Monday, September 16, 2013

The pleasures of the familiar.

When the subject of change comes up, I'm usually in favor of it.

At the very least, I embrace its inevitability, choosing to ask "Well, what now?" and deal with it, even run with it. Cultural exchange is like that. Each party is transformed by the other; neither remains exactly as it was. We're all the sum of our experiences, but the calculus never stops. Every encounter changes you.  Traveling to a new place is experience, yes, but if you don't come back different, what did you learn?

Places are like this, too. We've come up with lots of phrases to describe this ever ongoing transformation: "You can't go home again." "You never step in the same river twice." "Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are."

Technology, of course, has sped everything up. Decades are now years, years mere months. We can lament the fast pace, or we can quicken our step. Music, art, even food, all of them are subject to recombining, reevaluation and renewal as they churn ever onward.

I'm thinking about all of this because I'm sitting in a cafe that I used to frequent, but have only visited a few times in the last seven years. (It was a different time. I led a different life.) And this cafe is a defiant middle finger to everything I've said to this point. It hasn't changed a bit. The walls are the same color, the tables are in the same position, the espresso maker hasn't moved an inch. The same guy with the long grey beard is still doing woodcuts by the window. The overhead music remains light classical before 10am, moody alternative rock mid-morning, lively pop in the afternoon. They still get their bagels from the same Kosher bakery. They are still, wonder of wonders, cash only. The only thing I see different is the coffee supplier, having switched from a Chicago micro-roaster to one from Milwaukee that has more explicitly leftist leanings (and perhaps even better coffee).

This cafe was both my office and my place of refuge. It's where I learned to write, or at least came around to the notion that I could write. It was a tumultuous time in my life. Things were changing, and I was deathly afraid of change. My marriage was dissolving, but that very idea was inconceivable, setting up an internal conflict that I could barely acknowledge. So I came here, and I read, I wrote, I took comfort in being around familiar faces that were nonetheless, with few exceptions, nameless strangers. When the dissolve became a full-on split, it was not I who drove the wedge. Such was the potency of my inertia.

That was, as I indicated, seven years ago. I moved to a different part of town and consciously avoided the old neighborhood. I still came to this cafe on occasion, but with time and distance it happened less frequently. There were other, closer cafes to inhabit. There was one on the corner by my apartment that got their bagels from the very same Kosher bakery, but that placed closed earlier this year. It is worth noting that I find this particular bagel vastly superior to any other.

Which is why I came back here last week. To get that bagel. Some things, it turns out, are just as good in life as they are in memory. In the intervening years, my approach to life took a left turn into uncharted, improbable territory. The unknown was thrust upon me, but much to my surprise, it proved a nourishing wellspring of growth. With that came a perspective on my past as well as a more adventurous approach to the present. The world itself seemed to change. And yet, this cafe has been frozen in time.

It feels almost absurd to think of something as mundane as a cafe as part of traditional culture, but that's exactly what this one is. It's as ritualistic as church in here, and (if you accept its tenets) just as spiritually fulfilling.

It's good to be back.

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