Take to your holds, your windswept hovels and your ships quarters. Below deck, down the old oak folding ladder with speed, and nearly run right into the center table where we ate dinner, built by my grandfather, suspended on a clever balance, like the stove, and the lanterns dry of oil. Take to your headaches and your rage that casts light onto the water from the salt crusted windows. Tarnish grows on the metal casting around the glass with each voyage from waters rushing with speed. Motion in life personified by the act of sailing for those who can no longer stand on the mainland. Help the old man into the small boat and haul him up to the deck, his legs at this point in his life, have failed him. Yet even in skiffs do we lose our minds- I remember breakfasts in the morning on the ancient dining room table. I don’t know who in my family squirreled it away or sold it. My grandmother says she’ll never go back to that ruined house now. Empty bedroom, apparitions in the stovepipe- the windows overlooking Pocha Pond. I would take to that place were it still ours, were it not sold but were instead rotting- The greenhouse was filled with mildew and dead birds last I visited, and a harmonica echoed in the empty rooms that once held furniture. The old man struggled to breathe through the reeds in his age, no longer able to die in the house he himself built. I would like to sit cross legged on the well loved floorboards, and look out over the collapsing deck. Perhaps the osprey pole is still standing in the marsh. You told me once in a bout of chemically induced adolescence, that you and your friends got drunk and carried the pole there years ago, and in the mud you found deer bones. The sun still shines on that place as it did before. The light taken to our holds when our bodies fail us. When we are angry. When we are powerless and we break the walls in retaliation, and still refuse amputation. These days, I find myself digging through storerooms. Dust covered sewing supplies, old outdoorsman clothes, and cracked VHS tapes with TV recorded movies. Could such relics be found, I’d sit and smoke the pipe that nearly gave you cancer though the collecting fluid in its place damn well finished the job. The fog of smoke would rise as it did from the office when you practiced law amongst empty bookshelves and a light spot on the floor in the corner that the grand piano once occupied. I stood in its usual place, and felt I was trespassing. The rooms where we stayed are still painted morning yellow and a gentile blue- though the corners now grey with webs, and the bodies of spiders. You called it Avalon, the island where everybody knew your name, and it passes from us now like storm clouds over the marsh. Near the end we took to rocking waters sinking ships across the harbor. The deck of your vessel has rotted through. You motioned to me to sit up front in the old skiff as we left the mainland for the last time- away from ruined kingdoms and legends of deer bones. In those final days you refused the amputation of your legs, though you were no longer able to stand on them. You called me “my boy” back then. When my life feels like a gale- I think of you. I think of avalon and the sails of little ships making their way out from the beach head. I think of sunscreen, and I think of the way my hair felt filled with salt. I want to make the trip again to the land just beyond the marsh, and see who lives there now. I don’t know if they’ve done away with the house. Still, I will tell them of you, And from such stories of Avalon, I will make them know they are trespassing on the graveyard of Arthur.
Never sleep these Dublin spent days in a freshly cleaned kitchen, mouthing words to the incantation. Things don’t change in a little flat where everyone else is sleeping. But I can hear the wind groan on the cement of the apartment block, and there isn’t a trace left of the stale Adirondack air. It once filled the cavern like joy and black, but left as I stepped from the airport and watched the sunrise. The ancient exhaustion rose like carbon from cars, the scent of piss from alleyways, or calloused heels from my walking boots. I found faith in all of these things, and I welcomed them gladly to the former cavity of long expired trepidation and choler. On my first day in the city, I found the fee for entering the Cathedral was more than I had on me, but I’m sure my words were audible. “So this is what it should have been like all this time”.
The drop and winding journey inward- I returned in dust filled rolling valleys to the heat of late June, amongst the empty dorms of the abandoned campus nestled in the Berkshires. Simultaneously I am engaged with the greatest cup of herbal tea, and a bright face in the dim lights of a friend’s kitchen in mid-winter.
As a creature of habit I’ve adorned the walls with memories printed in glass and hung en mass like cave drawings in ink sapped from roots. This bedroom is my ship’s log, marking each island and every rogue wave that stripped the masthead. Its as though I never really left this room- far away no long in high school. Relationships changed and shifted upon tacks that reflect weathered and patched sails stitched below the hairline- scar tissue like replacement hull planks.
