Coffee Shops I Have Known

Kazim Ali
October 28, 2009
Comments 1

Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “Coffee is the sister of time.” How true. For me, it’s best to drink coffee in the afternoon, after I have finished with my teaching responsibilities, after the room is swept, my chores completed, and there is only the blankness of time until sunset. Coffee is the couch I lie back on in the mid-afternoon, a notebook in my hand, to think and write.

My recent book, Bright Felon, is the story of my life told backward through time through all the cities I have lived in. In each city, there was a coffee shop I wrote in, as essential part of my life as the bookstore, the yoga studio, or the art gallery.

Oberlin. When I first moved here I frequented Java Zone, on the corner of College and Main Streets. It was easy to get to and the noisy, clattering interior felt conducive to my writing life. What I mostly wrote here were essays, which are soon going to be published in a book called Orange Alert. Later on, craving stronger and finer coffee and a quieter atmosphere, I started going to the Oberlin Market, but I have to say, Oberlin is the first town I’ve lived in where I haven’t had a regular coffee shop I went to. For a college town, it’s strange: there’s no one little place that 1) serves excellent coffee (the darker and the muddier the better; what can I say, I am part Arab after all), 2) has a great atmosphere, 3) is comfortable enough you can hang there for hours at a time.

Marble Hill. In Marble Hill I used to wake up in the mornings and either walk down the hill to 228th and Broadway, under the 1 train where there was a Dunkin Donuts, buy a coffee and return to the apartment to write; or I would walk down 225th Street, across Broadway (yeah you didn’t know Broadway ran all the way up to 225th Street, did you) to the new Starbucks next to the new Target (yes New York City has changed a lot) and hang out there. At Starbucks I worked a lot on my poetry and on a fiction manuscript which has yet to see the light of day. At home I worked on everything, including a lot of editing projects for Nightboat Books. I read proof for Fanny Howe’s Radical Love there and also did all the editing work on Michael Burkard’s selected poems, Envelope of Night.

Carlisle. Carlisle was the home of the magnificent Casa Mani, which I waxed poetically about in Bright Felon. Casa Mani is a brightly lit coffee place run by a great couple, Robert and Naomi, who were in the process of opening a noodle house next door when I moved away. I drank great coffee there but they also served eggs, croissants, and breakfast sandwiches in the morning and then great fresh salads and made-on-premises sandwiches for lunch. They were open late in the evenings as well but I never ate dinner there. They also had wireless internet which was fantastic. On the morning of Friday, April 20, 2007 I spent hours there, emailing my essay “Poetry is Dangerous” (about my experience being racially profiled at Shippensburg University where I was then teaching) to everyone I knew, talking to the media and also to the college president (to no avail, alas.) I also wrote several chapters of Bright Felon there. Yay Casa Mani!

Shippensburg. Though it is not represented by a chapter in Bright Felon, I did live for a year in the town of Shippensburg proper. There was no really good coffee shop there, but there was a little drug store next to the hotel, complete with fluorescent lights and industrial grey carpeting, that served coffee in the front. You could also get peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, which not enough coffee shops serve! I spent a lonely Saturday there once writing a long ten-page letter to fiction writer Dev Hathaway, who passed away the year previous, explaining to him how cool I thought he was. I also worked on a bunch of translations of Rene Char poems in that place, and a bunch of poems, all of which I lost during the summer of 2006.

Beacon. Only in this cool little river town could you find a coffee house called Cthonic Clash. It’s still going strong, though under new ownership and with a different name. Recently there was a New York Times article about bloggers and the photograph was of a blogger sitting in the window of the place that used to be Cthonic Clash. I love this place, love the coffee, loved Nell who owned it, loved Rick who worked at the front counter, loved all the artists that used to come through. This was a real community-building place. I used to run a reading series there: we had, among other people, Pierre Joris, Sina Queyras, Mairead Byrne, Brenda Shaughnessy, Jeffrey Yang, Ravi Shankar, Mark Wunderlich, Anselm Berrigan and Paolo Javier. I also hosted fundraisers there for Alice James Books and for the Hidaya Foundation (for relief efforts after the Pakistan earthquake). I wrote most of The Disappearance of Seth there and worked extensively on my poetry manuscript The Fortieth Day.

Rhinebeck. I have never since drunk coffee like I drank at Samuel’s Sweet Shoppe, a coffee shop owned by a guy named Ira in Rhinebeck, NY. I would take the Private Blend dark roast and fill my cup 2/3 with that and then top it off with vanilla. Oh sweet gods of caffeine shine down on me. Plus the barristas were the cutest guys in the world!! This one kid wore a shirt that said “A Watched Pot Never Boils.” Yeah he pretty much knew that everyone who went in there was making eyes at him! I will always have a place in my heart for this coffee shop. I would finish my teaching day at the Culinary Institute at around 1pm and would drive back up to Rhinebeck, change into my pajamas (Rhinebeck was a little different then) and head down to Samuel’s with a notebook. I was reading Carole Maso’s book Break Every Rule and so I had this idea that I, a poet, could write a novel if I felt like it. I wrote two: one is still in a drawer somewhere, though I’ve worked on it off an on since then and like it very much, the other is Quinn’s Passage, (which, strangely enough, features many coffee shop scenes and a certain cute barrista as a main character).

Samuel’s is also the first coffee shop I really started frequenting to write in. Before then it was always take-out coffee and/or writing on the run. I really did start writing on coffee: when I was working in the Motorola factory in Elma, NY as a temp I would go to the office coffee machine and fill my cup with coffee mixed with sweet and low and non-dairy creamer and then go back to my cubicle with my little notebook and write little poems in the margins of my work memos. It was there in the factory cafeteria during lunch breaks that I would pore through Poets and Writers to see what interesting things were going on there. One day an ad caught my eye–I loved Lucille Clifton’s work, had for years, and that summer I saw she would be teaching at Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a week-long writing retreat in the California mountains. I wanted to go so badly and so I applied and was accepted.

It was there that I really accepted that what I wanted to do more than anything was write. It was there also that I met Cricket Desmarais and Otis Rubottom, both grad students in the NYU MFA program who convinced me I should go to grad school, convinced me to apply to NYU…

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