Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Static and the Trees

The night before in Lansing, the rain froze into wet ice. The drops fell through the cold sky with a nucleus of ice gradually spreading outward. Far above the streetlights, there was a haze of rain and mist, but about 25 ft. up, the sound of freezing was audible, a sound like the squeak of biting into a soft ice cube. The rain lost its wavy momentum, stopped and fell straight down. Ice drops fell like tacks, but the earth was loamy and damp from the rain. The tacks hit the ground with a sound like a collective sigh. I watched it for a very short time. I’d seen an ice storm in Lansing before. I walked around all night in one once, shifting my perspective so the light would run through the ice on a branch or a frozen McDonald’s cup. It was beautiful to see the ice again, but, for once, I was able to see in one ice-covered tree, what I would see in an entire avenue of them; I didn’t need a profusion of ice and light, just an example of it. The whole picture was right in front of me. From the trunk, to the tiniest ramifications, the tree was insulated with ice, like it was protected, but the mass of the ice was pulling the branches to the ground. Just a small gust of wind shook the thing awkwardly; it moved all the way down to the roots and did not sway but jerked. One of the frozen branches scraped the frozen roof of a car. The house behind me shifted and crackled in its ice casements. It sounded like the world was gratefully coming apart.

I woke up dazed the next morning. I haven’t been moving around very much since I’ve come here and I wake up every morning feeling dazed. It’s 11 degrees outside. I sit there for a while with the blanket around my shoulders and my head in my hands. Tired and cold, I want to go back to sleep. I don’t have anything to do. Just as I am about to lie down again, I change my mind and reach for my shoes. They feel like they’ve been sitting on the floor for decades. They’re cold and dusty and look like someone with huge boots has been stomping on them. I’m glad I don’t have to touch the shoelaces. I want to go to the QD and get a big, watery cup of coffee right away to justify getting up, but I decide I need to go back to Theio’s: my old favorite diner down the street. It’s a Sunday, there’s no one in the house and everything’s covered in ice. I really couldn’t pick a better time to go down to the diner to read, drain a few cups of coffee and listen to the snow melt from everyone’s boots.

I have to walk lightly outside with my arms out like a tightrope walker and my feet shuffling along. The streets are empty save for the heavy branches that fell: shattered remnants of ice and bark. Icy twigs from these fallen branches lie as far as 100 feet away from the crash. They all must weigh hundreds of pounds. I look up nervously at the creeping canopy of frozen branches. There’s a power line draped over a car as if the storm meant to use it for something, set it down and forgot about it. Everything is closed. The storefronts are all dark behind the wavy sheets of ice on the windows. The QD is open but the parking lot is empty. The tire tracks are still frozen from the night before. At the bus stop there’s a diagram of a frozen and impatient dance.
The Theio’s parking lot is barely visible through all the exhaust. There must be seven or eight cars idling out there, most of them large vans. I can imagine the inside of those things, smelling like cold exhaust and wet carpet, cold and humid with wads of pale pink gum tucked under every arm rest. The thought makes me shiver. The heat in those kinds of cars never reaches the back where the kids sit. At least it never did in my mom’s suburban. I shuffle to the Theio’s door. The front of the place looks like an atrium; it’s all wet, fogged glass. There’s a rumble outside the place the explodes into the combined sound of laughter, clattering dishes, scraping chairs and cash register clangs when I open the door. Outside the door, the icy world was still and empty. There’s something surreal about walking into a place surrounded by so much silence and crackling ice and to find it so alive. I imagined that temporary shelters set up during a disaster would have this feel—the outside world dark and broken, the inside full of light and humanity.

I was glad that I had come. At first, I didn’t want to go back to Theio’s. They remolded it some years ago. I hadn’t been back since. I wanted to maintain my memories of it and I knew they’d clash with the present state of the place. I hadn’t expected to be drawn back into the place, to be swaddled by it again. Apparently, it’s not possible to wake up alone, with nothing to do on an icy Sunday morning on the east side of Lansing, and not automatically start making your way down to Theio’s. I tried to avoid it, but there was nothing else to be done. I had to get some coffee and be with the people.

