The Cafe Culture of Brooklyn

Justin Nobel

In the coming weeks, The Open Bar will be featuring interviews, stories and essays from the writers, musicians, and artists that make up the two cities we call home, Portland/Brooklyn.

In today’s web extra, Justin Nobel spends a day inside that quintessential of Brooklyn establishments, a Park Slope cafe.

The Cafe Culture of Brooklyn

Date: March 26, 2012
Time: 7:43am
Location: Corner of 6th Ave and 12th St, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Weather: Blue skies, brisk breeze, nippy

A father and two sons pedal by on a three-person bicycle, blossoms flutter in the breeze and a candy apple red horse in a Nehru suit sips a cup of tea. Her lashes bat, she beckons me. In I go, to the Red Horse Café,  one of Brooklyn’s finest coffee cubbyholes. Here one can sip, ponder and when appropriately inspired put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, in an effort to create great work, to tack one’s own little piece of genius onto the prodigious oeuvre of this hotshot borough. From here I’ll observe, both the scene in the cubbyhole and the one on the street. My goal, like the great Oulipo poet Georges Perec before me, who in October 1974 spent an entire weekend perched in Paris cafés recording minutiae—“people with bags, satchels, suitcases, dogs, pipes, umbrellas, potbellies, old skins, old schmucks, young schmucks, idlers, deliverymen, scowlers, windbags…”—is to try and define this space we know so well yet perhaps don’t know at all: the Brooklyn coffee shop.

The Red Horse is empty, just me and a wily barista with a tight black T-shirt and a tattoo, half hidden by his sleeve that looks like a baobab tree launching into space. On his head is a paper cook’s hat in the shape of a toy boat. He resembles a soda jerk from a far-off state, like Wyoming, or Ohio.

I order peppermint tea and sit at a breakfast bar that faces a window that looks out on the street. Beyond the glass is a grill, and between it and the window a planter, which, despite the blooming weather contains nothing but a few spiny coils, like tiny withered Lorax trees. Nothing could be sadder than a spring that refuses to sprout, nothing that is, save the man slugging by on the sidewalk, a bum with a black hoody pulled low and a shopping cart piled with cans. He’s a ghost from Park Slopes’ past, when the neighborhood was grittier, strollers hadn’t yet been invented and there was no coop. The can-toting bum and the barren planter, how dare they soil Persephone’s presence in Park Slope!

“You’re looking awesomely unsettled,” the barista tells a gum drop-shaped patron. “Very transient.” She has cropped hair, tiny eyes, rosy red cheeks. I’m reminded of a Cabbage Patch Doll. She seems to have spilled her coffee and is griping.

“Don’t blame my table,” snaps the barista.

“Your table needs a therapist,” she retorts.  “Your table is sad.”

Cabbage Patch proceeds to unload her work for the day, a mountainous printout, some sort of manuscript, or manifesto. I crane for a look but can’t make out the words. The door swings open, other customers are arriving. A mother and a bearded father, he wears a blue hoodie and carries in the crook of his left arm a swaddled baby. It’s a preposterous way to carry an infant and I pause, racing for a metaphor, finding none. A football would surely be clutched tighter, but a Frisbee might be held looser.

“You can decide your own sugar sweetness,” the barista tells the couple. “You can supply your own juice.”

Outside, a girl in a red dress on a wooden tricycle zips by with a mischievous grin. Her father, a courier bag-carrying young man in a cardigan races to catch up. I spot a baby in a stroller with a clear plastic awning, like those see-through seemingly indestructible Japanese umbrellas. The crunch of people biting into toasted bagels is mesmerizing. “Why do I give valuable time,” aptly swoons Morrissey, from inside the Red Horse, “to people who don’t care if I live or die?”

The café is presently decorated with an interesting exhibit, the work of another barista, a hodgepodge of spent technology and earth tones. One piece, which sits above my head, is called “No News”. It consists of tightly rolled newspapers—as if to kill flies—planted perpendicularly in a frame, selling for $800. I like it, but not half as much as “Cyborg”, a manikin’s midriff that has been carved out and stuffed with cords and computer bits—$1,000.

A tall pretty woman in black mans a silver MacBook, she looks like she’s waiting for someone. Then he arrives, a reasonably-muscled man in a polo shirt who looks Turkish. “Nice to meet,” he says. She rises to greet him. Some sort of interview, and a boring one at that. It lasts an hour, I record snippets: sunflowers, nutritious, vegan, Anheuser-Busch and the phrase: something that’s really warm and friendly.

Light from the rising sun creeps down the bricks of the brownstone across the street, the ground floor of which is occupied by a wine bar called Soigne. A street sweeper passes, it reminds me of an anteater. An ambulance and a school bus stop caddy-corner at the light, what does it mean? I spy a very interesting stroller, like a car seat on a scooter stick. Its barebones cross-like design calls to mind a crucifixion. I have the sudden and overwhelming urge to be knee-deep in a clear creek.

It is 9:23 a.m. The café is full. My tea is cold. I notice for the first time that at Cabbage Patch’s side is a Christmas-themed shopping bag filled with Girl Scout cookies. I crack and buy a toasted bagel with cream cheese, it’s delicious. Outside a man with a beanie and a golden on an orange rope walks past a woman with a Dalmatian. Then comes the Grouch.

He is bald with a crescent moon of long white spaghetti hair and a face that appears to have been destroyed by both alcohol and sunshine. The Grouch pushes a stroller—standard model—containing an adorable little girl. His existence here is a mystery, and I try to imagine the scenario from which he has sprung. An Argentine cattle wrangler perhaps, he broke out of prison, grabbed his daughter and snuck across the border in a rowboat they landed on the Gowanus. Here he remains, hidden in the basement of a brownstone, his only joy constitutions around the block with his granddaughter. Each evening he dreams of his native pampas. I like the Grouch.

