Reading list: Andrei Codrescu's The Muse is Always Half-Dressed in New Orleans: and other essays and Cara Black's Murder in the Marais: An Aimée Leduc Investigation. Just finished Francesca Lia Block's yummy Weetzie Bat.
Today starts at the Makris Cafe, with me sopping up runny eggs with sourdough toast spread lushly with butter and pale jelly scooped from tiny packages. The place is run by a Korean couple who grunt, kindly, "More coffee?" Percolating in glass pots that burp from early morning to early afternoon, black no-nonsense coffee pours itself into white porcelain cups regal on white daises set atop the orange Formica counter.
"Cream? Sugar? Hot sauce?"
Dimly lit with florescent lamps and a red neon Breakfast sign, the Makris is something other in Berkeley, as this town gets shinier and cleaner with each newly acquired corporate store. You could miss it; it's so unassuming, so small and seemingly-out-of-the-way, even as it squats at the busy-bee intersection of University and Shattuck.
My stomach finds it by the smell, that fried-eggs-and-bacon-with-hashbrowns-and-toast-and-orange-juice-too kinda smell, stubbornly greasy-rich. I am seduced by the barstools and the dark red containers with the gold-paint logo ketchup nearly rubbed off by years of many fingers.
It reminds me of another cafe on another coast, in the French Quarter in New Orleans, where a Cambodian family serves quiche and coffee spiked with chicory to grumpy Quarter residents. It, too, is dimly lit, cafe patrons dining in the shadows underneath neon and houseplants. Behind smudged plate-glass, slightly stale pastries are lined like brightly enameled toy soldiers.
How did I find it? Like everything else that is magical, the stuff of fairy tales and children's stories, by accident. I needed tea and a table to collect the impressions of the last few days on paper, away from the damp Louisiana heat and the claustrophobic insularity of my air-conditioned hotel room.
Although I was the only tourist here, the only non-resident, it seemed like home. Maybe it was because I was reminded (yet again, all these layers, piled, wantonly, all over each other, an orgy of memories) of my mother's donut shop.
My childhood unfolded its limbs here, amidst coffee grounds and cake dough, sweetened with a film of dust and powdered sugar.
This is the knowledge I collected: deep-fry oil burns, naps stolen in a yellow canvas cot, hungry university students, and the incomplete World War II histories of veterans. Here I was introduced to Umberto Eco, shivering at the discovery of a corpse in a vat of congealed blood. (I adored the word coagulation and brought it into class to share.) I also perused avant-garde arts & literary magazines, courtesy of an old art history professor who had a snack of a plain buttermilk doughnut and one small coffee (no cream or sugar) every afternoon, before scooting off for a tryst with his middle-aged mistress. Many hours passed as I sought to decipher the meanings of the images and word-palaces I encountered, worlds so far away from the dreary kingdom (my Mummy its capricious tyrant) of the donut shop.
Here, as it is in the Makris and that little coffeehouse in New Orleans, everyone knows each other's names and everyone lives just around the corner. Conversation meanders, languorously, often over familiar terrain (not too intimate, just enough: the day's itinerary, the Missus, this summer's vacation destination, etc.); no one's rushed, needy to get someplace and someplace soon, or else. Grow up, or else.
Places like the donut shop or the Makris are, of course, not Denny's or Mel's, those gleaming nostalgic facsimiles merely corporate reproductions of an imagined idyllic past, a past from which I am far detached. Instead, their battered Formica counters are smudged with the many fingerprints of past and present patrons and the many stories that accompany them, mine among them.