I’ve been away long enough now that it doesn’t feel strange to not know anyone here. There’s no smoking section anymore, so I take a seat by the window to get out of the way. A lot of the same crap is still up on the walls. By that first booth on the right, my favorite place to sit, the decorative, wooden mailbox is still there. We used put stuff in there on cold Saturday nights: pencils, notes, transit cards from far-off places and whatever junk we found in our pockets. I doubt there’s anything left in there now. When I looked in the mailbox the last time in 2010, everything was gone, even all the stuff Ramen put in there. It’s better to let myself think it’s still in there. I can’t imagine them dumping the stuff he put in there. But, I knew a waitress here who died suddenly and there’s no reminder of her either. When they told me she had died, I rode off to the florist on Grand River and rooted around in the dumpster until I had the makings of a nice bouquet. I went back and gave it to someone to take to her memorial service the next day. I didn’t go. I had to sit there, drink coffee and stare off into space like I did every night. That was my memorial. I did the same thing for Ramen.

I don’t remember the coffee being so watery. It’s hardly got any flavor, but this is probably a good thing, given how easy it is to drink 30 cups of the stuff. They never even used to ask me. Every time the waitresses would come around they’d splash a little more coffee in my cup. Now, they ask me, “you want a warm up?” I love how they call it a ‘warm-up.’ “Yeah, thanks,” I say and hold my cup up like I’m trying to toast the pot of coffee the waitress has. I keep my book open but I look up at her. She’s young, still just on coffee duty. She’s got a pot of coffee in each hand, regular and decaf. She reminds me of someone who used to work here. Everyone does. All the waitresses, the cooks, even some of the customers look and sound so familiar. I have to give them second looks to make sure they aren’t who they would’ve been, years ago. If I started coming here regularly again, I could connect with all these people, the way I did years ago. It wouldn’t be right. After all the places I’ve lived that were so far away from here, how could I be the one who ended up staying? How could I be the only one who’s still here years later?

When I look up and notice that there are no more seats and people are waiting by the door, I get up and give my seat to someone else. I’ve sat here long enough.
After the hum of 40 different conversations and all the nylon winter coats shrugged off and shrugged back on, the spoons stirring the coffee, the outside is like a vacuum. There is no sound. Even the idling vans in the parking lot are turned off now. I walk back to the house, but I forget to reminisce for a moment. The illusion is shattered; I see everything for how it really is and, much as I expected, it looks exactly the same. Even all the new stuff looks old and I leave as soon as possible.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Inherent Sorrows of the Tea-Drinking Countries

