Europeans were not introduced to coffee until the 17th century, which makes their accomplishments prior to that far more notable. Building the cathedral of Notre Dame is impressive, but doing it without coffee is heroic. And that’s disregarding the labor, hauling the stones and hoisting the beams: how did they draw up the blueprints without it? That is tedious, fidgety, erase-and-start-again type work; it is coffee work. Novelists and poets drink wine, but draftsmen and engineers drink coffee. The car you drive, the house you fuck in, all your gadgety gadgets: products of coffee, every one.
The Victory Diner served it too hot, poured by waitresses who called you hon; the milk came from a battered creamer and the packets of sugar were already at the table when you sat down, and the packets of non-sugar, too. Or you could get it to-go in a thick paper cup adorned with Hellenism. Blue with a white lip and bottom, and circumscripted with buttfuckers in Phrygian caps. Farmer’s Market, which was a bodega with a dodgy produce selection, still had styrofoam cups topped with flimsy plastic lids. “Bad for the environment,” Little Aleppians would say, and “Someone should ban those” as they enjoyed the material’s thermal properties. Nero’s, which was on the Upside, served a Turkish blend in demitasse cups after dinner; Seafood & Spaghetti, which was on the Downside, served a product called Joe!, which tasted almost mostly like coffee, in shoplifted mugs that the customers brought with them.
Mundy’s was your best bet. It was the only place in the neighborhood that did not view coffee as commodity, as fungible, as means to jittery end. There were beans of both the Arabica and Robusta variety; there were also Madagascara beans, too, which had been passed through the digestive system of a ring-tailed lemur. Various espressi could be produced. Cappuccino and frappuccino; sappuccino contained a shot of maple syrup. Bitter Americanos, sweet Cubanos, forgettable Belgianos. There were iced concoctions that combined sugar and caffeine in delicious and expensive ways. Mundy’s did not have a liquor license, but a raised eyebrow and two bucks would give your drink a brogue.
Unless you called it a coffee shop.
“Coffee shop? Coffee shop? Do you see donuts and formica? Are we in an Edward Hopper painting? Does the chipped porcelain tell you stories of lost love?”
Mundial Proft, who was known as Mundy, was particular about language.
“This is a coffeehouse. As in the place that gave birth to the Enlightenment, and America. Coffee shops give birth to bad poems and stab wounds.”
And then she’d throw you out. Don’t call it a coffee shop.
The coffeehouse was a half-block east of the Main Drag across Spants Street from Harper College. The road used to be known as Picador Way, but was renamed to honor the long-time Dean and his wife after they passed away. A Harper alum, Mundy was all in favor of it–some of the organizing meetings about getting the name changed were held at her place–she loved the Dean and his wife Molly just as much as anyone. She was, however, not fond of saying “Spants Street.” The phrase didn’t roll off the tongue so much as bounce off the teeth. She liked the sign. High up on a lamppost overlooking the intersection with yellow letters on a blue background. Officially, the colors were gold and cerulean, but Little Aleppians knew gold and blue when they saw them.
By mid-morning, the newspapers would be piled up on the long shelf by the door. Early birds are whirleybirds; they gotta know everything, they’re a part of the action; real hard charger types. Mundy thought of them as the overly-employed. This group purchased the newspapers. Hours later, pajama’d students and adults with no visible means of support would stumble in to sit over lattes for an hour. This group read the newspapers. It was the circle of life. The gambling gazette, and the international broadsheet, and the daily pamphlet in which Hollywood sniped at one another, and the sports digest, and USA Today. No one knew who brought USA Today–the Broadside Newsstand did not even carry it–but it appeared every day when Mundy wasn’t looking. She tossed it in the trash when she saw it. She felt the colored graphs mocked her.
