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The Coffeetime Cafe and Grill

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The day stumbles into Washington Square-languid yellow-green and certain getting up this morning is in no way a good idea. It's a sentiment shared by most every resident of Washington Square. It is a sentiment shared by most anyone who has ever had the misfortune to live in this miserable place none more so than those still awake this morning, seated inside the grim walls of the Coffeetime Café and Grill. It is 6:47 am. It is a Sunday in September, 1981.

An ocean away, one and one half continents away, in some other entirely disinterested world, a wedding is taking place. Though it is a ceremony of some popular interest, the event is of little concern to all but a few residents of Washington Square.

Up the street, the members of a marching band can be heard warming up their instruments. A clarinet bleats, a coronet sputters, and a snare drum snaps out its annoying rap, echoing back and forth between the grimy facades of Washington Square.

The band is the Faith and Healing Mission Hallelujah Marching Brigade, lead by Brother Samuel Jacobs, preparing for its regular Sunday morning march of salvation. Looking out across this particular Sunday morning, Brother Samuel smiles and thinks to himself, “There are souls to be saved this day.”

Were the patrons inside the Coffeetime Cafe and Grill to overhear his thoughts, Brother Jacobs’ optimism would be unpersuasive . They are not, on this or on any other morning, particularly interested in being saved.

Just outside the Coffeetime Café and Grill is a broadcast news crew in search of a good story. To be honest, at this hour of morning, they’d be happy landing even a mediocre story. The lead reporter, a once promising thirty-two year old talent is, as usual, primping incessantly. She is looking to take full advantage of a big break about to come her way-a spot on the local affiliate’s live feed to the network’s Sunday morning Rise and Shine News Hour broadcast. Her crew is less enthusiastic. Her cameraman yawns reflexively. Her sound man yawns in response. They both know they could be doing something much better with their time, like sleeping.

Back in Coffeetime, there are five patrons, three employees and one permanently reserved booth. Nobody in this dreary little café gives a rat’s crap what might be going on outside this stinking, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Nobody within gives a rat’s crap what might be going on anywhere else in this pathetic, miserable world. They each have their own problems.

Their indifference to the world beyond the stained walls of Coffeetime would be unsettling information for the news crew. Their assignment is scheduled to be a five-minute segment garnering the reaction of local Washington Square residents to the wedding that is taking place at this very moment, across an ocean, one and one half continents away. The lead reporter, peering through the café’s yellowed plate glass storefront, assesses the prospects and grows pensive. She bites her crimson lower lip.

At this hour each Sunday morning, Brother Jacobs begins his campaign of redemption. He assembles his band in the middle of Kinston Avenue straddling the left turn median. He whispers a brief prayer, calls his twelve charges to attention and directs them forward. Their anthem this morning is, as it is every Sunday, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Even to the trained ear, their rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers is unexpectedly polished in both intonation and color. As well it should be. Brother Jacobs has been leading his band up Kinston Avenue every Sunday morning without fail for nearly thirty years.

Just the same, it's hard to describe the members of the Hallelujah Brigade as marching. Shuffling would be closer to the truth. There is a dull uniformity to each band member’s stride. It is a halting, stepping-in-unison which approximates as much as anything, what legs would do had God permitted them to shrug with indifference.

The reason for the band members’ pained gait is simple. Nearly every member of the marching band was at one time or another, in one way or another, broken. Broken by addiction or alcoholism or poverty or loneliness or hardship or heartache or plain dumb luck, or any of the other circumstances of existence that pass for living in Washington Square. And then, one Sunday morning no different than this one, each had heard the refrain of Onward Christian Soldiers and determined that they actually might make something better of themselves. Each would fall in behind the assembled troupe and shuffle up Kinston Avenue and through the open doors of the Faith and Healing Mission.

Their shuffle is only residue. It is the remnant of a lifetime of despair that eventually led each of these men to their present calling. Once broken but now redeemed, these men still remain wounded-wounded in ways no amount of faith and healing can ever fully repair. And so, the members of the Faith and Healing Mission Hallelujah Marching Brigade shuffle up Kinston Avenue, the fullness they feel in their hearts betrayed by the shallowness of their stride.

Interestingly, there will be two parades along Kinston Avenue this morning. There are always two parades along Kinston Avenue every Sunday morning. These are concurrent passages, though ones moving in entirely opposite directions. Were the news crew even slightly inquisitive, this contrary migration of humanity would make for a pretty decent news story. Naturally, they won’t notice any of it.

