating.
Intimate detail of lives are expressed so openly, as if no one can hear.
And so I thought I’d learn to make order from the chaos, and take my little black notebook, and write down the odd snippets of conversation that distract me and make distinction between them.
And not know which face belonged to each voice.
And not know the context of the stories.
And not know the turn the conversations would take, or the ending to the conversations, just a line here and a line there.
The result – that I have so far written down – is exceedingly mundane, yet fascinating to me.
A metre. I told him. No. …. Yeah. A metre but He never fucking listens. I hate squatting… oh… before I forget… do you have Fletch’s number? With a big fat cherry on top? There are usually seventeen but I swear she stole one. Yeah things aren’t going too well for me at the minute. No reason for us to stay together when the cat died. Two coffees too many dad. I can’t believe it was 2, I didn’t think there’d be time. Tell her we can go ahead with terminating his contract… yeah he deserves it. Sometimes you’ve just gotta say fuck it, you know? It’s a shame, he seemed nice enough at the time… I never thought he’d do it. Some solids. Walked home until I had a car. Cream on that? I swear mate, she doesn’t even get off the couch, fucking lazy. People die, it happens. They don’t do curry sauce with the chips any more though. Nah Liz told me that it’s likely Jen will be cautioned for it but probably not Bek. Blatantly gay. What if he finds out? They don’t teach manners at the fucking border agency. She ain’t even sucked his dick yet. Twice but sometimes if it’s raining there will be more. Sensed it. Two brake lights I think. Yeah Dave’s had it with Sky, never fuckin’ works when it rains. A girl? Daisy? Or not?. Isn’t it though?. Season 4 was the best so far but. Does it smell funny in here to you?…..no…… oh. Birmingham is quieter I think. Three massive blokes just fucking…just…came out of fucking nowhere. I don’t think they’ll get married. Repping in Mabella I think.
Sometimes I wonder who these people are; their names; what comes next; if they have terrible secrets; when their parents first laid eyes upon each other; their favourite subjects; if they talk to themselves when they’re alone; if they’re in love; if they ever called their teacher “mum”; have they ever ran from the police; how old they were when they first smoked a cigarette; if they play the piano; what expletive do they shout when they stand on an upturned plug?; where they will be when they’re 80; what pressures they’re under; do they write? sing? do they want children? are they scared of spiders? do they have an incredible family history they’re yet to uncover? do they drink? What insecurities plague them? What did they do on their 18th birthday?
Sometimes I imagine their stories.
The old man who sat three tables out from me, wore a grey beanie hat.
He looked cautious and uneasy.
I imagined he was hiding out. I imagined he’d fled to Vegas in the 60s in search of a piece of the pie. The small Nevada town exploded into a heaven of seedy gamblers and quick-buck gangsters in the 50s. Grey beanie wanted in on it. Being a young hothead, believing the World was his to take, he just pushed his luck a little bit too far. He now owed millions of dollars, that he lost in a string of bad luck, back room, smoke filled poker games, surrounded by strippers and the smell of desperate nobody’s, in the mid 70s. He borrowed more and more to try to win it all back. And now he owed. Having packed up in the middle of the night in August, ’76, he fled eastward. Having walked for miles, hitched for miles more, snuck onto trains, and slept with one eye open in the dingiest motels that lined the route, he spent the 80s hiding out in a tiny one roomed shack in the Shenandoah valley in West Virginia, just outside of Jefferson County. He had a stove, and a stream near by to collect water. He hunted for food. He learned to love the basic life. He would sit outside every morning with a coffee, and just listen. Listen to the soft, mellifluous sound of nature. He would close his eyes and the sounds seemed more prominent. They made him feel alive. This is what it was to be living. Vegas didn’t exist. Money didn’t exist. Nothing else existed. Reality though, reality is indifferent to the dreams of absolute serenity of one man. His creditors caught up with him. In 1991, he fled to England. He’s been here ever since. First, in the Welsh valleys; in a town called Hirwaun in the Cynon Valley, before marrying a girl in Yorkshire. He wears the beanie to cover the scar from a barroom fight in Vegas; an easily identifiable scar. His wife doesn’t know his past. He thinks it’s safer that way. And all of the places he’s been, from Vegas, across the midwest, to the Shenandoah Valley, I want to see.
It is me, living vicariously through stories that I attribute to unsuspecting faces.
And here he is. Cautiously watching the World go by, in a little unknown coffee shop, in England, as if any second could be his last, as if Michael Corleone could walk out of the bathroom at any moment and end it all in a flash. I watch him as I take a sip of Mocha.
These are lives. It is a World that you hear in a coffee shop.
We all share a single ancestor. All of us. And yet here, in a coffee shop, we are all a rich tapestry of easily forgettable, beautiful mundanity, dreaming with stories that aren’t real, and Paris stays with you.