Cafes — a metaphor for life?

As writers, journalists or scribblers of some other sort, sometimes we can let go of our intentions and let the scene write itself. Thgis is an exercise in observational writing…

“It’s what what I do all day. Pour coffee”, I overhear the barista telling a customer. She’s one of a number standing by the coffee machine and spilling out onto the footpath, a little knot of people silhouetted against the bright daylight and clustered around the open front of this little, cavelike cafe on Belmore Road.

Belmore Road is an uninspiring, architecturally chaotic road lined either side with shops whose styles range through that of the 1920s through Art Deco to Modernism. A long straight strip of asphalt, it connects at its northern end with Alison Road and at the other it fractures like one of those diagrams of colliding particles in a particle accelerator you see, one vector heading southwards, another streaking towards the intersection at The Spot, a cluster of cafes and small-shops, another diverging at almost a right angle to make the descent to Coogee Beach, another going off in the other direction to descend past the university.

Just an indentation in the facade

You find 18 Gram not all that far from where Belmore Road fractures. It’s a small cafe, an indentation in the building facades fronting the street. I described it as cavelike earlier, an impression reinforced by its narrow streetfront giving onto the seating and counter inside. The impression of the cave is enhanced by its crimson-red-painted walls that reflect a dimmer light than we find in the other cafes along the strip.

The front of the shop frames in matt black the passing street life — people, vehicles, movement. Business is less brisk across the road at another cafe, one of the older style that has been here for years unlike latter day arrivals like 18 Gram. And unlike this one that is open to the street, that across the road shuts itself off from it to create an image perhaps less inviting to passing pedestrians. The hum of traffic comes from the street. It is an everyday here in Randwick, the coming and going of people, the passage of vehicles, the chatter of customers.

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18 Gram. Photo: Google Earth.

The other end of the counter is taken up by a coffee roasting machine. It is the variety of surfaces and textures — the hessian coffee bags, the metal of the coffee roasting machine, the sheen of worn timber, the dark red walls, the smooth brown brick floor, the quality of light that makes this cafe dim, inviting and intimate.

The tables here are small black squares for the most part. A long bench with cushions runs the length of the side wall facing the counter and workspace while, across the narrower back of the cafe the seating consists of a wooden garden seat. Above, colourful graffiti art while the long wall features framed photos and posters.

A quiet kind of noise

Modern jazz with a soft female vocal adds to the ambience, a pleasant relief from the sometimes loud music you hear in some cafes. Sometimes that is so loud it can be hard to hold a conversation. A friend remarked on this once. A smart woman in her sixties at the time, she told me she avoids cafes because they play music no one listens to and that she doesn’t want to hear.

With the banging, clanging and hiss of the coffee machine you get in some cafes, they can be noisy places, especially those with hard surface walls and floors and especially those with open kitchens where the racket of food preparation adds to the noise. I found this in an otherwise attractive little cafe in Manly in Sydney’s Northern Beaches region when I lived there, as well as in other cafes. Once, I pulled out my iPhone, opened the sound measuring app and assessed the noise level in one such cafe. I don’t remember the actual level, but it was very high.

That is something different here in 18 Gram. Sure, there’s the hiss of the coffee machine and the occasional bang! bang! of the barista emptying used coffee from its container, but the noise level is significantly lower than some other places.

People come and go

Cafes are about people. They offer respite from the churn of life on the street, a place to meet friend and colleagues, a place to find solitude amid the crowd.

Two young Asian men serve. One stacks takeaway cups while the other talks about staff changes with a young female customer waiting for her coffee to be brought over. She has long dark hair tied in a tail. She’s short of stature but her turned-up nose gives her an intriguing type of attractiveness. Her black dress reveals her nobbly knees and I guess you would say she is of solid build, not lithe but still slim. She reurns to her crossword then stops to tap on her phone.

A couple people sit reading the newspapers provided and the thought comes to me — are cafes the final bastion of the printed newspaper? Customers glance through them, flipping the pages. It’s something of a cursory perusal of their content and only occasionally does someone stop to read a story, or a bit of one, it seems. Watching this, it confirms my decision of years ago to forego newspapers, the source of yesterdays’s news today, because in most editions I found myself interested in reading only a few paragraphs of one or two stories.

Sheltered from the light breeze sweeping through Randwick towards the beach not far away, it is warm in this little cafe, the people and the food preparation no doubt adding to the sensation.

The barista delivers coffee to a man a couple tables down. It’s in a light blue cup and saucer with the little round shortbread biscuit they serve it with here. The young man and woman nearby — she lifts her cup to her lips as she listens to him – they have blue cups too. Mine is orange. She’s casually dressed and looking summery in a dark blue tank top, blue patterned trousers and sandals. Dark eyes, long dark hair tossed over her right shoulder to reveal an ear with a small earring dangling from it, she is of the clear-skinned type.

Her friend’s streaky blond hair is tied back in a ponytail, his beard a darker shade. Dark blue Tshirt, brown trousers, sneakers and white socks. His voice is mid-tone and he speaks with a casual, slow pace. Her voice is a contrast, her speech faster, giving the impression that she is more assertive and firm and perhaps quicker-thinking.

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By the sea… the little cafe in the park at Coogee Beach.

At the next table a middle-aged man holds a coffee cup with one hand while the other rests on the newspaper he gazes at, his sunglasses pushed back atop his crew cut. Blue-striped white Tshirt, dark blue trousers and black leather shoes.

Occupying the corner table is an older but slim and fit looking man — small grey moustache, unshaven, blue eyes, olive green cotton cap, open white shirt over dark blue Tshirt from which rectangular, wire framed sunnies hang and pull down the collar. Blue jeans faded with years of washing and drying in the sun are becoming threadbare where they meet his casual brown leather shoes. His pack, too, is of worn brown leather with two front pockets. Far from new, I think. He wears a round, white-faced watch with a silver coloured metal band. A red cup rests upon the table in front of him as he takes an A4 size wirebound notebook from his pack and presses the button of a red, metal-clad ballpoint to reveal its nib in readiness to write. Is he a writer, I silently ask myself? Is he doing what I’m sitting here doing, documenting the scene? Or has some idea or thought worthy of writing in his notebook suddenly occurred to him?

The feeling in the cafe is casual. maybe these people actually are dressed in their work clothes. Or maybe they’re having the day off.

Sitting here, my cup now empty, I wonder if maybe I should have documented the many cafes I have sat in over the years in different cities and towns. There’s those three cafes I used to sit in in Manly when I lived there — The Interpolitan, Manly Coffee Guild, the Manly Italian and that little cafe on Belgrave Street, its walls lined with books; there was the Avid Reader Bookshop/cafe in Brisbane’s West End; that place open Sunday mornings on the main road in Goodwood, Adelaide; the Beach Cafe, Twisted Sister and that other coffee stop at Railway Park where I consumed coffee when I lived in Byron Bay; that Greek cafe in downtown Melbourne; Dunbogan Boatshed coffee shop on the mid-North Coast; Fresh Cafe across from Princes Square in Launceston, Tasmania, and that big cafe with the high ceilings between Bathurst and Melville in Hobart.

Now, closer to where I live, there is the rather basic cafe in the park at Coogee Beach, the little Cafe Japone and Cafe Nero and Kurtosh with its interesting pastries at The Spot in Randwick. And, too, there’s 18 Gram.

Cafes are places of coming and going. In that respect they might be something like our own lives through which people and places come and go over the years. Cafe as life-metaphor, anyone?

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