When I am not in a condition of employment — and this is a rarer state than you might imagine, given the depth, breadth and vibrancy of my criminal record — I like to hang out, and one of my favorite places where which to hang is the Headlands Coffeehouse in Fort Bragg. It's a great place with a good selection of quality coffees, good food, a convivial atmosphere, strong WiFi, and a clean, spacious, single occupancy restroom. I used to be a Starbucks guy when I lived in large metropolitan areas and they were as common as house cats and so develop their own personalities. Back home you had the hipster Starbucks right across from the family Starbucks, and down the block was the suit and tie Starbucks. Walk a couple more blocks to visit the punk rock Starbucks and the theater Starbucks. I hear that in some neighborhoods the distinctions get even finer and one can patronize a left-handed Starbucks or a boxer-briefs Starbucks.
Fort Bragg just has the one though and that's where the cops get their coffee. I'm no cop hater and I totally support and defend their right to enjoy caffeinated beverages, but I just can't seem to relax when they're around. I will definitely utilize the Starbucks on occasion — as a for-real fiend of the bean, sometimes there is just no substitute — but it's a grab-and-go proposition even if they do have free New York Timeses. I really, really love coffee to an almost worrisome degree. There is an incidental character in Jonathan Franzen's excellent novel The Corrections who utters the wonderful line: "Sometimes I get so excited thinking about my morning coffee that I can't sleep." Totally understand where that guy is coming from.
But for lingering over one's bev to nearly the point of tenancy, there's no place like the Headlands. They're probably slightly less enthused about my predilection for their establishment than I, but maybe not too. Coffeehouses have always been democratizing sorts of places where the baseborn and beau monde alike gathered in a classless environment to share in their love of that energizing alkaloid. Not unlike a crackhouse where you might find shoeless illiterates hobnobbing with professional athletes and mayors of major US and Canadian cities. "Oh, hey, you love crack? I love crack! Let smoke some crack!" Crack, the great equalizer.
There used to be a group of old duffers that would gather at the large round table at Headlands near my preferred spot at the bar facing the alley window. Retirees, maybe. Anyway, they had their mornings free — free to gather in my preferred hang out and pollute the air with a lot of ignorant, bigoted invective and crackpot theory. They would go on and on about Obama and the Clintons and the Illuminati and aliens and conspiracies and the end times and all manner of ill-informed applesauce of the sort specifically designed to inflame and arouse a particular type of person (stupid). They devoted many hours to the scourge of Islam and its penetration into the heart of America, the presidency, and our public schools, and it was this very subject that set me off one fine morning. One fellow suggested making Islam illegal and deporting all practitioners of it.
I'm absolutely of the live-and-let-live school of thought as regards belief or practice or ideology or opposition to same — whatever gets you through the day as long as you're not hurting anybody. If these smug, fat bastards — did I mention they were all generously proportioned? — and their intolerant bombast were doing an excellent job of isolating and stepping all over my highly caffeinated nerves. I heaved a dramatic sigh, picked up my phone and made a show of punching in more numbers than I needed to. I put the phone to my ear and said, loudly enough for the Dum Dum Club (and probably everyone else) to hear, "Hello? Ahmed? Hey! Yeah, right, death to America to you, too. How's everything going over there? Coming along according to schedule? Good, good. Yes, I know. I hate it here in the Great Satan too, but soon we will be in the arms of merciful Allah. My love to Fariq and the kids. Okay. Okay. Death to America, bye-bye."
I set the phone down and glared stonily at the now silent assemblage who were nervously looking anywhere but me and making vague gotta-go motions and mutterings. And that's how I met Winslow.
I freely and happily slander all sorts of people in this space and use their real names because they are either associates of mine and quite illiterate — and I don't mean "quite illiterate" in the cutesy Holden Caulfield sense, I mean dangerously stupid and can't read — or they're good sports who get that I'm being absurdly satirical and having fun. That is my assumption and hope, anyhow. But "Winslow" is definitely a pseudonym for a gentlemen whose reputation might suffer for having associated with me. Maybe not. I'm not too sure about how things work in the loftier strata of society these days, but I do read a lot of Victorian novels and I know that they unfailingly frown on this sort of inter-class comingling, and Winslow is kind of a big deal in the county. A person of standing, influence and wealth, he is, and I am — otherwise. I can't help picturing a society event in which a group of brilliantined, lavishly mustachioed swells are standing around in their tailcoats drinking champagne, and one says, in plummy upper-class tones, "Did you hear about old Winslow? Slumming, apparently. Keeping company with a, a what do you call it? A tweaker, I believe. Dashed irregular, that. Not the done thing at all." And the other gentlemen "tsk" and shake their heads at poor old Winslow now tainted and doomed to be the subject of whisperings and conjecture for months to come.
So I'm protecting the identity of old Winslow who was highly amused at my fake terrorist phone call and told me so. He then gave me a short lecture about ignorance and the futility of trying to rectify it in people of a certain age. I agreed, but maintained that it was my duty as an overstimulated layabout to point out the erroneousness of their positions and if necessary pelt them with coffeeshop detritus (sugar packets, stirrers, and the like).
Winslow had with him a volume of Updike which I commented on and got us talking on the subject of American literature. He, like many of his age and class, was besotted with Jazz Age, Algonquinian uppercrust kind of stuff which I consider a little frothy and ostentatious. I like my Americana a little more gritty and postmodern, but we were able to find common ground in Thurber and Benchley.
We talked about the Giants of the 60s and 80s and the current crop of Dodger-drubbing contenders (this was smack in the middle of the 2010 season). We discussed 70s cinema, abstract expressionism and Harold Pinter. It was an excellent conversation and our tastes, preferences and opinions coincided more often than not.
By and by Winslow took his leave. We shook hands and expressed the usual polite pleasure in having made one another's acquaintance — me quite genuinely and he appearing so. I wondered if he suspected how marginal character I actually was. Did my mien shout drug addict or felon? I try to blend in but I will be honest: I'm not the most self-aware radish in the row. When I feel like a prince I tend to believe I'm being perceived in a like manner. There's no doubt he knew that we didn't travel in the same circles but would he have engaged me if he knew I was a parolee with a pocket full of felonies? I'm guessing not, and I also guess that there's something to my theory of the inner condition informing the outward aspect, regardless of one's external trappings.
The next time I saw Winslow, also at Headlands, he offered me some work which I guess at least partly answered my question. Maybe just the fact that I was whiling away my days in a coffeehouse hipped him to the fact that I could benefit from some occupation. I was glad of the opportunity anyway and spent five or six days doing some landscaping and painting at his ridiculously opulent house somewhere between Caspar and Mendocino. The fireplace alone was bigger than some places I've lived, but it was the books that really aroused my admiration and envy. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the rich and the stuff they have that I don't, but the scope and grandeur of that man's library kind of made me wish I had more ambition.
I drink instant coffee now, no more Sumatran or Kenyan or, my personal favorite, Thanksgiving Pony Express, but at least I won't stoop to drinking Folger's. It's an extra three bucks a jar for the quality stuff but well worth it to me. In the matter of conversation, I'm rarely so lucky as in the above providential meeting. Prison conversations generally follow one of two patterns: either a recounting of one's drug use or personal adventures in which someone invariably gets beaten, robbed, or sexually debased, or fantastical projections of all the amazing and wonderful things that will befall the offender upon release. No thanks.
So I raise my cup of coffee to: Coffee! And the strange bedfellows it sometimes engenders. And Winslow, I never robbed you. Thought about it. Didn't do it. Rather proud of myself for not.