The physical markers are everywhere, littered rock cairns on the forest floor winding upward into the foothills. At the center a spinning turntable gathering dust like snow between the needles of the pines. The speakers crackle in the dim lights with the crash of each wave we’ve weathered.
Outside is my costal town. It is the only place I’ve ever called home, and I can hear the microscopic grooves rise and fall like the scenic road that gathers sand in winter storms. The lights from the windows are dim, but burn a rich warmth onto the surface of night and the rippling cold Atlantic water of the harbor and out the channel. My window is one of many- each containing the physical manifestation of a creature of habit. One of many- none alike.
The cold wind will blow outside with tidings of the seasons, but the past is forever gathering moss with grass growing between the cracks. It weathers every storm, collecting stones from the hands of many passing by into the foothills. It overlooks all we’ve left to survey. I gaze out the window that casts a glow onto the ground below-
All we have left to survey.
I know how quickly winter comes on this close to the Atlantic. I know the feeling of frozen sand and the way that salt water cracks and makes cloudy ice on the shoreline.
I know, though I will deny it to my parents, what American Sprits in a sage colored box taste like on the frost beachhead with a friend who has since died, talking about our unconquerable and unpredictable future.
I know the way that banjo strings sting the fingers, and how old guitar strings leave rust in the skin. The old Marconi station fell into the sea several decades ago, but the beach on which it stood still bears its name. So too does the high school still bear faint whispers of our voices in stories and ballpoint pen graffiti, just as the brambles in the woods bear our blood and scraps of our clothes. The Coffee Obsession shop downtown bears spilled sugar packets and scraps of muffins. The chessboard on the bookshelf knows countless games which we wagered coffee over, though now the pieces disappear, just as the members of my graduating class have.
I know what it’s like to be kissed in a darkroom smelling of developer and fixer chemicals and lit in red light. I know what its like to be kissed at a lighthouse, to make love in a dusty bedroom in a house filled with wall to wall with oil paintings on Milford street, and I know what it feels like to have it fall apart after a sleepless and drunken night someone dared to call a party in a gated community off Cape on some godforsaken cul-de-sac. Fuck that 4th of July party and fuck him too. But I didn’t say that when she told me what she’d done. I just cried and cried and she didn’t say anything at all.
I know a lot of things, like not to leave the heat on too high in an old farmhouse because it costs too much money. I know not to yell over the roar of a snow blower trying to dig your car out so you can go get laid. It turns out that the neighbors can hear you. I know not to take the little things for granted, like how my friends and I would gather round the large table at Coffee Obsession in Woods Hole and gossip, and one time this girl who would one day become a pivotal plot point one night in a gated community years later had asked me to walk around the deserted town with her one November and to help take care of her neighbor’s blind cat.
I know these days will end eventually, like the songs we liked when we were teenagers that lacked any sort of poetic nuance. I know a lot of damn fine and pretty things. I know the intimacy of watching horror movies naked in bed. I know the meaning of salt air and the meaning of friends dying young and the meaning of why we probably shouldn’t smoke for our health and why James laughed that one time we got chased off the train bridge over the canal and why Brendan went a little crazy in Germany and why the stars wont stay still in Savannah’s backyard and why every little drip of memory is pouring out of me like Guinness from the tap. On pages I pour another that leaves a ring shaped stain and begin again and wander into the backyard to find the love and the friends from days long since set who have disappeared into the things I know.
It was 11:15 at night, fifteen minutes past visiting hours, but the guard at the front desk let me in anyway. I’d been on the road for three and a half hour. In half an hour I would be over the Bourne Bridge and home back on Cape Cod. But I stopped just before the bridge in a small town called Middleborough. The same town consequently, where my brother and I used to the dentist when we were kids. In the stasis of Upstate New York in the springtime, Lake George, and the nestled conifers I’d been able to ignore what my family had been going through.
