[Author's note: In 2003 I wrote an essay for Powells.com about my neighborhood café called, appropriately enough, 'In The Café.' Now, eight years later, I would like to revisit that café, the Hungarian Pastry Shop, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, and which I still go to, religiously, almost every day, to write.]
Eight years ago the café was charming but inexplicably dim,there was no Internet access, no music, and only one electrical outlet, which belonged to the exhaust fan and was located up high, near the ceiling, well out of arm's reach. Today, eight years later, the café is still charming but inexplicably dim, there is still no internet access (although from time to time, depending upon the whim of an upstairs neighbor, you can pick up a faint signal from a table in the back), no music, and only one electrical outlet. Still, the people come. The café is, if anything, more crowded than ever. People come here, in fact, to unplug and get a little bit of "real work" done. Or, if they're first-timers, they'll wander into the café, politely scan the baseboards for outlets and, finding nothing, turn around and head out to the nearest Starbucks. Or, if they're really desperate and not polite at all — I have seen this happen on more than one occasion — they'll climb up onto a chair, unplug the exhaust fan from the outlet and plug in their laptop. All for a little juice.
(People also come to the café, of course, to drink coffee and converse. Or because they are German tourists and their bus is parked across the street, in front of the cathedral, and they need to use the restroom. Or because they are having an affair, and no one would ever guess they were here. Or because they are doctors at St. Luke's Roosevelt and need their daily fix of sugar before heading into the O.R. Or because they are family members of patients who have just gone into the O.R., and all time has stopped, and the nurses won't talk to them, and the waiting room is just too depressing. Or because they have just fallen in love with one of the Ethiopian waitresses and can't get through a day without seeing her. Or because they have recently separated from their spouse of 22 years, and reconciliation is no longer an option, and they have to get out of the apartment before they go crazy. Or because they already are crazy and the café is the one place in the city where people might not actually notice. Or because they are the Chinese deliveryman who works at the restaurant next door and just want a civilized moment of calm — a cup of coffee in a café — before pedaling off madly into the night to deliver that next order of lo mein to your door.)
Eight years ago I was sitting at my favorite table in the far back corner of the café beneath a painting of the angels, sketching out ideas for my second novel. Today I am still sitting in that same corner, the second novel has just been published, and the paintings on the wall have been changed not once but twice (same artist, new pictures). Now, instead of sitting beneath the angels, I am watched over by a painting of a potted plant. Still, I am inspired. There's nowhere else I'd rather be sitting. I plan on writing my third book here, too, at this very same table, in this very same corner, which still, after all these years, feels like good luck.
Eight years ago, if someone was sitting in my seat I would sit down at a nearby table and patiently wait for that person to leave before making my move. Today, eight years later, when I walked into the café, there was indeed someone sitting in my seat, but it was someone I knew, another back-of-the-shop regular, and as soon as he saw me he stood up, picked up his things and slid over to the outside table so I could have my seat in the corner. All without saying a word. And so here we sit happily, side by side, silently doing our work. This happens at least once a week and is one of the many reasonsI love the café, for its community and camaraderie, for the unspoken fellowship of its long-time regulars and how we all look out for one another, day after day, year after year, angels at each other's backs.
Eight years ago, before settling into my seat at the corner table beneath the painting of the angels, I would order a cup of coffee and a croissant. Today, eight years later, before settling into my seat at the corner table beneath the painting of the potted plant, I order a cup of coffee and two glasses of water, then go to the sandwich shop next door, which is run by the café owner's wife, and put in my order for toast (seven-grain, well-toasted, lightly-buttered). The croissant to toast switch happened abruptly, and without warning, about six months ago. Why, the Austrian waitress wanted to know, after so many years, had I suddenly changed my order? The answer is, as it is to so many things (where do you get your ideas, why didn't you give your characters names, why did you name the dog "White Dog," where do you see yourself in five years, in 10 years, in 20?), I don't know. I remember coming down with a fever for a couple of days and losing my appetite because I couldn't taste anything, and then, when the fever lifted and I felt better again and my appetite returned, the croissant tasted too sweet. So, I guess the answer is, I got a fever and the croissant tasted too sweet. Plus, I enjoy the toast (such a simple pleasure), the daily exchange with the café owner's wife, saying hello to the young man in the back who makes the sandwiches and toasts the toast and to the old man in front whose name I do not know but who is there every day, sitting at his table in his corner, just watching the world go by. It's like stepping into a parallel universe.
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Julie Otsuka is the author of When the Emperor Was Divine. She is a recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. The Buddha in the Attic is her second novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Julie Otsuka is the author of The Buddha in the Attic