Friday, June 02, 2006


This morning, the doorbell woke me. The dogs bolted upright from the couch, growling in their precocious ways, as though they could actually frighten a stranger at the door. Outside on the porch, a repairman, protected from the rain by a thin, hooded raincoat, held a replacement engine for the burnt out fan on our air conditioner. As he practiced his trade out by the back door, I wandered into the kitchen with the puppies trailing me, brewed a pot of coffee, opened a tube of crescent rolls, and arranged them onto a small cookie sheet to bake what I assumed would be breakfast. Then, just in case either dog realized that they really could injure a stranger, I corralled Dixie and Archie into the dining room and blocked off all access they had to the outside world.

When the coffee finally finished percolating, I drank my first cup and waited for the repairman to finish the ineffable machinations of his work while the puppies flitted about confused by their confinement. When I checked on the crescent rolls, I saw pasty-white bits of dough scattered about on the cookie sheet. I had forgotten to turn on the oven.

Fifteen minutes later, after the repairman had loaded his equipment back into his truck and headed out onto the slick hilly streets of western Cincinnati, I checked on what might best be described as my brunch. Now, judging from the photograph on the cardboard tube of those crescent rolls, you’d expect to find flaky, golden brown, croissant-like rolls rising in your oven. In fact, I imagined for a moment that they might taste something like the light, buttery croissants I used to order with a latte or two at Boulange de Polk when I lived in San Francisco. Instead, I found several dark brown clumps of triangular flatbread. I ate this ill-conceived breakfast with real butter and a French jam that my wife seems to prefer while sitting in my office and attempting to ignore the pleading eyes of the puppies. At least I got the jam right.

The rain has subsided slightly. There is not a trace of blue in the skies above Cincinnati, and a slight mist still covers the bright green lawns of the tract housing that has been made unique by years of occupancy. I’m sitting in my office, trying to ignore the clatter and whelps of puppies playing with squeaking plastic balls on the carpet near my feat. I’m listening to yet more pop music and letting my mind drift to the melody of a hand-picked guitar.

After a couple of months of boxes scattered everywhere in my office and a couple of months of very close scrutiny of our growing dogs, this room has become a sanctuary for me. Granted there aren’t any padded walls, built-in library shelves, or a constant supply of free lattes, but I am, at the moment, sitting in a place that feels conducive to writing, where, for some reason, I’m not distracted by the constant draw of television or the lure of a curling into the thick comforters on my bed. Instead, I can listen to a song or two, grab a cup of tea, and contemplate the next step in my long and illustrious career. Plus, I think this space is tax deductible.

Of course, this room does have its drawbacks—like being interrupted once in a while by a puppy that managed to eat into a cushion, an errant root, or a little too much people food and having to clean up after the error.

Yet, having a place—whether it’s a cafe, a library, a corner of your bedroom, or an office—where one can go to focus on craft is invaluable.

When I was in college, I did the majority of my writing in coffee shops filled with more smoke than three-alarm fire. I carried this habit with me, settling after moving to Miami and then Dallas for the tables on the patio of a particular corporate chain of coffee shops.

To me, coffee shops are a fantastic vantage point from which a poet can look out into the world. You can—when the mood strikes—join in on a conversation and learn something about a topic you’d never wondered about, like working for a modern-day railroad. Alternatively, you can focus your attention and let the world around you dissolve into a soothing hum of background noise.

When I lived in San Francisco, I found a cafe that I really adored. It was a brief walk from my apartment, served decent coffee and relatively good sandwiches, had a literary-sounding name, and didn’t seem to mind if you leeched a little power for your laptop. While there, I started a novella about a hopeless, obsessive “poet” with peculiar notions about what poetry means. At this point, I don’t plan on even taking a visit to the extant pages of that little project; nevertheless, in my mind, that novella and that coffee shop are inextricably linked.

One day, as I was settling into the morning, wondering what other mishaps my erstwhile poet could stumble into, a woman in a dirty sweat suit—clearly among the city's many homeless—came into the cafe. She asked for a glass of water, but was refused by the proprietor—who had every right to refuse her, business being what it is these days. She didn’t take too kindly to this—after all, who would? She started shouting at him, pumping her fists into the air. He asked her to leave and she did, angrily. But she stood out on the sidewalk, protesting his treatment with a barrage of swear words. The proprietor threatened to call the police. She responded, go ahead. She wasn’t on his property any longer. Then, the businessman went behind the counter, filled the metallic pitcher normally used for steamed milk with water, and dashed out to the corner where the woman was standing. You want some water, he screamed, here’s some water. Then he tossed the entire contents onto the woman and made some comment about her being filthy and needing a bath anyhow.

I just watched in horror. When the fracas was over, I gathered my belongings and left, never to return, even though I’d been to that cafe every day for the past two months.

Sometimes, I still miss that cafe and the environment that it gave me. Mostly, when I think of that cafe, I think of my unfinished novella and the peculiarities of human nature.

Archie is curled in a corner, sleeping. Dixie is in the other room, lounging on the sofa. Quiet music surrounds me. The birds outside are singing for what seems like the first time today. We have air conditioning again. And everywhere, conflicts are waiting to be resolved.


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