He was dressed in L.L. Bean PJs when the nurse went and fetched him from his room down the hall. She’d let me in when I knocked on the tempered glass of the thick door that separated off the adolescent ward from the adult one. As he approached I could see there was a slight smile on his face, but it was quiet. Not the shit eating grin I’d known my little brother to always be wearing when we were younger. We’d always fought as kids, and he’d always had this beaming look when he got his way. As the younger sibling he was pretty good at that. Beneath straight bright blonde hair and through blue eyes he’d been young and selfish. But he was taller than me now. I hadn’t seen him since Christmas. His hair was cut short, his walk confidant, and yet- when he hugged me, when I asked him how he was doing- he stood there for a moment as if embarrassed. I could see cracks in him, the twitch of his face and the focus of his eyes that seemed to go beyond me and peer into the adjacent drywall. We ran out of things to say in a few minutes. It was passed visiting hours, the nurse told me. They needed to lock up for the night. The ward was quiet except for our conversation at the far end of the hall.“Take care of yourself Cooper” I said as I held him one more time. After a second I felt him try and push away but I didn’t let go of him for a few seconds longer. He chuckled awkwardly at that gesture, but I didn’t say anything. I peered through the small glass of the door until he was out of sight down the hallway. That was the first time I saw my brother after he’d attempted to kill himself.
Sometime long ago, when my father still wore glasses, and we lived in a little house up a long road called Naushon North, I had fought with my brother with fists, and I think I made him cry. I can remember my father’s prickly face from when he forgot to shave. His hair was black back then, but its grey now. I only know these things because I have seen photographs and old VHS home movies which being with my mother saying cheerily “welcome to Ryan and Cooper’s world”. That time in my life feels like some strange dream through a VCR. The place and the scenes and the light are all colored by static and sound pitchy as though my young ears were the condenser microphone on a cheap Sony Camcorder. I remember it because my parents let me use it to recorded my younger brother’s school plays. I was in Elementary school. Cooper had just started, being three years younger. I don’t remember much, but out of that dream come words from my father that I still recite from time to time to Cooper. “You two shouldn’t fight” He began. “There will be a day when you two will only have each other. You’re brothers, you’re all each other will always have”.
I didn’t listen to him for the better part of a decade, and the memory faded into that dream along with countless days growing up with my brother and playing with the neighborhood kids on the beach. It only came back to me later. As I drove into the dark toward the Borne Bridge I yelled as loud as I could till my throat hurt. I screamed murder and cursed everything holy thing I could think of. “You’ll only have each other”, over and over again that young man my father used to be kept saying the words quietly to a redheaded child who was furious with his brother. Over and over in the nameless and shapeless dark of the highway, for the first time in my life I realized that I had almost been completely alone on the earth. I knew something of brotherhood then. At the latter day, Cooper and I will only have each other. And I cried and screamed in my car and snot ran down my face and into my mouth and I choked on it and the indescribable joy of knowing that he was still alive.
“For I know that my redeemer liveth,
and that He shall walk at the latter
day upon the earth.”
I’d taken the train down to New York City. It was winter, or at least, I imagine it was winter. Somewhere on the sidewalks waiting for me was my old friend Caroline, looking as lovely as I remembered, wrapped in a sweater or winter jacket or something like that. I stepped off the train barely able to contain myself; my anticipation of what she’d say when we first talked to one another again. Maybe she’d tell me over coffee, or maybe right away, or maybe later that night over a few drinks once her friends had left and we’re alone. I could almost see her waiting there amongst the crowd, her blonde hair cut shorter than I remember, or has she grown it out? I never get close enough to find out. Nothing happens after my arrival in the city, and she never tells me anything. My imagination fails me after this point. I’ve never been to New York, and I haven’t seen Caroline in years.
This staged scene is inspired by the cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Freewheelin’”, with the photo of him and Suze Rotolo taken in the early 60’s. I like to imagine that New York is still kinda like that, strewn with hints of snow on the ground and filled with the faint bustle of city life far off, while Caroline and I walk with hunched shoulders down the center of the road toward somewhere warm against the chill. It’s an idealized fantasy, a dream well known to me from many crisp mornings spent listening to that album, and looking at the cover like it were some way back into a past that I’m not even sure ever existed.
