Saturday, June 28, 2014


"The crowd is his element,

as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito..." - Charles Baudelaire

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I do that! I set up house in the heart of the a coffee house. In Asheville, High 5 Coffee Bar makes the best espresso and its variations, so here I am. As it happens, the folks at Waking Life also make the best espresso in Asheville. And, while there may be others, High 5 is my local. 

I've spent years cultivating this particular baristocracy. I tip reliably, don't ogle (much), and make no unreasonable demands. And, I order the same thing every time. They like that. What could be better than a low maintenance regular?  

In return, I get serious coffee, permission to plug in and a new soundtrack each day. Where else can you hear Yma Sumac, Bela Fleck and the Texas Playboys. Coffee houses have been exclusively my third places since March 16th, 1977. The warm spot that is neither home nor office. I believe that I need these places, for sanctuary from obligation. I don't need to serve or be in charge or even to collaborate. (Not that there is anything wrong with collaboration. Also, I'll walk the dog later.)

Within this sanctuary I learn contemporary culture and wander in my both cases, just to see what's there. Truly, I don't really know until I write it down (or speak it out loud.) Further, if I were less of a flaneur I might work this third place and be community. Propinquity alone qualifies me; I am so often there. But I have a different agenda now, my requirements are few and they are all available at High 5.

I want to be welcome, to be greeted warmly...but with poise. On occasion, I arrive grim (what with life and all...) but even when I am buoyant there should be some slight distance. A blend of both casual and formal, it is a professional exchange. It feels more solid to be a client then a customer.

My part of the bargain, other than the money, is to keep the confessional to this "page" and simply be courteous. B knows something about dealing with the public, day after day. Each one thinks that their transaction is the only one of importance and seems to need a fully detailed backstory, each and every time. It isn't and doesn't. And it takes up time and steals focus both of which are needed to do the job. I try not be that person.

It is always a pleasure to watch as they make a cappuccino. Good baristas have subtle, personal flourishes. They don't talk when they work.  B (again a reliable source) has pointed out the particular beauty of the careful execution of almost any task. Mindfully making coffee to be making coffee. Style, focus, craft and service. 

My current drink is a three shot cappuccino, with a side shot and a seltzer chaser. I toss the shot whole and stop everything to taste and inhale. I can't put names on the layers of taste (hazelnut, blackberry, wood, wet leather) but I do experience them in this holy moment. A quick sip of seltzer isolates that first experience. Then I take a sip of the cap and settle down to my spot (hidden at the center of the world.)

I scan the room, anyone to greet? Anyone with whom to seek or avoid eye contact? Interesting clothing, adornment, faces and bodies? New tats, new hair, new objects dangling...the baristas are a fashion strikeforce: the men groom their heads and curate their arms. These women (nature's best) often change totally from one day to the next. Grunge, the little black number, vintage circle skirts, altered clothing, leggings ringed with bold stripes, ear feathers, dirndls, mountain sports ready, fresh from the farm, bare face and stage makeup. 

Finishing the scan I start to write where I left off. Here, in my local I don't play solitaire. There is an academic theory that suggests we have a fear of being seen as purposeless and therefore, in whatever we do, we radiate intent. Whatever. Maybe. In the midst of this hubbub I write with greater focus than anywhere else. I have been waiting a long time to do this, to unreel my life as I speak my passion for food and hospitality. The right kind of third place allows me to write as if it matters.

Here is my theory: I've told you that I come from a seagoing family. At sea the constant hum of the diesel and the creaking sounds of the ship passing through waves are both comfort. It means that we are making headway. When the noise stops, we are in trouble. In the same way, the hubbub of new and familiar voices, the music drone, the china and metal clink and even the torture of the coffee grinder are comforting sounds. We have headway, I can relax and listen to my own voice.


El Patron of High 5, Jay Weatherly, worked his way through school pulling shots as folk met and posed questions, designed, schemed, argued, dissolved and reformed (remember: thesis-antithesis-synthesis.)  "Third places "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work." Rae Oldenburg, in The Great Good Place. Jay needed a career and so he made a good place to build community.  Also there is excellent coffee,

Another sip and I can slip beneath my waves and check the tectonics of everything.