Working in the Oxford Cafes

I ran across the new edition of A Moveable Feast when I was wandering in the City Lights bookstore, and I couldn’t help but purchase it. Now I’ve got a little Hemingway in my head. Moreover, this humid drizzle today in San Francisco is quite reminiscent of a specific memory – when I was at a quintessential Parisian café in the Latin Quarter, and the French chatter floated like unfamiliar butterflies in the warm light with colors unfamiliar, when, in the weak sunlight, it began to rain, and I sat sat between a pale old woman with a small black dog, its curly fur hanging into its eyes, and a young woman with red lipstick, when I sat with my hot chocolate watching the waiters in their long aprons and black vests rushing from table to table with steaming plates and tea kettles, and enjoyed the air and the sound of old friends telling inclusive stories and laughing and loving. I am reminded of that today. With that in mind, is this, most of which I wrote in 2006 and revisited/revised today:

Working in the Oxford Cafés

There are faces from Oxford that stay with me.  I’d pass them on my way to do my hard school work in the cafés.  There was the young blond woman with the thin, suspicious eyes on her way to a library or some place quiet; there was the dark, pacing man, slowly walking through the mall like an unmarked guard; there was the old woman with bedraggled hair and melancholy, heavy face, long floppy brown overcoat, grocery bag, and oversized men’s shoes clopping on the pavement.  There was the thin homeless man,  as young as I was, selling magazines on the corner, and the guitar man in a suit and shades on Cornmarket Street performing for change and pleasure.  There were all the white-haired old women and their white-haired old men stumbling down High Street with spry university students speeding around them, and there were all the young girls with their makeup and clothes wanting to be women, and all the women trying to be girls, and there were the young men proud and lost.

There was the café on the second floor of the bookstore between the White Horse pub and the New library, filled with the playful sound of porcelain and spoons, British voices and books, and the whoosh of the espresso machine. The noise brought energy to you and made you aware and gave your work urgency. Compared to sleepy Palo Alto it was a morning town and if you wanted a seat you’d arrive at the cafe before ten in the morning, otherwise it might be full and you might be impatient.  People would slowly wander amid the populated coffee tables in search of empty seats, cradling their tea cups, and settle in a loud dirty corner when they wished to sit by the window.  If the weather was wet and cold there’d be even more traffic in the café, and if it was a Saturday or Sunday you’d know that you wouldn’t find an empty table but would probably look anyway.

I’d stay for an hour or so and leave before my focus ran dry.  If you tried to work longer than your attention would allow, the remainder of the day would surely be wasted.  There was no sense in hoping to regain the sharp understanding of things that morning brought. It’s harder now to keep that sharpness. That’s age, or maybe just laziness. I wasted a lot of days but planned out my work knowing I wouldn’t do it when I wanted, and when I sat with my books I wondered if the other people were planning their failings too.

In the spring my work was Charles Dickens. It was difficult because a good essay required two readings of the text, and the texts were prohibitively long. I don’t understand how I got the work done. I couldn’t do it today.

On warm spring day when work was going well, in the warmth of the sun and the cool of the breeze on the crowded streets, I saw the old, pale, bedraggled woman, but on that day she was not wearing her floppy old overcoat, nor was she carrying her grocery bag,  nor was she walking.  She leaned on the edge of Lincoln College Library, which used  to be a church on the side of the street, just resting, just watching, with a near smile.  She wore a plain, sleek black dress and was years younger than when I last saw her.  There was a touch of color in her old face, and her oversized shoes remained, but her melancholy did not. Spring seemed to change everyone, and the cold days that were once a challenge were now a gift of warmth.

One morning I was sitting in one of the many coffee houses at a table by the window with my work, watching the people outside in a rush and sad not to be rushing with them.  It wasn’t an interesting place and the coffee was nothing to be remembered, but there were many tables and it was good for work.  I sat on the ground floor because you could watch all the people that way; you’d get more work done upstairs, away from the windows, but you would feel emptier.

I was working on Bleak House and wondered why I gave myself so fully to something that was without consequence.  The people outside the window led consequential lives and were hurrying to the dramas of their day, pushing strollers, going to work, while I was writing about imaginary orphans. The people looked warm and their skin translucent after being hidden under heavy clothes for months.  They shed their coats at the first suggestion of sunlight and made deep memories when such weather appeared.  I was not with them, but it was a privileged life I had and I was aware of it.

A homeless man slumped through the door to the coffee house, dragging a weighty duffle bag behind him.  He was bent forward permanently, like someone had broken his back at a right angle.  He could only see the sky in reflections, I thought.  In puddles. Goddamn that.  He was stuck bending forward, dragging his duffle bag.  Life in a bag.  He dragged it right past me and smelled sour, like old milk.  His hair was parted and slicked back, and his face was shaven not long ago.

I’d seen him five months before, with the same bag and with the same broken back. I had more pity then because it was winter and he breathed out warm jets of steam towards the ground, dragging his bag down the street, under the Christmas lights.  Snow didn’t fall but the air was painful if there was wind and early in the morning the sidewalks were sometimes iced over.  Winter wasn’t a time to be out in that town but he wasn’t alone.  He never asked for change and I’m not sure he had a voice to use. I was glad he survived the winter.

He passed and sat at the table behind me, very slowly and delicately.  I could still smell him and hear him, and wondered if the staff of the coffee house would mind his resting there.  I was not reading or doing any work but I held my books.  He went again passed me and to the counter to get a warm drink.  His feet scraped the ground as he walked, and he walked very slowly because of his back.  His face was below the counter, still looking down, and I don’t know what he ordered, but the cashier seemed to hear.  I listened to him shuffle behind me and I didn’t like the smell, and I wondered how he sat down with his back the way it was.  He didn’t make any more sound when he was sitting behind me but I couldn’t work because I knew he was there.  I thought about his poor bent back, and his nights on the pavement with the buses roaring as he tried to sleep, and his nicely combed hair and clean clothes, and the smell.  I thought about what was in his duffle bag.  His whole life in the bag.  His clothes and treasures.  I watched the people outside as I held my book and thought.  It was sure bright outside and it would only get brighter throughout the day.  I started to pack away my work because nothing was getting done, stood to leave, and looked behind me at the man.  He was sitting at the table, upright and normal, with his warm tea and his chin rested on his hand in an aloof way.  His youth startled me.  He watched me place my bookbag on my shoulder and I supposed the only real difference between he and I was the content of our bags.  I had old literature books and he had everything he could.  It made me feel empty again.

I walked down through Christ Church meadow where the river ran and walked among the ducks and geese, and the cool air coming off the water lessoned the severity of the rising sun. It was good to be near the water and I don’t know why, and when I was done with the ducks I returned to the house where the other American students lived, where I loved my friends under a regretful guise of ambivalence.

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