That way back brings me back to Caroline. I haven’t seen her since we both attended this writing program at UMASS Amherst the summer of my junior year of high school. At the time, I was in a bad way with a girl from home who hated me in the way she loved me. There was this one time when she’d been so angry with me for being late to her house that she lay in bed and refused to speak to me for an hour or so. Her bedroom was cold from being a poorly insulated addition, and in that air I sat on the end of the bed the entire hour listening to her breath angrily rolled onto her side beneath a mess of sheets. In that year I’d lost all sense of self and worth, and most of my friends had taken wind of the defeated atmosphere and fallen into the background. “Why would you put up with someone like that?” I remember Caroline saying, looking up from a plastic mug of steaming chamomile tea. We’d stolen the mugs from the college dining hall that afternoon. The atmosphere of the dorm room we sat in with our friends felt cool in the night air of the summertime in the Berkshires. When I couldn’t answer she smiled quietly at me. One of our friends nodded in agreement. “Honestly” I paused, “Honestly, fuck her”. I said it with an old conviction that I hadn’t felt in a long while, and I sipped my tea. I can remember her best in the scenes in places we went together.
Caroline and I became close after that night spent talking over tea. She always seemed happy in this goofy sort of way, and had a spring to her step when she walked. I remember she used the word “y’all” with pride because she was from South Carolina. But there was something else too that caught me in her eyes a second too long. On our last night in Amherst, Caroline and I took a moment in her room on the third floor to say something of feelings, and though there was something mutual there, we weren’t really sure what to do, so we left it at a hug, and a few kind words about an impossible future.
After Amherst, Caroline and I kept in touch. Every couple months one of us would feel a lonely or unsure of something and call the other late at night to catch up. While a cold dry wind blew during the school year we would talk long into the night, retreading old ground hundreds of miles apart. It was an odd sort of thing late at night to see her face again. In my new life, without the girl I’d dated junior year, back with friends from my hometown who’d returned to me made new. How I might fit Caroline into that new atmosphere was a though which kept our digital meetings to late at night, and only when we felt we needed to escape for an hour or so. We continued in this cycle for two years. On one late night call she told me that she wanted to go to NYU for acting. Months later she called again and said that she’d gotten in, and that since we were only a train ride away now, I should come visit her sometime in the city. I was in my Sophomore year of college by this point, and at first I wanted nothing more than to buy my ticket one frost covered morning and make my way down following the Hudson River to see her again. But there was something that held me at the sound of her voice a little too long, though it was as pleasant and lively as I remembered.
I thought of our faces as we walked, or maybe ran toward one another in the streets of New York. Maybe she would smile and blush a little; maybe we’d talk about past feelings like we did a few times during the months after Amherst. Or maybe, that would be old news now. Maybe she’d forgotten. Maybe it wouldn’t be the time. Best to stay friends? But to see her laugh- that goofy way we talked walking aimlessly through a CVS one sunny afternoon. New York in the wintertime seemed an impossible place. The snow around our feet, wrapped in clothes there- just the two of us. Where would we go? Would we go to a record shop like we did in Amherst that one time when I stood by the turntable for twenty minutes listening to side B of an old Simon and Garfunkel album? She wrote me a short message on the back cover in permanent marker before we said goodbye.
I wonder where Bob Dylan and Suizi Rotolo walked to after that photo was taken? Were they going anywhere in particular? I know the answer is that they weren’t going anywhere. The photo was staged, one of a few taken. I’ve seen the others. They stand out like impossible constructions, as if any scene with those two outside that iconic photograph could simply not exist. If it were Caroline and me, could we follow a couple of blocks behind a few decades later? I hold the scene of the album cover tightly in my mind as if without it the entire mess of New York streets would fall apart and Caroline would disappear into a crowd or a party in the halls of NYU. She left with her friends, I was trying to keep pace through the rush of it all, and I couldn’t get a word in. She fell asleep early. We hadn’t shared drinks when her friends had gone and we were alone; we hadn’t talked of that past I couldn’t get out of my mind’s eye like sand against the cornea. Despite the warm scratch of Dylan’s voice and the promise of that iconic photograph, I knew that reality as something good enough as fact. After we meet at the train station silent faces and questions late at night that have no good answers invade. I’m drunk in a dorm room in an unfamiliar and imagined city- the worst kind. Far below the cold windy streets shudder. The pavement might feel familiar for a moment, and the heat of the summer kisses my neck, and for a second I feel a novel sort memory take shape beneath my feet before the North Country wind blows it away. I couldn’t bear the thought, and thus I couldn’t bear the ticket. After Caroline and I stopped talking about me coming to visit, and a few months later we stopped talking regularly. It’s been a year since then.