The first parade is Brother Jacobs.’ He leads his band up the gentle grade of Kinston three blocks east, around a slight bend in the avenue and then ascends up the steps and in through the open doors of the Faith and Healing Mission. At each point along this trek-at each doorstep and alleyway and nook, the lost and the faithless, each rising from the place where the previous night had deposited them, will hear the refrain of Onward Christian Soldiers and fall in behind the shuffling troupe.

Participants in the concurrent parade rise and move not east, but west, past the crumbling structures of Washington Square, across the intersection of Kinston and Dunbar, past Coffeetime, around the corner and into the warm, humid atmosphere of Charlie’s Roll-In Saloon. Like the Faith and Healing Mission, Charlie too is open for business at seven AM on this and every other Sunday morning. For the residents of Washington Square, it’s never too early for either the comfort of the Beatitudes or the chill of a cold brew.

And so, on this particular Sunday morning, with a news crew parked outside the Coffeetime Café and Grill, with its five patrons and three employees and one permanently reserved booth situated within, with Brother Jacobs smiling as he leads the brigade up Kinston Avenue, with a wedding begun one and one half continents away, there is a choice to be made.

The choice is a simple one. For those just awakened from their dull slumber by Brother Jacobs’ band; for those whose minds have been addled by another Saturday night’s serving of liquor or smack or sickness or heartache, there is an uncomplicated choice to be made. Either move in Brother Jacobs wake into the warmth and holy comfort of the Faith and Healing Mission or move, no less expectantly, into the wholly comfortable warmth of Charlie’s Roll-in Saloon. For most residents of Washington Square waking up at this hour, the choice is usually a toss up.

The rewards of following Brother Jacobs, in approximate order worth, would be a hot breakfast, a warm shower, instruction in Jesus’ love for every man and, if donations have been particularly good in the previous week, a new pair of shoes or better still, a serviceable gabardine coat.

The rewards of following the alternate path into Charlie’s Roll-in Saloon would be, both physically and metaphysically speaking, roughly the same. Breakfast would consist of a hard-boiled egg offered gratis and a half-full glass of stale beer at fifty cents a draw. Love would likely figure into the conversation around the bar rail, though God’s role in such shenanigans likely would not. As for a warm shower, no one among the patrons of Charlie’s gives a crap what you smell like as long as you pay your tab and keep your nose out of business that isn’t your own. After a couple of beers, the necessity of a pair of shoes or a coat must seem to everyone within, more or less irrelevant.

By the end of the first eight bars of Onward Christian Soldiers, at least one of the five patrons in Coffeetime stirs. This is Drake, a filthy, dreadlocked West Jamaican refugee who has spent the first half of the previous evening head in hands, nursing a single, lukewarm beer at Charlie’s and has since spent the remainder of his evening head in hands, nursing a single lukewarm cup of coffee at Coffeetime. He moves unsteadily out of the café and onto the street, approaches his moment of choice, turns and staggers west around the corner and back into Charlie’s place.

This leaves four patrons seated in the café, none of whom appear to be any more promising subject for the local affiliate’s network feed than the one who just departed. The lead reporter grows steadily more apprehensive.

Of the remaining patrons, two are drunken teenagers who've come down from the university nineteen blocks up Kinston Avenue. They have spent the previous evening with fake IDs and their fathers’ misappropriated credit cards. They’ve both sucked down more blue margaritas than either of them could ever possibly metabolize. Both are going to have remarkably wicked hangovers once they sober up later this morning. They stare dumbly at each other across platters of greasy, uneaten scrambled eggs, their dull solemnity broken by only an occasional cascade of intoxicated giggles.

To the left, out of their immediate view is Jorge, a sallow, twenty-three year-old Portuguese grifter and graffiti artist. His work, visible all along Kinston Avenue, is noteworthy for the comically fractured syntax and tortured spelling of its text messages. Jorge is not illiterate. Jorge is instead mildly dyslexic.

He sits at the counter, chain-smokes thin cigarillos and babbles ceaselessly to no one in particular about how he’ll someday break into the art world big time and how much his mother hates him. It's not as though anyone in Coffeetime really gives a crap. Even if anyone were to care, they would still have little idea what Jorge was talking about, for he regularly converses in a strange and entirely personal language of his own invention, blending equal measures of Portuguese, pidgin English, street slang and perfect gibberish.

