I’m back in Oxford today, immanentizing the eschaton once again in the Social Sciences Library, where I must regularly do at least 67% of all my work. The other 33% is done either in pubs (sometimes quiet and wonderful places to sit, sometimes full of stinkin’ drunks, though what do you expect, eh?) or coffee shops (usually loud, packed with psychotic tourists, and unclean just an hour after opening). Unlike London, Oxford is not predominately a culture where people will sit in cafes working. I was surprised at that when I first arrived, having become very comfortable with the American and Central European styles of productive solitude-in-a-crowd encaffeination.
Cafe culture is slightly different wherever you go, but there are certain international standards one can expect (that is, everywhere but in Oxford). I think my top five favorite cafes of all time have to be:
(1) Cafe 976 in Pacific Beach, California, essentially a well-kept house from the 1920s with a big porch and a garden, where I used to while away the evenings of my misspent youth reading tarot;
(2) Cafe Josephine in Tallinn, Estonia, as much for the owner’s dog, Bari, a gregarious old retriever who functions as the unofficial greeter and maître d’hôtel, as for the coffee, which is also excellent;
(3) Cafe Indigo in Prague, which I think has gone the way of the dodo, but which used to serve an Algerian coffee that would knock you out of your shoes and realign your priorities in life. It was a great gathering place for students and literary types;
(4) Zeitgeist Coffee in Seattle for frankly being one of the coolest places you’d ever want to sit and think; and
(5) Osama’s in Columbia, Missouri, where I used to hold my office hour and drink Turkish coffee after Turkish coffee in order to cope with the sad realities of teaching freshman comp in the Midwest. It was run by Osama Yanni, the nicest guy you’d ever want to know but unlucky enough to have a name recognizable by the vast unwashed proletariat of the Show-Me State. It closed.
There have been many others (and more than a few in Tallinn and Paris), though these are the ones I think I’ve liked the most in my itinerant writing life. These are the places where I’ve written some of my best stories.
But today, today brothers and sisters, I am holding forth from the holy of holies, the inner chamber of the inner chamber of the great whited sepulcher of sepulchers, the ivoriest of the ivory towers. Actually, it’s not that grand. I’m in the steel-and-Formica lounge of the Social Sciences Library, over by the vending machines. It’s a spot where I can at least eat a sandwich and have my coffee without being psychically accosted by some miserable family on vacation from upper Spokaloo, pissed that they just paid £15 each for breakfast on the Tolkien Walking Tour. It happens. Now you’re all wearing identical Gandalf vs. the Balrog T-shirts. Balance your expectations relative to that choice, okay?
Naturally, this is a university, the university, and people don’t just come here for the amenities. They come to do the work (always the work, whatever it happens to be), to get recognized, and to generate sufficient cultural cachet for them to continue on in the style to which they are accustomed. The coffee can be bad. It’s for the service class anyway.
Enjoying what you’re eating often upsets people here for many reasons. You are expected to frown into your soup and sigh over your bagel. You might even go so far as to faintly shake your head at your Greek salad, implying thoughts of great consequence that probably have nothing to do with your packet of fattening and therefore off-limits croutons. The weight of the world is buried in your mashed potatoes. Your parfait is the parfait of melancholy. To enjoy any of it is to indulge in an unforgivable lapse of seriousness.
In such an environment, one tries to be as gentle and understanding as possible toward the highly refined sensibilities of the world’s future ministers, art patrons, and captains of industry—most of whom were born after Kurt Cobain died but who nevertheless seem to constantly reference his death as if that were some kind of magical touchstone for sincerity. This makes me kind of tired, but I try to get along.
For example, I will not smuggle lunch into a reading room. I signed a five-page agreement when I got my very special non-student library access card (speak friend and enter), stipulating that I would not bring food and drink into Moria no matter how lightheaded or hypoglycemic I might become. There are the vending machines outside. There are enough steel-and-Formica tables in the lounge to support an army. So I intend to honor that agreement. And I acknowledge that seeing me in the corner with a Cesar salad might drive some of my more delicate colleagues over the edge.
They might snap and order a pizza in the middle of the night, discipline punctured, starvation-vegan diet shot to hell, shame, existential angst, eventual career failure, disinheritance. There shall be no cheese and pepperoni. For many of these kids, life is a game of no-limit hold-em with the Devil, but as long as they do exactly what they’re told, they feel they’ll keep on winning the way they always have. The thing most of them don’t seem to understand is that if you build your life around a game, even if you never lose, that’s what your life will be about. Welcome to the casino of success. You are a VIP for life. When you die, we’ll bury you under the craps table.
So food. It’s problematic. Earlier, I was breaking about half of the rules, enjoying a deli sandwich and reading Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which also meant I was smiling. So it was not surprising when I felt hot darts of psychic rage boring into the side of my face. They were coming from a very thin, aggravated girl at the table across from me. She had on a sweatshirt that looked a few sizes too big and what I assumed was her usual expression of dislike mixed with contempt. I thought what I always think: who, me? But then I realized: it wasn’t the standard-issue animosity most people display in this environment. It was a food thing. Next to her laptop was a plastic bag of carrot sticks and a bottle of mineral water. Lunch. I’d be in a bad mood, too.
I looked back down, pretending like I didn’t notice her staring, but I was also thinking, you know, there’s this golden retriever named Bari you really need to meet. If only. A clean, well-lighted place and a friendly dog can make all the difference in your life, in your work. I dug into my sandwich. It was good.