My girl from the North Country was from the south, but she’d come north to me, so close I could feel the rattle of the Amtrak car and taste that terrible coffee they serve for three dollars in the café car at the back of the train. In the lonely winters upstate I’d time and time again thought of calling her. Friends came and went, some in immaculate fashion, taking with them the footing I’d gained that summer years ago. The atmosphere of defeat might have cleared a bit, but the taste never left my mouth. Not completely. It was in moments like this that I wanted to call and hear her talk, to be reminded of the sound when it was all new for the first time. But I was afraid there would be something different in her voice, a sign of the years go by, a clue to what we could not relive no matter how many trains we took or miles we traveled.
Caroline and I sat in dorm rooms filled with the ancient air of summer nights; we listened at poetry readings from authors late at night, and wandered downtown near the house of Emily Dickinson. In Amherst for me, there is not that much to imagine. Caroline and I are more there, than we are in the windy streets of New York. We’re there with all out other friends from Amherst, mulling over manuscripts and catching the bus downtown. A timelessness hangs in the air, a newness of spirit that I can’t fully remember, but I know it was there. It had to have been. There’s no album cover for this recollection, no songs or imagined cities that can bring it to life for me. It happened long ago at a time when I needed it most, and for that it is perfect- and for that- I am inclined to let the moment end as it should as the shutter is snapped. And Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo walk out of frame. The street returns to its unremarkable nature. But for a moment, a single moment- it held the world. When it was my turn to walk that street, Caroline was gone, and the cars were of a new age, the snow was black and the air had on it a dreadful taste of carbon. The sound of cars off in the distance was like angry breathing behind me in a small room. I saw Caroline walking faster as I fell into the distant crowd, I saw her kiss me on the train platform as I moved to head home, I saw her smile the way we once had. I saw us in every possible place in this imagined city. But there, in the cold of that timeless street I was alone, and I quietly wondered who it was that I had come here to find.
The sprocket holes of the film negative bleed white smears into the frame, as if somewhere at the bottom of the camera a pinhole had let light in. But that Ukrainian glass was sound, and the mechanism worked as designed. It took in light, even light that the eyes could not see, and which passed through the rubber light seals around the film door. Atomic radiation soaked into photosensitive emulsion in the same manner that it would seep into tissue and organs. Those exposed would never know, until like the photograph in its chemical bath, the burns began to appear.
In that hazy photograph taken on the rooftop of the power station outside a small Northern Ukrainian town, men covered in lead-lined suits are silhouetted against a white sky. Their feet are obscured by light emanating from chunks of graphite and nuclear fuel they had been sent to remove. I read that they had only sixty seconds before another team would rush from the shelter of a nearby stairwell to replace them. In sixty seconds they had taken in a lifetime’s worth of radiation. For three months, after the circuitry of their radio-controlled machines had been fried, these “Bio—Robots” as they were designated, cleared away innocuous looking pieces of rock so radioactive more than a few minute’s exposure would be fatal. Most of the men would die in the following years.
The ghost of their killer can only be seen in the corners of photographs, as it is caught eating away at the grain of the cellulose acetate of the film. Everything would have seemed normal then. The fires were out; the wind was soft and warm in the summertime; the bustle of workers and the cleanup crews might have seemed comforting. Only from the frantic crackling of a Geiger counter could anyone tell that the soil they walked on was poison.
I imagine the place is quiet now. I have seen photographs of the Excursion Zone; photographs of rotting villages and Eastern Orthodox churchyards littered with elk tracks. Rain fell on the rooftop and washed away the footprints of the Bio-Robots. The radiation began to fade into air, as the men faded into obituaries in newspapers all over the region. Only through a handful of distorted photographs is the motion of that summer remembered. In stillness the men seem ancient.
However, only nine years after the photo of the Bio-Robots was taken, I was born. Nine years later, and most of the men captured in it were dead. In a little known image they are preserved like the trees surrounding the power station, which were turned red by the radiation and died. Faceless and nameless, the men on the rooftop seem to be frozen in a time that could never have existed. Their lives were quietly snuffed out and their irradiated tissue was tucked away like burial shrouds hidden deep within the mountains.