On the other side of the door was a triangular stage. It was only six inches off the ground, more of a symbolic platform than a literal one. When you stood on it, people treated you like you were on stage, and that was good enough. It was Open Mic Night every Monday–Mondays at Mundy’s, the show was called–and it was the openest mic in the neighborhood. Flautists and poets and Balancin’ Phil, the Man Who Rarely If Ever Toppled Over. (Phil was a genius. He could not fall down for hours, man.) Tap dancing was infrequent, but expected. A variety of nudities had been displayed: artistic, aggressive, accidental. No one won and no one lost; it was not a talent contest, it was Open Mic Night.
Communists met at the corner table every Friday at four, until they had an internal schism and then met Tuesdays at five and Fridays at four. The Flat Earth Society also had a regular table, one that they quickly came to believe was spherical. Students for a Year-Round Carnival often gathered to share a drink and say, “Dude, imagine you could ride the Cyclotron anytime you wanted” to each other; they would bring their own cotton candy with them. Outside food was not permitted, but Mundy would let it slide if they gave her some. The Melchiorites met Thursdays in the afternoon. They were pale and plainly hiding wings underneath the trench coats they would not remove. Mundy left the Melchiorites alone. Two old men, neither of whom were Rappaport, played chess under a large painting that had its price tag affixed to its corner.
All the art was for sale. Ridiculous prices. A grand for the cubist rendering of a pair of swinging testicles. Eight hundred bucks for the brown splotches fighting the purple lines. Twenty thousand–no kidding–for a canvas with a thin layer of rose paint covering it entitled “Painting #41.” Those were the asking prices. Offer $50, and you could own yourself some art. Mundy would fill in the space on the wall with another local’s painting and make up a silly price for it, too.
The music would scandalize none, and tantalize fewer.
None of the chairs matched, not one, which the math department of Harper College had determined was statistically impossible. There were only so many kinds of chair, they told Mundy. She shrugged. Our findings, they said, have been reviewed by our peers. Mundy shrugged again, and asked if they were going to order anything or just stand around arguing with reality. We are mathematicians, they responded; we can do both at the same time.
In the afternoons, the writers came in. Filthy little beasts, Mundy thought. Self-obsessed hunchbacks worrying themselves bald over where to put the commas. What’s worse: they were lingerers. Buy a cookie at two and still sitting there at five. The price for giving people a place to stay is that sometimes they stayed there. The Frantic Month of Junior Lapps, which was turned into a hit movie, was written at that table right there. Shake It Like Sunday, which was the impetus behind four lawsuits and two murders, was written over there. Several poets had threatened suicide at that table.
First dates, too, and sometimes people would come in to read their divorce papers over a cappuccino. Men who had lost their jobs and could not tell their wives would sit quietly all day, buying something small every hour, on the hour, in cash. The friendless would come in to sit near others’ conversations. Actors read their sides and con men put up fronts. Itinerant bandleaders wandered in with trombones and cornets to sell. Great debates broke out, and incredibly stupid ones. The baristas were either not speaking to one another or fucking; there was no middle ground.
One day, a boy with curly hair came in with a guitar. He didn’t have a strap for it; he stole a matchbook, ripped off the cover, bent it double to make a pick. His voice was too old for his body–he sang from his asshole–and he kept his eyes closed most of the time. No one got the name of the song, but it was about death and ice cream. It had a hell of a chorus. When he was finished, all the girls wanted to fuck him. The boys, too, but they would deny it. The boy with the curly hair had his knee perched up on a stool and his guitar resting on his thigh, and the applause came towards him. He dodged some of it. Then he played Louie Louie.
Revolution was always in the air at Mundy’s coffeehouse, but it never seemed to land.
Mundial Proft, who was known as Mundy, had always wanted a coffeehouse. An open-door kind of place. A say what you want kind of place. With big steaming machinery that hissed and popped and spit out caffeinated beverages and a little stage in the corner. Everybody’s got a dream. She used to have a husband with a mustache and a temper and a great big life insurance policy, and now she had a coffeehouse with a little stage in the corner on Spants Street, which is right off the Main Drag in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.