Also seated at the counter is Gloria, though no one in the diner knows her by this name. Nor would any resident of Washington Square know her by this name. Twenty years in the future, she would be better described as a member of a class of disenfranchised citizens charitably termed the “ homeless.” However, this morning she is known only by her own generation’s more commonly evoked euphemism for such lost and desiccated women, namely as that "crazy old bag lady.”

Twenty years in the past, Gloria had taught a course in creative writing at the university nineteen blocks up Kinston Avenue. At the time she was a capable scholar, a promising writer and the author of a well-received collection of short stories. But on one particular Sunday morning two decades ago, she awoke anxiously and then awoke again the next morning more anxious still, a condition that rapidly progressed without explanation from mild paranoia to complete and totally disabling hysteria. She spent eleven months in the woman’s psyche ward of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Coleridge and another three months in a halfway house up in Richmond. She gradually found her way back to the vicinity of her former university where she lives off handouts and her own cobbled wits. She is no longer paranoid or even terribly anxious. Gloria is only terribly broken. She sits at the corner of the counter never speaking to anyone, but reciting just under the whisper of her hollow breath, fragments of passages once written by Faulkner and O’Connor.

Above Gloria is the café’s antique, never-turned-off television. As it is every morning, the TV is blaring with the racket of whatever nonsense some upper-middle class television producer senses might most effortlessly coddle the sullied minds of America’s viewing public. Most mornings, including this one, he gets it pretty much right.

For example, the fare this morning is almost entirely devoted to the much anticipated wedding of an obscenely wealthy Turkish prince to an equally wealthy, teenage Hollywood starlet. It is said their combined assets will easily exceed the gross national product of several reasonably prosperous Central American economies. Their wedding has been the talk of most of North America for months. There have been rumors of scandal, infidelity, drug use, nudity, rudeness, terminated pregnancies, indigestion and all other manner of sordid highbrow highjinks.

It is said the soon-to-be happily united couple will honeymoon on a pricey, one hundred forty foot luxury yacht, moored alongside some dreamy Aegean island. It is said they will share the first night of their marital happiness with fourteen personal servants, three chefs, one masseuse, four bodyguards, one doctor and, because the prince has a particularly embarrassing phobia regarding his teeth, a fully licensed, board certified dental hygienist. It is only rumored that the prince has recently contracted genital herpes from the new misses. There is no way to confirm this disturbing supposition but neither would it be surprising were it untrue. After all, there are any number of places where an enterprising Turkish prince might inadvertently contract such an embarrassment. The new misses, normally never one to parse words, has said nothing about the subject.

On the network’s Rise and Shine News broadcast there is of course, no mention of any of this unseemliness. Instead, the reportage, direct from Ankara, dwells on the pageantry of it all, ogling with equal measures of disgust and envy at the prince’s stature, the bride’s loveliness, their ritzy designer togs, the ostentatious behavior of their gleaming entourage and the general state of stinking opulence commanded by all in attendance. It is, as the network’s evening news anchor on special assignment this week in Ankara would report: “Stunning, Mort, just absolutely stunning. Back to you.”

Stateside, the news crew’s lead reporter is still pacing nervously along the sidewalk outside Coffeetime. It is twelve and one half minutes until her live feed is to begin, featuring a report gauging local reaction to the Ankara wedding. She looks again into the diner, sees the four remaining patrons, the three employees and one permanently reserved booth. She sags like a bright party balloon gone limp.

Everyone in Washington Square assumes the three employees of the Coffeetime Café and Grill are related, though the exact relationship between each of them is unclear, even to those who’ve been dropping by this dreary diner for years.

Behind the grill is Hal, a comic book, cartoon figure of a man. Worn well past what must be his true age, Hal is painfully stooped, bent almost in half at the waist. He’s balding and haggard, insufficiently washed and oblivious to all but the fatty slabs of bacon sputtering on his grill.  Hal has worked the grill at Coffeetime almost as long as Brother Jacobs has been parading up Kinston Avenue. What his finesse in cooking has lost over the years in speed and efficiency, he makes up for with a well-practiced, near total disinterest in everything.

Marge, the equally aged, fat-assed waitress working the counter at Coffeetime Café is thought by everyone to be Hal’s wife, though no one has ever witnessed them share one moment of marital harmony in all of three decades. Marge is large and broad with sagging jowls the size of under-inflated inner tubes. She sports a constant scowl the depth of which has made many a patron flee the café in terror. When she barks out a food order, her saw-tooth voice could easily scrape hardened chewing gum off the underside of every counter in the joint. Mostly when not placing orders, Marge employs this marvelously grating instrument to berate Hal. She bitches about his cooking, his posture, his odor, his sluggishness, his incontinence, his impotence and as much as anything else, his unworthiness to exist with her in the same corner of this or any other possible universe. She bitches about virtually anything that could make a very small man smaller still.