The great Sarcophagus hangs heavy over the reactor now, steel and concrete lifted up to contain what there is no hope of ever fixing. The land will be uninhabitable for 20,000 years. The timescale is staggering, as atomic particles will roam that patch of earth well beyond when I am forgotten and exist only in photographs, till they themselves dissolve to pulp. But Reactor #4 and her quietly crackling breath which fell across Europe will live on.
In 20,000 years, something might walk that patch of earth as it once was again. I wonder if they will know its name. Will they remember the peeling mosaics of churches, the piles of ruined books in crumbling schools, and the unfinished rusting fairground? Will they touch the Elephant’s Foot? Running hands for the first time upon the frozen molten form which once burned its way to the basement of the reactor, and now sits still in the dark? Today, it would kill you in ten minutes flat if you stood too close.
But would they remember the Bio-Robots? Does anyone now? I cannot find even one of their names. I have only ever seen the photograph that held them once. They have since returned to the atomic particles that led to growths under the skin. That same force is in the forests now, in the trees beyond the Red, which still grow. It is in the skin of the elk and the wolves that returned to the soiled earth. They had been gone for a century, and yet in our wake returned in less than a decade
Where the radiation touched the film in that photograph, the world was lost, as the rest of the image slowly appeared in the phenidone and sodium carbonate solution. The photo had taken a toll from its exposure, as did the men. But most of all, the land itself took the heaviest. An entire layer of topsoil was removed throughout the region to try to clean up the fallout. Creatures as far as Scotland were culled en masse because of the radioactive particles they had absorbed from the grass they ate. The excursion zone is a feeble attempt to say the breath of Reactor #4 is contained.
We considered the disaster a knockout blow that could potentially outlive humanity itself. But in the trees, and in the flanks of the elk, and in the small creatures that rummage through ruined apartments, the land did us one better. Though I might walk through the excursion zone, I cannot linger. To linger in Chernobyl is to be rendered still. Yet despite the warning sings and chain link fence, the woods are alive. Trees and vines wind through broken stained glass windows in churches, while walls and ceilings cave in from the rain. The diversity of life in the Excursion Zone is greater then it was before the disaster. In that patch of Ukraine where no lights turn on at night, and where men slowly lost their lives to a sickness growing beneath their skin, the memory of their sacrifice is only a plight on the land. The scar slowly fades like the damaged emulsion of the photographic paper under red light. The paper will in time disintegrate, the walls rot, the cement crumble. Even the radiation, only on the second decade of its remaining two thousand, will eventually cease to rest in the blood of the creatures of that place. We could not kill them. In the end, the fires of Reactor #4 proved we were only really capable of killing ourselves.
For the past two summers I have found myself behind the steam-belching shuttering chrome plated behemoth more commonly known as an espresso machine. In two seasons of work I have discovered a couple of things: Food service is deceivingly punishing work, and that brewing coffee is a complicated discourse steeped heavily in cultural legend and conception.
Now I do realize I’m being a bit hyperbolic about coffee. Coffee on the surface is really a simple thing to make. It is the art of pouring just-below boiling water through coffee grinds of various sizes. Really that’s all there is to it. It is in the human element that coffee becomes something a bit more complicated than your average caffeinated beverage. If you have ever worked as a barista then you know all too well that people can be very particular about their coffee. Sugar? Or no sugar? Milk? There’s soy, almond, coconut, and skim Extra foam? Light ice? Easy on the mocha? Decaf? Maybe half-caf? From such a simple thing comes a world of increasingly particular possibilities. What is ironic is that coffee brews down to a game of varying ratios that can be mastered within ten minutes via a web search, and yet with names like latte, cappuccino, macchiato (Starbucks and Italian), flat-white (New Zealand or English), Frappuccino, macchiato, skinny latte and so on, it seems more like a complicated system of discourse rather than different drinks all made of essentially the same two or three ingredients. Starbucks’ insistence of adhering to a sizing system of pseudo-Italian has only served to complicate things further.
