There are no shortage of cafés in Boston. Chains co-exist with indie spaces. People are loyal to their favorite spots, putting them in the same category as Jimmy Buffet fans. They are quick to defend the superior quality of everything from the coffee to the music to the unisex bathrooms (big, like, wicked, like room enough to pahk a semi!). These people could contract dysentery from the café and still stagger in the following morning brandishing their refillable thermoses. Alarmingly tenacious about their die-hard coffee place patronage, they are the same kind of people who refuse to turn their heat on until December and leave their cars cemented in snow banks until May.
I agreed to meet my friend at a local, indie café that I’ve walked by many times on my way to the T. The expansive glass storefront faces the street. I can see small, black tables and chairs. I notice a staff member bussing tables—side-mullet, layered tank tops, skinny jeans rolled to sit on the top of her Doc Martin boots, a crest of piercings running the length of her ear. My bland, sensible clothes from Eddie Bauer are going to give me away long before I open my mouth to ask them to translate the abbreviations on their chalkboard menu. I’m leaving it to my friend to act as my passport and give me safe passage into this land of vegan baked goods and locally sourced dairy alternatives.
It’s not like I’ve never been into one of these places. I’m not an Amish girl on Rumspringa. I’m among those in the gig economy, the Employees Without Borders set. At least once a week I pack up my laptop and head to a favorite café not far from my house to fight over a choice seat by an outlet and procrastinate along with everyone else. I see you watching cooking videos instead of working on those spreadsheets. I wasn’t always someone who escaped to these places for long stretches with my laptop and notebooks, eavesdropping on conversations happening around me, which actually requires zero skill since most people loudly broadcast things about their test results, break-ups, mother issues, or tax return information. Why we still have the NSA I have no idea.
The first real city I ever lived in was Washington D.C. Everything about our nation’s capitol charmed and astonished me. The long, wide boulevards flanked by elegant, imposing federal buildings sent chills sailing up and down my spine. Each day I walked right through history. Who knew what was going on behind those sheer facades? Who could tell what kinds of deals and power moves and history-altering decisions were getting brokered in the wood-paneled conference rooms? I lived there in the late-1990s. It was the dying star of the Clinton years when America was enjoying a long period of stupidity and optimism. The city thrummed with a kind of feel-good-everything’s-cool-our-guy-plays-the-saxophone-wow-how-bout kind of energy and, for the most part, we all coasted along on its contrails. Until, of course, we didn’t.
Having grown up in a suburban town where the number of fast food chains and tattoo parlors outnumbered things like public transportation and art museums by a dozen to zero, cafés were entirely new experiences to me. Truthfully, I didn’t really get them. They were the places were retirees hung out surrounded by empty cups and muffin crumbs, arguing about the world and the rising price of milk. They were for couples on movie dates. They were for a generic kind of lonely folk, like characters in a Hopper painting, tilting toward their white cups and saucers, nothing more than faceless brush strokes.
My boyfriend was a dedicated café squatter. He was a musician, which meant that when he wasn’t perched on a bar stool waiting for rehearsal or a set, he could be found slugging coffee at a café. Smokes and a dinged up black notebook full of his existential angst sold separately. The café fomented genius. I knew this from books and movies about the great artists. It was the cradle of passionate, fiery creative breakthroughs. For my boyfriend, it was more like a convenient place to meet his girlfriend, rehash the latest saga about his feuding bandmates, and bitterly complain about D.C’s loathsome “corporate” music scene. Genius visits us in different ways.
We’d often meet at one of the chain cafes in D.C. called “Xando’s.” There was some debate over the pronunciation. It was either “X and Oh’s” or the more exotic and hilarious-sounding “Zando’s,” as if it were actually an off-off-off brand carpet store. All of the Xandos were roomy spaces with tables and booths, slathered in color scheme of soothing mauve and beige. Stock photos of twee cups of cappuccino and baskets of sticks of French bread hung on the walls. They were the antidote to the outbreak of Starbucks. Much later, I found out much they were the café equivalent of Walmart. The closest café to my apartment happened to be a Xandos and became our rendezvous spot whenever we spent the day together.
No matter what time we settled on, he was always there a good thirty minutes early to get a large mug of liquid inspiration. I could always quickly pick his lanky frame out of the smattering of tourists and business people. He was the only one in black jeans with short, spikey hair, crowding over a pummeled copy of Tropic of Cancer. He was very much the exception to the rule of the kind of clientele XandO’s attracted. His haunts of choice were shaggy places in Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle with mismatched furniture and nightly poetry open mics. Older and more worldly than me, he knew where he fit. For him, Xando’s was like killing time in an airport lounge.
I didn’t drink coffee at the time. Instead I would order an ice tea and scooch up next to him and let myself feel part of this tribe of people, the café clique. The more I went, the more I felt like less of a tourist in my own city and more like an actual citizen. The simple act of hanging out in this lame café sloughed off the exterior of my small-town suburban self to reveal a city person underneath. I liked this person even as I had no idea who she was. The café gave me another way to find out. And isn’t life just one costume change after another?
I love Boston’s café culture. I love the pretentious places on Newbury Street, no bigger than the galley kitchen of a tugboat that fill to capacity within a half hour of opening. I love the places with big couches and long tables overrun with students. I even love the cafés that intimidate me like the one my friend picked for us to meet. It’s good to push against your comfort zone and to try on a different perspective (even one that involves gluten-free pastries). I brave the hipster café with my friend. I’m a stranger in a strange land. I appreciate the chance to try on belonging here.