November 2, 2009KR BlogKR

Coffee in Clarence Center (or: Coffee Shops I Have Known, Part 2)

My folks moved to Clarence, NY while I was away at college. There was always a room at 5445 Shadyside Drive that was “mine,” but I had never actually lived in it. When I–quite unexpectedly–dropped everything in Washington, DC and moved back home to live with my parents at age 27 (see my new book Bright Felon for all the details), coffee became one of the lifelines I hung on to.

In the weird passage of the days I worked a series of jobs from mall bookstore/retail slave to secretary in the occupational health office of the Motorola factory, I found in the classic “coffee break” a moment of myself that belonged to myself.

If coffee was the calm spot, the place at the end of the day I could relax into, the way some people use a cocktail or a cardio class or a meditation cushion, then the confusion in my brain might be represented by the swarm of bees that lived in the walls of our house right behind the place my head rested when I lay down for the night.

My father, Fixer-of-Everything, then as now, was on the job. He found the place in the eaves the bees crept in, he knew what to do to exterminate them, how to caulk up the space so more could enter. Even now at 38, I can’t manage half the things he seems to be able to do in his sleep.

Since I can remember, my father drank coffee–Folgers instant coffee to be specific. And exactly the same way: 1 rounded teaspoon of coffee in cup and saucer (he hates mugs–once I served him in a mug and he lost his appetite for the coffee and wouldn’t drink it even after I’d poured it into a cup. Who can explain it, but you have to respect the man’s passion), 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of sugar (well, recently he has been watching his sugar), and enough milk (oh this is the part I love) to darken the coffee to same color as his skin.

So you really have to know my dad to make him a cup of coffee the way he likes it. Which is also the way I like it.

After a while of living at home, I used to drive down the road back to the main strip to sit at Starbucks or one of the other chains to drink my coffee. It’s not because I liked the freshly ground taste any more than the instant I was drinking at home, it was more because I needed the space and time to myself. I mostly read, graded student papers, or just stared out the window thinking about my life and how I wanted more out of it. Coffee was always such a friend to me in rough moments.

After a couple of years at home, I left to go first to New York City, then eventually farther afield. At some point while I wandered, my parents moved yet again to the town next door, Clarence Center. For the first time since I was a child, there is no room in my parents’ house that is “my” room, though my Mom, Saint-who-Sings, is always telling me, “this will always be your house.” I believe her, because every time I go there, ironically, I never never feel like I am visiting, always like I am “home.”

The very best part about their new house is that it is less than a mile away from the main intersection of Clarence Center, on which sits–you guessed it–Clarence Coffee House. The Clarence Coffee House is without a doubt, and considering all of the various cities I have lived in–New York City, Rhinebeck, Beacon, Washington DC, Carlisle, Oberlin–and all the cities I have spent significant time in–the coolest coffee shop ever.

OK, so there used to be a weird cigar store indian in front of the door, but someone figured it out and it’s gone now. But inside it’s filled with international art, tapestries on the walls and ceilings, arts and crafts and great photographs. It is that exact combination of light enough to read, but dark enough for coolness that every coffee shop strives for. There are many tables, so you never feel crowded. The tables are big enough for you to spread out your reading and your journals plus even a laptop if you have one. The coffee is really amazing, the servers are cool, there’s lots of fresh baked stuff, plus sandwiches, soup and other tasty things to eat.

When I visit my folks now, I always build in three or fours to go to the Clarence Coffee House to work on whatever manuscript or writing project currently on the table for me. Recently I worked on the still untitled manuscript of poetry there. I also worked on the penultimate draft of a Marguerite Duras translation. The music works, the atmosphere is great, and sometimes there even live bands in the evenings.

After all this time, I know what a writer needs–not always a room of ones own, but a table of ones own, at a coffee shop. To be human among humans. Darwish was right. These sips open up the day, frame it, give it as a gift. It’s then that writing comes to me, in the warmth of the afternoon, in the richness of the taste of not coffee but the passing of hours with a blank page in front of you, a pen in your hand, a book nearby, and ideas, ideas and plans everywhere.