I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time wondering just why coffee (and the people who drink it regularly) can be so particular about it (Full disclosure: I am one of these very particular coffee brewers, I just happen to do my complicated method in my kitchen where it annoys no one). Coffee has wormed its way into modern culture to the point where no one really remembers a time before we had coffee. Its such a staple of the Western diet, its hard to imagine that coffee wasn’t a common thing when our country was first founded. Like tea for the British, or chocolate for the Swiss, these goods were stolen from indigenous peoples overseas via colonies and assimilated into Western culture, bearing no tangible reference to their source beyond the exotic sounding titles on Starbucks bags. In Marxist terms, this is the commodity fetishism of the coffee bean. Perhaps it is because its cultural origins lie in relative obscurity to any who have not taken Mimi Hellman’s class on the Art History of Caffeine, that coffee is able to become a drink that people feel so strongly about on a personal level. If there is no historically correct way to consume coffee, as there is with fine wines or beers, then people are left to their own devices and quickly develop their own idiosyncratic ritual surrounding the exact same drink.
The physical coffee shop itself carries with it a legacy that is just as complicated as the drink served within it. Coffee shops began as intellectual urban centers. They were rowdy like pubs at times, and at others the birthplace of revolutionary ideas throughout Europe. In the fifties they attracted beatniks. In Meg Ryan-esque romantic commidies they enjoy a privileged position next to bookshops as picturesque places where lovers first happen upon one another over the same copy Catcher in the Rye. Today, I feel that coffee shops haven’t so much as evolved a new meaning; rather they have amalgamated all of their legend into an epic poem of sorts that is different depending on who you ask to recite it. The corner coffee shop in a city might be a meeting place for locals. My shop where I am employed fluctuates between an incredibly busy tourist trap in the summer and a local haunt in the New England winter. Coffee shops are fair trade organic in Portland, and generic and homogenous on Eisenhower’s interstate system. Coffee shops can be mobile carts of varying sizes, or well-established buildings serving as coffee house, dance hall, and bar all at once. When you walk into a coffee shop, you never know exactly the atmosphere you are to expect, and for the average customer this can be either an exhilarating dive or an anxiety-producing plunge that leads to a fair bit of resentment when his/her latte isn’t quite right. The coffee shop it seems is a far more complicated entity than we often give it credit for.
Coffee and coffee shops are essential to the modern working world. Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug. It is a ritual performed by many, and given the common devotion to that ritual, we might even think it something of a religion. In this sense the humble coffee shop is the place of that strange worship. In my time as a barista, I have spent enough time around coffee to stain my clothes and my fingernails, to burn my hands and discolor my shoes. Food service can be grueling work, however if you look beneath the dark surface, you can find a greater truth to that time spent whether you are a barista or a customer, and like the coffee you sip from, the nature of that truth is dependent entirely on you.
I saw a photo of you in an ocean-going canoe. Not so much one designed for it, rather, the old beat up one that you kept among the brush and the sand dunes. The one meant for a pond, made of cherished and dented aluminum. I saw you amongst the floating bits of ice in the ocean. It’s been a long time since the oceans frozen over. I’m not there to see it.
In this winter, I’ve been experiencing a nasty case of cabin fever. From inside the dust is falling like snow into drifts in the corners of the trim board. I can see it in the sunlight of halogen lamps. Up here, where the mountains rest and the air smells sweetly of abandoned campgrounds on the banks of Lake George, I will follow 9North till I run out of gas or the engine seizes. Which ever comes first. There are signs of scenic overlooks, and from them, I could observe that mountains on the far bank. It would not be long before I hit the pass.
Where you are, in a little ocean-going canoe, I hope you check the charts for rocks and the stores stowaways. Hastily made liberty ships sailed these waters once, and met the torpedo and the iron hull of the submariner. In silent ice water rust the wrecks of Nantucket Sound.
Write soon then, and write often from your arctic expedition amongst the icebergs and the fjords in that winter landscape I left behind. Trespass on the yards of great manor houses and wander the streets of the home country while you can. For there will come a day when you too will find yourself in a tiny apartment up north, looking for the sea on which you might launch from a beachhead of frozen sand and snow, a vessel without sail and a cherished hull. Navigate by the winter sun and the remnants of the summer triangle, and for a time amongst the icebergs, we might never grow old.