My memories of leaving a place are always soaked in coffee. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps, I get up earlier when I’m preparing for a move or because I am overwhelmed by a box-crowded apartment, I have to go out to get coffee in the morning. The coffee always tastes better when you go out for it. It’s a deeply satisfying feeling to walk out of the cold, gray morning into one of those steamy, brass and oak cafés with a bell that chimes at the door, the kind of places that usually have a resident cat and assorted mugs hanging on the wall. Some of the regulars request certain mugs, so that, eventually, the mug with a picture of, say, a snowman on it becomes ‘Jerry’s mug.’ Maybe there’s even a sign above the mug which proclaims this, drawn by Jerry himself one particularly humorous morning. The oil roasted out of the coffee beans evaporates, rises and condenses on the ceiling. The tables are damp with newsprint and the smell of ceramic mugs like wet sand.
It would be better inspiration to actually be at such a café to write this, but I decided to stay home this morning. We still have some coffee to use up and sometimes I’m too impatient to walk through the cold morning before having my first warm cup of the day. Of course, we’re packing away all the coffee cups. In the middle of a long, satisfying draught, my cup is pulled away and its contents unceremoniously dumped into another cup, one that isn’t being packed, a cup that’s cold and dusty on the inside. The hot coffee immediately cools to tepidity and the dust rises to the top of it resembling the ‘skin’ that forms on top of pudding. I continue to drink it anyway.
Two days ago, Gina and I decided to get up before dawn and climb up to the top of Grandview Park over in the Sunset Neighborhood which is on the other side of Golden Gate Park from us. My alarm went off just after 5, and I immediately threw myself out of bed just to silence it. It took me a few minutes to remember why I had set it so early. It was still completely dark outside and the heat hadn’t come on yet. I stood in the middle of the dark apartment, cold, my conscious returning like a Sperm Whale surfacing from the Marianas Trench. There was a light on the window in the house behind us. “Why do we always live next to some place that keeps one light burning all night?” I wondered. The wooden floor was cold under my feet and even in the dark I could see the wind stirring over the ivy on the back porch; the leaves shook off the jaunty window light from next door and then settled into it again. Gina mumbled something in her sleep and I thought about getting back into bed, but instead decided to make some coffee.
Making coffee in the dark reminds me of my parents. We had a coffee maker when I was a kid that sounded like a distant thunderstorm. It was a great comfort to wake up and here that thing fulminating and my dad shuffling around and swearing under his breath in the kitchen. It was a signal that the long night was over and listening to those sounds, I’d pull the covers back over my shoulder, turn over and immediately fall asleep listening to the soft chime of a spoon slowly stirring.
Now, the responsibility of making coffee in the morning has fallen to me. There are no children around to be comforted by it, but it gives me a sense of accomplishment to be up this early and swearing under my breath. Because Gina and I share a small studio, I wrap a pillow around the coffee grinder and tuck it into my chest before starting it. It looks like I’m throwing myself on a grenade. Although the noise is muffled, it’s still much louder and rasping than the sound of a distant thunderstorm. There is nothing peaceful about grinding coffee in the morning, especially before 6 AM. Luckily, Gina is a selective deep sleeper. If she hears something uncomfortable in the morning, her defense is to go deeper into sleep, rather than waking up to confront the offending noise. I greatly admire this talent.
When the coffee is finally percolating, I pour a little into two demitasse cups and dump the rest in the thermos to have later, when we get to Grandview Park. I have made the coffee strong and with a little sugar, it’s like espresso. I wake Gina up and we drink our 4 oz. of coffee together. It’s hard to believe that people can content themselves on such a small amount of coffee. Europeans may condemn American gluttony, our incomprehensible desire to consume copious amount of soda or fried foods, but they will never understand the satisfaction of holding a large, warm mug of coffee under the nose and slowly breathing in lustrous steam, because it doesn’t work with a cup of espresso, much less Nescafe.
It takes longer than we expected to get to Grandview Park. We have to cross Golden Gate park to get there and this always takes longer than expected. The maps make it look like it is only a few blocks wide, and maybe it is. I wouldn’t know because it is impossible to walk through it in a straight line. You take a curving street, then follow a bike path to a jogging trail, then cut across a soccer field only to find yourself back on the side you started from. After we emerged covered in burrs and panting from Golden Gate Park, we pass an open café on 9th avenue. In the front window is a man with a pint glass of coffee, newspaper majestically stretched open before him, drying the fresh newsprint like a butterfly drying its wings. I nearly sigh. The cold fog and the bilious lights outside are precisely what gives the scene its warmth, but it seems best to exit this world of dying night for the warm café interior. After all, we can watch the spectacle well enough from the window. But we’ve prepared coffee and the park isn’t too far away; without a word, we decide to press on into the tortuous maze of a terraced neighborhood.
There was so much fog, I couldn’t even see the Grand View, even when it was right in front of us. A neighborhood jogger pointed us in the right direction. (I always ask for directions when I am exactly a block away from whatever I am looking for.) The stairs were steep, I moved up them quickly because A. I was cold; B. I wanted the coffee we had in the thermos and C. I wanted to sit down. Up on Grandview, the fog was so thick it dripped of the Eucalyptus leaves in great, plashing tears. Every few seconds you could hear the dripping fog bang into clump of succulent plants or thump on a wooden fence post. We huddled together and saw nothing but whiteness. We were in the clouds. There was no sunrise to be seen, indeed there was no reality to be seen. Gina claimed it was a view so deprived of view as to be a thing that would surely drive one insane after a long enough exposure. After staring into the grey abyss for a moment I agreed with her. Grey, in its way, is more threatening that blackness. At least, blackness mimics sleep and unconsciousness. Grey is what you must see when the cable between your brain and eye is suddenly severed. Black is what comes when something is intentionally switched off. Grey is a malfunction.
I poured the coffee from the leaky thermos into the leaky cap; we passed it back and forth, drinking quickly. Birds could be heard chirping and fluttering nearby, but we couldn’t see a trace of them. Their wet wings would beat past us in the grey. The little birds passed in barely perceptible tics and the ravens sounded like someone shaking out a quilt. When the sound of the wings ceased, there was only the shifting grey fog falling to the wet sands and our green bench; we were entirely without context. Not long after we finished our coffee, the cold forced us up. We had watched the sunrise without knowing it. Gradually, the steely and oceanic hues in the fog had brightened to smoke and cloud colors; it was day. I wiped the moisture out of my beard and started for the stairs, hoping I’d be able to find them again.
It had been tacitly decided that we would return to the café we had passed earlier. The man was still there with his paper, his pint glass of coffee and his wobbly table. We joined him. The coffee had the texture and consistency of light shining on a waxed, oaken banister. I held the cup under my nose and let the coffee steam carry the rheumatic fog away.