Hal bears these indignities with either extraordinary grace or extraordinary indifference, depending on the empathy you hold for him. Characterizing Marge is much simpler. Marge is a bitch.

For the remaining member of Coffeetime’s staff, its dishwasher, characterization is not so much a question of personality as it is sheer gender identity. By all outward appearances, Jackie would look to be a skinny, morose, limp-haired, frighteningly hardened teenage male. This presumption of course, is inaccurate. Rather, Jackie is a skinny, limp-haired, morose, frighteningly hardened teenage female, a fact evident to anyone curious enough to observe through her drab white shirt, the thinly telegraphed tracery of a dime-store brassiere binding her flattened chest. Jackie has deep-set, darkened eye sockets, a persistent nasal drip and a recent but inadequately healed knife gash running from her upper left cheek bone to the lower corner of her chin. She moves about the café like a predator, at once fearsome and fearful, tormenting and tormented. Everyone assumes Jackie is Hal and Marge’s only daughter. Everyone assumes Jackie is a loathsome dyke. Everyone assumes Jackie is a soulless misanthrope. Of course, each of these assumptions are inaccurate.

It is at this very moment that someone entirely out-of-the-ordinary enters the Coffeetime Café and Grill. This is Peter. Peter is twenty-six years old and a newly registered graduate student of architectural studies, enrolled in the university nineteen blocks up Kinston Avenue. He has come to Washington Square to interview for a part-time job with the architectural firm of Pisarro and Ware. It is a struggling design practice located on the eleventh floor of the Washington Square Mercantile Building on the corner of Kinston and Dunbar, across the street from Coffeetime. 

 

At this hour, Elliott Ware III, AIA, the owner of the firm, would already be at work at his desk. Ware works every Sunday morning and afternoon and evening. In fact, he works every morning and every afternoon and every evening of every day of every week. He can’t help it. Elliott Ware suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. His obsession, though regrettably not his particular talent, is the making of architecture.

And so, Peter, a freshly scrubbed, bright-eyed and thoroughly naïve Midwestern native, steps into the Coffeetime Café and Grill seeking only a stout cup of coffee to occupy him in the hour or so before his 8:30 AM appointment with Ware. 

As Peter enters the café, it is 7:21 AM. Marge looks up from her cash register and sees just one more pissant asshole, pain-in-the-butt customer. Hal looks up from his grill and sees only another order of fried eggs with hash browns on the side. Jorge looks up from the counter and spies what would appear to be a very easy mark. Gloria does not look up at all. Jackie is in the back room, washing dishes. The news crew’s lead reporter looks up and sees someone who might manage to string together three coherent sentences in succession, a hat trick as far as most residents of Washington Square are concerned. She nearly leaps out of her tailored skirt and bounds into the café, microphone in hand, video crew in tow.


Peter is completely unconscious of all this. He is interested only in a hot cup of very black coffee. He moves quickly to the rear of the cafe to a remote and unoccupied table that happens to be Coffeetime’s one permanently reserved booth.

At the end of Kinston Avenue, Brother Jacobs and his brigade turn into the open doors of the Faith and Healing Salvation Army Mission. Drake takes up his usual bar stool at Charlie’s Roll-in Saloon. The sun, thinking better of its decision to rise, draws a shroud of cloudy indifference around its withering shoulders.

Peter turns on the polished heel of his catalog shoes, glances with a still untarnished wonder at everything that surrounds him. He thinks of all that has happened to him in his brief, heretofore uneventful life and prepares to sit down.

At this instant, a woman he does not yet know to be Marge immediately strikes him full force across his chin with nothing less lethal than her remarkably caustic voice. It is a voice that could easily sear hardened steel:

“Hey asshole.” she says. “You can’t fuckin' sit there. That’s Mr. Armstrong’s booth!”

Peter, shocked and presuming himself at fault, backs away from the booth and turns, only to face the imposing, upturned shaft of a microphone thrust menacingly into his face. Naturally, he will not soon forget the authoritative, though intimately feminine voice that next speaks.

“Good morning Mort. This is Gwendolyn Jencks, reporting live from Washington Square, here in the heart of beautiful Alabaster City, Virginia.”

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