A pleasant hush permeates the Red Horse. There is the wisp of newspaper pages turning, the tap dance of fingers on keyboards, the growl of coffee being ground, the clink of the cash machine, the tinkle of coins dropping in. Do you know New York City is surrounded by water, and that four of five boroughs are on islands?

The barista is in a conversation about Clif Bars. I check the New York Times headlines on my Blackberry: “At Amazon the robot world comes a little closer”. The sky outside is so blue I want to explode. Instead I daydream. When I come to Nick Cave is playing: “Why are all the children weeping, or are they merely crying?” It is 10:57 a.m.

I step outside. A man with a beet red drinker’s face seated behind some bushes is telling a story to a cigarette smoker. “Imagine you come home, you have your wife, you have seven kids, all you have is one loaf of bread, but you have your family, you have your health, a roof over your head…” I walk to the end of the block. Birds chirp, the sun is lovely, a granny with a cane and those big black granny glasses blows her nose. I salute Lady Red Horse then head back in.

A woman with a nose ring is on her way out but first hugs the barista, who is nibbling what I believe to be a biscotti—are they lovers? A man with a buzz cut in a shiny leather coat takes her seat and sets up a netbook. His coat is giant and flows across his lap like a dress. He has a goofy smile and hunches over his tiny computer, typing with dainty efficient fingers, like a pecking bird. His screen is very busy with icons. I would peg him as an assassin but he seems too smiley for that. Unless of course he is a really really good assassin.

Cabbage Patch is still at work on her printout. She takes pictures of it with a cellphone the color of poisonous berries. A rambling song comes on: “We’re all wild, we’re all free, we’re all back from Tennessee…we’re flying around in planes, we’re riding around in trains…” Outside, the breeze blows blossoms to the ground. “It’s a pollen fest,” says the barista. Apparently the early spring has cherry blossom trees blossoming well ahead of schedule. “In three or four weeks there’s this festival,” says the barista, “and it’s all going to be gone.”

I notice pinot noir is $10 a glass and have the sudden and overwhelming urge to buy a whole bottle, go outside and guzzle it in the sunshine then smash the empty on the street and run down to the harbor and watch ships go by.

In comes the lunch crowd. A serious man with a wireless mouse works on a silver MacBook, he’s drinking two coffees, one of which I believe to be from another establishment. A woman with lots of makeup and sad eyes drinks an espresso and types out an email with long slender alien fingers. She’s a cat trapped in a human’s body.

My coffee is about two and half hours old. Creamy white platelets have formed on top, a milky Pangaea on a mocha ocean, or the footprint of a three-toed bear. A new barista, a cherubic blonde with a lip ring. He’s beautiful and I order a cup of fire roasted veggie soup from him, he accidentally gives me the Manhattan clam chowder.

A woman helps a blind man in an overcoat cross the street. Two moms with strollers. A bearded bum with lips cracked open as if by disease pushing a shopping cart full of cans. I ponder the zombie apocalypse.

Three women discuss a project over silver MacBooks, one has a buzz cut and a black T-shirt that says “Reclaim Democracy”. At her suggestion the ladies go outside to get some sun. The assassin follows. Cat woman moves in on his outlet. My milky Pangaea separates into an archipelago. A towheaded child drinks organic milk and tackles a sticky bun, he looks eerily similar to how I did at his age. The serious man yawns obnoxiously, his flash drive has a pulsing red light, like ET’s heart.

Outside a strange scene, a stroller without a pusher, blowing in the breeze like the blossoms. Then a moment of crisis. The stroller curls into the middle of the sidewalk, forcing a bum with a can-filled cart to alter course. My footloose mind conjures a startling scenario: the bum and a stroller mother switch objects, she pushes the cans and him the kids. They do the things they were doing before, only now with new charges. He takes the kids to the metal center and recycles them, she takes the cans into the Red Horse and orders them organic milk and sticky buns.

Then a moment of epiphany. My child doppelganger, the one earlier eating the sticky bun, appears outside my window. He clutches the grill and smiles, his bearded father stands behind him snapping photos on an iPhone. The child’s eyes beam blue, in the perfect afternoon light I can make out the whiskers on his face. I suddenly realize the horrible truth of it all, that he is light, and I am darkness. The child knows something none of us can know, nothing. His mind is milk, and because of that he is a genius. All children are Gods, I realize, obliterated by well-meaning mothers and fathers.

The serious man is still hunched over his MacBook, crumpled napkins dot his table like pinched stars. A woman who was blithely reading the New York Times Book Review is now scrawling frantically in rain-wrinkled notepads. The child continues gripping the window grill, his father still taking iPhone photos, me still staring. Who is the prisoner, the one peering in or the one peering out? And what is out?

“Again the pigeons go round the square,” wrote Perec. “What triggers off this unified movement? It doesn’t seem linked to any exterior stimulus (explosion, detonation, change in light, rain, etc.) nor to any particular motivation; it seems completely gratuitous…”

The inane whirl swirls on. My mother dropped me on my head as a child and I remained a God. I can sit still no longer. I will leave this place. I will walk to the harbor. I will watch the ships go by!

It is 4:39 p.m. On the way out, one last scene: a twenty-something woman in a sweater the blue of Paper Mate pens—the kind I’ve been using all afternoon—approaches the counter and orders of the cherubic barista a large cup of tea and a vegan Twinkie. It looks yum. By the time she bites into it I’m charging towards the harbor. And as I’m running I am seized with a sudden and overwhelming thought: Where is the harbor?

Justin Nobel’s book about observing New York City’s minutiae, “Standing Still in a Concrete Jungleis due out in mid-October. He presently lives in Arabi, Louisiana.